Let's get this out of the way upfront: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward is a class act of an expansion.
You may be wondering why this review is coming in August, when the expansion itself came out at the end of June. I was previously playing Heavensward on my old PC that hadn't been updated since 2008. That's good enough for some PC titles, but Final Fantasy XIV is bar none, the best-looking MMO in operation today. The characters are smooth and detailed, the armor is great, the spell effects are amazing, and the level design is still some of the best in the business. Around halfway through my playtime with the expansion, I decided that Heavensward deserved a new rig. I needed to see it at full bloom.
Square Enix did not disappoint. When you're cruising above certain areas in Heavensward's new regions, having a PC that can show you everything as the developer intended is worth every penny. From the opening look at Ishgard to the Churning Mists or the Sea of Clouds, Heavensward outdoes A Realm Reborn visually, mostly by expanding upward.
Of course, before you can get to all this new content, Square Enix wants to make sure that you're prepared. If you started A Realm Reborn, but missed some of the later patches, I have bad news for you: you need to finish the game's primary storyline up to the patch prior to Heavensward (patch 2.5) to even see the new content. Yeah, you can't even go sightseeing if you're not up-to-date. That may seem unfair to others who are used to being able to tour new areas in other MMOs, but here it makes sense.
Like Blizzard has been doing in some of WoW's latter expansions, Final Fantasy XIV is heavy on the plot. Unlike WoW though, you're not the main focus of that plot. Instead, FFXIV has a whole host of major players for you to occasionally interact with and it's through these characters that the story is experienced. By the end of A Realm Reborn's cycle, a few major cast members and organizations bit the big one, leaving the player without a support structure in the expansion's new lands.
The shift in region also allows Square Enix to throw the motivations and status quo of the main cast members into some disarray. I feel like they're more active in Heavensward, especially within the backdrop of Ishgard's ongoing war. The main story is still well-told and interesting, and the character voice acting is of good quality (though no one ever wonders why you don't speak).
I also want to call attention to some of the side quests. Many of them are throwaway like every other MMO, but there are the occasional few with a great sense of humor about them. I don't know if that's primarily through Square Enix' Japanese writers or their English localization counterparts, but I appreciate a game that's willing to make me laugh every now and then. It breaks up all the fantasy seriousness.
Heavensward is an expansion, so that means new features outside of a few brand-new stomping grounds. The biggest new feature is flying mounts and flight in general. In true nFinal Fantasy XIV fashion, you can't just pick up a flying mount and take off to the skies. You have to earn it, my friend. Each region has wind currents that you have to attune to in order to fly within that area. Some you can simply find by exploring, while others are locked behind certain content. This means you've usually explored an area before you get the chance to soar over it.
This gives you the added benefit of actually appreciating each region; Blizzard has lamented in the past that flying actually diminishes some of the impact of ground-based level design. In WoW, they tend to lock flying behind a skill you can only acquire late in the expansion, going so far as to leave flying out of most of the recent Warlords of Draenor. Square Enix' implementation is a bit more elegant for future expansion purposes, as wind currents can theoretically extend forward to any new areas. Even beyond that, there's still new spots out there to explore once you've taken to the skies on your Chocobo. I do wish there was more of an indication of which quests require flying ability though. They're not plentiful, but later in the expansion it becomes a bigger problem.
Next up are the three new jobs: Dark Knight, Machinist, and Astrologian. Each new job fits into one of the three major MMO roles and all three lack base classes, so they begin at level 30. The Dark Knight is the new tank class, splitting the difference between the Warrior's damage dealing and the Paladin's mitigation. The Astrologian is a healing class focused around a floating star globe with various cards allowing them to heal or deal damage. Finally, the Machinist is patterned off of FFXIV's version of Cid; the class wields magitek handguns as a damage dealer with additional support abilities in the form of mechanical turrets. I had the most fun with the Machinist, which is surprising considering my preference for heavy armor tank classes.
On the road to the new level cap of 60, you'll also be getting new abilities for the previous classes. They've also undergone a few balance and ability changes, with my personal favorite, the Paladin, picking up some additional moves to make it a bit more exciting. (The job was a bit boring before, but I feel like Square Enix has finally gotten it to a solid place.) There's also the new Level 3 Limit Breaks, upping the "holy crap, that looks awesome" quotient for certain classes, like Summoners.
Leveling up the new classes does highlight one of the issues that persists in Final Fantasy XIV: there are still leveling ranges that feel like they have content holes, where the quests just dry up. FFXIV's answer to these holes has always been leve, FATE, and dungeon grinding. These are valid sources of content, but they feel secondary to the main and side quests that exist in the game. It feels like the game is saying, "Go do these things until you've reach X level." That's nitpicking, but it's something that popped its ugly head up from time to time.
Final Fantasy XIV's overall job/class system remains one of the most elegant class systems in an MMO. Instead of pushing you towards a number of alts, FFXIV goes in the opposite direction. You'll usually have a single character who you've tirelessly leveled in every job and class. You certainly don't need to max out everything, but if you want to, you can do so on the same character. I appreciate that instead of having 5-8 different characters to experience everything and the addition of the three jobs showing how this system can expand in the future. There is a new race, the reptilian Au Ra, but you don't have to roll a new character unless they really tickle your fancy.
The main story is estimated at 40-50 hours by Square Enix and I can't tell you if that's correct or not. I tend to be more of a wandering completist when I play MMOs, instead of aiming straight for the critical path. Once you've finished the main plot though - which has rather a open end - there's still new dungeons (nope, you still can't speedrun them), new Primal fights with Bismarck and Ravana (with hard-mode versions!), and the new raid dungeon Alexander. The Hunt system has been expanded to give you more to do while questing and the crafting jobs now have their little endgame, though I admit there could be more to it. Groups of crafters can work together to build an airship, but you're not really connected in any real way; unlike a dungeon or raid group, you never really feel like you're working together.
Regardless, this is only the beginning of Heavensward. As of this writing, we're up to patch 3.05, introducing the Savage version of the opening Alexander raid wing, new items, red crafters/gatherers' scrips for high-level items, and other balance changes. Like any MMO, Heavensward is constantly evolving, this review is just covering the current state of the game.
All told, Heavensward is probably the best MMO expansion I've played since World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. It plays the same card BC did, adding flying to expand its existing environment upward. It retains that same feeling of new exploration and wonder. Unlike World of Warcraft, there's no need to reach out to everyone, so there's still a sense of having to work hard and earn even basic progress. It's still impressive that we even got to this point, because an MMO relaunch of A Realm Reborn's scope is unheard of. Yoshida and his team stuck that first landing and now they've doubled down and made that world even better with Heavensward.
I always feel like a review can rarely encompass everything that comes with an MMO, but like I said before: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward is a class act of an expansion. If you're into MMOs of FFXIV in particular, it's worth your time and money.
The Nitty Gritty
- Am I a Fashionista?: The swing in armor designs are you level goes from awesome to ridiculous. Be prepared.
- Lasting appeal: It's an MMO folks. You'll be playing this for a very long time.
- Sound: The boss fights in this game feature some great tunes. Masayoshi Soken is doing a great job.
- Visuals: Goddamn, Heavensward looks amazing.
Final Fantasy XIV evolves with Heavensward, an expansion that takes A Realm Reborn upwards on the wings of a Chocobo. In addition to flying, players get an all-new storyline, new Primals, a brand-new raid dungeon, and three new jobs to level up. FFXIV still retains a few annoying issues here and there, but Heavensward is one of the best MMO expansions I've played.
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