When the sun sets in Kugane, one of the new cities in Final Fantasy XIV's upcoming Stormblood expansion, a soft red glow emanates through the streets. Passersby trot to stalls. NPCs gather in small clusters, chatting away as they wear their traditional East Asian attire. The city of Kugane feels alive, alive in ways I didn't quite experience during my admittedly short time once spent with A Realm Reborn, the base game for this particular MMO.
A couple weeks ago, I spent the better part of an entire day dabbling in the new expansion at a press event. I was able to swim in the seas of the Ruby Sea (swimming a first for the MMORPG). I walked around the vast East Asian-inspired city of Kugane. I took part in a short dungeon, "Shisui of the Violet Tides," where my team emerged victoriously against an intricate boss.
One of the first things that caught my eye in the new area of the Ruby Sea was a volcano in the distance, its peaks shaped like devil horns. A representative for Square Enix assured me the imagery was intentional, so when I sat down with director and producer Naoki Yoshida himself, I pressed for more. "The volcano with the horns that you noticed definitely takes inspiration from Momotarō, the Clam Peach Boy, where there is an island with the ogres, where the Oni lives," says Yoshida. "That was the kind of flavor that was left in there. Initially we were thinking of potentially placing [some] there but of course, it changed. But we still can't [rule out] the possibility, like in a future patch maybe sometime in the 4.X series, wouldn't it be nice to have Oni ogres show up."
Momotarō is a well-known hero of Japanese folklore. As the legend goes, Momotarō emerged from a clam peach, before he eventually goes on all sorts of adventures, like the very adventure that inspired the volcano that peaks above the Ruby Sea. "Some of the landscape in that area was already starting to come and take shape while we were building upon the main scenario part of the game," says Yoshida. "When we were creating [Ruby Sea], I would instruct my team to take reference from Japanese folklore or children's stories. The essence of Momotarō is mashed together to give it a sort of uniqueness, like Japanese fairy tales."
I was told of Stormblood's vast improvements quality of life-wise, semi-contrary to Heavensward, the previous expansion. The current game, before this update, was "overly complex," says Yoshida. He listed what felt like a dizzying amount of issues, such as, there's not enough hotbar space. There's an overemphasis on icon management. And most of all, there are too many actions. The game is seemingly impenetrable for newcomers, as a result. For six years (including before A Realm Reborn was, uh, reborn), with constant reiterating all along the way, the current game has become inherently a mess.
To fix that, Stormblood is making some bold changes. They're increasing the level cap of jobs from 60 to 70. They're abolishing additional actions, and replacing them with "role actions" of the tank, healer, melee DPS, ranged DPS, and caster varieties. HUDs are getting a specific change with Job Gauges, which alternate in not just action, but design according to a player's job. For example, a Bard has a bar of music as their gauge; a Ninja has a—wait for it—scroll. The Job Gauges add an extra bit of flavor to the many jobs of Final Fantasy XIV, and serve a practical reason too. It places the emphasis on visuals, rather than being an on-the-fly mathematician juggling numbers. It's just another step in the goal to bridge the gap between newcomers and veterans of the series.
"We had several elements within the game that the development team had taken their time to develop," Yoshida tells me. "The expansion of the inventory, as well as, this was implemented in a recent 3.X series patch, the cross world system, where you party up with friends from other worlds. But there are many elements like those that are becoming more and more available leading up to the launch. You're going to be seeing more of those elements, more than you have seen in Heavensward."
For PvP modes, Stormblood is implementing some serious changes to fix the issues that have plagued the game, from its high level restrictions to its copious and complicated job actions. To streamline PvP, now any job that's level 30 or over can participate. Actions for the mode will be PvP specific, with only 9 actions per job, two selectable actions, and Adrenaline Rush. The new method will allow careful adjustment from players, but without complicating the PvE balance. Each job will get its own hotbar, and be auto-updated according to the particular PvP's attributes, making things balance fairly. In all the changes, Yoshida boasts one singular mantra: "less complexity equals more maneuverability."
The new dungeons and raids in Stormblood will be "comparable to Heavensward," says Yoshida. Included in the new raids are the high-level raid, "The Bend of Time - Omega," which sees the return of a familiar monster. Alongside it is the new alliance raid, "Return to Ivalice," which may sound familiar to players of Final Fantasy XII. The original director and concept writer behind Final Fantasy XII, Yasumi Matsuno, alongside renown character designer Keita Amemiya are joining as special guest creators for the particular raid.
Playing through the new areas in Stormblood, I had a quicker grasp of the controls than I did back when I played A Realm Reborn (before I ultimately dropped the game). I immediately hopped into one of the expansion's two new job offerings: Samurai, which made my default character look like the dude from Nioh. "In terms of the Samurai, people who are familiar with the Monk job might probably be drawn to them," Yoshida answers when I ask what will set the new jobs apart and make them desirable for players. "Samurai is a job where you can do your best to raise your DPS, and get as high a DPS as possible. You can try out different routes to get a high DPS. So I feel that for a melee DPS there's definitely a very tried and true traditional route that you can take." The Samurai's visual flair is what you'd expect from the job: a toggle-able hat, a flowing red cloak, limber actions that coincide with the giant katana they wield. But the Samurai is not alone in the new Jobs department.
"The Red Mage and the Samurai are very different to our existing jobs, so it's very difficult to put into specific words," says Yoshida, referencing the other new job to the expansion, Red Mage. "But for the Red Mage, for example, we referenced Japanese animation. For players who like really cool looking movements and want to show off their characters, I think Red Mage would definitely be right up their alley." The Red Mage differentiates itself from the already-existing mages. Contrary to the White Mage's support capabilities and the Black Mage's devastating black magic damage, the Red Mage feels more like a sort-of hybrid of the two, through their particular ranged DPS. And, as Yoshida already notes aptly, bears actions that are fluid and look rad, rendering the scarlet-hued job the flashy mage to counter the others.
Contrary to most MMOs, Final Fantasy XIV has always narrowed its focus on story. Stormblood is no different. "First and foremost, because this is a Final Fantasy title, Final Fantasy XIV still places a heavy emphasis on story, and we have not changed that since Heavensward," says Yoshida. "And we actually have put on more bandwidth to develop the storylines in Stormblood, and more than in Heavensward." Stormblood picks up where Heavensward left off: with the thousand-year conflict between dragon and man resolved, and a new conflict arising. In Stormblood, the Warrior of Light (aye, that's you), ventures into the Far East, befriending locals and building a resistance.
The new areas, including the grand city of Kugane, its neighboring residential district Shirogane, and the vast Ruby Sea, are new to the world of Eorzea in Stormblood. In Stormblood's new areas, players can fly via their mounts, coupled with a first time addition for the series: the ability to swim and dive. Diving, especially in the Ruby Sea, holds mysteries of its own. As players can take their mounts underwater for faster travel, and even stumble upon towns and a special quest.
"We don't intend on making [swimming] something that's mandatory," says Yoshida. "We don't want to make it so now that we have in-water action, you must do this in this content. We don't want to do that. We will continue to update through the 4.X series, and as Final Fantasy XIV continues to operate, we feel that just having the ability to swim and dive as a resident of Eorzea, the fact that the action is available in and of itself brings you closer to really living in the world. As if you're living in real life."
As I swam through the crystal blue seas, I understand what Yoshida means. Before, in older areas of Final Fantasy XIV, a coast would be hit with an invisible wall. As if an invisible Gandalf were standing off screen shouting, "You shall not pass" at the player for infinity. While mount flight and swimming are not available across the entire world of Eorzea, it breathes more life into the new areas that Stormblood treads across. And beyond the quality of life fixes, the newfound ease of actions management, the additional jobs, I realized that's what was making Stormblood stand out: it's willingness to imbue its world with variety and life.
Bringing more life to the game is apparent through the expansion's additions, whether via the lively, animated new job actions and their accompanying singular gauges, or just as simple as paddling across a lake. In particular, one thing I noticed in the town of Kugane was an uptick in NPC activity. Instead of just standing around, moving from point A to point B, the NPCs were actively engaging with one another as if they led lives of their own. In the depths of Ruby Sea, I saw children in an underwater town playing hopscotch, and elsewhere, a woman scolding another NPC with a finger wag.
I wondered if such detail would venture beyond the expansion's new areas, so I asked. "We did make an update to the system that manages the NPC so that you notice that sort of activity in the town of Kugane, but it does take a significant amount of time to work on it, so of course if we had an extended amount of time to revisit the older areas, it's not technically impossible to enable for more movement and more interactivity, but we would like to concentrate on developing newer content," says Yoshida. "But yeah, there's so many areas of the older map that we would love to revisit. And because we are increasing the speed of our ground mounts, hopefully that will alleviate some of that sense of dragging when you're traversing on land."
MMOs often lose me quick. A Realm Reborn arguably held me the longest, until life (and to be honest, other games) got in the way. Stormblood though looks enticing. And just as enticing to newcomers to the series (or reemerging newcomers), as it will evoke a sigh of relief to veterans as some of the game's blemishes are ironed out. Paired with priced new items that allow new players to completely bypass the base game and Heavensward's main scenario content, diving into Final Fantasy XIV is easier than ever before. With the many quality of life fixes, additional jobs, continued story, and new environments to explore, Eorzea's shaping up to be an even more pleasant world for players to live in.
This preview is based off of development footage which is subject to change before its wide release on June 20th, 2017.
Edit: Originally this story stated that flying mounts would be new to Stormblood, but this is incorrect, as they were first introduced in Heavensward. This has been amended.