Full disclosure: I am incredibly hyped for Shadowbringers. After getting heavily into Final Fantasy XIV in early 2018 (it’s never too late to start!), this is the first time I’ll be entering an expansion when it’s actually current. Getting an early sneak-peek at what Square Enix is planning has been the icing on a fantastically shadow-laden cake.
At the hands-on event in London’s Barbican Conservatory, I got the chance to play the new Dancer and Gunbreaker jobs, and preview the changes to all existing jobs. I explored the new zones of Lakeland and Il Mheg, and toured the industrious city of Crystarium. I even got a chance to play through the dungeon of Dohm Mheg, both in a party of four and using the new Trust system.
As always with these pre-release previews, it’s important to note that Shadowbringers is still under active development, and anything discussed here might be subject to change. With only a handful of weeks until that July 2 launch date, we don’t have long to wait for the final experience.
Putting Light on the Subject
According to FFXIV lore, some 100,000 years ago the world of Eorzea was broken into 14 different shards. The original “source” world remained, but thirteen mirror worlds were also created, each continuing on an independent path. Some have maintained a balance between Light and Darkness, but the First of these is being overwhelmed. Not by the forces of Darkness, but by the Light.
Shadowbringers sees us journey to the First, exploring a world that’s familiar yet different. The Light literally coats the land, bleaching out colour and choking the stifling, arid air. The zones that I saw were almost beautiful, riding a knife-edge between radiant glory and the bleak dawn of zombieland.
The reasons for our trip to the First are a little unclear – our playthrough didn’t include any quests so there are no story spoilers here – but part of it involves becoming a Warrior of Shadow and push back against the forces of Light that threaten to overwhelm the world. If the final trailer for Shadowbringers is anything to go by, we’re going to look pretty badass when doing so.
For the dedicated followers of FFXIV, producer-director Naoki Yoshida has also hinted that Shadowbringers will also start to resolve some of the core mysteries from the series. What are the Ascians really trying to achieve? Is the conflict between Hydalen’s Light and Zodiark’s Darkness as clear-cut as good versus evil? What is my purpose as a hero any more? For now, we’ll have to wait until the end of June when planned early access starts to begin to learn more.
Even so, it feels like the tension in FFXIV has increased tenfold. This isn’t just the fate of a kingdom we’re fighting to save, or even the whole world, but a multiverse of mirrored shards. High stakes indeed.
From Source to First
My first steps on the First were in Il Mheg, a brightly lit paradise with meadows of pink flowers gently rolling to a crystal blue lake. Wooden buildings seemed to cut into the ground like circular arcs that burrowed under the turf to create what seemed like a manicured garden that stretched for miles. Narrow waterfalls flung mist into the air, the sweating humidity causing circular rainbows to hang in the air.
The immediate surroundings were teeming with plantlike animals – bears, birds and more – all seemingly infused or made from trees and flowers. Those that weren’t chlorophyl creatures were closely related; moths, butterflies and (for some reason) toads. It all seemed to be a paradise for the Pixies that were rumoured to inhabit the area.
At the centre of that lake (and hard to miss), a large island jutted upwards. Perched atop it like a fantasy fairytale stood a spire-strewn castle of gleaming white stone. And attached to the topmost spire was a guardian-like pair of glowing aetherial wings. It was spectacular to behold.
But despite all this, the castle seems surrounded by the ruins of other towns and settlements. Some can be found in the hills nearby, while others are submerged in the lake that surrounds Fort Pixie. Once, I stumbled across a church or temple to some unknown deity, and I’m itching to find out more when I start questing through the zone.
Oh, and if you were curious about what happens when you evolve a Paissa Brat over thousands of years, feed it full of fertiliser and bathe it in light, the answer is probably the Phooka. They stand taller than an Elzen, broader than a Roegadyn, and I have no idea what they taste like.
In stark contrast is Lakeland, a rocky steppe of sun-bleached stone and lilac foliage. What looks like Elzen ruins litter the landscape, some inhabited by undead shells of the former residents. And yet hope seems to cling on, with desperate outposts newly built by the determined few that remain.
Adjoining Lakeland is the unusual city and new player hub of Crystarium. A massive crystal tower pierces the sky like a needle, with a monolithic polished stone and intricate metal gateway at its base. Surrounding this clearly ancient edifice is a more recent construction – a fort made from iron girders, glass, wood and brick. There’s a clear focus on function over style, with the intricate city stretching over many levels.
If anything, these new settlements speak of purpose – a grit amongst the populace to refuse to go quietly into the Light. And while it might be foolish to speculate about the narrative of Shadowbringers, there’s certainly a lot to take in from this new world that Square Enix has created.
Jobs for Heroes
As part of Shadowbringers, two new player jobs are being added: Dancer (a ranged physical DPS class) and Gunbreaker (a tank that weilds a gunblade). Both have some very interesting mechanics that I’ll get into in a moment, but there’s more to share first. Every existing job is also getting updated to some degree, either to adjust the role’s focus, trim some annoying mechanics, or revamp them completely (e.g. Machinist). There’s a huge amount to take in, and it’s well worth watching the mammoth Letter from the Producer Live part LI for a summary of the changes. The detail, I’ll leave that to the expertise of the community theorycrafters.
Putting the old to one side, Dancer and Gunbreaker are both huge fun to play. I particularly found the new DPS job immensely satisfying, with a deliberate rhythm to the mechanics that made it naturally intuitive. After some initial tuition from French community manager Clem, I quickly got a feel for the proc-based mechanics and how they flow together to build up damage.
There’s also a nifty ability to start a two or four step dance that relies on hitting a sequence of actions accurately. Get it right and benefit from an incredible damage boost. Even better, by selecting another DPS as your Dance Partner they can benefit from your buffs as well. I’m expecting this job and the synergies it creates to make it very popular in parties.
Gunbreaker also has a satisfying playstyle. Like Dancer, it has two combat rotations (one for single target, one for AoE). But instead of breaking out into a dance, Gunbreaker has an additional potency loop rotation that triggers on proc. I get the feeling that it might make Gunbreaker’s damage a little spiky, but it certainly makes for interesting play.
The Gunbreaker also packs a utility belt full of cooldown. Yes, a single action (Royal Guard) activates tank mode, but there’s also a nice mix of damage mitigation for both yourself and party members. I also get the feeling that Superbolide will become notorious for giving healers heart attacks, as it makes you impervious to most attacks for 8s while also dropping your hit points to 1 (that’s a single point, folks).
Kicking the Light Fantastic
While it’s great to talk about the new jobs, there’s nothing quite like putting it all into practice. For that, I got access to Dohn Mheg, a level 74-ish dungeon that’s accessible from the Il Mheg zone mentioned earlier. It’s a pixie-themed experience that starts out inside a carefully manicured garden that seems to be partly an illusion.
Although we were synced down from the new cap of level 80, there were some immediate touches that caught us by surprise. Chain pulling or speed pulling packs no longer seems to be viable, and it’ll be interesting to see if this remains the same at launch.
The first boss, a short frog named Aenc Thon, was easy enough to dispatch despite plenty of party-wide damage and a blend of effects that required us to bunch up or spread out. The second boss, a wood-and-vine animal named Griaule, was more of a challenge. He’d occasionally summon adds that would buff him with a beam of energy that you’d need to stand in the middle of. But he also snared the party with roots that needed to be DPS’d quickly.
For the final boss, Aenc Thon returned as a much taller and dapper-er looking frog, complete with violin. The fight was packed with transformations that stop you from being able to fight, or where he changed shape into an ink-spewing tentacle monster. Fun and entertaining, but also straightforward.
Besides running Dohm Mheg as the healer in a Light Party of 4 players, I also tried it solo with the new Trust system. Introduced in Shadowbringers, this allows me to recruit three NPCs to fight by my side instead of relying on players, and allowing me to choose any role I wanted to play. It meant I had no wait time whatsoever (yay!), but the dungeon did take significantly longer to complete. It feels like joining the queue will still be the best approach for most players.
What We Do in the Shadows
Even with the limited preview, there was certainly plenty for me to discover and explore. There was a little mushroom village hidden behind a waterfall, or the FATE boss that I failed to defeat. We even discovered an A rank Hunt boss named ‘O Poorest Pauldia’, which we wiped on repeatedly despite our best efforts.
And then there were the Garden Porxies, cute little piglets with wings for ears that are likely to be 2019’s must-have plush toy. Certainly better than the squarking gremlins that my Hrothgar character wanted to kick into the sea.
It almost seems unfair to leave two new races until the end, but there wasn’t much to discover about them during the event. Both races can now be previewed with the Shadowbringers benchmark tool, but taking them out of the box and playing in the open world did help to test how they feel. The cat-like Hrothgar feel best taking on beefier roles (although I’d include Gunbreaker in that), and the lithe hare-like Viera feel ideal for jobs that rely on high mobility (especially Bard). Crucially, however, both feel incredibly fun to play.
And that – ‘incredibly fun to play’ – neatly describes my Shadowbringers experience. I’d probably throw in a few additional words though, like ‘beautifully compelling’ or ‘mechanically satisfying’. Even though I didn’t get a chance to explore the quests or the story, the overhauled combat experience felt great and the new zones were brimming with features that encouraged me to explore. I can’t wait to see the finished article, teeming with life and bursting with adventure.
Luckily, we won’t have long to wait. Shadowbringers launches on July 2, and early access is scheduled to begin on June 28. I’ll see you there!