"Tell me why create, a circle none can break
Why must you let go, the life you were bestowed
This I fear I'll never know"
Here it is the day after patch day. While Heavensward is not finished with at least 5 storylines ongoing (Alexander, Void ark, Hildebrand, The Warrior of Darkness and the Scholars should it continue) as of now the story of the Dragonsong war has.
So did i enjoy it?
For the most of it yes, yes i enjoyed it a lot. However its not without its flaws, so expect some spoilers as i talk about the experience below.
I think first and foremost it has to be commended for finally making some NPC's other than the faction leaders and scions matter for more than a single patch. Had you breezed through ARR's 1-50 content a year before Heavensward i would not blame you for assuming Hauchefant was an original character for the expansion, but he was not. You did quests for him in the 40's in Ceorthas Central Highlands. But he had no personality. He did nothing but stand behind a desk and send you to another questgiver for the most part. Not only did they make him a fleshed out character but they made him one the audience cared about to the point they added his shield in as a glamour item for paladins crying out to 'rep mah boi fortempts!'
something Similar can be said for Ysayle/Lady Iceheart. What we assumed was another moustache twirling villain of the patch only there to excuse another Primal fight grows into a far more fleshed out character that is not in fact the cliche femme fetale but a deeply insecure character whos basically winging it based on ideas that are little more than the half hearted ideas of a young girl raised on almost fairy tales. Even Hraesvelgr comments on her as "poor, deluded Ysayle". Its rare for an rpg to pull off 'pitiable' without some connotations of 'pathetic' underlying it. She was not a pathetic character, but a truly pitiable one which lead to her becoming more understandable and likeable in the longrun.
The dragons themselves were a nice breath of fresh air for the fantasy videogame genre. Too often they are merely regally arrogant, timeless monsters that speak english. Here they were people for better and worse. They lived and died based on very relatable needs and emotional reasons. Compared to the usual demigods clad in scales this was a very welcome change. Even Niddhog -who will get more comments on later- had the understandable blood vendetta pushing his actions. He wasn't some world ending cartoon monster. His sister had been murdered and the outrage and need for revenge consumed him. He wasn't right to do so of course, but how often can you say an evil fantasy dragon has understandable motivations behind their actions?
The dungeons related to the story up to and including the new Sohr Khai addition were all at worst very enjoyable and the variance in locations and types of boss mechanics were pretty solid overall. Nothing felt like a cutdown tutorial for later fights bar The Vault basically being a mini taster for the Knights of the Round. Even Niddhog is vastly different in the Final Stepps of faith than in his original dungeon fight.
His final fight in particular is worth commending. It is mechanically pretty simple really. Dont stand in anything, dps the shadow dragon first. The usual stuff. Yet it feels so much faster than any other fight i can think of other than the finale of T13 in the Binding Coil of Bahamut. The addition of Dragonsong by longtime series composing legend Nobou Uematsu adds a sense of urgency and tension you dont expect from such a melancholy song. Definitely a highlight in terms of fights for this expansion.
Overall the story was enjoyable, the characters memorable and it took a few twists i did not expect yet greatly enjoyed. That said...
So. Niddhog. Where the hell was he buggering off to? How did he arrange this horde of dragons? We know they are all sentient, some were even human/elezen heretics. So they are not mindless monsters he could assemble with some magic power. He just shows up with an army and we assume he rounded them up, but why do we not see it?
This is the biggest weakness of the Dragonsong story arc. The crescendos are amazing, but the buildup is barely there. The story has these highs and then it feels like nothing happens for ingame time weeks or months until suddenly everyone shows up and its go time again. To the point in this patch they outright say something to the effect of "and how do we know when Niddhog will attack?" followed by an off screen roar and guess what? hes attacking right now!
Its an issue in pacing. When it gets going it goes and doesnt stop till the end of that patches content. But theres never a sense of building escalation with the story. It feels like im reading a fan edit of A Dance of Dragons with only the 'important' chapters kept and the rest is cut. So you feel this sense that the story jumps and you love whats there, but feel like you missed something inbetween.
To be brutally honest i am going to take a shot in the dark and make the assumption that something was cut for time. Next time you go back to The Aery to fight Nidhogg stop at the ramp up to his platform and look down. Notice anything? if you look hard enough you will see the whole thing is floating on top of Allagan tech straight out of Azys La. We know the Allagans were experimenting with dragons AND there is a very important cutscene near the end of the base 3.0 story where we meet Tiamat who is chained up in some mini binding coil and we get a long talk about the Allagans dragon binding technology.
I can't help but feel there was some other plans involved for Niddhogs finale other than 'fight him on a flat stone bridge' originally. What we got is great and adds a sense of capping off what started with the Steps of Faith fight that began the story back in the final patch of A Realm Reborn, but unless there are more plans for the Empire beyond the Triad involving this dragon binding tech so heavily focussed on earlier i think there was some more allagan story planned that we arent going to see. It happens in ongoing games development to be sure. But that stuff is always going to be there tempting the imagination to wonder isn't it?
Then we have Niddhog himself. The biggest bad of the expansion and honestly? one of the weaker ones. Quickthinx may be a cliche douchebag, but hes a cliche douchebag with a plan. Diablos is.. well he's Diablos. You know what you are in for with him by this point in the franchise.
Nidhogg was the chance to break the mould a little. Not make another raging lizard in the vein of Warcrafts Deathwing but a calculating, methodical villain whos understandable grievances make him a victim of his own weaknesses and bad choices instead of another monster to put down. Yet at the end thats all he is, worse than that actually. he's the ghostly shade that needs putting down again.
At the end of it all Niddhog ends up being a bit of a damp squib. He never really does anything beyond hurt a couple of other Dragons and feels more like a nuisance than the adversary he should have been tonally speaking.
But thats not a very long list of negatives so i suppose so all in all i would call the story a relative success in terms of multi patch story arcs in MMORPGs.
All in all the good outweighs the bad and there are so many fights, cutscenes and story moments that can actually stir an emotion in the player and thats very hard to pull off in a game with ideas like "threat" and "global cooldowns" to do so. Was it perfect? honestly no. It felt a little rushed and could probably have used another patch inbetween to flesh out the story further and show Niddhog actually do some evil things that warranted such a buildup and reaction to him.
Though this doesnt diminish the impact of the other character arcs mentioned above and in the end they made the story for me and those will be the characters i remember fondly long after this expansion is over. Lets hope this is the start of a trend of fleshing out a bigger roster of characters. Hopefully 3.3 is also a trendsetter for them all surviving for once!