I'm pretty happy to say this has thus far been a much, much better experience then the previous patches for Stormblood. Better fights, better variety in music, more going on and generally it just felt more focussed than it has since Heavensward. Again i have to say i believe in part this is because with the Ala Mhigo and Doma stories wrapping up they are no longer so divided in terms of workload in this regard. We are back to the Empire/Ascians and that focus allows for a more linear creative process that allows most of the work to flow better. Though that said i do have to comment on just how many spelling and grammatical errors there are in the English translations on screen. Not only do they often not match the voice actors but there are straight up misspelled or duplicated words like "they were were" as the VO says "they were" for example. Its the first time i've actually seen an mmo do it this much beyond beta testing. Perhaps there were issues with the team, some were sick and the rest got overloaded i dont know. All i can say is it was noticeable on more than one occasion and this many years in you would think the scions names would be spelt right in conversation text.
So onto the content. I've got it all out of the way bar the Savage Omega fights, and any Eureka content because i simply refuse to waste my time on it, and all in all i can say its good but like usual i'm going to break it down a little below.
Quite honestly the story hasn't interested me in Stormblood much at all. They could afford so little time to both regions that Yotsuyu was really the only standout and beyond that most of the story was forgettable and completely paled in comparison to ARR/HW in general. This still suffered from a lot of "walk to this person to start a cutscene" just like SB has in general but much like the finale of the last patch did with Alphinaux this patch gives other characters some time in the spotlight and it was very welcome. As time goes on i find Lyse and Hien increasingly uninteresting. Likeable characters to be sure but storywise what are they bringing to the table compared to what the likes of Nanamo or Ameryic in their storylines in the last few outings they had? so far not much and since they were the focus of so much i found it hard to care. Here we return to familiar characters and give more time to folks like the Xaela tribes on the Azim Steppe and it was a very welcome change of pace.
Beyond that, without heading into spoiler territory, this saw a refocus of the story on what i consider the 'core' story to Final Fantasy XIV rather than just the contained story of the expansion. The Ascians are making their moves, we get some character reveals and a tease for what i assume is a certain Big Bad we haven't seen mentioned since like The Chrysalis or earlier. Overall it felt a little more substantial even if it does still suffer from 'talk to the cutscene npc' syndrome a little too much still. I was invested in the events, exclaimed out loud at certain reveals and was genuinely bummed when it ended because it left me wanting a lot more which is always the sign of a story patch doing its job well. Something i found myself really saying for the first time for this expansion so all in all not perfect but a total improvement and step back to the quality HW taught us to expect.
The New Dungeons
Now these were interesting. Overall they are fine dungeons, MSQ one is a bit too linear feeling and the other a bit too flat in terms of layout, but other than that i've done both multiple times and enjoyed every run. Compare that to previous additions like the Drowned City which i did once and its another case of the update feeling less simple. Like they saw complaints things were too easy, people were bored and not bothering to run the content and they spiced things up again which is great.
The Arboretum Hard Mode is honestly easier than its Normal Mode if i'm honest. Copperbell HM it is not! but the bosses, second and third in particular, are good fun and there are a fair few great new mechanics both in battle and out. For example all the mobs are covered by a mud based formula making them hyper aggressive but if you hit switches for water valves it swap the mobs model out for a clean version thats less aggressive and easier to fight. That kind of fight control thats entirely up to the players to shift difficulty should they choose reminded me of the similar systems in WoW's critically acclaimed Ulduar raid. Something people always lamented was never really brought back. Its nice to see them experiment with that here. Along with some new ideas like telegraphs not for damage but for effects that physically move you around could really lead to some interesting fights in the future if the ideas prove popular enough. Its a nice enough dungeon but the music, a broken scratchy version of the original like a run down malls spooky intercom still playing old ambient shopping music when its long abandoned, does add flavour to the scene but also gets pretty annoying as the dungeon goes on. Still its a fun if easy run i would compare to Xelphatol or The Vault.
The MSQ however is great in a very different way. As a dungeon its basically "take X boss and their mechanics and spice them up, but its still very much like fighting the same boss" -a theme that ran through the whole patch but more on that later- and its very point A-B as you clear a lot of trash that only really serve to pad the place. Where it shines is the visuals. You go in knowing theres a giant monster on that part of the world map, you go in seeing teasing signs of said monster, you are sure knowing SE its just that and its a lame attempt at surprise but then you crest a hill and the party just stops dead. Its exactly not what you expected and then when you realise what IS waiting at the end the reveal is all the more exciting because it set up your expectations then completely pulled a 180 on them. Its a eye candy dungeon thats great but trash heavy i would compared to The Fractal Continuum or Amdapoor Keep HM. But boy is that final boss Stone Vigil 2.0 in terms of a hard story wall for people with bad connections i tell you what!
A lot of the stuff is just described with a shrug and "hey its signs of improvement" but good lord this is the best trial since Nidhogg hands down. Great looking boss, great arena, great music. Throw in some Rythmn game style mechanics -a sadly dwindling genre i adore- and this was all around a delight to run and i can't wait to do it again. Story is still completely barebones and uninteresting for the Four Lords stuff but but is this a step up compared to everything but Shinryu in the Trials category for Stormblood. Totally worth running just to see it. Unlike Byakko or Tsukuyomi this didn't just feel like the "storymode for dumb babbys" and it was easy to wipe in and people had to do the mechanics rather than get carried through by a healer. Fantastic fight and can't wait to try the harder version.
Omega has been a mixed bag for me. Yeah its great fan service but a lot of the first while visually cool are a bit too simple. For every Phantom Train theres 3 or 4 thats just 'a thing in the middle of a flat area' and after so much of that in Alexander i preferred the stuff that stands out. Thankfully -and i will not spoil the reveals- the fights for Omega's final ark are very satisfying. An easier final fight than Alex but on the whole the difficulty spiked up to a more satisfying degree. Making it feel less like a chore and more like a challenge which i the longrun is what feeds that need to conquer content and chase gear to increase your power an MMORPG needs for longevity. Part of why so many people seem to have dropped off in 4.1/4.2 was because the content was all pretty damn easy so there was no need to gear up much. Here across the board theres a minor but noticable increase to what i would consider closer to 'just right for an rpg challenge' instead of the previous 'dont pay attention its here for the cutscenes really' monotony of the difficulty in previous pre savage difficulties.
As for the story? well its mixed. Its not as satisfying as all of Omega's build up was but at the same time feels a bit more thought out and deep compared to the earlier sections or parts of Alex. It almost felt like an episode of an anime, the ending in particular and while its a shame they don't expand more on Omega's origins some characters show up you don't expect and it really feels like a nod to the people who have been pretty vocal about missing the themes and tones of Heavensward ever since it finished.
Still it left me wondering: Where the hell did Estinien go?
So overall i'm happier with this patch than the last two. I had a lot more fun and i think thats because of a number of things. The story is no longer split and as such can focus again, theres are new mechanics being experimented with -no doubt for the expansion being revealed at Fan Fest- that freshened things up and personally it feels to me as though there has been something of an ethos shift in the design team. They seem far more comfortable with challenging players a little more at the entry difficulty levels which is just fine by me. The content felt more satisfying to beat and i found myself going 'okay when i come back with better gear-' which is music to an MMO devs ears as thats a subconscious commitment to play more, because you want to.
It also feels both in story and mechanics a lot more like "lets try to reinvent what we have" compared to Stormbloods thus far "lets try and make up new gimmicks". So many fights in this patch are "Oh this is Titan, but better", "Oh this is isgebind, but better" or "Oh this is Nidhogg, but better" and happening so many times feels a little too common to be just coincidence. It feels like they are looking at what worked and what players enjoyed more than throwing extremely casual content out and telling us we need to enjoy it wether we like it or not.
For the most part 4.1 an 4.2 left me somewhat worried about the future of the game and my interest in it. 4.4 and to a lesser extent 4.3 has reinvigorated my interest and i am not alone. Its still a shame Eureka is getting so much focus and we never got a true relic questline to go on an adventure to get rather than a reskin from a mob grinder but on the whole this is the perfect time for this when buzz about the next expansion is starting to show. How many patches do we have left? personally i'm guessing 2 majors. One for the final Ivalice, the other for the end of the Four Lords and the story trial. Perhaps one in early December and the other in late March with another summer release for 5.0 in 2019?
Its all speculation really, we don't even have the job conspiracy theories doing the rounds till we see the shirts Yoshi wears at Fan Fest in a few months of course, but people are back playing, people are enjoying the content again and personally i'm logging in to cap tomes, do my roullette dailies and i'm having fun doing so. Something i really burnt out on doing for the last few months PS4 meltdown or not. This is a hopeful sign of better things to come and if you have burnt out or taken a long break i recommend maybe paying for a month of sub time to check all this stuff out for a good time. The quality of life changes were nice, the new GATE at the Golden Saucer is fun but probably not for too many repeat tries but i'll still take it over the damn jar one thats not thankfully been replace with this one. As a RDM it was great to get buffs, not so great to see the FOTM crowd naturally jump on it and need all the gear i'm chasing in the new dungeons while bringing back the 4.0 "ummm, ya, no im a mage? why would i ever do melee attacks? lol" stuff that means i can be with 3 others in a trial and i'm the only one casting Verholy/flare because they simply don't know how. Thats not so fun. Overall its mixed but satisfying. Hopeful but still wanting more. Little more vague overall i know, but boy are we getting into end of ARR level spoiler stuff with this one folks which is making it real hard to talk about some of this stuff, but i guess that shows its still investing folks in the material, right?