Thursday, 7 March 2019

Patch 4.5 in review

 Well it took a while what with the crazy number of excellent videogame releases lately but as usual i have cleared all the content in the current update (outside of Eureka that is) and feel i'm ready to ramble about the update that really feels a lot like "Stormbloods over, this is the set up for Shadowbringers" in retrospect.
 Overall the quality feels like a marked improvement over 4.4 which i believe is the only time "boy, lotta spelling errors in this update" was part of my review of a big budget MMORPG's content update. Without the Doma/Ala Mhigo split the story is no longer serving two masters and it feels far more obvious here than last time that this is seeing an improvement to content quality. So as usual lets start with my go to content on patch day:

The Story
This is a story that, much like the expansion as a whole, felt very divided. There are two story hooks here and one only got more interesting after the extended Shadowbringers trailer while the other just fell flat to me. Overall it flowed well and left me wanting more but it really is night and day between the two storylines.

 First off you have the big story teased in the patch trailer. War has come to Eorzea again and the new Emperor might be revealing a shocking twist! Exciting right? is he going to turn out to be some anti hero thats been waiting to turn on Solus (aka Not-Ardyn) all along? Intrigue and double agents on both sides? No. No he's just a humanity first nazi analogue. Thats it. All the set up just for a 'muh master race' villain. Its not quite the 'the church is evil all along' level of bland but in terms of jrpg tropes that were old on the PS1 this is pretty up there.
 The question of course is why fart out such a lame 'twist' at all right? and i think the best way to explain this is to drop a Jojo's Bizarre Adventure spoiler so hey fair warning This spoils part of Jojo Part 7: Steel Ball Run. Jojo part 7 stands out for a few reasons. Its a universe reset, its a western, its Joestar character is actually the sidekick of the protagonist and so on. Most importantly however is the change it makes with its villain Funny Valentine. The President of the United States of America. Yeah you heard right. In a series who's previous villains range from Vampires to Serial Killers Araki decided his series reboot needed a villain shake up as well and the way he did this was simple: Make the reader almost agree with the villain.

Valentine is chasing the stories maguffin that will allow him to increase the powers of his Stand ability 'Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap', which allows him to hop between parallel worlds and timelines, or pull things from them. With the maguffin upgrade this would allow him to grow strong enough to actively alter the world around him so his timeline is always the most beneficial course of events.
 The example given is that if someone tried to shoot him the gun would misfire but somewhere else in the world a soldier in a warzone has his gun go off by accident and shoot a child to karmically balance this out so to speak.

So he's just a self centred villain out for some form of personal gain right? actually no. Quite the opposite. Valentine wants this power to use it to protect the entirety of America. He is a former civil war soldier and patriot that deeply loves his nation and its his own sense of 'justice' that drives him to ensure a conflict like the one he barely lived through will never happen again. His actions to get there are evil. He will assassinate people, rig elections, lie, cheat and steal to get to the goal, but his goal is "no American child will experience loss from war ever again, no more bloodshed will happen on American soil, as the President this is my solemn vow".

He is arguably doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. You can imagine how the character has been twisted in recent years for the whole 'make America great again' deal online but at the end of the manga when his back is against the wall he gives an impassioned speech about how he has no personal gain he is chasing, he sincerely wants to be the best President he can be by making America a nation that experiences everlasting peace using his abilities rather than some form of authoritarian or facist control. The interesting part? the protagonists actually back down.
Even for a minute the villain of the series who has killed people close to the heroes has them think "maybe he is actually right" and that leads to an agonising dilemma for them and that is superb writing. When the villain can argue that he actually believes he is doing the right thing and can almost convince the hero that he is in fact trying to do the right thing you have a character you can invest in.

Why do i bring up this Jojo character? well because many people i know including myself who read Steel Ball Run felt like the Emperor role was going to end up like Funny Valentine and we were ready for the Garlean leader to be someone we would stop, even for a second, before readying weapons for the inevitable loot pinata style Trial boss to ask ourselves "is he even the villain at all, or just a puppet of Solus ready to turn on his master and make the Garleans truly free for the first time?"

 We wanted him to sit down the leaders of Eorzea and reveal he wasn't a 1 dimensional villain doing evil because the villains must be evil but make them wonder if theres more to Garlemalde in general than being the generic Final Fantasy villainous Empire trope again.
He isn't though. He is just fantasy Hilter now and thats so lame. Its a massive let down and while i still think there are some interesting hooks to come, his two female bodyguards that totally aren't XIV's version of Melti Gemini for example, in a vacuum it was maybe the most disappointing story reveal since "Oh hey Nanamo never died, its only been a few quests since then in the MSQ but lol jk jk :p" and i thought FFXIV's writing was better than this. Which brings me back to 'the why' of it.

This is personal opinion, though i've heard it elsewhere since the patch dropped multiple times, but i believe that because people were expecting a reverse heel turn the writers tried to brute force 'this character is evil' upon the players in the laziest way outside of setting fire to an orphanage full of children. He is literally talking about genocides and a master race, do you get it? DO YOU GET THIS IS THE EVIL GUY?!? and yeah we do. Message received. But it was a poorly delivered one and not up to the standards of the game or the series in general. People wanted General Leo and got 'really shitty Kefka' instead and its just such a black mark on the story which is pretty famous in MMORPG's for being solid enough to be comparable to its single player outings. Usually it is at least. It left me disappointed and feeling a bit let down by the writers who resorted to such a easy cliche to bruteforce opinion on a character who could have had depth and is now reduced to little more than a cartoon. After Yotsuyu or Fordola its a objective step down that clearly annoyed me enough to rant about it, sorry about that.

 Its not all bad however. Conversely the other side of the story was very interesting. The fate of the Scions, the confirmation that -shocking nobody- the Shadowhunter is Gaius Van Baelsar- and the knowledge we have from the extended Shadowbringers trailer is starting to pull these threads together to make for a very exciting prelude to our next big story as the Warrior of Light. Well, y'know, Warrior of Darkness i guess but you know what i mean.

We have some solid character development for characters like Alisae and Gaius. The sense of helplessness and urgency throughout creates a tense vibe that can make you forget this is an online game that limits developments to a patch cycle so there is no real pressing for time and any mmo story that can make you get so into it that you forget its an mmo is a success in my book.
There isn't too much to say since it feels largely like set up for what i expect will be a shocking reveal in the 4.5 part 2 update coming in the next few weeks. I don't think any of the Scions are at risk of dying or in some severe peril from a writing standpoint, but i think these events are all leading up to a factor involving the Echo which has not been given as much time as the whole 'relive the memories of others' aspect has overall.

Now this is something most recently touched on with Xenos turning into, as the fanbase calls him, EleXenos but this secondary aspect to the Echo first showed up waaay back in Patch 2.2: Through the Maelstrom and has since largely been forgotten. In the MSQ of that patch Melwyb leads the Scions to a Sahagin cult that is working to summon Leviathan lead by a Priest that can use a version of the Echo with a dark purple aura. He is quickly killed but rather than his soul returning to the planets Lifestream he uses this Echo to transfer into a body of a nearby worshipper and supplant the victims consciousness with his own. Claiming the Echo has made him 'Immortal'. After seeing things like "Master Matoya" in the Shadowbringers trailer, the fact the story hook was brought back with Xenos and whats going on with the Scions i think its a safe guess that someone is using the Echo to forcefully pull the Scions souls from their bodies to bring them somewhere or somewhen else. We just need to wait a few more weeks to get an answer but that Kingdom Hearts looking image in the trailer that wasn't in this update at all and the general 'Throw open the Gate' line has a couple of tinfoil hat theories going around in my head but for now all i can say is the Scion side of the story was very interesting and left me going "no come on, give me more of this!" which is always a good sign in patch based storytelling in my opinion.

So overall the story is a mixed bag. Some very nice set up, some very disappointing reveals. Heres hoping part 2 of this patches story will end up more of the former than the latter. With the story out the way its time to move on to the other content starting with the good old Dungeon crawling!

The New Dungeon

 Dungeon singular this time but boy is it a doozey. The Ghimlyt Dark is an very visually striking dungeon. Blending World War 1 trench warfare with a suggestion of conflict on a size comparable to the Cartenau Flats conflict at the opening to ARR when Bahamut nuked the continent. It feels desperate, oppressive and urgent. I noticed people seem to treat it almost like a speedrun, but not in the usual 'i want to get my bonus fast and bounce' way but its almost as though people act like theres a countdown going on. So stark and urgent is the vibe you get during the dungeon. The dungeon itself is about average. Lots of chain pulling required as staggered mobs spawn at choke points. Lots of ally NPC's fighting with you which is probably testing some stuff for the Trust System to a degree and while mechanically quite easy the bosses, particularly the last one is a treat to fight. Overall its not the most challenging dungeon around but in terms of tone setting and vibe it feels very much like Scaling Baelsar's wall to fight The Griffon back at the end of Heavensward. As for the final bosses this time? i'm guessing they are showing up later as a fused flesh horror nightmare creature thats a recurring monster in the series. Those mirrored red and blue helmets? tell me i wasn't the only one getting mild Xorn and Thorn vibes off those two.

Seiryu/Wreathe of Snakes
Sadly not much to say about the new 'not-primal' fight. Its as competently made as usual but while Suzaku's Rhythm game fight is up there with Titan or Ifrit Extremes as fun, challenging fights. Seiryu is just a little bland and more on the same tier as Ramuh, Susanoo or Knights of the Round. Visually impressive, also little in the way of interesting mechanics. Its not good, its not bad. Its another Zurvan the Demon. It ends a storyline on a bit of a downward note thats not as interesting as its predecessors. Just as Sophia felt like she should have been the finale to the Warring triad i feel this should have ended with Suzaku who also felt the most actually outraged over her connection to Tenzin.
The story meanwhile was okay, lacked the mystery of the masked child from the Triad but i got a few laughs out of it and it was some neat worldbuilding too. Like Seiryu the story as a whole was competent if a little too safe and dull.

The Raid

I began this section in the last patch with 'Omega has been a mixed bag for me' and while i would say the same about Ivalice's Orbann Monastery raid i mean it in a positive way rather than negative. This really felt like the follow up to the Void Ark Trilogy people wanted. Some challenge, gorgeous level design and music and a story that really hooks you with its nods to the worlds past and the series itself. I'm a huge Ivalice fan and this ended on a series of 4 great boss fights ranging from good to excellent and an ending that i'm sure would be a bit of a tearful moment for those who grew up playing the Tactics games.

 First off we have Mustadio the Machinist. The weakest fight overall, recycling a fair bit of what we just had with Omega but with a neat twist on the positional mechanic. It felt a little more like something that should have been in the Lighthouse raid both thematically and mechanically but its a fun intro that keeps you on your toes.

Second is longtime fan favourite Agrias the Angel. A very enjoyable fight that uses the extra action button to great effect as something more than the 'oh shit' button to avoid a wipe its been in the past. Its visually exciting and doesn't feel quite like any other raid boss in the series yet and letting people do things related more to the other two roles than their own was a refreshing shake up. Be it healers swinging a sword to kill ghosts or dps dropping a big shield of light to block a ridiculously powerful aoe attack for example. Its at this point you get the idea that this raid is a straight incline of complexity and difficulty last seen to this degree of success in the Weeping city of mhach, to this day considered a fan favourite raid in the games growing list of them.

After Agrias we move on to what can basically be summed up as "Ozma 2: wipefest Boogaloo". A boss simply named The Thunder God. A boss fought on a floating ring around him, sound familiar?, with nooks and crannies to drop aoes or simply to avoid his multiple forms of sword strikes that either swing around the out of the ring, the inner edge or in repeatedly slams roatating clockwise or anti clockwise around the board. It even has a section where you are transported to another place to fight 3 large adds. Its visually different but it is straight up Ozma all over again. Parties wiped. A lot. However over time people got 'the dance' down and when pulled off its another extremely enjoyable fight just like Ozma which proves these 'ring arena' fights are always going to be a solid go to design choice in MMORPGS'.

 All of which was just a precursor leading up to the final Raid Boss of Stormblood: Ultima, the High Seraph. A visual blend of Garuda, Sophia, The Ultima Weapon and Yunalesca from FFX. This compared to Alexander Prime, Omega M/F or Diablos Hollow really feels like an end of expansion boss fight. Not so much in difficulty, though it is challenging, but in terms of what goes on and where. We begin the fight with the boss embedded in a wall of Magicite. She regularly spreads walls of the stuff to seperate parties and box you in while aoes and plumes drop to make for some very tight spots to get around, this then escalates to summoning in the Eidolons Famfrit, Hasmal and Belias from Rabanstre. Hope you remember the signature moves from those fights because now they are all going off at once! After that she bursts out of the wall revealing her upper angelic portion hides a sinister, monstrous lower half kind of like Anima in some respects. Then she reduces the entire room to a aoe deathtrap and you must all run to a tiny bubble where even then healers must battle through constant raid wide damage as the entire raid fights through a dps check to repel Ultimas strongest attack. After this the final phase begins where she uses mechanics from all the raids bosses in increasingly fast rotation which turns the fight into a positioning race that must be a nightmare for jobs like BLM or WHM. Thanks to procs i had a much easier job as RDM but even then there was a lot of time in this phase spent cancelling a spell to move than successfully casting one. All in all its hectic and feels like a true endgame boss fight that you feel a real sense of accomplishment for beating.

Beyond that the story was a safe but satisfying epilogue to the bittersweet ending of Final Fantasy Tactics, War of the Lions. I found myself just saying "god Square Enix just really needs to give us a new Ivalice game" because after FFXII's rerelease last year and this i was left only wanting more from a setting that honestly could pull of an mmo all by itself. It was a nice ride to revisit versions of these places and see nods to versions of beloved characters from Ivalice games passed, though it was a bit sad Lea Monde and Vagrant Story got no love in the end, but overall i enjoyed the storys finale tremendously and i wonder if Fran will be showing up in Shadowbringers since her people are now confirmed to be the next playable race. I doubt she will be a faction leader like Raubahn or something but hey you never know with FFXIV right?

After all that the really big thing left to talk about is Blue Mage but i think i'm going to make that its own article since there is a lot to write about concerning SE's first experiment with a 'Limited Job' so for now i'll say this patch had some let downs in writing but in terms of engaging content there was a lot to love here and it left me eager for more in the second half coming soon!


  1. Hmm, my interpretation of Varius is that he was "acting". He cannot stop the war, so he deliberately gave the Eorzeans all the information they need about how the Ascians control Garlemald.

    One of the themes with Varius that FFXIV has been consistently hitting in recent patches is that how, despite being Emperor, Varius is surprisingly powerless. Impotent in the face of Solus' control.

    So then, how does Varius fight back against Solus? He cannot do so directly, so he does it indirectly. He deliberately tells the Ascians' greatest enemy all sorts of unnecessary information about Ascian plans that the Scions did not know. He points the Warrior of Light--the one person known to have killed Ascians permanently--directly at Solus.

    We'll see how Shadowbringers develops this, though. But FFXIV's writing team is fairly consistent, and suddenly turning a sympathetic Varius into fantasy Hitler is very out of character for them.

    1. I'm thinking/hoping the same thing. My hope at this point is the two 'red oni, blue oni' bodyguards are Solus' eyes and ears and it was an act for them, because otherwise its just a bit of a low point for the character development so far.