A Storm of Blood

Due to various circumstances I’ve been very remiss in doing much in the way of writing for the past month, and what little I’ve been doing has largely been things that aren’t ready for public eyes just yet. I did have a chance to review two games over on GameSkinny: Tokyo 42, an interesting but frustrating cyberpunk action game in the vein of Syndicate; and a visual novel about dating girls in North Korea that was bought for me as a dare to review. Never let it be said that I won’t take on such a challenge.

In addition to not writing too much, I’ve not actually had much opportunity to chip away at the backlog over the past month. Instead, I played Final Fantasy 14. A lot of Final Fantasy 14. Talking about my time with that will be the brunt of this article.

There have been a few other games that I’ll quickly go over to acknowledge my playtime. First, my go to aside from FF14 remains Heroes of the Storm, which I’ve still been plugging away at in short intervals and downtime with or without friends. I made it back to Diamond this season after an uncharacteristically good run of placement games (8-2), which was a pleasant return after floating around Platinum for the last couple of seasons. In addition, the upcoming Starcraft hero Stukov is both a huge favourite of mine and is also of my most frequented support role, so I’m looking forward to getting my hands on him.

Beyond those two games, I bought and completed Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia on 3DS. Well, rather, I completed Chapter 5 which is where the plot ends, but I didn’t dabble in any of the post-game stuff. It was a reasonably enjoyable game and I intend to make a post dedicated to it soon.

I also picked up Ever Oasis for 3DS on its release, mostly on a whim. It’s an interesting little game with a mix of Zelda-lite exploration and combat combined with a basic Harvest Moon system of town management. Sadly, while it started out interesting, there’s a few little issues that serve to bog the game down in terms of enjoyment, and it ended up feeling quite shallow and more like busywork rather than fun gameplay. Not sure I’ll get back to that, but again, planning to talk more on that.

Oh yeah, and E3 happened. Naturally I was in no position to attend, being on the wrong hemisphere, but I did pay some attention to it. I was mostly uninteresting by the vast majority of games on offer, but just about broke my chair in excitement when they announced Metroid Prime 4. I’ll most definitely be getting a Switch at some point now, that’s clear enough. Overall though, the presentation was largely meh and didn’t really have many highlights, so I won’t speak too much on this just yet. If anything interesting does come from it, well, odds are I’ll be able to write about those games when I play them.

So with that out of the way, let’s get into Final Fantasy 14 and its newest expansion then.

FF14 is relatively uncommon among its contemporaries in that there’s absolutely no need to play multiple characters to experience everything; each class is accessible by just the one character. Most people only play the one avatar as such, but not I. Coming from WoW and having a multitude of characters and appearances that I would swap between, it’s hard to shake the old addiction to stocking up on alts.

Besides, even from a storytelling and character roleplaying/design standpoint, I don’t really like the idea that my character can master everything equally all at once. Instead, I tend to assign them specific roles or a small handful of classes and then focus them on that.

As such, coming into Stormblood, my main character was an au ra that only had Dragoon mastered. I also had a miqo’te Summoner from when I first played in Heavensward that I had sitting on the wings. But since I wanted a healer, I decided to level up a new character entirely – a duskwight Scholar. Those who play FF14 will note that Scholar and Summoner share levels, so this was a completely unnecessary undertaking; just goes to show you how dedicated I am to that idea of character designs.

So, teaming up with my friends Warrior, we took those two characters from middling levels (around the 30s mark I think) and proceeded to grind them up all the way to 60, through all the main story quests of both the base game and the Heavensward expansion AND all the patch content. That meant we’d also have to do a lot of grinding and secondary content in order to get the gear required to advance through the plot dungeons, even though we assumed (and eventually had proven) that catch up gear would be available on launch. This would allow us to have them ready to use in Stormblood from day 1.

And we started this project with a little less than three weeks before the expansion’s early access would begin. This was not a simple undertaking. Not even close. For a while there, we were basically playing it almost like a job with full time hours in order to make the deadline. We didn’t get bored or burnt out, mind, but neither of us are particularly keen to see the inside of Palace of the Dead again anytime soon. Nonetheless, we made it with about a day to spare, leaving me with two characters to tackle Stormblood with.

To say the Early Access went smoothly would be a blatant lie. There were numerous bouts of server instability and disconnects, sizeable queue times on most populated servers (which I thankfully avoided), entire data centers going down temporarily… the biggest issue of all, however, was a limit on how many people could entire individual instance servers at once to complete specific main quests.

I’m glad I got to see it, honestly. The jokes, memes and laughs that we’ll have about Raubahn Savage and Pipin Extreme in the months to come will be totally missed by newcomers to the game. But, despite all the issues, Square Enix was able to have it largely stable and working well by the time of the official release on June 20, even if they were hindered by DDoS attacks.

Many people complained about the issues and instability as people are wont to do on the internet, and to a point I understand, but I simply circumvented most of the bottlenecks by going and doing other things such as side quests or crafting. I even did the unthinkable of closing the game and playing other stuff while it was being settled! Unbelievable, I know. Still, I did my time in the trenches to prepare for the expansion, and I didn’t want to burn out by feeling the need to rush through and beat my head against the instance servers in the hope that it would let me in.

Nonetheless, I did eventually get to play the game, and so play the game I did. And I’ve gotta say, Square Enix absolutely knocked it out of the park with this expansion. I loved Heavensward, and as a complete and finished package with patches, it’s still superior to Stormblood… but only barely. Just the base expansion content? Stormblood wins by a huge margin.

The best thing about Final Fantasy 14 is that despite it being an MMO, the developers are doing their utmost to make it live up to that numbered title in a long running series of epic, story-driven RPGs. Quite frankly, Stormblood on its own holds up better than the vast majority of full length JRPGs released nowadays, particularly those by Square Enix. It might not be Persona 5, but damn if it doesn’t give it a run for its money, which is seriously a monumental accomplishment to think about.

Stormblood takes the now comfortably established world of Hydaelyn and runs with it, expanding new corners of it that we’ve not had a chance to see before, while also continuing the story and developing the characters we’ve come to love further. It’s a more grounded tale than the grandiose and high fantasy stylings of Heavensward with its Dragonsong War; it’s instead more of a war story of the collected Eorzean Alliance fighting to liberate parts of the world from the oppressive and powerful Garlean Empire. The war has been a factor of the game since even the 1.0 days, but it’s never really taken the stage front and centre as it did now.

Not afraid to step out of its comfort zone, Stormblood had me traveling into areas that have effectively been under tyrannical imperial rule for decades, trying to aid the resistance efforts there and stir the populace into fighting back. More often than not, these attempts actually prove hard not from the imperials, but from the lack of life and enthusiasm left in the citizens. When you’re in these places, it truly feels oppressive, and the writers have done a great job of conveying that.

It can get a little cliched and trope-filled in places, particularly when the stirring speeches about freedom, liberty and so on come out, but it’s usually done well enough that I don’t mind getting swept up in it. In addition, the roster of characters (both Scion and non-Scion) continues to swell with interesting newcomers as well, while still seeing a number of returning characters getting their own development arcs. Whereas Alphinaud was the constant companion of the player character in Heavensward, Stormblood sees his more direct sister Alisaie keeping you company, as well as the delightful Lyse at your side throughout it all.

The real character standout to me, however, was Zenos. This is the first antagonist that the player character has had that is not only able to stand toe to toe against them, but quite frankly spends most of the story toying with you in the hopes that you’ll grow stronger and provide him a worthy fight. While that’s also somewhat cliche, I thought it was executed well enough that I honestly came to both love and hate Zenos, as well as respecting him for what he was and could do. The showdowns and glimpses of him were the highlight of the expansion for me.

There were a few other little scenes and things that I could elaborate on, but since I’d rather not go into spoiler territory I’ll leave it there. Suffice it to say, however, that the main story was grand. Each of the new zones also had their own share of interesting side plots as well as relevance in the overarching story. In fact, each of the new zones was also gorgeously designed and quite interesting to explore, with the Azim Steppe probably my favourite zone in the entirety of FF14.

And the music… oh man, the music. FF14 is already pretty well known for having a stellar soundtrack, as is the entire series, but Stormblood continues that trend magnificently. The zone music, the battle musics, the recurring leitmotif that builds in intensity right up to the climax… it’s good stuff, and a real pleasure to listen to.

At the moment, I’ve reached 70 and completed the main story on my Dragoon, with my Scholar not too far behind (66 at last recollection). I was a lot more complete and thorough with the former, doing all the side quests I could and taking my time to explore, speak with NPCs, and study all that I could of this new section of the world I adore. By contrast, the Scholar is mostly just sticking to the main plot and proceeding through dungeons, helping my friends out in the process.

There’s still plenty I’ve yet to see. Two new dungeons became available at 70, as well as the EX versions of the two primals I fought, but I’ve yet to really touch those since I’m largely waiting for friends to catch up and team up with for that. There’s also the raid due to release soon, which also promises to be interesting… or at least have interesting characters in the vicinity carrying the plot along, which is what I’m most interested in.

What else to talk about… at the moment I’ve yet to really dabble with the new classes that much, for various reasons, but both seem to be quite well designed and very fun. Many of the changes to existing classes have proven interesting to me, though your mileage may vary depending on class you play; Dragoon is a lot of fun to play, but Scholar is much simpler and suffers from very poor mana efficiency so I’ve been limping along at times. No doubt balance patches are coming, but for the most part I’m enjoying the game immensely and I look forward to playing it more on both other characters and these two.

So yes… that’s largely been the focus of my last month. FF14, FF14, and more FF14. Admittedly, I did try to stay slightly abreast of the WoW developments just out of long term curiosity, but I found myself completely uninterested in the Tomb of Sargeras and only partially interested in what I’m seeing of the 7.3 Argus patch. It looks like they’re doing a reasonable job there, but I still have no more attachment to the game, so I’ll stick with Eorzea for the foreseeable future.

I’ll close out this post here, then. On the horizon is the release of Final Fantasy 12 HD in about a week that I’ll most likely be picking up, since I never finished the original release but did find a lot of things to like about it. Trails of Cold Steel is being released on the PC this month, so if I don’t purchase and replay it then, no doubt I’ll be encouraging everyone else to do so. Pyre finally releases this month as well, and that’ll be an instant day one purchase and play through for me.

Otherwise, it’s largely business as normal. I’ll be doing my utmost to keep posting regularly and not letting myself fall too far behind in this again.

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