MMOs take up an interesting space in gaming in that they fill several roles at once. Roles that other genres often struggle to bring together. As the "Massive Multiplayer Online" description suggests, they bring players together, in volumes far greater than Overwatch or even Fortnite could hope for. They also have stories on par with single-player greats, ever-changing narratives where players can actually shape the world itself. Unlike multiplayer shooters that offer sparse lore or single-player masterpieces with tacked-on deathmatch modes, MMOs fit everything together into a cohesive experience.
At least that's what MMO studios sell us on. Often, however, the end result falls short. The story isn't as epic as the gorgeous trailers suggest. Communities fail to be helpful, causing you to rely on a select group of friends or play a healer because nobody else will. Final Fantasy XIV's new Shadowbringers expansion manages to achieve this dream. It delivers a truly emotional story, changes players appreciate, and the best friends you'll ever have: NPCs.
Friends In Dark Places
The plot of Shadowbringers throws an immediate curveball by having players become a Warrior of Darkness. That sounds like the opposite of usual Final Fantasy fare. Typically you're restoring light, but here, you're actually bringing darkness back to a world with too much light. The reason for this is that you're in a different dimension, one that serves as a parallel to your own. Since things are flip-flopped, being a bringer of shadows is actually a good thing. This new dimension happens to also bring a new level cap, new classes, new races, and a slight graphics upgrade. But honestly, the best thing it does is show you how the people around you are feeling.
That's not to say that all of the new content goes unappreciated. All of it changes the game for the better, but I'll get to that later. The NPCs really deserve mentioning because of how essential they feel. The first place that proves true is in the story. Shadowbringers goes out of its way to get you attached to the "bit players" you encounter, turning them into beloved allies. Part of that has to do with how the consequences of your quest are shown. One "dungeon" is just a town that's on fire. You see the bodies of those who didn't make it, reminding you that not everyone gets to party up and kick ass in this world. Although you do get to see the nasty fates that befall some who do try to kick ass...
Fortunately for the poor NPCs, Square Enix added a new thing called the Trust system. This function is available in all main story dungeons. It lets you form parties with NPCs to tackle these dungeons, and even gives them unique dialogue when they're with you. This addition might not be as obvious a selling point as new races or classes, but it's one of the greatest additions in Shadowbringers. The AI of your allies is surprisingly competent. The tanks will pull a reasonable amount of aggro, and the healers will actually heal. This makes grinding dungeons a fairly efficient process when you can't muster IRL friends. My only complaint is that the NPC's AI can be a little too cautious, making dungeon runs take longer if you use the Trust system.
Finally, the writing is just really good in Shadowbringers. Old questlines and characters are brought back for big payoffs. Characters are genuinely funny. Say what you will about Marvel movies, but there's a reason the quippy Guardians of the Galaxy are household names now. Shadowbringers NPCs can get a little quippy in dungeons, but the comedy comes more from their character quirks. By seeing the consequences my quests had on the people around me, and sharing a few laughs with them, I actually felt for the NPCs. That's an accomplishment in any MMO.
All Around Me Are Familiar Faces
While Shadowbringers does bring NPCs to the forefront, it doesn't erase the whole multiplayer aspect of this MMO. You're going to run into other people all the time. You'll probably be friends with a few of them and are set to play through this new expansion together. You might be wondering what's in store for you and your party, what with the tweaks to combat and new classes. The answer: lots of bunny girls.
The Viera are a new all-female race, although technically they originate from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. There's also an all-male counterpart race, the Hrothgar. They look sort of like jungle cats, but it doesn't really matter. Everyone is playing as Viera. For the first few weeks after Shadowbringer's launch, you're bound to see Viera everywhere. Which is fine. They have a very appealing, if fan-servicey, design.
These bunnies will also likely come in one of two new classes, the Dancer and Gunbreaker. Again, you can guess which is the more popular of the two. Expect Dancer Viera everywhere. As a ranged DPS/Support hybrid, they're pretty neat. It's the Gunbreaker, though, that proved the more fun of the two for me. It's a tank role, but with the twist of using one of Final Fantasy's most iconic weapons. Tanking can often be a thankless, mundane job in MMOs. You walk towards the monsters and take hits. Gunbreaker gives you a sweet weapon and cool abilities to make tanking more dynamic. As the chronic tank of my friend group, it's much appreciated.
An MMO Other MMOs Can Learn From
Shadowbringers quietly adds amazing features to Final Fantasy XIV; things that I feel like should become MMO standards from now on. The writing is quality and focuses on building meaningful attachments to NPCs. I never thought that MMO NPCs could be anything more than quest givers, but I love my Shadowbringers crew. The Trust system allows me to take my new buddies out and about like real party members, as well as do some grinding when my real friends can't log on. When my real friends are on, we can experiment with some fun new classes and join an ever-growing army of bunny girls. If that isn't peak MMO gaming, I don't know what is.
4.5 Out Of 5 Stars
A review code for FFXIV: Shadowbringers was provided to TheGamer by Square Enix. The game is available now for PlayStation 4 and PC.