Let's not pretend for a second that we thought I'd give this game a score below a 7. The long time FFXIV player in me wants to give Stormblood a 10/10 so badly. So very, very badly. But I'm not here as a FFXIV fangirl, so let's break down the massive update by sections before giving it a final evaluation. I'll try and keep this review spoiler-free. I can hit you with spoiler thoughts later-on down the line when people actually have a chance to get through the game.
One of the first things that changed with Patch 4.0 Stormblood, whether you bought the expansion or not, was a complete overhaul of the combat system. Skills were changed around, some were lost, some moved to completely different jobs, and we got role-specific skill pools to chose from. Each job also got a new UI element which was designed to increase the effectiveness of that specific class. And most of the time it is pretty darn helpful, though I do recommend minimizing it a bit and shifting it over out of the way. The default location is not ideal.
I primarily tank, and my main tank job is as a warrior, so the changes hurt me a bit more than most. While I can handle end-game Stormblood content relatively well despite the lack of my primary damage down and health regen cooldowns, tanking things below level 56 is a bit dodgy. I had to use two of my five allotted role-skills to pick up a damage down and a health regen skill. Provoke, one of the main tank abilities to pull hate off other party members, is now a role-skill, which took up my third. Which left two slots for a stun and a tiny damage-over-time proc.
And then I got stuck in instance hell thanks to a series of DDoS attacks that plagued the game during early access. Which left me running old dungeons and trials. I ended up in Urth's Font, the Odin primal battle from A Realm Reborn. Being level-sunk down to 50 meant that I lost my Warrior damage-down ability, and just had one health-regen from my native WAR skills as well as a vulnerability down proc that takes a solid two minutes to pop back up. After wiping because the healers just could not keep up with my damage intake, I dropped my DOT proc and picked up another damage down. Which left me servicable, but it also meant that I ended up missing out on a lot of the new tank role skills.
Because I had to take Rampart, Convalescence, and Awareness – two of which were originally on my hotbar anyway as skills pulled from Gladiator back in the day where skills were cross-class and not from a role pool – they were now there to make up for the loss of two Marauder skills I should have picked up early on in the game progression. With Provoke and Low Blow taking up my last two role skills, I didn't have space for thinks like Shirk – which is great for off-tanking – or an AOE Provoke that would help with keeping group hate. And that AOE provoke is pretty darn useful with Red Mages now able to dualcast and hit faster than I do as a tank going through my enmity rotation. And with my enmity rotation having been set by about level 25, at level 70, I'm really starting to feel the effects of enmity entropy. Since tank enmity generation hasn't been tweaked too much, I've started to be less and less effective at holding hate as we go along since healing and damage have increased proportionally with the level and item level caps.
Add to that the change in the parry stat – we now heal better based on damage we take – its made the combination of a Scholar healer and a Warrior tank so unwieldy you may as well give up and die some days.
So while I can survive, and I like the higher defense stats I got to make up for the loss of my cooldowns, Warriors were hit the hardest by the tank role skill changes. In fact, not one Warrior skill made it into the role skill pool. That pool either comprises of abilities taken from Paladins and Dark Knights or are entirely new. Forgive me if that fact offends me just a little bit.
But, I am super pleased at being able to chain six fell-cleaves in a row while standing in Deliverance.
All healers, but especially White Mages, were also nerfed by the loss of their barrier skill Stoneskin. For White Mages, that was their only barrier ability, and it made everyone's lives a hell of a lot easier. So now WHMs are left as just constant cure-bots, and with their new UI system, it incentivizes single-target heals, which is not good for end-game duties that often require AOE heals to compensate for massive party-wide damage.
So, the new combat changes will take some getting used to for all of us, but some got hit a bit worse than others. And honestly, I'd have taken a third hotbar over losing Foresight and Bloodbath. But that's just me.
One change that was incredibly helpful is the fact that sprinting no longer costs technical points, so melee fighters can now sprint in battle without jeopardizing their ability to do anything for about a minute while waiting for their TP gauge to tick back up to full. The inclusion of a Main Scenario Quest UI element that tells you when and where a new MSQ quest is, is also pretty useful. Especially as we head into the post-launch content patches.
Being able to swim in certain locations and dive in them was also pretty damn fun. Especially because you don't have to go hunting for interact locations to unlock diving. You just receive it as part of the main scenario questline. Though the diving animation gets old. And it frustrates me that I can't swim on my mount, but can dive and fly on that same mount. It's a bit ridiculous but I just want to fly a bird into the ocean and then have fun exploring the deep sea on that bird, damn it. Flying still requires that you pick up quests and locate various aether currents to attune to, but they are much easier to find this time around.
As for the game's storyline. Well. Without giving away much, the development team managed to link the liberation of Ala Mhigo and Doma together in a way that made narrative sense. It also gave us a lot more variety of locations, and some interesting story beats. The new locations are much more varied than those from A Realm Reborn or Heavensward and the soundtrack matches. One of my favorite locations so far has been the Azim Steppe. Partly because it just looks so much different from what I usually expect of a Final Fantasy game, but also because it added a welcome respite from the constant barrage of "we're trying to free these people, why aren't they happy about it" that is the MSQ.
Its also nice to have three primary antagonists, who you meet early on, and who are obviously evil the whole time. One of the shortcomings of the Heavensward expansion was the ambiguity of who exactly you were fighting. There was Nidhogg and his endless quest for vengeance, the Ascians, the Ishgardian Archbishop who seemed a bit sketchy every time you saw him, the Warriors of Darkness, and the various beast tribes. Which ended up giving us an interesting story, but a bit of a weaker one considering all the effort that went into planning it. Its also nice to be back to fighting the magic-less Empire with their Magitek armors and crazy Roman-inspired tactics. Sure, the primary antagonist, Zenos yae Galvus is crazier than a sack full of honey badgers, with some very very obvious Sephiroth-like characteristics, a top movement speed of .05 mph, and a set of swords in what looks exactly like a golf caddy. I both mock and enjoy the hell out of Zenos, because I love that kind of villain. And he's a welcome change to FFXIV's stable of antagonists. His two henchwomen are equally interesting, Fordola and Yotsuyu manage to counteract Zenos's utter emotionless depravity with some very human motivations and petty hates. All of which makes for a very nice experience sitting through lengthy cinematic cut-scenes.
But outside of that, there's just something about fighting fantasy Nazis over light, darkness, and crystals that really makes a game seem like a Final Fantasy title. And Stormblood does a nice job of returning us to that well-worn formula. It is FFXIV back-to-basics in a way, and it was a good time for that move.
Perhaps the one thing that irritated me throughout most of the expansion was the relative ease at which I cleared dungeons and trials. There was no Ravana that kept wiping us early in the game. None of the dungeons completely nerfed us all back to being utterly useless, and I wanted to have something to work toward. Instead, everything was cleared with relative ease despite all my complaining about the combat system changes. While the individual instanced duties became more and more like individual boss battles – something I greatly appreciated – that amount of mechanical complexity wasn't quite present in the game's dungeons and trials. Up until endgame. The final story dungeon isn't too difficult, although with the wrong combination of tank and healer it had some dodgy moments. It was the final trial that really made me rethink this whole "its too easy" complaint that I'd had since day one of Stormblood early access. Sure, many of the bosses require new mechanics which are often incredibly fun, they're still a bit too simple to go through completely blind.
I wiped on that final trial so many times I lost count. I had two parties disband because our gear had degraded so much as to be useless – though on the second party, we almost timed out in any case – and even on the run that allowed me to clear the trial, we almost didn't make it. We wiped at least four times as everyone struggled to learn the mechanics – even though they were all boss mechanics we had seen before. Often times with the exact same name. The final trial of Stormblood is the Throwback Thursday of MMO instances. Mechanics from Leviathan, Garuda, Shiva, Titan, Ifrit, and Ramuh were all back, including a relatively newer one from the Nidhogg encounter in Final Steps of Faith.
I have never been happier to die so many damn times in a game. Because finally, FINALLY, I'd hit the challenging part of the game. And with that trial, Stormblood ended. The two end-game expert dungeons that came after were also on the tricky side, so I've recanted my "too easy" judgement. Every one of the earlier dungeons lulls you into a false sense of security. You think it won't be that bad. And then you enter the Royal Menagerie. And all bets are off.
So to break down my score for Stormblood, I've decided to subtract a few points for the combat changes since a few things were left out of the overhaul – getting scholars to work well with warriors as main tanks being one of them – and the early access troubles. While I'd hoped to get this review out in time for the game's launch – or even a few days post launch – the DDoS attacks and server overload led me to be unable to progress in the game past one of the first quests. In fact, with Early Access starting on Friday, June 16 – I was unable to clear that instance until Sunday afternoon. So I spent the better part of the Early Access period being unable to progress in the game. Granted, DDoS attacks are not something I expect an MMO to be insanely well prepared for, so the point subtraction won't be as severe as I leveled against Prey for the game's early PC troubles.
Part of that is because I know just how painful it is to deal with DDoS attacks on the back end of something, and also because the fault for that lies entirely at the feet of the DDoS perpetrators and not with Square Enix, though it did take a while for full functionality to be restored to the game, which is not ideal.
And while I ended up disagreeing with my first difficulty assessment, there should have been a better scale between the dungeons and trials so that final encounter isn't quite such a shock.
Therefore, I give Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood an official review score of an 8.5 for being a stunning, well executed expansion with a mostly-successful overhaul of the combat system and UI. Stormblood is absolutely worth the hype that it was given and is an absolute joy to play. I look forward to my imminent gear grind and am counting down the days until both the 8-player and 24-player raids go live.