The last content update for Final Fantasy XIV's Stormblood cycle released at the end of March, which means its time for me to sit here and tell you all about why Stormblood is the best content cycle in the game so far. To be fair, that was my immediate reaction to SB when it launched two years ago, but we've hit the end of the storyline which means its time to look back and see how the expansion holds up as a whole. Which means this entire piece is basically just going to be a bunch of Final Fantasy XIV spoilers from the last two years.
Consider yourselves warned.
The base expansion campaign, despite being about 30 quests longer than Heavensward's MSQ, is a far tighter story with clear motivations on behalf of the main villain, which creates an incredibly compelling narrative. Of course, after the fight at the Royal Menagerie and the conclusion of the Stormblood quest, the story loses its drive. With Zenos yae Galvus dead, the post-SB main scenario quests are a bit lacking. Of course, that void is eventually filled with the revelation that the Garlean Empire was founded by Ascians (and has been ruled by Ascians since) re-centering the game's narrative on the eternal fight against the followers of Zodiark.
While re-centering the narrative on that fight is essential for the continuity of the game's MSQ as a whole, and for the Shadowbringers expansion, however it does mean that the post-SB quests are far less tightly wound than the base expansion quests. Which leaves you with a bit of a mess. It's also the exact opposite of the Heavensward cycle, which started out as a far more wide-ranging narrative that narrowed down over the post-expansion patches.
However, the full Stormblood story cycle still manages to have more weight and emotional impact than the Seventh Astral Era (the patches following A Realm Reborn), despite being narratively confused. After all, the post-launch patches may be lacking in Zenos, but they still have a clear conflict. The Seventh Astral Era quests are long, winding, and have the problem of creating conflict out of nothing. Which, unfortunately, makes them a bit of a drag to play through.
Stormblood, by virtue of being a war story, is saved from that burden. The final cutscenes of FFXIV patches 4.5 and 4.56, which give us the finale of the expansion, are still fraught with emotion despite being, in some ways, a rehash of the Seventh Astral Era quests. After all, both stories leave the Warrior of Light as the only remaining member of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn.
The final cutscenes of Patch 4.56 provide the setup for Shadowbringers, and manage to wrap-up the disappearance of the Scions while also bringing back a key player in Garlean conflict. Giving us, essentially, two different versions of Zenos yae Galvus. One is an Ascian (presumably Elidibus) wearing Zenos's corpse while the other appears to be Zenos himself in a stolen Elezen body. Which actually manages to make the Ascians a proper threat for the first time in the game since, well, since that time Lahabrea stole Thancred's body. It also manages to set Zenos up as a proper anti-hero and almost ally, which is a redemption that is both baffling and amusing in turns.
Zenos yae Galvus may be the biggest monster of the game, but he's also a familiar one as Zenos stands as the direct opposite of the player character. And seeing him return in a new capacity, well, that's what makes MMO stories fun.
Plus, it completes the trio of villain redemption that started with Yotsuyu and Gaius van Baelsar.
So while the from 4.1 to 4.56 is not longer as straight forward as it once was, it still manages to be compelling and thought-provoking. My largest complaint is only that the story gets a bit convoluted, which is honestly just nitpicking as far as criticism goes.
As for the game's battle system, things stand pretty well at the end of Stormblood, despite the initial overhaul. Later changes brought back necessary skills (Summoners' and Scholars'"Sustain" for instance) and allowed players to take more than five role skills, which helped balance out most of the classes. Some of the game's meta hasn't changed even since the 1.0 design. White Mages still have the strongest heals per tick, while Paladins have the best mitigation, and Dragoons will continue to die to boss AoE telegraphs in hilarious ways. While the initial SB changes did cause some growing pains among most jobs, the final meta is rather well balanced on most points.
The biggest ongoing issue with Stormblood's battle system has been the tank meta. Since patch 4.2 increased the Warrior's ability to self-heal to fix a problem with non-white mage healers being unable to handle the WAR's absurd scaling HP bar, Warrior has been a bit broken. Their burst DPS is higher than most DPS classes, they can survive end-game dungeon boss fights without healers thanks to the ability to use "Inner Release" in Defiance to heal to full with 5 to 8 applications of "Inner Beast," and their group hate control has surpassed even the Dark Knight's. Sure, mitigation is still not the Warrior's best point, but with over 100K health, they don't really need mitigation. Of course, as much as I may think WAR ought to be nerfed, I'm aware enough to realize that changing anything about the careful balance of the Warrior self-heal system would simply put the job in the same place it started at 4.0. And going back is never a long-term solution.
Dark Knights have also suffered from a lack of native mitigation skills and self-healing, and with their group aggro control falling below WAR, it's made the Dark Knight the least-viable tank class. Sure, there's been a tendency to rank tanks by best to worst since DRK released in 3.0, but at least then there were cases where you wanted a DRK over a PLD, or a WAR over a DRK. Warriors were the best off-tanks because of their DPS output, while PLD was the best for single-boss encounters, and DRKs were ideal for multi-enemy control. In the 4.0 cycle, Dark Knight doesn't have great DPS, mitigation, or control. Leaving them in tank limbo. Sure, you can still use a DRK on end-game savage raids, but it won't be the best choice.
As far as Healers go, the three are relatively well-balanced with White Mages speciliazing in regen abilities while Scholars focus on shields, and Astrologians being the swing job. It's pretty much the same meta as in 3.0 with slight changes now that WHM's no longer get "Stoneskin" shields and Scholars can chain their fairy to a player with "Excogitation." DPS meta has bounced consistently throughout the various battle system changes, but the basics are still pretty much the same. Except that Dragoon is a far better support than Bard these days. Which is an odd change, but a welcome one in many ways.
So unless you main a tank, there's no longer a major problem with the current FFXIV battle system.
As for the use of the battle system, FFXIV: Stormblood has some of the best dungeons and raids of the game so far.
While I'm more of a fan of the Sky Pirates raid series, the "Return to Ivalice" raids are as difficult, if not moreso. Certainly, "The Royal City of Rabanastre" is far more difficult than "The Void Ark". While the Alexander raid series has the best soundtrack, the Omega raids have far more boss variety in terms of aesthetics and mechanics.
The "Return to Ivalice" raid series also has interesting implications for Final Fantasy lore as a whole. After all, the implications of the Orbonne Monastery raid are that Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XII are concurrent stories, with the Tactics games as prequels.
And for those who miss the old-school grind of FFXIV 1.0, there's always the Eureka areas which require players to form parties, hunt mobs, and eventually cause boss fights to pop. But because that's an optional area, you can skip the grind if you'd rather do something a bit more constructive.
Stormblood, all told, continues to be the best cycle of Final Fantasy XIV. It's got a deep, impact story with varied raid and dungeon content, optional nostalgia content, and a stable enough battle system. There are really only a few areas for improvement, so it'll be interesting to see how Shadowbringers turns out.
So while Stormblood may have stolen far too many hours of my life, it also gave us this: