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Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker review in progress: a slow start but full of promise

The waiting game

After a crazy summer that saw Final Fantasy XIV’s playerbase expand dramatically during what was supposed to be a quiet period, it’s no surprise that anyone wanting to tuck into the new Endwalker expansion has a lot of queueing to do. But if you can stand the two hour waits and dreaded 2002 error then you’re in for a grand, if a little slow-starting, adventure.

Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker is the final chapter in the story arc of warring gods Zodiark and Hydaelyn, and sees you trot across the globe to make new friends, fight old foes, and get some space travel under your belt. It’s huge. So huge that it’s going to take a few more weeks to soak it all in and do a full review justice. Between the queue times and sheer scale and finality of the story, Endwalker is a lengthy undertaking.

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To their credit, Square Enix have been incredibly upfront about the congestion issues and what they’re trying to do to ease them. Unfortunately there’s not much they can currently do - everything is at max capacity and because of global supply issues they can’t get the servers they need to expand it all yet. It’s frustrating when you’ve been excitedly waiting for Endwalker to drop, but you can’t really blame the developers for that - it’s far beyond what anyone could have envisioned and they’re already compensating everyone with a week’s free game time to make up for it.

Anyone who's skipped the hundreds of hours of story so far to reach Endwalker will be completely lost. You need to know everything that has come before to get the most out of this.

The starting point feels a little subdued in comparison to previous expansions - you’re not quite crossing the rift into Shadowbringers, or dragging your dispirited body across a frozen bridge into Heavensward, but it does feel in keeping with your current predicament. With no real new leads on the terrible towers that are enthralling thousands across the world and essentially turning them into zombies, you head to Sharlyan - the former homeland of your companions Alphinaud and Alisae - in pursuit of knowledge. There’s a lot of politics involved early on. Like, a lot a lot. For story and world-building fanatics it’s a treat to really see the nitty gritty behind several characters’ motivations and just how far back they go, but it’s quite hard work and anyone who has skipped any of the hundreds of hours of story so far to reach Endwalker will be completely lost. You need to know everything that has come before to get the most out of this.

A female avatar walks toward a grand white stone building in Final Fantasy XIV Endwalker

It’s impressive just how well thought out and connected the world is to previous events - it makes Hydaelyn (that’s the name of the planet as well as the Primal god) feel like an extremely rich and complex place to exist. Square Enix have done a great job of making even minor characters feel like they’re living their own lives, each one a part of something greater. We’re getting to see places that have often been mentioned but never seen, and lingering questions from previous expansions finally find answers. It’s a lot to fit in so the set up of all these important story beats has been dragging a little, but it’s been great to see so many returning faces help me on my journey and I can’t wait to see where else they take me.

The Southern Island of Thavnair has been my favourite area so far, full of temples and alchemy - its culture is fully-formed and distinct from anywhere else in the game. Heavily inspired by South Asia, it’s drenched in colour and impressively detailed patterning. Meanwhile Labaryinthos - a completely hidden underground bunker designed to look like the outside world - feels mildly menacing despite its beauty. Perhaps it’s the rigid, forced artificialness of everything being manmade. Garlemald, the former seat of the empire that has harangued you in every previous expansion, is cold and depressing - appropriate for an area laid to waste by the enthralled Telophoroi. Although it does have one musical trick that I love for its twisted bleakness but don’t want to spoil. The game’s composer Masayoshi Soken once again proving he’s a master of Final Fantasy music.

The player looks up at an ominous tower in a snowy landscape in Final Fantasy XIV Endwalker

Before Endwalker I was worried that the new big bad Fandaniel was too hammy to make for a convincing villain for such an important closing chapter, but so far he’s been more fleshed out than the flamboyant dramatics of previous patches suggests, with some revelations that are making me really excited about where the story could possibly go. While the starting sections are a bit of a slog, I have also been wowed by one properly devious ‘Oh shit!’ (no spoilers) moment from team bad so far and if it continues like this for the rest of the expansion then it’ll safely make up for early stumbles.

I haven’t had a chance to check out the new Reaper and Sage classes yet, but I will be in my final review. The main story has added a few cute new mechanics though to keep things fresh including one that lets characters follow you around and comment on anything you pass. It helps give a better sense of travelling together. However it’s also a source of some frustration - the one time I followed someone else they walked at that annoying pace that’s way slower than your own character’s walking animation.

A party crouches behind a large, dark pillar in Final Fantasy XIV Endwalker
I'm not sure if it's the iffy implementation or the hat on that chocobo that gave me away...

The game has also committed the crime of having stealth sections in a game that isn’t about stealth. I get that they’re trying to do something a bit different to mix up the mechanics, but stealth sections that send you back to the start of a path if you get spotted are never fun. Seriously, why do games keep doing this to themselves? I really hope it doesn’t get used too often as it’s frustrating and hugely out of place.

As much as I’m loving my time with Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker so far (when I manage to get through the queues that is), it’s hard to recommend right now unless you’re a die hard fan - in which case you’ll adore it in spite of its flaws and be happy to nerd out over fictional international politics while braving the wait times just to get another taste of the impressive world Square Enix have built here. For everyone else you should definitely try it, but maybe wait a few more weeks until the queues are a bit more bearable. While it’s been slow going so far, I can see the groundwork being put in place for a hopefully fitting end to a story arc over ten years in the making.

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