Shadowbringers is the latest expansion to the popular Final Fantasy XIV MMO, and it launched earlier this month to critical acclaim. In fact, it has become the top rated Final Fantasy game in about thirteen years. There’s no denying it’s a very good game, but you’ll probably never play it — at least, not right now.

Truly Unique Storytelling

Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn

Credit: Square Enix

Although Final Fantasy XIV was originally received very poorly, the hard work of a very dedicated team relaunched it, turning it into one of the most successful ‘traditional’ MMOs currently on the market. 

But what makes Final Fantasy XIV so incredibly unique in the MMO space is how it handles narrative and story. FFXIV has a “Main Scenario” questline, the game’s core narrative and story, just like what you’d find in a traditional, single-player Final Fantasy. While no other MMO explicitly lays out its narrative as directly as FFXIV does, the release and hype around Shadowbringers brings to light the double-edged nature of a structured, core narrative in an MMO.

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Like any MMO, there’s an element of grinding. Maybe it’s for gear, maybe it’s cosmetic items, or maybe it’s just plain old leveling. But one of the initial grinds in FFXIV is for story progression.

The Grind Is Real

FFXIV Heavensward

Credit: Square Enix

There are now effectively four Main Scenario questlines in FFXIV one for each major version/expansion for the game. There’s A Realm Reborn, the ‘base’ game for FFXIV‘s relaunch. This questline is a lot of the meat in the game, as it gets your character to roughly level 50. Next up is Heavensward, the first expansion, which offers a similar amount of story. And then after Heavensward, comes Stormblood, which again offers the same if not slightly more content than Heavensward. And finally there’s the latest (and greatest) expansion, Shadowbringers.

The problem here is the time it takes to reach the critically-acclaimed Shadowbringers. Players have to go through every single Main Scenario quest before accessing Shadowbringers. Considering that each expansion’s MSQ can take anywhere between 60-100 hours depending on the player and playstyle, there is a significant time investment needed for new players to reach the really good stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, the base FFXIV game A Realm Reborn is good, but there is a noticeable jump in quality when entering the first expansion, Heavensward. This isn’t just speaking in terms of story or writing quality either. After A Realm Reborn, the combat system significantly improves after completion of A Realm Reborn

Just Let Me Play

When a game launches to this much hype and acclaim, people will want to jump in for the experience. But Shadowbringers requires a significant time investment when compared to, say, Sekiro, which can be played right out of the box. New players are left needing to trudge through 60-100 hours of comparatively mediocre content before reaching two installments of 60-100 hours of really good content, before finally being able to play the treasure that is Shadowbringers.

As a result, it becomes incredibly hard to recommend jumping into FFXIV. At the very least, MMOs aren’t for everyone — let alone MMOs that require an initial 200-ish hour investment before getting to the part newcomers have heard so much about. The story grind can be greuling, especially at first.

There is a way out, however.

The Shortcut

Square Enix is not totally deaf to the fact that FFXIV requires a significant time investment, and offers story skips for roughly $20. So, either 200 hours or $20. From a purely economic standpoint, it makes more sense to pay the $20 and just jump right into Shadowbringers. Yet, to look at it that way is disingenuous, in my opinion.

So much of the MMO experience comes from the journey you and your character embark upon. All the time spent laughing and grinding together with friends in a game world adds up. Some of my favorite experiences in gaming come from the social aspects of MMOs, the interactions I’ve had with others experiencing the same thing as me. Have a quest to kill twenty boar? Maybe you’ll meet someone needing to do the same thing, and group up to make the task more efficient. Oh, now you both have a quest to kill ten spiders. “Let’s go do that together also.”

On top of missing out on these shared experiences, the FFXIV stories all sort of build on top of one another. If you were to skip to Shadowbringers, you’d miss a lot of the character development and context of the story leading up to that point. Hence, for the full experience, it becomes worth it to make it play through all the story that came beforehand.

What Can Be Done?

Final Fantasy XIV Stormblood

Credit: Square Enix

So yes, Shadowbringers is an incredibly good Final Fantasy game that I think any fan of the series would love playing. However, it’s incredibly hard to actively encourage players to jump in, knowing the significant investment they have to make in order to reach the critically-acclaimed expansion. (Although I do insist it’s all worth it in the end.)

Maybe there’s an in-between to be found from either paying to skip, or sinking in a lot of time. If Square Enix thinks that this is a significant enough issue, then maybe they can see the benefit in trimming some of the fat off the Main Scenario questlines of old, to ease the grind just a little bit, because right now, Shadowbringers is the best Final Fantasy game you’ll probably never play.

Thank you all for reading. On top of writing these weekend columns, I host Culture of Gaming’s Power Up Podcast every week, where a round table discusses all the latest gaming news and trends. You can check it out here. And if you’d like to read my previous column, you can go here, where I take a look back on Kyoto Animation’s impact on the anime industry.

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