Hands-on with Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

Final Fantasy XIV is one of the most polished MMOs you can get your hands on, and it’s getting its first expansion next month: Heavensward. It’s all about a war between dragons and some knights, and you’re put right in the thick of it. It’s teeming with new content too. Ten additional levels, over 50 hours of quest and story content, a new race - the reptilian Au Ra - and three new jobs: the tanky Dark Knight, gung-ho Machinist and star-wielding Astrologian.

 

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The realm of Ishgard is one filled with strife. A 1000-year-long war between its citizens and the sentient dragons of the Dravanian Horde has left the land bleak and hostile. The architecture is one that reflects this eternal conflict: rigid, fortified and gothic - ready for war at a moment’s notice. You’ll find many abandoned settlements along the snowfields of Coerthas that have been consumed by nature’s cold and suffocating grasp.

But that’s not to say it’s all blizzard-filled zones. Ishgard as a whole is huge. There are nine new areas in total - 50-100% larger than the ones in A Realm Reborn - including the Floating Continent: dotted land-masses that wander aimlessly through the sky, something Final Fantasy VI fans will be familiar with. The environments are as varied too: you’ll find lush grassy plains, and eerie purple-crystal glowing mountains.

With the Floating Continent, and dragons to fight, it only makes sense that players can now take to the skies with flying mounts. All existing mounts that have the capability to fly - e.g. Chocobos, Ahriman - can now do so after a simple unlock through the game’s story. You are given full control, with no time-limits on how long you can fly for; in fact, it’s required to get around some areas.

Players will be required to unlock flight throughout a zone by attuning to an area, via an Aetheryte “Wind” Crystal. It’s permanent once this has been done, however. All Heavensward areas will allow players to fly, while A Realm Reborn zones are currently off limits. The developers are toying with the idea of introducing it there in the future.

As well as ten more levels to climb, putting the new level cap at 60, players will have access to a new race, three new jobs, and additional abilities for existing jobs.

The Au Ra is Final Fantasy XIV’s first original race. A meld between humanoid and reptillian features, the Au Ra have pronounced scales and horns. Two clans exist within the race: the peaceful Raen and nomadic Xaela. The Raen are adorned with dazzling white scales, and have traded their nomadic heritage for a life of tranquility. The Xaela however see themselves as more free-spirited, and wear deep and lustrous black scales.

They’ll be available to anyone with the Heavensward expansion, either to start from scratch, or to change to via a Potion of Fantasia (race change service).

Three new jobs will be added with Heavensward, one for each part of the defined trinity of roles: Dark Knight, Machinist and Astrologian. None of them have required classes, but players must reach Ishgard to access them. They also start at a boosted level 30.

Note:Before we get stuck in, it should be noted that the client I played on was still technically in development, so certain nuances of skills and abilities may change from now until launch.

The Dark Knight is a tanking Job which relies on a mixture of two-handed great sword techniques, and use of dark magic. Contrary to most assumptions, Dark Knights originate from the Ishgardian clergy, who guide and help the weak. They’re similar to Warriors in that they are relentless in combat, employing many damaging abilities that also debilitate their enemies, while buffing themselves to take even more punishment.

Two stances enable different playstyles: Darkside will gradually drain your MP, but enhance skills to deal additional damage. Grit on the other hand increases survivability, and makes it easier to gain aggro from enemies. Similar to Holmgang - Warrior’s go-to do-not-die ability - Dark Knights also get Living Dead: an ability which, during its duration, allows Dark Knights to persist through death. If they’re healed to 100% health during the triggered effect, they will not die, but if not, you get the gist of it.

Machinists on the other hand employ the use of guns and turrets to barrage the enemy from afar, similar to Bards. A lot of their most powerful abilities require ammunition to be pre-loaded, with some costing ever increasing amounts. And with only two ways of gaining ammunition - a quick reload cooldown for one, and a longer reload ability that gives you the max of five - players will have to spend it wisely during combat. It adds a nice element of resource management that rewards intelligent thinking, which is refreshingly different from the dull ranged DPS technique of standing in one place and spamming abilities.

Their guns can also be upgraded with different barrels, trading increased firepower for increased resource costs. Their turret drones come in two flavours: a ranged gatling gun, and an AoE lightning spammer. Interestingly, they can both trade their offensive capabilities, to be turned into TP and MP generators that can affect allies in a large AoE.

Of all the new jobs, the Astrologian was the star of the show for me. It’s a job that specialises in healing, and it has a very interesting utility. First, Astrologians have two different stances: Diurnal Sect and Nocturnal Sect. The former adds healing regen, whereas the latter adds an absorption barrier to many of their abilities. It basically gives them the versatility of both a White Mage and a Scholar, but they don’t have the same throughput; it’s balanced.

Second up is their card system. An Astrologian can at any point draw a card - out of six possible - each with a unique effect:

10% increased attack speed
10% increased attack damage
20% TP reduction costs
20% MP reduction costs
20% ability recast time reduction
10% increased damage taken

You’ll notice that the last example explicitly says “damage taken”. During my playtest, this surprisingly could only be cast on allies. When I asked the QA staff present, they promised me that this was intended; essentially, it’s a bad card, one that’s designed to balance out the RNG nature of the draw system. The logical man inside of me however wouldn’t be surprised if this was just mistranslation from the Japanese client, and it in fact reduces damage taken.

But to be quite honest, I really like the idea of having a dud card.

The cards’ uses can be furthered with three other abilities. Shuffle will draw you another card on the spot, with a hefty cooldown, and it’s also possible you’ll just draw the same card. If you like a card you’ve drawn, but don’t want to expend it, you can cast Spread to put it aside for later. There, it’ll remain indefinitely until you use it - great for prepping before a big fight. Finally, you have Royal Road: an ability which puts your drawn card back in the deck, but boosts the power of the next card you draw. Boosted effects include an increased 150% potency (effects card 1 and 2), increased buff duration (effects card 3 and 4), or turning the card’s effect into an AoE for party members (effects card 5 and 6). With the latter boost, the power of the card's effect is halved to compensate for a party wide buff.

Each of the new jobs have a very distinct feel to them; what’s better is that with FFXIV’s class system, any player can switch to them at any time, on the fly. I’m looking forward to trying them all out come launch.

After giving the new jobs a good run for their money, it was time to take one of the new dungeons for a spin. They’ll be eight new dungeons in total, each with a distinct theme, enemies and big baddies for players to take down. I gathered a party of four, switched to my main job of a Monk, and headed into the Sharlayan Library.

The atmosphere was steeped in a creepy yet wacky vibe. The library was deserted, except for a few enchanted inkwells flying around. But it didn’t take long before we were met with nefarious entities who didn’t want us getting nosey in their business. Books flapped around with elongated tongues and razor sharp teeth, ready to take a chunk out of us given the chance. It reminded me heavily of Castlevania, and strangely, Castle of Illusion.

The first boss we came across was a huge, ominous book; some may find a striking resemblance to the Demon Wall boss of Amdapor Keep, and the new Demon Book at first plays out very similarly.

But of course, that’s what they want you to think. Getting cocky in my overconfidence, I fell prey to a new and devastating move that left my jaw agape, and I fell to my doom.

Well played Yoshida, well played.

I was also really impressed with the new abilities that were given to Monks. They’ve now been given a way to consume Greased Lighting stacks with Tornado Kick, which hits very hard. Casting Chakra will add a stacking chakra buff to your character, giving you something to do during downtime. Once at five stacks, the chakra can be spent either on a powerful attack, or an ability to restore TP. There’s also an ability called Elixir Drive, where your character will back-flip, and while in mid-air, perform a satisfying kamehameha-like AoE beam towards the ground. It’s awesome. Monks can now spend a global cooldown to skip a form, which can help them upkeep combos between transitions.

Crafting and gathering - Disciples of the Hand and Land - have also received a dose of new stuff from the expansion. Both have had their level cap raised to 60, and new actions and recipes have been implemented.

For Disciples of the Hand, players can now choose up to three specialisations at level 55. A new currency/item called “scrips” can be used to change your specialisation, which will unlock specialist actions used to create exclusive items. While you can only have up to three specialisations at a time, there’s nothing stopping you from freely switching to any and all Disciple of Hand jobs, so you can get them all up to level 60 with no limitations.

Disciples of the Land will receive a slew of new actions, which players can use in new treasure hunts. A new item/currency, called “Divine Favours”, will uncover hidden and bountiful gathering nodes that will grant additional materials. These favours are obtained by trading aforementioned scrips.

Heavensward players - as part of a Free Company - will gain access to the ability to craft housing and, new to the game, airships. The housing appears to be just a glamour option for your exterior and interior, with some new furniture recipes to boot.

FC airships are unique and exciting however - using specialist materials, players can band together to create their very own customisable airship. It’s split into four parts, each with different stats and tradeoffs; you can make it faster at the cost of more fuel for example. With a completed airship, FCs can send them out on exploratory voyages. It was made clear that the development team have plenty planned to expand further upon this feature in future updates.

Even if players aren’t part of an FC, they can also construct much smaller one-man airships for personal use.

In the technical department, Final Fantasy XIV couldn’t look better, now that the game fully supports DirectX 11. Water now has more sustenance, and reflections now give off a believable, ghostly mirroring of the immediate environment. Some may be more appreciative of the increase in performance with the boost to efficiency. Players should notice a few extra frames here and there if they have cards that support DirectX 11.

Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward launches on June 23rd, with Early Access starting on June 19th to those who pre-order.

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