Reflections in Crystal is, in many ways, a glimpse into the future of FFXIV as a whole. A.k.a. Patch 5.3, the update doesn’t just conclude one of the best-received Final Fantasy narratives of all time. It also significantly revamps the base game, sports the next chapter of “YoRHa: Dark Apocalypse,” the thrilling NieR: Automata 24-person raid, extends the already generous free trial for all new players, and much more.
Although Patch 5.3 is just an update — not a paid expansion — it feels representative of something much bigger. Under the direction of Naoki Yoshida, the impeccable scenario writing of Natsuko Ishikawa, the inimitable Masayoshi Soken’s legitimately breathtaking music, and the hard work of hundreds of developers striving to complete this expansion’s finale in the middle of a pandemic, this is the most touching, heartbreaking, and exciting that FFXIV has ever been.
For a rundown of everything included in the patch, head over to the extensive official patch notes, or read our piece on the seven things you need to know before starting it. If you haven’t started FFXIV yet, I’ve said all I’ve needed to say. You should start this if you haven’t and if you think it’s for you. If you’ve already finished the patch, I won’t waste your time in attempting to vaguely discuss what makes it so fantastic. Simply, it deserves more. And more is what we’ll get into right now!
After the image below, we’re getting into spoiler territory. So, spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV – Shadowbringers, specifically Patch 5.3, to follow.
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I’ve written about why Emet-Selch is the series’ best villain and one of the best villains… ever. It’s hard to follow up on such an unparalleled character; it’s even harder to restrict that follow-up to a few hours. It should have been impossible to create within such a small time frame a villain who is radically different but almost as compelling, affecting, and tragic. But Patch 5.3 pulls it off with Elidibus: the last remaining Ascian whom we were reintroduced to in the last patch. His motivations and background are revealed, tied into the grander mysteries surrounding the Ascians, their history, and our relation to them. Shadowbringers‘ exploration of the Ascians, both individual and collective, is one of FFXIV’s biggest accomplishments.
Rather than dragging out our conflict as the Warrior of Light and Darkness with Elidibus, Patch 5.3 resolves it with equal swiftness, nuance, and empathy. Like Emet-Selch, Elidibus faces the pressure of a cacophony of dead voices urging him to go through with his mission. But his reasons, and the events that determined why he is so wholly devoted to his duty, are different from Emet-Selch’s deeply personal pain and love for his people. His are tied to identity, self-perception, and a childlike naivety about his duties. They prevent him from looking up at the beautiful days that still surround him. Yet they are both equally mired in tragedy.
Since Stormblood, FFXIV has excelled at depicting morally reprehensible but complicated villains. Shadowbringers brings that to a master class. Describing its villains as simply that feels reductive. They’re genuinely the heroes of their own narratives; they’re antagonists who share your goals. They’ve also been taken advantage of, and suffered tragedies centuries in the making. I mourned Emet-Selch. I mourned Elidibus, too. I’ll likely need to take a separate piece to explore Elidibus, for he becomes one of the game’s richest characters in the span of a single patch.
It’s Patch 5.3’s continuation of FFXIV’s commentary on heroism that gives Shadowbringers’ narrative so much weight. I’ve written about how, with Elidibus, FFXIV took a metatextual risk in the last patch that most video game stories — especially RPGs — shy away from. This patch only explores this concept to greater depths, containing one of the most powerful sections of the entire MMORPG in your walk through the Ascian city of Amaurot with Elidibus. It directly confronts the tragedies you inflicted and contributed to in the name of being a hero. It also executes this mechanically in fascinating ways. This comes in the form of a new Trial, which is so excellent that it might surpass the emotional resonance of the Tsukuyomi battle in Stormblood.
Last month, I asked Yoshida about the criticism much of the community levels toward constantly teasing the deaths of important characters. The story has even gone so far as killing some of them off… only to bring them back soon after. It’s happened with Nanamo, Raubauhn, Y’shtola, Aymeric, Gosetsu, Yotsuyu, Zenos, Gaius van Baelsar, and Thancred. Depending on who you ask, I might even be missing a character or two.
It’s a pattern — one that unfortunately causes players to feel like the stakes are never quite high enough to worry for anyone’s fate. The issue some players take isn’t even with FFXIV not killing anyone off. It’s about how it plays with the possibility. Past Final Fantasy games haven’t always sacrificed central characters, but they also haven’t often acted like they would only to not commit to it in the end. It’s a narrative criticism of FFXIV that I share.
Before the end of Patch 5.3, the story arguably does something similar with G’raha Tia, otherwise known as the Crystal Exarch throughout the main expansion. While this frustrated some players, I see this as separate from FFXIV’s troublesome pattern with character death. G’raha Tia, for all intents and purposes, physically dies in The First. The people of the Crystarium, of Norvrandt, will likely never see him again — including Lyna, whose familial relationship with him was a constant source of tearjerker moments. However, his soul and memories are imbued in a vessel so they can be transferred to the physical body he left in The Source (the planet where our heroes live) when he locked himself in the Crystal Tower so many years ago.
His return feels earned. He is no longer both G’raha Tia and the Crystal Exarch; now, he is simply G’raha Tia, unburdened, able to live the life he wasn’t able to live before. Emet-Selch, Elidibus, and G’raha Tia all sacrificed their livelihoods for their causes. They were on opposing sides, yet they all shared the same goal of protecting their people. It is G’raha Tia who is the only one that comes out of The First alive, replete with a second chance to be a person rather than a figure for an entire people. The story commits to giving him a physical and metaphorical death. What follows is a rebirth, rather than a cheeky fakeout. That doesn’t alleviate FFXIV’s problems with this pattern. However, it manages to sidestep it.
(I might also be biased because I am so happy that G’raha Tia is alive and a Scion now. Sometimes that kind of thing conflicts with my criticisms… But that’s just what true love is all about, baby.)
Unfortunately, my single issue with Patch 5.3 relates back to the game’s handling of death. In the end, a new threat named Fandaniel steps out of the shadows, returning in the body of a character we’ve long known. The scene is whimsical — almost comically so. It’s a jarring follow-up to the depth and complexity in the predecessors of both the villains that take up this scene, both of whom were brought back from the dead in different ways.
I have hope the team will handle this well. I especially trust Ishikawa’s direction, but it’s not a high note to end the Shadowbringers narrative. By the end of Patch 5.3, nobody unexpected in Shadowbringers dies despite the constant high stakes story — it is both a strength and weakness. Emet-Selch dies, Elidibus dies. The heroes win in the end, as anyone would have predicted. Shadowbringers took so many courageous risks in a plethora of ways. It provided a story richer than I ever could’ve imagined at its beginning. I’m anticipating what other forms those risks will take in the future, especially since FFXIV has only progressively gotten better and bolder.
I’d like to think of myself as someone who loves the Final Fantasy series more than the average person. There is no series I have loved more intensely for so long. It has been and continues to be so formative for me in myriad ways. I’ve made a career out of often writing about it, from online publications to even the foreword of an upcoming book, The Psychology of Final Fantasy: Surpassing The Limit Break.
Knowing and loving this series as much as I do, it feels wrong to compare FFXIV to any other single-player entry. They’re so different in structure: in what they set out to accomplish, in how they execute their narratives. I can’t help but feel like (although I speak from the heart with what I’m about to say) I’m going against my own logic. I guess that’s love, isn’t it? Especially when a game affects you so deeply that you surprise your cat from her nap with your sobs multiple times.
So, I’ll say it anyway: FFXIV, and Shadowbringers in particular, are the best Final Fantasy. Everyone knows there’s no best Final Fantasy — but, also, it’s Shadowbringers.
Shadowbringers is both familiar, exemplary of Final Fantasy at its best, and revolutionary, showing new heights of a three-decades-old franchise. It’s the irrefutable solidification of FFXIV’s personal identity, while also frequently a challenging and moving homage to the legacy of all that has come before it. From disorienting beginning to poetic end, it is a sublime masterpiece of metatext, boldness, and empathy. Like your warrior, it is powerful because it has existed in both the light and dark. It’s born out of the darkness that FFXIV was in before its relaunch all those years ago, allowing FFXIV to grow into what it is now. It’s a light that marks the way forward — one that has never shone brighter.