I finished Shadowbringers this past weekend. I am all caught up now, and ready for Endwalker's release late this year. For those coming in late, here's the original trailer--the one still accessable from the menu--that lays it out in retrospect. There is no spoiler protection.
There's plenty to say. That means this is a long post, so you'll see it after the jump.
Shadowbringers launches you right into the search for your fellow Scions that got uncermoniously yanked out of their bodies to some other realm in the final patches of Stormblood just as the Garlean Empire is set to renew its push into Eorzea.
You--the Warrior of Light--are contacted by the Crystal Exarch, who explains that he's been trying to summon you specifically all this time and got your pals instead. He tells you of a peculiar item at the base of the Crystal Tower, in the trench below the surface, that will act as the key that opens the gate between worlds and allow you to pass without incident.
You do so, arriving outside of a town in a gently-forested land covered in endless daylight. Yes, like June in the Arctic Circle coupled with unceasing Nordic Lights that gives the correct impressions that (a) you're not anywhere on Eorzea and (b) something is very wrong about this place. After a chance encounter with a man you later figure is a alt-world counterpart of the travelling merchant you first encountered when you began the game, one that tells you about the resident Bad Monsters--the Sin Eaters--you head off towards that town.
It's the home of this world's version of the Crystal Tower. After dealing with the guards at the gate, and shown around this town--one of the two hubs, the Crystarium--you're briefed on where you are and what is up: this is The First, and you are here to stop an Exterminatus event of roiling primordial Light energy from scrubbing all life from this world and causing a simultaneous Eighth Calamity back home.
Along the way you (a) reunite your allies as they had previously split up to investigate and handle matters (to little success), (b) fix everything fucked up and wrong about what's left of this world, (c) figure out the full extent of how the Ascians came to be as well as Zodiark and Hydaelyn (they are, respectively, the First and Second Primals) and you stop an alternate timeline from happening that ends up with your home world--now called "The Source"--from being reduced to barbaric shitholes enacting barbarian pentathalons for sport and survival.
This results in all of the remaining Big Bad Ascians getting the shaft and with it, permadeth. These events on the First reflect on the Source with the Garleans going into civil war, Xenos coming back from the dead, a nihilistic narssist junior Ascian ascending to power now that the Boomer Ascians are dead. You fix the Light corruption in the First, which is applied in the Source as a cure for Primal mindfuckery, and come back stronger than ever- which is good, because Mad Ascian Asshole intends to Base Delta Zero all the things from the moon.
No one important among the heroes dies this time, and the one apparent death is a patently obvious fakeout if you paid attention to what she did last time. The telegraphs for other characters' threatened (psuedo-)death are also apparent for those that remember how this game leans hard on typical epic fantasy adventure tropes as well as how Square Enix loves its Power of Friendship themes.
When it's over, you have an End of Days existential threat ready to go and--yet again--not a damn moment of rest between events. Sure, you get Estinien joining the Scions and the B-Team lost a fighter (Arvenauld, a minor guy last seen in Stormblood) likely to set up some redemption arc for past-villaness Fordola, and the Garleans under Xenos are almost all now Tempered to some as-yet-unknown Primal that induces fantatical loyalty to the Empire. It feels all like a very long interquel before the real thing arrives.
Shadowbringers's narrative is markedly superior to Stormblood, but it is not the masterwork that Heavensward was.
As a stand-alone story, it is a true and competent example of a very old fantastic adventure trope that would later become to be known as "planetary romance" using a long-discarded trope where the hero projects himself to the other world ala John Carter does to and from Barsoom. Most players will not be familar with this device, or the literature surrouding it, so this is new to them and the reactions by many show this.
As spelled out above, you--the hero--are called upon to rescue a nearly-destroyed world from annihilation. You do this by tracking down the chief Sin Eaters, Lightwardens, and kill them; this is ordinarily impossible, as they do a No U on death and take over their killer to live on. Sin Eaters generally can sometimes do this by doing a zombie bite sort of thing and forcily turn people and animals into more Sin Eaters; they get jacked into a hivemind that Lightwardens use to do swarm attacks from time to time.
You, being Blessed By Crystal Mommy, have the capacity to take on Lightwarden mojo without apparent affect; this makes you the Warrior of Darkness the First needs to bring back the natural day-night cycle and end the primordial Light threat. This becomes the ludonarrative structure; you go from zone to zone, finding and ganking Lightwardens, until you get to the last one: Lord Vauthry, ruler of Eulmore. By this time, the fakeout of you being merely highly resistant to corruption plays out and the subplot--begun in Heavensward regarding the First's Warriors of Light--concludes with the survivor merging his soul with yours at the final moment to give you the boost to cross the finish line.
The other subplot focuses on the Ascians--who are not the active threat they are previously, but instead a passive one until the patches--as the aforementioned final Boomer Ascians show up to spill the beans on how this entire setting came to be. They tell you this confident that you will still fail at the final moment, so when you do actually gank them all they have their tearful moments of "I done fucked up and wasted my life" before they finally stop being cosmic shitbags to you and everyone else.
It sounds less impressive than it is in game, and that's because this narrative doesn't stand alone; it relies on the player having already become invested by this point, so it relies heavily on that investment for its impact both emotionally and logically. The proof of this is the substantial worldbuilding in the various subplots of the narrative, as well as the passivity from the Ascian antagonists that appear.
When people praise this expansion for its quality, this is what those people are resting that claim upon: the payoff of years of previous expansions' narratives setting up what Shadowbringers pays off. Yet we know--and knew going in--that the overall narrative arc was not over here; even before the patches made this brick-to-face obvious, that was the case. Given these conditions--to consider this narrative as the turning point of a serial narrative, where the low point of a narrative is disguised within a standard story of planetary romance--it is worthy of praise.
Yet the real genius of this narrative is exactly what I just spelled out: they took what is normally the low point of a longer narrative arc and brilliantly hid it within the episode's stand-alone Save The World story, using the worldbuilding in the subplot to simultaneously push that longer arc along its plotline while grounding those beats with the expected worldbuilding developments necessary to make it believable.
I will have to remember that. It's a very good trick.
This, more than anything else, is where Shadowbringers slips up.
Rather than Job-specific quests, there are Role Quests; you have to complete at least one full chain to complete the overall narrative, as each one focuses on one of the fallen Warriors of Light seen in Heavensward. (I did the Physical DPS chain, which focuses on the Bard character.) This felt cheap to me, like they did this to save time because they didn't have it to do normal Job quests, and I hope this isn't repeated. Better to not do character-specific quests at all than to cheap out.
They also kept up the practice of quests where you lose control of your character and have to play a NPC instead- including the final quest in the expansion (which you have to complete to go any further), where you have to control three back-to-back before you regain control of your character to finish the quest. I hated this. I chose to play as a DPS Job because I didn't want to tank or heal, and I chose to not play a spellcaster because I like to actually move in a movement-heavy game. Several of these NPCs are in roles that I don't play at all, am unfamilar with, and thus had to look up guides or playthroughs to figure out how to do that.
This is not acceptable in the Normie-tier content of a MMORPG.
Remember, this is the Main Scenario Quest. You have to do this to gain access to raids, side dungeons and Trials, etc. as well as access to all later expansion and patches; if you get stuck here, it's a brick wall and you can't skip it with real money as of this post. (You will soon, but not now.) I managed fine until I hit that final quest, where I had to watch said video guides and attempt it three times before I completed it- at which point I was pissed off at the violation of good game design principles.
I can imagine that a lot of folks that quit during the expansion did so because they hit those brick walls and couldn't skip or brute-force it so they had to wait for guides to show them what to do and how.
As for the required dungeons, Trials, and solo Duties most of them are good at ensuring that you go in just over what you need to complete it to allow a very mild degree of brute-force to be applied; this is critical in the later end of the MSQ where you're guaranteed to not have more than bare-minimum gear if you didn't cheese your gearing before coming into this expansion. However, they do introduce new mechanics that will surprise players that did no optional content; again, this is bad game design in a MMORPG. Normie-tier stuff has to be standardized and vanilla with no surprises, and you will find some here leveling up.
The other notable thing introduced--and likely carried on to Endwalker--is the Trust system.
Trusts are a NPC party able to do select dungeons with you; you gain the ability when you encounter the dungeon in the MSQ and after completing that dungeon for the first time you unlock the Trust system for that dungeon permanently. Most of the Scions are usable right away, with a few others becoming available later on. They are neither as intelligent or as potent as a well-run Grand Company Squadron party, but they will get the job done if you don't want to play with randoms and you have no friends.
Gearing up along the way is generous; you don't need to waste time and money buying or begging for it. You also will not overgear content unless you came in with a full set of ilvl 400 gear from the Stormblood vendors, and even then that will only overgear the early levels; by 75 or so you'll need to up your game to keep up, but by then you'll also start running into generous Item Synch conditions for required content instances or other players that massively outgear what you're running, so at least in groups and solo Duties you'll be okay.
However, once you get to the endgame--to the patches--you'll want to get that easy ilvl 520 gear as fast as you can and that does mean buying or begging for it or you'll get locked out of patch content as well as endgame raids and other optional stuff to do that's worth doing. As of this post, you also still have time to get your relic weapon up to the top tiers so you'll want to get on that also.
So, aside from button bloat making some Jobs better and others worse, only a few Jobs will substantially change from 70 to 80; Machinist certainly didn't, neither did Dancer, and Bard isn't looking so different either. (Black Mage, on the other hand, oh boy.) Nonetheless, you'll see when you read the tooltips that a lot of them really have no business being anything other than passive upgrades to existing skills that should just auto-change from one version to the next depending on the Level Synch going on.
Gameplay-wise, therefore, is mostly bothersome tedium being added and overall a weakpoint. They could have seriously cleaned up every Job's skillset and failed to do so; don't expect this to improve with the next one.
Shadowbringers as a narrative experience is a good one with a lot of narrative payoff, but as a gameplay experience is merely average with some really stupid design decisions. Both of them could have benefited from another six months to a year of refinement, and as such the polish and brillance that should be here is not present. It's not as great as proclaimed, but it not merely average either. Worth the time, but not more than that, and liable to be retroactively uplifted or damaged by Endwalker.