2024 is going to be a defining year for Final Fantasy 14, and maybe Square Enix’s last chance to tackle its stagnating formula

The air around Dawntrail, Final Fantasy 14’s upcoming expansion, is decidedly different to how things were in the runup to 2021’s Endwalker. It makes sense, really. We’re not in the throes of a global pandemic, nor are thousands of “WoW refugees” departing from Blizzard’s MMO for greener, more catboy-y pastures.

We’re not on the cusp of a major narrative climax either, wrapping up a decade-long story. It’s the total opposite: Dawntrail is the start of a new arc, more low-key than what our Warriors of Light have been put through in the last several years. The joys of exploration and adventuring are perhaps a little less hypeable or marketable than world-ending apocalyptic threats. But I don’t think it’s the only reason things feel a little more tentative this time around, and while Dawntrail’s story may be low stakes, community reception and success feels critical for defining how the next several years of Final Fantasy 14 will look.

I say things feel tentative because, as PCG’s fellow Final Fantasy 14 enthusiast Harvey Randall puts it, it has been “two years of frustration” for many players. Post-Endwalker patches have been subject to a hefty amount of criticism, more than I ever remember during my nine years of on-and-off playing. The issues Harvey outlines—slow story, lack of midcore content and an unsatisfying relic grind—have been shared across the wider community.

It’s hard to feel like there hasn’t been an ever-growing exhaustion with the formula Square Enix has stuck so stalwartly to for the last several years.

It’s hard to feel like there hasn’t been an ever-growing exhaustion with the formula Square Enix has stuck so stalwartly to for the last several years. Alliance raids always come in the odd-numbered patches. Savage raids every even-numbered patch. Dungeons and trials typically occur at the same time in each expansion—there’s always a dungeon at level 61, 71, 81, a trial at level 63, 73, 83. While it’s never something I’ve found particularly bothersome myself (I’m a creature of habit), it’s a sentiment I haven’t been able to avoid as the community has shared its thoughts over the last several months.

That’s not to say that Square Enix didn’t try and shake things up a bit with Endwalker. Variant and criterion dungeons were attempts to offer up a new way to play with dungeons that had a soloable, casual difficulty with branching paths and then a tough-as-nails version that would require considerable coordination and a full party to tackle. The problem is that the difficulty outweighed the rewards criterion dungeons offered, leaving little motivation to continue slamming heads against a wall that wasn’t willing to cough up anything good for the effort.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

There was Island Sanctuary too, a casual farming and crafting mode that quickly descended into a ‘set it and forget it’ spreadsheet simulator. That’s not a criticism of the community, I can’t blame anyone for it happening. Later levels are incredibly grindy and once you’re maxed out, the mode is a game of grinding enough currency to scoop up all of the cosmetics and mounts. It was another attempt to do something new that just slightly missed the mark, and perhaps arguing in Square Enix’s favour to stick to the recipe that’s served it so well for so many expansions, even as a portion of the playerbase becomes tired of it.

The likelihood of Dawntrail tackling any of these larger criticisms is minimal, which makes it so much more vital that whatever it brings to the table absolutely bangs. Part of that will hopefully come from its graphical update, an attempt to make the game look slightly less like it’s a decade old. While that won’t make things any more engaging to play, it’ll hopefully make it a lot more interesting to look at.

Director and producer Naoki Yoshida also hinted towards the return of large-scale exploratory zones akin to Stormblood’s Eureka and Shadowbringers’ Bozja, something that has been sorely missing from Endwalker. While they were admittedly quite divisive zones when they were first released, they were my favourite ways to grind for each expansion’s relic weapon and an enjoyable middle ground in difficulty.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Endwalker would have succeeded even without all the help from Covid lockdowns and Blizzard-induced exoduses. But thanks to the huge influx of players those two events caused, it made expectations for what Final Fantasy 14 does next all the greater, and its current flaws all the more glaring.

Despite the criticisms across each Endwalker patch, it’s still clear among the occasional dooming that there is an awful lot of love for the game. The desire for something different, something evolutionary comes from that passion and the fact that many of us are still hellbent on playing even when we are tired. But if Dawntrail is too similar, too safe, I fear it’ll turn away the ones who’ve stayed with the game so long even when things have looked a little rocky. The way Final Fantasy 14 presents itself in the latter half of 2024 will have a huge impact on its longevity and its reputation, and I so desperately want both to continue its prosperous streak.

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