A rich and rewarding expansion to the Final Fantasy MMO, with a strong storyline, but a little inaccessible to less committed players.
MMOs work to a different evolutionary schedule to most living games: grinding rumbles are first heard deep below the world's surface (or within its orbiting forum threads) followed by those tectonic lunges that accompany the release of each aptly named 'expansion'. Stormblood is the second such world-inflating addition to Final Fantasy 14, a release which the game's much-loved director-cum-saviour, Naoki Yoshida, has likened to the third season of a Netflix TV show.
It's a reasonable comparison. Stormblood continues the story of your hero protagonist and his or her band of warrior friends with unpronounceable names (Alphinaud, M'naago) while introducing a range of new locations with unpronounceable names (Rhalgr's Reach, Yanxia). There are fresh themes, subplots and a subtle shift in style and urgency in order to keep the game lively and interesting. Unlike the new season in a television series, however, picking up these new threads of plot is much more involved than merely clicking a button to confirm that yes, you are in fact still watching thank-you-very-much.
Final Fantasy 14 boasts one of the more involved and demanding storylines in the MMO multiverse. For dedicated players who have fully chipped away at the game's grand stretch of core missions over the years, Stormblood's opening can be freely triggered - so long as your character has reached level 60 (although, in these early weeks, when demand is high, you may have to queue for up to half an hour for a slot to open up allowing you to exit the purgatory of the title screen). Lapsed players, or those who want to start their journey from Season 3 will need to purchase two items: one to raise their character to level 60, and the other to auto-complete the hundreds of story missions that precede Stormblood.
These items, which cost around Ł15 apiece, must be purchased, not inside the game, but on a separate website, at which point they're delivered into your character's inventory. Once consumed in game, you must log out, then log back in again, at which point you're presented with a hefty reading list to get you up to speed with the backstory. It's a tremendous palaver, albeit one that ensures that, by the time you actually start playing, you're fully invested in (and a little wearied by) the enterprise.
Not that Stormblood relies on this investment of time and effort to propel you forward. For fans, especially those who have been disillusioned by the series' recent and broadly failed attempts to deviate from the knights-and-castles plots that defined the early games, Final Fantasy 14 is widely considered to be the true heir to the classic lineage. Stormblood doubles down on this heritage. Gone is Final Fantasy's exaggerated whimsy, replaced by a dour yet focused tale of resistance fighters standing up to a cruel empire. Yasumi Matsuno, the wunderkind designer of Final Fantasy Tactics, has written a slim portion of Stormblood, but his influence seems to permeate the wider storytelling.
Matusno's talent has always been for telling grand sweep historical stories at an intimate distance, close-up to flawed heroes, who are as likely to fold and betray and stand firm in their virtues. Stormblood immediately strikes these notes and themes. This is a story about people, poverty, and resolve. In the expansion's early hours, for example, you accompany one character as she returns to her home village in an attempt to recruit some young men to join the resistance's cause. When you arrive, you find a community wrecked by war: the young men are dead, felled in earlier, unsuccessful skirmishes; the town's leaders disillusioned, furious; the remnant villagers are tired and hungry, laid low by the Garlean Empire's extortionate tax rates. What starts out as a gung-ho recruitment drive soon strikes a tone of ultra-localised diplomacy where empathy rather than rabble-rousing is required. Stormblood's voice acting elevates the thoughtful writing. In particular the resistance leaders speak in the kind of gruff Northern accents that wouldn't be out of place in a Game of Thrones spin-off.
After the bewildering, fractured, multi-platform storytelling of Final Fantasy 15, it's a blessed relief to play a Final Fantasy game whose plot is easy to follow and, crucially, rooted in sense and humanity. It's not all po-faced. As well as regular skirmishes with the empire's soldiers and their leader, the grand antagonist of the piece, Lord Xenos, you'll be battling a raft of fantastical megafauna. Many hours later, after your team cross an ocean (the first of Stormblood's stand-out 'dungeons', where you must temporarily form a team with strangers, takes place on the ship that carries you across the sea) you happen upon a subterranean tribe of bipedal turtles, complete with their own needs and obsessions.
Those side-quest errands, the ever-present niggling of the MMO form, are Stormblood's weakest element. The designers do their best to provide interesting context, and the odd twist on the theme (e.g. weaken, but don't kill the sand eels, before stuffing them into sacks) but the majority are thinly veiled fetch quests, designed to bulk out the expedition. Alas, they are not optional. The hundred-or-so core plot missions are gated by your character's level, and the way in which experience point distribution is metered and designed, forces your to engage in numerous extra-curricular missions to lift you over these level barriers.
Thankfully, the range and diversity of Stormblood's exquisite areas spurs you on when these errands threaten to undermine. The expansion's standout new city, Kugane, is a Japanese port, chosen in part to justify the inclusion of the new Samurai job (one of two new classes that you can pursue, alongside that of the Red Mage). It's a wonderfully observed historic locale, distinct from anywhere else in Eorzea, and a rich reward in and of itself. The environment, whose population are broadly neutral in the conflict between the resistance and the Garleans, will inspire many to try out the samurai class in particular, which comes with a handsome wardrobe of suitable outfits, and a delicious fighting style based around the martial art of Setsugekka. Then, before you have chance to tire of the place, you're whisked off to the next locale -- in this case, the islands of the Ruby Sea, where you're free to use another of Stormblood's practical additions: the ability to dive and swim.
Stormblood's pacey plot, environments, characters and dungeons elegantly combine to continue Yoshida's grand restorative work of this once reviled world. This is a stronger piece of work than the previous expansion, Heavensward. Its failings - the stratospheric hump players must overcome to reach the game proper, the often long queue times to before you're often able to even play, and those interminable, vacuous side-missions - are as much genre failings as failings specific to this game. Forgive these anachronistic impositions, and Stormblood is a rich and rewarding sojourn, as well as a bright, timely reminder of how and why Final Fantasy became such a success in the first place.