I know I’m stepping into some deep doo doo by making such a statement but I come bearing some evidence of my claims. I’ve not played 1.0 - Various aspects of it have gotten retconned but I’ll recognize that it has its defenders on the story and from what I hear, I likely would have enjoyed it more.
Keep in mind - By “story” I mean what is known as the Main Story Quest. The patch-to-patch narrative that unfurls before our very eyes. Side stories such as the tribulations of the Moogle Postman, Hildibrand Heliodor Maximilian Manderville, the endgame raids (Coil, Alexander and Omega) tend to be better overall in my opinion. Unfortunately, they rarely feed into the MSQ proper. I’ve divided this article in 3 sections based off the 3 main quest lines of the game after the Realm Reborn launch.
A Realm Reborn - A good start with few narrative problems
A Realm Reborn rejuvenated Final Fantasy XIV from a rocky launch and a rockier life. The player (unless they are a migrated character from 1.0) starts out as an adventurer trying to seek riches and fame. Gradually, their antics brings them into the frontlines of a war for survival against an ever-expanding empire. This is built fairly well across all 3 major cities. Ul’dah feels like the capitalist nightmare that it is, Gridania’s policies causing tragedy is a good story frame and Limsa’s whole pirate schtick doesn’t wear itself out, though I have to admit its storyline did not stay with me as much as the other two. Along the line, you kind of sort of get some inkling that you’re the Chosen One of something, but that’s it.
From then, all 3 stories merge into 1. You find yourself joining up with the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, proceed to do more adventures until you face yourself with a Primal (read: Ifrit). They’re beings that have the ability to inexplicably brainwash people into worshipping it forever, the only cure being death. Being able to defeat such a being cements your reputation as THE guy/gal and further adventures await, even though the game acknowledges you didn’t do it alone.
Up until the end of the MSQ in 2.0, everything works. The plot beats are great. Every locale you visit feels well-embroiled in the story and its own life. Even one of the more maligned questlines (The Company of Heroes line that culminates in facing Titan) makes sense for everyone involved, including Y’shtola’s protests that you do not have that kind of time to waste. Where the problems arise is after you’ve soundly defeated the Garleans, their secret weapon (Ultima Weapon) and the Ascian that was playing them and possessed one of your Scion friends. At best, the first two patches can be accused of being somewhat weak in terms of just reconciling a gameplay change everyone wanted all along (moving the Scion headquarters out of Vesper Bay, a place you cannot teleport to, to Revenant’s Toll, what was essentially end game headquarters) and just introducing more primals (Good King Moggle Mog XII an Leviathan, specifically) as well as adding a bit more context to Primals in general and continuing the Ascians’ relative impunity due to their conditional immortality.
One of the biggest sore spots was the death of Moenbryda - A cheerful researcher Roegadyn (read: big race of the game) Marauder who’s demeanor and playful ribbing of Urianger endeared her to the playerbase. Of course, for maximum player punch (there’s a theme here), she gets the axe. Many hoped that a long standing Scion would have bit it instead of her as her more proactive approach to research and her job was a welcome change from the passiveness of the Scions until now. Still, regardless of the waste of character, the story does not lose anything and is still very enjoyable.
The player and other people who should have been much smarter about this hold an idiot ball the side of Texas for everything to occur as it does, starting back from 2.3 where you have to recruit people for the Crystal Braves, and instead of weeding out obvious traitors, we take them in. The Sultana dies when dining with the Warrior of Light (player) and they get accused of the crime immediately because obviously every single good deed performed by this person was all a ruse to kill the Sultana. All hell breaks loose, Raubahn loses an arm while murdering a Syndicate member and the Crystal Braves (recruited around 2.3) turn out to mostly be on the dead Syndicate member’s payroll, and Bad Things Happen, enough that you leave for Ishgard with Alphinaud, Tataru and with everyone missing and presumed dead. Holy shit, what a way to kick off the Heavensward expansion!
Meanwhile, in Gridania, crickets.
Heavensward - Everyone who died didn’t, except the two people you really wished hadn’t died in the first place
The one NPC that is always with you, that always believed in the Warrior of Light, that is uncorruptibly pure - Haurchefant Greystone of the Silver Fuller, welcomes you to Ishgard and helps you cross over without much issues. From there, you are introduced to a different cast of characters and some returning faces who will accompany you on your trip as well as your principal antagonists for this scenario - The Heavens’ Ward, one member who you end up fighting to free Tataru from an accusation of heresy.
While this occurs, the developers did not forget that other things are happening in lands that aren’t Ishgard and the Warrior of Light is sent back to Ul’dah to fix some things (rescue Raubahn from his imprisonment, specifically), where we learn that the Sultana is alive and didn’t die, all in a ploy to oust the Syndicate member that got bissected via sword.
As you proceed through the storyline and rack up amazing feats of bravery, tragedy strikes. Haurchefant dives to protect you from a holy lance throw aimed at you (that unfortunately the cutscene reveals you could have easily dodged), his shield falters and he gets pierced through and through, dying protecting the person he respected/thirsted for the most - The Warrior of Light.
The Heavensward storyline is amazing, up until the very end of the final instance that marks the closing of that portion of the story, where the Pope, using Nidhogg’s eye’s power to incarnate his Heavens’s Ward into King Thordan and his Knights Twelve (also known as Knights of the Round), is powerless before the group and is flailing his sword about after the group survives Ultimate End. Unfortunately, a high price was paid - Haurchefant, Ysayle and Estinien have all given their lives for this happy ending.
Every patch after that proceeded to suck all of the gravitas out of the story. First, we find out during the main story that Y’shtola, who seemed to sacrifice herself casting Holy, which she should not have known in the first place, is alive. Then, we find out that Thancred made it out naked, aetherless but ok and ready to have a new character design! After that, we find out that Minfilia is alive, and will continue her streak of doing nothing apparent as she is now the voice of the planet. Estinien is alive, but Nidhogg took him over so you’ll have to kill him. It won’t take. Quick, chuck the Super Powerful MacGuffin down a chasm! Surely it won’t bite us in the ass! Yda and Papalymo are revealed to be alive in order to set up the next expansion. Ok, the whole gang’s back together! Y’know the MacGuffin? It came back and a rogue faction led by Ilberd (of the Crystal Braves coup) sloppily attempt a false-flag operation to force the Eorzean Alliance into liberating Ala Mhigo. Despite his best efforts, it succeeds and he sacrifices himself as well as the powers of the Eyes of Nidhogg to summon an incredibly powerful summon. Papalymo sacrifices himself to seal the summon. Then we find out the Yda we always knew was not the Yda we thought we knew, which leads us to Stormblood.
Meanwhile, in Gridania, crickets.
Stormblood - No one cares about Ala Mhigo, we just wanna be Samurai
The launch for Stormblood was infamous for Raubahn EX (trying to get past a Duty that had a limited amount of instance server space), Pipin EX (the same) and Susano-emotes-ever (an interesting bug that caused the system to respawn you out of bounds if you were doing certain emotes including but not limited to /sit prior to entering the instance. A GM would have to manually position you elsewhere if this happened to you). Still, even without these issues to make the game look worse than it was, the storyline did not seem to have the same level of polish as the prior two storylines, likely due to separating the story between two lands - Ala Mhigo and the Far East, where the nations of Hingashi and Doma reside.
Your quest starts out fairly similarly as before - You’re in a new land, you help out whoever as necessary until the main resistance outpost is attacked by Zenos Yae Galvus, essentially the Prince of the Empire, who’s inexplicably 10 feet tall and hands the Warrior of Light his ass also inexplicably. Bizarre, but I suppose it had to happen some time or other. They also make you believe he killed Y’shtola, but she gets better. They just needed to sideline her for the expansion because she’s too strong. This will not be the only time they have Zenos roflstomp the Warrior of Light. There are many problems (such as - How can Zenos actually pick up the aether necessary, as well as the strength he wields, to beat the WoL at that point in the story. Do not worry, this won’t be explained) I have with this, but this is the catalyst necessary to escape to the Far East in order to liberate Doma while Zenos is in Ala Mhigo, as he is viceroy of both lands.
One thing I did enjoy in this expansion is the differences building between Alisae and Alphinaud. I’m not a fan of their characters personally, but they needed differentiating and by golly did they do it in spades during the Far Eastern part of the game. Alisae is more ready of the action gal, wanting to be in the thick of it. Alphinaud is more of a tactician, albeit a poor one when you think about his actual results.
In the Far East, the story pretty much reads as the magical stranger that fixes all of the problems. While this was essentially the core of the game in the past two expansions, it doesn’t code very well when you go to pseudo-Japan and pseudo-Japan on the China mainland and proceed to do that. You show up, break the blockade the Garleans have on the Ruby Sea, make contact with the rebellion who require you finding the “hidden lord” and somehow convincing him that the people want him to come back and lead it which you do in pseudo-Mongolia, you then show up and win the right to lead ALL OF THE HORDE to aid the rebellion. At least, the plan to take over Doma Castle is aboslutely great and the instance is fun, so that is at least a silver lining.
Once you liberate Doma Castle, you get exposition on how Yotsuyu had an evil childhood and thus wanted to straight up eliminate all Doman culture from the world. Because naturally, we need to ensure that the genocidal villain has a backstory that the players should feel bad about.
Of course, now that you’ve liberated Doma and forced the Empire to actually look at what is happening there, the time is ripe to liberate Ala Mhigo while they’re distracted... Whoops, turns out they were doing some immoral experiments to transplant the Echo in certain individuals, including Zenos (which explains but not really how he’s able to best the Warrior of Light and a trained assassin in a surprise attack). You finally manage to beat him, making the current standings 1-2. Whoops, turns out Zenos’s using the Echo to fuse with Shinryu, the Primal summoned by Ilberd. You would think “It is impossible for me to win this fight I will have to find some MacGuffin or something.”
No, you just straight up beat him at his strongest with 7 other people, no big.
Unfortunately the nonsense does not end here - 4.1, while a return to adventuring roots of sorts, has its share of problems. First of all, in order to hamfist the Stormblood NPCs’ importance, the WoL is required to ask Hancock (a NPC that is routinely made fun of and also part of the Syndicate, who has screwed with the Scions for quite a while) when another NPC would have done the job far better (Rowena, who for all of her exploitative methods, has always helped the WoL). Second, you’re supposed to view a deal between Ul’dah and Ala Mhigo as a positive thing when the former has been exploiting the latter’s refugees for the better part of the story. Also, because nobody can stay dead, we find out that the Doma Castle crumbling that allegedly crushed Yotsuyu and Gosetsu... didn’t, and they’re still alive.
4.2 takes the cake in that it requires the only people who are able to stop its plot to completely forget everything that they know and hold an idiot ball so large it is impossible to see past. The sheer amount of idiocy when it comes to Primals in this patch should disqualify the Scions from ever interfering in these matters again...
And now we are at 4.3, which recycles the idiotic plot point of 4.2, albeit with a somewhat ok twist as it is done by the last people you would believe would do so. However, it gets to the point where you would think the Scions would use their shiny aetherometers to scan for crystals whenever they step in somewhere. Also, there might be rumblings that Zenos was not as dead as we thought even though he literally cut his own head off? Fortunately, the end of that patch seems to lead to greater things, with a playable NPC section and an evolution of the story that seems like it’s going in a good direction, as well as new NPCs that the game can then ruthlessly kill in order to not steal the spotlight from the boring Scions.
All in all, if the MSQ was the only available content in the game, it would not be the runaway success that it has been. The raids have great stories, with Coil’s story being arguably one of the better ones out there. Alexander was kind of weak, but it was at least an attempt at something new and the current Omega is not done yet. Crystal Tower was a love letter to FF3 as much as Return to Ivalice is one to FFT. I’m not a fan of Return to Ivalice but it’s still fairly well done overall. The comedy shown by Hildibrand is always a breath of fresh air, as well as the Postmoogle and the sidequests offer great insights on the lore of Eorzea. The Job quests vary from terrible (PLD, WHM), to variable (SAM) to amazing (DRK) and people would do themselves a disservice to not do them for the lore. That is why the main story of FFXIV not being good is perfectly fine - There’s just so much else in terms of good storylines that the MSQ being bad can be ignored for the sake of everything else.
Meanwhile, in Gridania, crickets.