Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail Review

In its best moments, this expansion lives up to what’s made FFXIV so special for all these years.

Jul 10, 2024 - 13:45
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Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail Review

Just as Endwalker opened with you and the crew setting sail for the distant city of Old Sharlayan, Final Fantasy XIV’s Dawntrail expansion kicks off with a long cruise to a place we’ve never been before. But instead of connecting with a long-referenced society, you step into an entire region no one from Eorzea knows very much about. From the outset, venturing into the Mesoamerican and Latin American-inspired land of Tural might lead you to believe that this is a summer vacation for a band of heroes that has saved entire realms from calamity. However, I can assure you that whatever you thought Dawntrail was, that’s exactly what it’s not. It’s the start of a new era for the MMO, and the growing pains of that transition can be apparent at times – but Dawntrail manages to prove once again why FFXIV is the standard-bearer for the Final Fantasy series.

This latest expansion explores culture, family, and legacy in ways FFXIV hasn’t in the past – and before long, it begins to ask questions about the lengths we’ll go to preserve the things we hold dearest. On the surface, that will sound familiar to anyone who has stuck around all these years, but Dawntrail takes its own angle on these themes as to not retread well-worn territory. Instead, it offers new perspectives that, at times, hit just as hard as anything in the MMO’s 14-year history. The main scenario quest (MSQ) takes you in unpredictable directions, blending its deep real-world influences with high-tech sci-fi that incorporates concepts seen in the cyberpunk genre, and then manages to weave in the Final Fantasies of yore and have it all still make sense.

It takes some work to get there, however. I appreciate the groundwork Dawntrail lays in the first half of the main questline, painting such a vivid picture of Tural with all its cultural context at the forefront. Deep cuts are tucked underneath the more obvious references to the inspirations it draws from – we all know what tacos and mezcal are, but having a quest focus on the in-world cochinita pibil recipe is one example of several nice touches. From the architecture of the hub city of Tuliyollal to the vibrant environmental design of its early zones, Dawntrail wears its influences on its sleeve, naturally fitting those societies and the peoples who embody them into an already-rich fantasy world.

At critical points, I was reminded that FFXIV always gets me in my feelings in ways no other piece of fiction can, game or otherwise.

But for as fascinating as the cultural exploration is, there’s a noticeable lack of momentum in the way you experience the story, which doesn’t surprise me given the nature of establishing a whole new story arc. For roughly the first half of MSQ, you travel across the lands of Tural alongside a new character named Wuk Lamat, a naive but always-optimistic female Hrothgar who has a heart of gold. She’s in the middle of an anime-like tournament arc against her siblings in hopes of becoming the new Dawnservant, or ruler, of Tural. This leads you to gain an intimate connection with the region’s people and bridge gaps between the seemingly disparate societies of each zone. It's structured so that you go through similar motions for very long stretches, and the story itself in the early goings is written in a way that’s uncharacteristically surface-level. Not everything needs to be poetic and profound (and Dawntrail eventually gets there), but conflicts are brought up and resolved in a rather simplistic manner that isn’t as powerful as the story seems to want you to feel they are. Instead, I found unraveling the complicated relationships between the siblings to be one of the highlights in the front half, which is an interesting dynamic that remains consistent throughout.

Initially, I was quite surprised that Wuk Lamat is essentially the main character of Dawntrail while you, as the Warrior of Light, and your Scion friends are put in supporting roles. However, she is the link that connects you to the new region and having her as your lens while being part of her traveling band provides the necessary context as for why you’re involved in the first place (other than not having much to do back in Eorzea and seeking adventure for the sake of it). I like Wuk Lamat as a character since she has the heart to carry Dawntrail’s themes, but she isn’t really given the depth needed to be a de facto protagonist. FFXIV hasn’t really used this kind of approach to its characters before – even as the Warrior of Light, the supporting cast has always played their part in uplifting the story as a whole. The closest thing in past expansions is the Crystal Exarch from Shadowbringers, but his personality immediately shined and his impact was unmistakable whether he was on-screen or not. So, when Wuk Lamat extolls the virtues of peace without fully grasping the nuances that come with that, it tends to ring hollow.

With a tinge of shonen-style “power of friendship” energy, Dawntrail has its heart in the right place – and although it sometimes seems superficial, it’s nice to have a story that outright says that embracing our differences and engaging in an honest cultural exchange would make the world a better place, which Wuk Lamat does represents admirably. Its quest structure can sometimes be unexciting, but I’m hesitant to say that FFXIV is finally showing its limitations or anything because I’ve seen quests (main and optional) be truly creative within the confines of its MMO bounds over the years. Rather, it’s apparent that Dawntrail’s storytelling priorities mean it has a lot to get through while moving you along at a pace that tries not to drag on too much.

There were a few times where I began to question what Dawntrail was really building towards. Every expansion has a sense of momentum to it right from the beginning, and this one’s new start presents a challenge that FFXIV hasn’t really had to face since A Realm Reborn. However, some well-designed dungeons, engaging boss fights with fresh battle mechanics, and hype moments in story-based solo instances kept me engaged and invested – and if anything, I was just happy to be along for the ride. That’s also because I knew I would inevitably hit a turning point in Dawntrail, like all of FFXIV expansions tend to have – and when I got there, it left me floored with revelations that ripple throughout the MMO’s long history.

The switch flipped in the second half, which ushers you into FFXIV’s version of the old-timey American West. Hearing a Texan accent, let alone an American one, in FFXIV for the first time gave me whiplash on the same level as any plot twist. It’s charming as hell how another piece of the real world effortlessly blends into the rest of the expansion’s personality. That’s also to say that what it has up its sleeve deeper in creates a stark contrast that is both conceptually and aesthetically superb. The high-tech sci-fi aspect of Dawntrail is pretty well-known in the lead up to its release – the main city of Solution Nine was revealed well beforehand, but it’s the reasons for bringing you there that make for quintessential FFXIV storytelling. It goes for some wild swings, and in this second half, contains truly stunning moments I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

It fills me with joy to be genuinely surprised by a game I thought I’d known so well. Having been so invested in FFXIV for all these years and carrying many of my favorite story moments into my own life, I can’t always expect it to keep reaching those highs. Yet, Dawntrail does it again – perhaps not as consistently or elegantly, but it has left a significant impact nonetheless. It questions what makes family important, asks why we harbor such resentment for those different from us, and shows what’s possible when we work together. More effectively, it also builds on the questions posed in Shadowbringers and Endwalker, about how we handle loss, mortality, and the inevitable passage of time sweeping away the things we hold dear – and the uncomfortable truth that we ascribe value to life because it will end.

This expansion is a worthy extension of FFXIV, and it leaves a world of fascinating possibilities.

At critical points, I was reminded that FFXIV always gets me in my feelings in ways no other piece of fiction can, game or otherwise. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that certain characters I’ve loved continue to grow and be voices of reason to give clarity when everything else in my life feels like utter chaos. Yes, you are venturing into new and compelling beginnings in a land foreign to the characters you’ve been with for years, but Dawntrail is made stronger for the way it remembers where it came from.

Part of me feels like Dawntrail conjoins two very different halves, and I often imagine the depth to which FFXIV could have explored its larger themes had it dedicated more time to one or the other. But with just enough connective tissue for its hard-hitting moments to not ring hollow, it’s able to land with the same kind of impact that previous expansions have, and for its own reasons. If there’s one particular theme to point toward, it’s that peace isn’t just the absence of war but a two-way street that must be worked for – whether that be peace in the world or the struggle for inner peace amid indelible heartbreak and tragedy.

For all its shortcomings in the earlier hours, it certainly makes good on the ideas it tries to build. The way Dawntrail wields its final zone as a storytelling device, conceptually and visually, left me shocked and with my stomach in knots. The absolute onslaught of its last few dungeons had me on the edge of my seat frantically executing my attack rotation. The creative battle mechanics that even surprised me as a long-time Savage raider left me grinning as I took those Damage Down debuffs like a champ. And to have fought almost all those battles alongside my favorite characters through the Duty Support system let these gameplay sequences also shine as peaks in its storytelling.

The emotional core that always ushers FFXIV’s best moments is found in its music. Composer Masayoshi Soken alongside the sound team has broken new ground for the MMO, and for Final Fantasy as a series, here in Dawntrail. The Spanish and Latin American influences have been effortlessly woven into the songs that fill the new zones and towns with wonder and excitement, and the Flamenco-style battle theme is stuck in my head as I write this. The wistful melodies of the old western guitar riffs in Xak Tural standout as catchy tunes that set an unmistakable mood. Then you have synth-infused metal and trance tracks for pivotal battles that pack a punch unlike anything else in Dawntrail’s eclectic soundtrack. And yes, there are some really sweet lo-fi beats to chill or study to. Oh, and let’s not forget the jazzy swing theme of the new hub city of Tuliyollal. Regardless of style, Soken and company create incredible music that bends, fuses, and elevates genres while consistently incorporating the classical musical themes that naturally become part of the storytelling experience – just another common W for FFXIV.

Story may be at the forefront of Dawntrail’s launch, but with a new expansion comes tons of new content on top – most notably the two new Jobs: Pictomancer and Viper. After leveling Pictomancer and perfecting its attack rotation full of adorable painting abilities turned destructive, it’s become one of my all-time favorite expansion Jobs. Pictomancer is so cute, so unserious, and so much damn fun to play as. It finds a middle ground between its magic DPS counterparts Black Mage and Summoner; not so complex that you’ll struggle to learn but not so simple that you’ll mindlessly cycle through your rotation. Popping your paintings pre-pull is an adorable visual, as is dropping Moogle poms before whipping out a magic hammer to crush your foes. It’s satisfying when you line up all the cooldowns and casts while bouncing between the different spells you’re expected to execute, and as of now, it sits pretty high on the DPS charts (although some tweaks are planned to mitigate certain exploits).

Pictomancer is so cute, so unserious, and so much damn fun to play as.

Viper on the other hand isn’t quite as exciting as I’d hoped – maybe it’s because I’ve played melee DPS for most of my time in FFXIV and have stuck with Ninja through every raid tier. But in contrast to Pictomancer, it lacks that rewarding buildup and burst window, or even a distinct personality to make it stand out within a crowded field of DPS Jobs. Don’t get me wrong, it looks cool as hell to see a Viper swap between dual swords and the double-sided blade, but when compared to Reaper (which shares similarities), the dynamic of Viper’s branching attack rotation doesn’t quite reach those satisfying heights. At launch, the development team even said that it’ll be reworking Viper, and although it’s impossible to say how that might change the core concept of the Job, there is certainly potential for it to grow into a better one.

As per usual, there are two Expert-level dungeons in the post-game, both of which make good use of the more whimsical settings of Dawntrail and experiment with a few new battle mechanics. And although I’m still progressing through them as of writing this, the Extreme trials currently available stretch the base-level boss fights into wild and chaotic battles. The other important piece of content worth mentioning are the role quests, which carry on the tradition of providing additional backstory based on the Jobs you have leveled up. They’re not quite as defining as the ones seen in Shadowbringers or Endwalker, but they are worth seeing through and add a nice touch to tie in other parts of FFXIV. The lasting legacy of Dawntrail also lies in future patch content – the Arcadion raid series, the Beastmaster special Job, Cosmic Exploration, and all the new things the FFXIV team will roll out over the next two years. I’ll be sat ready for them when they arrive, but for now, Dawntrail has earned its place in the pantheon of great expansions.