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Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker is an emotional culmination of a decade-long journey

Thou must live, die, and know

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The easiest way to describe Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker is to call it a game about hope. That’s not really a unique descriptor since, to some degree, all Final Fantasy games, MMORPG or otherwise, are about hope. (Not Final Fantasy VIII, though — that game is about child soldiers and hot dogs.) However, despite Endwalker’s unflagging commitment to “the power of friendship,” it’s the game’s unvarnished look at the other side of hope — oppressive and omnipresent despair — and the real strength it takes to maintain that hope in the face of such despair that makes it the best Final Fantasy experiences I’ve had in 30-plus years of the series’ existence. 

Major Endwalker Spoilers throughout

To all of my children in whom Life flows abundant
To all of my children to whom Death hath passed his judgment
The soul yearns for honor, and the flesh the hereafter
Look to those who walked before to lead those who walk after

In Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, the latest expansion of the Final Fantasy XIV MMORPG, your character and their rag-tag group of mercenaries for hire masquerading as a benevolent, non-governmental organization are tasked with averting the second occurrence of The Final Days, an apocalyptic event that sundered the world and all its people a millennium or so previous. Through the events of the previous expansion, you learn that the malevolent force Zodiark is key to unlocking the mystery of why the Final Days have returned, necessitating a trip to his prison on the moon. Because this is a JRPG and a Final Fantasy game, besides, the plot isn’t as straightforward as that. Though this quick and dirty plot summary and Endwalker’s trailer would have you believe Zodiark and the moon are your end goals, you conclude that plot in the first quarter of the expansion. What follows is a 60-plus-hour feast of emotions that wrap up the last 10 years and four expansions’ worth of story in the most perfect of bows.

Shining is the Land’s light of justice
Ever flows the Land’s well of purpose

I play video games because I love stories, and video games promise me, more than books or movies, the opportunity to live in a story. I derive pleasure from suspending disbelief, imagining the characters I interact with as alive, their words and deeds organic and authentic, not a series of 1s and 0s strung together by someone else. Games are immersive and interactive, but there will always be an impenetrable veil between my real life and the fabrication of life a game presents. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker is a game that gets the closest to piercing that veil. It’s in the way the developers wrote the characters, the way the game lets me respond to those characters, and even the way the game makes my character emote in cutscenes. Endwalker, more than any of Final Fantasy XIV’s expansions, feels so alive I barely noticed the extremely late sleep-deprived nights I spent working my way through it.

Walk free, walk free, walk free, believe...
The Land is alive, so believe

The technical and financial limitations of video game development mean that the way stories are written and how characters act rarely reflect how real people behave and how real emotions are felt. In a video game, the death of a major character might evoke a singular moment of sadness wherein the game acknowledges a beloved friend died, before returning to normal, the death barely or never again recalled. By contrast, dealing with real grief isn’t a linear process. 

Endwalker acknowledges grieving’s messy, winding road. In conversations with your companions, Endwalker will suddenly flash back to a snowy grave and a broken shield, reminding you of Haurchefant Greystone, a friend who died protecting you way back in Heavensward. The game remembers the sadness you felt in that moment and brings it back for you to feel again multiple times though it’s been several years and two expansions since, the same way real grief can suddenly reappear unbidden.

Final Fantasy has never once let you forget Haurchefant’s sacrifice, and for that, I’ll love this game forever.
Final Fantasy has never once let you forget Haurchefant’s sacrifice, and for that, I’ll love this game forever.

Suffer (Feel) Promise (Think) Witness (Teach) Reason
(Hear) Follow (Feel) Wander (Think) Stumble (Teach) Listen
(Speak) Honor (Speak) Value (Tell) Whisper (Tell) Mention

Endwalker also exhibits what authentic growth as a person looks like. At the end of Shadowbringers, your enemy, before he perishes, asks that you remember him and his extinct peoples. This adversary, Emet-Selch, fought against you because the only way for him to bring back his people is the destruction of your world. (Long story, but it makes sense in context.) Later in Endwalker, there’s a conversation in which you can respond, “Remember,” as though Emet-Selch’s words were something you took to heart. In other conversations, you can respond with quotes you’ve heard from friends lost expansions ago — “a smile better suits a hero,” or “for those we have lost, and for those we can yet save” — making it feel like the events of previous expansions weren’t just cutscenes you watched but lessons you learned from and acted upon.

This kind of grief and growth isn’t limited to the player character but your companions as well. One character, Alphinaud, makes a pretty terrible mistake back in A Realm Reborn. Most games would have him apologize and move on, never referencing that mistake again. But for Alphinaud, in every expansion after his transgression, he brings up how he’s still trying to learn from it, demonstrating that remorse and repentance aren’t states of being but active processes that must be worked on continuously. I hated Alphinaud for his mistake. Of my companions, I liked him the least. All throughout Heavensward and Stormblood, I bore a grudge against him, a grudge that softened each time he recalled that mistake, owned it, and did things that showed he was working on never making that mistake again. By Endwalker, he was as dear to me as Haurchefant, something that only happened because the game didn’t force his redemption in a quick turnaround but showed it gradually and authentically.

Endwalker is a 60-plus-hour feast of emotions that wrap up the last 10 years and four expansions’ worth of story in the most perfect of bows

(Hope) Ponder (Hope) Warrant (Wish) Cherish (Wish) Welcome
(Roam) Witness (Roam) Listen (Roam) Suffer (Roam) Sanction
(Sleep) Weather (Sleep) Wander (Sleep) Answer

In MMOs and other games in which you can create and personalize the main character, you’re often a blank slate. The bits of your personality you can give your avatar don’t extend beyond its physical appearance. Even in games that let you choose dialogue, you only get close to what you might actually say. In the rare moments Endwalker let you speak, the dialogue often reflected my exact feelings.

In the game’s final zone, your comrades sacrifice themselves one by one in order for you to reach the final antagonist. Your last remaining companions are Alphinaud and his twin sister Alisaie — who had an easier time than her brother getting into my heart because I love her “punch the problem until it’s no longer a problem” attitude. They know, and you know that they’ll have to sacrifice themselves in order for you to continue. When Alphinaud tried to bring this up, I shouted at my screen, “Shut up! I don’t want to hear this,” because I couldn’t process losing characters I thought of as my children, especially after already losing all of my other companions. Endwalker’s writers knew what I and many others were likely feeling at this moment, offering me the perfect dialogue response: “Not. Another. Word.”

I get by with a little help from my friends.
I get by with a little help from my friends.

Now open your eyes while our plight is repeated
Still deaf to our cries, lost in hope we lie defeated

In addition to giving me the perfect dialogue choices, I’m impressed by Endwalker’s ability to intuit exactly what I want as a player. Endwalker’s writers know the game’s strength lies in its characters. So often, character-driven games like Mass Effect will shunt you from quest to quest, giving you very little time to do what you really came for — to just hang out with your pals. 

In the latter half, the player is sent into the past in hopes of learning what happened during the first Final Days. There, I was reintroduced to characters I met and had grown attached to in Shadowbringers. My first thought was, “Oh, please let me run a dungeon with them,” thinking there was no way that would happen. (In Final Fantasy XIV, you can run dungeons with other players or create a party out of your NPC companions.) Even though these characters occupy a significant place in FFXIV’s lore, they would only be around for this one area. I believed there was no way the developers would invest in making them combat-capable for what could only be a one-off thing. One of my first true shocks and moments of pure delight was when the game let me run a dungeon with Emet-Selch, Hythlodaeus, and Venat watching my back. It’s one of the coolest story moments in the game.

Our souls have been torn, and our bodies forsaken
Bearing sins of the past, for our future is taken

Endwalker doesn’t really innovate in its gameplay, but its story is so good that it doesn’t have to. My two main jobs are gunbreaker and astrologian — a tank and healer class, respectively. Tweaks to the leveling system meant that the main story quest line didn’t reward enough EXP for me to level my two classes. A lot of times, there wasn’t enough main story quest EXP to take a single job from one level to the next, requiring me to create an elaborate and efficient EXP extraction plan so I could level my two jobs evenly with minimal grinding, which I utterly hate. Frustrating as all that math was, I enjoyed the intricate dance of dungeon running and side-questing; it kept the calmer, less exciting parts of the story interesting. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of running full tilt at a fate — quests available only at a certain place for a certain amount of time — hoping to get there before other players complete it and its sweet, sweet double EXP award is lost to you forever. 

Endwalker is so well constructed that this character is not merely an avatar of me, it is me. (And she’s so pretty!)
Endwalker is so well constructed that this character is not merely an avatar of me, it is me. (And she’s so pretty!)

War born of strife, these trials persuade us not
Words without sound, these lies betray our thoughts
Mired by a plague of doubt, the Land, she mourns
Judgment binds all we hold to a memory of scorn

There is no way anyone at Square Enix could have known Endwalker would launch in the middle of a global pandemic, when its message of radical, defiant hope would hit the strongest. 

Its main antagonist, Meteion, is a being made to intuit others’ emotions and tasked with understanding life. To that end, she was sent to find sentient beings on other planets to ask them their meaning of life. Meteion found planets destroyed by war or natural catastrophe or populated by beings who so lamented their achievement of immortality that only death could give comfort. Finding nothing but death, and so subsumed by the infinity of suffering she found, she concluded that life is meaningless and death preferable, so she sets in motion the end of all life everywhere.  

Omicron rages in the United States, where we recently broke the global record for number of infections in a single day. Even as vaccines become more available, every day, people die by the thousands, forced to say goodbye to loved ones through the cold, impersonal screens of cellphones and tablets. Every day, I live and labor in a country in which its hate for my people and other marginalized identities are baked into its every institution. I struggle under the oppressive weight of a government that would risk its citizens’ health and safety in order to keep an economy running. Every day, my social media feeds are choked with tales of pain and sadness, preventable and not. Now, more than ever, it seems like life is a pointless struggle, and I can barely find the strength to keep going. 

Tell us why, given Life, we are meant to die, helpless in our cries?

Video games like to answer this dilemma of hopelessness with a protagonist or companions who have either boundless optimism or boundless strength. Whatever they have, it’s always enough to overcome the problem. It’s the same kind of toxic positivity of social media influencers. “Everything will be OK so long as you believe.” It’s a philosophy that takes the act of faith for granted without confronting the reality of how hard it is to believe in the face of the relentless suffering life throws at you.

So often, character-driven games like Mass Effect will shunt you from quest to quest, giving you very little time to do what you really came for — to just hang out with your pals. 

Throughout your journey in Final Fantasy XIV, your character endured prolific suffering and loss.

Endwalker doesn’t blindly ask of you your faith. Rather, it uses the trials of your character’s life as proof you already have the strength required to continue. 

In a world beset by relentless bleakness, I need that message. 

Witness (Feel) Suffer (Think) Borrow (Teach) Reason
(Hear) Follow (Feel) Stumble (Think) Wander (Teach) Listen

I am the kind of person for which aural memories last longer and evoke more emotion in me than memories of sight or touch. When I first saw the trailer for A Realm Reborn back in 2013, even though I hadn’t played the original doomed Final Fantasy XIV before its reboot and wouldn’t play until years later in 2021, I cried.

In the trailer, there’s a fierce battle in which it looks like the good guys are losing badly. I didn’t know who any of the characters were, nor did I care about them, but I still cried as a woman sang, lamenting their pain and suffering.

In Endwalker, one of the first songs you hear isn’t the song “Footfalls” from the trailer — it’s this song “Answers” from nine years ago.

Final Fantasy XIV game director Naoki Yoshida said that Endwalker would be the conclusion of the story begun in A Realm Reborn — the story begun by this trailer. I was skeptical that a single expansion could deliver on that promise, believing it would still be an enjoyable experience but fail to live up to such vaunted expectations. But when Endwalker first played “Answers,” I understood that whatever happened, it would make good on Yoshida’s declaration.

Endwalker is Final Fantasy songfic — a common fanfiction format in which a story is based around a song. The story evokes the song’s themes and sometimes the song’s lyrics are woven into the text of the story itself. 

(Blink) Whisper (Blink) Shoulder (Blink) Ponder (Blink) Weather
(Hear) Answer (Look) Answer (Think) Answer together

The true beauty of Endwalker is realizing that for a decade, we’ve been working backward. Yoshida meant for Endwalker to tie up everything that began in A Realm Reborn and achieves that by having Endwalker ask the question A Realm Reborn answered 10 years ago: what is the meaning of life?

Thy Life is a riddle, to bear rapture and sorrow
To listen, to suffer, to entrust unto tomorrow

Endwalker does not mince its words. It nakedly acknowledges in a way games seldom do that life really does seem pointless in the face of omnipresent death.

Yes, G’raha Tia, you can haz cheezburger
Yes, G’raha Tia, you can haz cheezburger

Early in the game, you’re given the opportunity to take a break from all the terror that accompanies the end of the world and have a party with your friends. The table was littered with some of the best-looking video game food I’ve seen, including a tasty cheeseburger the party’s resident catboy, G’raha Tia, tears into, in fulfillment of an internet question asked ages ago — yes, you can has cheeseburger.

That’s it. That’s life. A struggle for survival punctuated by pockets of joy made sweeter because of the loved ones around you. 

I don’t need a video game to teach me a lesson, especially if the lesson is essentially “Life sucks, and then you die.” But it’s nice to have a game that acknowledges shit sucks without overselling its misery while also ending on a hopeful note.

In one fleeting moment, from the Land doth life flow
Yet in one fleeting moment, for anew it doth grow
In the same fleeting moment thou must live, die and know