With the release of Patch 5.3, Final Fantasy XIV has finally concluded what may very well be one of the best stories that the Final Fantasy franchise has told. After saving the realm of the First from the impending Flood of Light, the Shadowbringers expansion wraps up unfinished business through a tale that revisits Norvrandt one last time before saying goodbye.
Reflections In Crystal is the name given to patch 5.3, the finale in a three-part epilogue to Shadowbringers. It’s a loaded one, and perhaps all too aptly named, encapsulating many of the themes that Shadowbringers brings forth. The Final Fantasy series has had an obsession with crystals, always finding a way to implement them into their worlds. Traditionally, and most notably with the classic titles, crystals have been a force for good – a divine tool wielded by Warriors of Light to banish the Darkness.
Final Fantasy XIV also makes use of a similar trope. Your character begins their journey blessed with the power of Light from Hydaelyn, who is depicted as giant Crystal entity that tasks you with protecting the world from encroaching Darkness. Hydaelyn’s Light has been used multiple times in the narrative to pave way for the hero’s success against larger than life foes. As it does so, however, the game never really stops to ponder whether Hydaelyn’s path is truly the right one.
This aspect sits at the heart of Shadowbringers’ story, especially throughout its tense epilogue. The role of the Warrior of Light is broken down to its bare components and questioned. No longer are you simply a just hero who defeats a great evil. Such notions aren’t so black and white, the game tells you. Yet, what’s compelling about this is that in providing a new perspective, Shadowbringers does so without diminishing the classic experience that Final Fantasy fans have grown to expect.
What follows from here on will contain major spoilers from FFXIV’s Shadowbringers storyline. So you’ve been warned…
Blinded By Light
The major villains of FFXIV, the enigmatic Ascians, have constantly used Darkness as a means to oppose your character, the Warrior of Light. However, these circumstances unexpectedly shift in Shadowbringers, as the last of the unsundered Ascians, Emet-Selch and Elidibus, instead use the forces of Light to threaten the world of the First.
It’s later explained that the Ascians’ end goal all along wasn’t to subsume Light with Darkness, but simply to bring about a world calamity by any means. The villains may command Darkness, but Darkness itself is just a tool. Just as how too much food and drink can take a toll on our bodies, Light too can be bent into a detriment.
Though we were made to believe as such, there isn’t an inherently good or bad element in Light and Dark. This becomes clear in Shadowbringers as it examines the Ascians’ backstories in detail. The Ascians belonged to an ancient race that once existed before the world was sundered into thirteen reflections. Amidst this phenomenon, the souls of the Ascian race were lost, separated into fragments across these parallel dimensions. Only a few Ascians remained, and these survivors then sought to merge these dimensions back together so they may restore the souls of their people completely. Doing so, however, would require the destruction of unprecedented scale in each parallel reflection, which would bring an end to life as that world knows it.
The Ascians’ methods are violent, with clear disregard for all the new precious life residing in each dimension. Yet, as described through Emet-Selch, this is because the Ascians have all but lost everything dear to them. Feeling the cold grip of loneliness, the unsundered Ascians took it upon themselves to become the saviours of their civilization. With so few of them left however, their desperation led to extremes in a last-ditch effort to see their friends and home again.
Many times over in the story, their tragedy and consequent motivation are used to reflect the player. Indeed, you as the Warrior of Light have also cut through many foes to achieve your own goals. Garleans, Ishgardians, Dragons, Domans, and even Ascians lay dead in your wake. All to achieve a supposed greater good, and often in the name of Hydaelyn, of whom we barely know. What is a hero if it means trampling over others for a cause they don’t even believe in?
As Elidibus says to the player, “I see you for what you are. You are death, and only in death shall you serve any purpose.” It’s a profound statement that demonstrates how the path you take is, from one perspective, not seen as noble. To Elidibus, who becomes the last of his kind from your actions, you are the sole threat to any hope the Ascians have left to rebuild. To him, you are a malevolent entity who now seeks to drive the original people of the planet into extinction.
With the weight of his people now heavy on his shoulders, Elidibus takes up the mantle that you once held, that of the Warrior of Light. For he is the hero of his story, and you are the evil to be dealt with for the sake of his people’s salvation. The final battle takes you for a loop, as Elidibus transforms into an incarnation nearly identical to the Warrior of Light who represented Final Fantasy I in Dissidia Final Fantasy. With this form and the aid of summoned Warriors of Light from other worlds, he confronts you atop Crystal Tower, where you yourself had once fended off the Cloud of Darkness.
The Burden Of A Hero
At the beginning of 5.3, a brief story in which my character spoke to a little girl who wanted to become a Warrior of Light fascinated me. As a Warrior of Light, she said, she would travel all over the world to heal the sick and wounded as an apothecary. She eagerly expressed a desire to help as many people as she could, inspired by an apothecary who had also visited to heal those in need. This was reason enough to inspire her on the hero’s path, to which she promised to the Warrior of Darkness that she would become the best apothecary ever.
The game explains that the title of Warrior of Light doesn’t so much mean chosen one as it is merely synonymous to hero. A hero is one who fights for the people they care about. A hero faces trials and tribulations for the sake their loved ones, their friends, as well as the world they treasure.
Despite the Ascians’ outcry of the player and their Scion allies’ hypocrisy, the Warriors of Darkness are unwavering in their beliefs. After all, they have a duty to save the realm of the First from utter annihilation, and they also have an obligation to return home to The Source, where friends await them and new threats loom in the horizon. Like the Ascians, they too have things that they cherish.
Through this clash of beliefs, both sides become the heroes of their own story. There is something worth saving and something worth sacrificing. Unfortunately, neither can bend the knee to the other.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Though the player has no choice in this matter, the direction that the Warriors of Darkness take nonetheless make sense. Shadowbringers understands that the idea of a hero is superficial if the hero has nothing to believe in. This is what Emet-Selch points to when he akins the main character of FFXIV to nothing but a mindless puppet for Hydaelyn. There’s a smidge of truth to this – your character in FFXIV is a blank slate, and so it can be easy to say that your hero simply does as they’re told, uncaring as to whether it would bring about suffering.
However, by this point in the game, players have already experienced so much. They have gone on adventures all across Eorzea. Beyond just cutting down foes, they have forged bonds with colourful characters and visited spectacular sights across the region. Just as they’ve gained allies, they’ve also lost allies. They’ve lived in the world and interacted with it in all the ways possible, growing to love it. With all these experiences fresh in the mind, that such a world must be protected might come as a no-brainer, even as the Ascians try to sow doubt.
Elidibus stands as a reflection of the Warrior of Darkness, but he has forgotten much of what his civilization once was and the promises he swore. It’s a pivotal point that tells us why you, as the Warrior of Darkness, should triumph over Elidibus. The Ascians are obsessed with the past and refuse to accept the impermanence of life, seeking to end those who exist to bring back those who no longer do. This is a huge contrast from the Warrior of Darkness and their allies, who fight for the people who exist in the present so that they may find happy lives in the future.
With the battle won and the dust settled, Elidibus’ true form is revealed as that of a mere child. The Warrior of Darkness approaches the dying Elidibus with a handful of crystals, plucked from the remains of his civilization. Recognizing them as belonging to his people, Elidibus finally recalls the reason for his long and arduous struggle, which was to save everyone.
Like the young girl at the beginning of 5.3, a child’s innocence drove Elidibus to believe he could save everyone. But the reality was harsh, and though he tried so hard to become their hero, his people still despaired and were eventually lost. In remembering his friends, he finds peace and solace before passing away. The past has faded away, but now makes way for new hope and a chance for things to go differently, a torch which you will carry yourself.
Signifying this passing of the torch, the lyrics to Shadowbringers’ ending theme, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, read as follow:
Pray don’t forget us
Your bygone kin
With one world’s end
Does a new begin
And should our souls scatter
Unto the wind
Still we shall live on
What It Takes To Save Others
The Final Fantasy series boasts many heroes that go about saving the world from a great evil. Often though, these characters rarely have to question whether they are doing the right thing. Likewise, villains rarely prove complex enough to warrant empathy from the audience. On both these counts, the Shadowbringers story led by Natsuko Ishikawa, explores this flawed simplicity.
But though the expansion contemplates on the role of the hero and tells us it isn’t so black and white, it never tries to undermine it. At the end of the day, our heroes do make a stand against villains who, tragic and misunderstood as they may be, threaten the world we care about. The goal of the story was never to make us doubt our actions, but rather give us the resolve and right reasons to take action.
The final dungeon in 5.3, called the Heroes’ Gauntlet, sees our party make a desperate dash through Norvrandt to reach the Crystal Tower, where Elidibus awaits after summoning an army of Warriors of Light to oppose the party. Seeing their heroes in trouble, the residents of the First, fairies, humans, and animals alike, all rise up to support the party and hold the line as their heroes rush ahead. This situation gives emphasis to the bonds made on your adventure and how Norvrandt has now become a place worth protecting. It also reminds us that hero isn’t something given to you, but is rather a potential that exists in everyone.
Celebrating Final Fantasy
There’s little doubt that Shadowbringers exists as a deconstruction of the classic hero trope prevalent in Final Fantasy. But while it explores the fallacy in a hero that can do no wrong, or the chosen hero, or the all-powerful hero, the story retains respect and admiration for heroes, understanding their place in the series and why fans have grown to love them.
Shadowbringers is still packed with cinematic set pieces and otherworldly foes to defeat. You still go on an adventure, meeting new friends along the way, and then somehow saving the world by the end of it.
The positives and negatives of Final Fantasy are seen juxtaposed against each other constantly in Shadowbringers, but in doing so also helps us internalize why we love it in the first place. Through the villains, the story exposes the fault in the legend of the Warrior of Light, but through the excitement of adventure and smiles made along the way, we also see that it doesn’t take a Warrior of Light for true heroes to exist.
On this note, I end by mentioning Shadowbringers’ rendition of Nobuo Uematsu’s Eternal Wind. It’s a sombre yet whimsical tune which plays in many of Shadowbringers’ heartfelt moments. It also happens to be the tune from the overworld of Final Fantasy III, where four village orphans become Warriors of Light to save their world from being consumed by the void. In this simple tale, they meet the Warriors of Darkness who once saved their own world from the Flood of Light. Through their aid and sacrifice, the Cloud of Darkness is defeated, thereby saving the world.
As a love letter to Final Fantasy III, Shadowbringers excels and surpasses expectations. Light and Dark are just aspects, and heroes can come in all forms. The message sits at the core of the Final Fantasy series, where heroes of diverse backgrounds band together to fight for a common cause.
With Shadowbringers, Final Fantasy XIV now stands as one of the best Final Fantasy games ever made. The lead main scenario writer of the expansion was Natsuko Ishikawa, who is no doubt outside of the general consciousness of typical names when discussing Final Fantasy. Yet, her hand in the narrative has breathed new life into the Final Fantasy name and taken it to new heights. I can only hope that more talented new blood are given opportunities to leave their mark in such a beloved and long-running franchise.
After all, if Shadowbringers’ tale has taught us anything, it’s that the passing of the torch is both a crucial and inevitable part of preserving our world, so it might as well be done right.