"The joy you have known, the pain you have felt, the prayers you have whispered and answered--they shall ever be your strength and your comfort."
What a feeling it is to play something that leaves you invigorated, not just for the game itself, but also on a personal level. Despite the deep, dark plotlines and harrowing battles against complex villains or malevolence incarnate, Final Fantasy XIV tends to be rather optimistic. Although questions linger, the heroes prevail and the world rebuilds while you await the next wave of evildoers to set their plans in motion. But the latest storyline in FFXIV's 5.3 update, which closes out the entire Shadowbringers expansion story arc, ends on a more joyful, intimate note that's earned, and it makes me smile every time I think about it.
See, even as Shadowbringers presents FFXIV on the grandest scale in the game's history, the stories within are deeply humanizing. It's character-focused in a way that FFXIV hadn't really been before. While you and your Scion allies work to avert a calamity for a separate realm and your own simultaneously, they dig deep to grow as leaders and take action alongside you in service of others. Patch 5.3, aptly named Reflections In Crystal, is a microcosm of the game's ability to fulfill those narrative ambitions, but also inspire hope in such poetic fashion.
From here on, I'll be talking in explicit spoilers for all of FFXIV, including Shadowbringers and the ending of the 5.3 storyline. So if you're keen on finishing it yourself, I'd suggest you bookmark this one and save it for later.
"When All Is Said And Done, I Would Ask A Favor Of You"
That beacon of hope and inspiration is the Crystal Exarch, a character who was seemingly introduced in Shadowbringers and is the main crux of the story. He'd been behind the scenes for years working to forestall catastrophe, and he's ultimately responsible for you and your allies crossing time and space for the expansion's setting. The Exarch was always reassuring and optimistic, but withholding his true identity or purpose, leaving you to suspect there's more than he lets on.
Towards the end of Shadowbringers, his identity was revealed to be G'raha Tia, a character who was the centerpiece of the Crystal Tower raid series all the way back from the base game, A Realm Reborn. In that (previously) optional questline and raid from five-to-six years ago, he was a young and spry guy eager for wholesome adventure and heroics. In reckoning with his fated ancestry that connected him to the Crystal Tower, he sealed himself away to learn of and wield its immense power for a greater good--it seemed we had to say goodbye to a lovable character so soon after meeting him.
But just like his first impression all those years ago, his selflessness and desire to be a hero, like in the stories that he admired growing up, never subsided.
As the 5.3 storyline goes on, his body rapidly deteriorates from crystallization the more he exerts himself, a power he adopted from fusing his body with the Crystal Tower itself. Considering the urgency of the entire realm under siege and his unrelenting selflessness, death seems like a forgone conclusion.
The ever-present FFXIV villain Elidibus uses insidious means in hopes of bringing salvation to his people, and Exarch has no choice but to use what's left of himself to dispel our long-time enemy. After a tremendous boss fight, Exarch casts his last spell to seal our enemy for good, and you lend your hand to lift his staff together for this final act--not unlike the original Shadowbringers ending where Ardbert lent you his strength in dealing the death blow to Emet-Selch. And just as Exarch did in his awe-inspiring effort to summon seven other warriors across realms to aid you at the end of 5.0, the absolute power of our humble, soft-spoken friend painted him in a new hero's light yet again.
Touching scenes encapsulate these final moments, and despite his inevitable passing, he harbors no fear. Through the machinations of preserving his soul and memories in a specially crafted crystal, he remains steadfast, asking a favor of you; bring him home and take him on your future journeys. He stands atop the tower at the Seat of Sacrifice while the crystallization consumes him entirely, forever one with the tower, never to exist in that realm or be seen by the people he served ever again.
The Crystal Exarch, I Mean, G'raha Tia At Your Service
When betrayal or ulterior motives are often anticipated as cheap plot twists, or virtuous characters aren't exactly who they seem, it's relieving that Crystal Exarch is unapologetically an icon for good. After his years of tireless work and personal sacrifice, he still held onto the joy of adventure and the duty of a hero. Genuine as always, young at heart, and ever-reverent of you, the protagonist--just as FFXIV director Naoki Yoshida intended him to be.
In the epilogue, your fellow Scions return home to their original bodies. You're shown running, not walking, back to your world's Crystal Tower where G'raha Tia had sealed himself away as he narrates an affecting, poetic monologue. With the crystal he left you, you unlock the door that would only respond to his bloodline and you restore his body that was preserved within, memories intact and all, but now relinquished of his burdens as the Crystal Exarch.
After being given the perfect hero's death in one realm, FFXIV's most hopeful, optimistic character is born anew. In the penultimate cutscene to close out the 5.3 storyline and put an end to Shadowbringers, all the Scions are gathered in a gleeful, cinematic get-together. G'raha Tia's shown in all his social awkwardness after years away from home and a lifetime's worth of memories from another realm to carry with him--humbled to be accepted and eager to adventure once again, even as someone who'd already been the world's savior. He reintroduces himself like it's the first day of school, and when you affirm that he belongs here, you sense the excitement in his stammering voice, fluttering cat-ear wiggles, and reassuring smile.
No matter his fate, he holds a key to FFXIV's future, considering the implications of his ancestry and his integration in the story-critical Trust system. In any other instance, this could come across as an easy way to avert death of a major character--something FFXIV leans on, for better or worse. But in the case of G'raha Tia, the writing and storytelling has done the work, standing strong to justify his preservation and purpose. And gods be damned if it isn't uplifting to see him join the Scions after all these years and carry on his wholesome, endearing attitude.
The Scions Of A New Dawn
Shadowbringers wasn't just about you, G'raha Tia, or the fascinating and tragic villains Emet-Selch and Elidibus. It was also about the growth and development of FFXIV's core cast. Each acted as leaders and built communities away from home. In taking charge of the fight against all that threatened a once-foreign realm, you saw them express themselves in greater detail and turn their emotions into action to overcome unprecedented situations.
Y'shtola grows in her wielding of knowledge, using it to unearth critical mysteries and impart wisdom on those that look up to her. Urianger is forthcoming with his plans behind the scenes, where he's playing chess as everyone else is playing checkers. Thancred steps back into his role as a protector, letting go of his failure with Minfillia and mentoring Ryne. Alisaie embraces her empathetic side by caring for the gravely sick and terminally ill. Alphinaud develops as a diplomat, understanding the limitations of his perspective, but growing in conviction. And since they have a one-way ticket back home, 5.3 showcases the bittersweet goodbyes where they reflect on their time there alongside the people they impacted most.
Previous expansions focused on the institutions that run the lives of the people of FFXIV's world--the governments and corrupted body politic of Ishgard and Dravania in Heavensward, the liberation of Ala Mhigo and Doma from their Garlean oppressors in Stormblood. Now, our heroes have returned home with a newfound charisma and veterancy that instills unwavering confidence, even when a new threat vaguely looms ahead. And rather than moving as a fragmented group in the past, they're operating together as one. At least now, we can see them as much more reliable and trustworthy than the often-fragile institutions that have upheld the current state.
Storytelling In An MMORPG As An Advantage
FFXIV is essentially a series within itself, having the freedom to go where it wants and needs to go with each expansion and update in between. It's always building upon its lore, and staying agile so as to not pin itself in a corner. FFXIV constantly uses Final Fantasy at large as reference, often leveraging themes and concepts from the series' past. In doing so, FFXIV makes it its own and takes the time to flesh things out and create a sense of scale and variety that one-off Final Fantasy entries would be hard-pressed to execute.
The Ascians had always been painted as the unambiguous, otherworldly villains of FFXIV, however, Shadowbringers and the story through 5.3 explored them as a people that no other expansion had done. The pretense had been set up, the preconceptions were in place, and it didn't need to waste time establishing who they are and their motivations.
As Shadowbringers subverts the notion of heroes in black and white, it's able to explore the theme of your enemies' perspective as heroes in their own stories, as mistaken as they may be. This isn't to create a simple redemption arc or fall into a trap of false equivalency; FFXIV is smarter than that. Emet-Selch and Elidibus have done, and were capable of, unequivocally bad things in the name of salvation. But you do come to understand that when presented with the chance to bring back their own people, no matter how slim, obsession consumed them.
Lived tragedy, desperation, and loneliness drove Emet-Selch to fight for salvation through elaborate, insidious schemes. As we see in 5.3, Elidibus' true form quite literally resembled that of a child--one who was thrust into a position of power, pressured to fulfill a duty, and too immature to know any better. As these villains perish, we see them let go of their distorted desires and have a moment of clarity to contextualize who they were underneath; none more illustrative than Elidibus in tears clutching the crystals that represent his friends, just before passing. The extent to which these villains are explored creates complex characters that you can at least empathize with on some level, and they also serve as lessons the characters can internalize as they move forward.
FFXIV has the freedom to continually pull from a sharp interconnected lore that leaves itself open for refinement and interpretation. Ultimately, that's what paved the way for an affecting story like that of G'raha Tia / Crystal Exarch, Emet-Selch, and Elidibus to make such a lasting impact. The writers have used FFXIV to tell deeply humanizing stories--specifically Shadowbringers lead writer Natsuko Ishikawa--and have leveraged its past as a foundation for the present that builds towards its future.
Enjoying The Calm Before The Storm
Joy and comfort are ever-fleeting in fantasy worlds where evil lurks just beyond the corner. Whatever was teased in 5.3 by this unknown Fandaniel character and what he has in store with the ceaseless villain Zenos, that's more or less on hold. So for now, our band of lovable characters are afforded the opportunity to revel in a moment of respite.
In the aforementioned reunion scene where G'raha Tia makes his Scion debut, the whimsy and carefree demeanor on display is a side of FFXIV that was never really embraced in its main story. Since we almost always see the Scions working in times of strife, it's heartwarming to see who they are when they let their hair down, especially with this scene's endearing custom animations and expressive gesturing and body language.
It's a charming bit of much-appreciated fan service: Urianger flexing his Astrologian skills toying around with his tarot cards, while Alisaie sinks into her seat, banging her head against a table in frustration that she didn't get a new gear-set like everyone else in their return home. Citizens shout for assistance with a rather minor problem, prompting a few of you to eagerly run off to help, including you and G'raha Tia together. Y'shtola, as stoic as ever sipping her tea, remains unbothered but accepting nonetheless.
Through the writing and dialogue, FFXIV can turn witty, irreverent, dead serious, and prophetic on a dime. In pivotal moments, the game can shift to bombastic or subtle cinematic stylings, just as it did for the conclusive battles of Shadowbringers and the joyous celebration here at the end of 5.3. And with its soundtrack, leitmotif is often used to let music work as a powerful narrative device, like the ticking clock and Amaurot piano melody for the rock-tinged final boss theme. But none are quite as strong as "Eternal Wind," the Final Fantasy III theme song that has been used as G'raha Tia's theme since A Realm Reborn.
"Eternal Wind" is an adventurous, empowering, and bittersweet tune. It plays during his send off at the end of the Crystal Tower raid, it plays within the Shadowbringers main theme, it plays as an affectionate piano arrangement in his final hour as the Crystal Exarch, and it plays when he reintroduces himself as the newest member of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn. It's the perfect representation of the warmest, and most dramatic, moments that make Shadowbringers so special. G'raha Tia's story as it stands, his characterization, and this tune that accompanies his pivotal moments leave me with one feeling: hope.
It's a small thing, but I feel invigorated by the experiences FFXIV has given me. While fictional and ever-evolving, I can't deny that in this moment, it has been a source of personal comfort and inspiration. And there's no better way to drive home that theme of hope in FFXIV than G'raha Tia's closing message to you for 5.3:
Yours is a long road, my friend. And it stretches on to places beyond imagining.
With your every step, these grand adventures shall grow more distant and faint.
And there may come a day when you forget the faces and voices of those you have met along the way.
On that day, I bid you remember this: That no matter how far your journey may take you, you stand where you stand by virtue of the road you walked to get there.
For in times of hardship, when you fear you cannot go on…
The joy you have known, the pain you have felt, the prayers you have whispered and answered--they shall ever be your strength and your comfort.