At first, I was one of many who were skeptical about clearing new dungeons in Final Fantasy XIV Shadowbringers with an AI-controlled party. Dungeons (or instances) are often pretty nuanced, requiring mastery of their own specific mechanics and putting pressure on you to burn down bosses before things get out of hand. And there's a certain comfort in taking on the challenge with a group of actual players who know what they're doing, and who are also more likely to carry or guide you if you're having trouble.
But for my first-time dungeon runs in Shadowbringers, I've gladly given that up in favor of fighting alongside FFXIV's cast--it's hard to overstate the impact of experiencing the most pivotal battles with the characters who've shared your harrowing journey.
No longer do DPS players, such as myself, have to wait in potentially long queues to progress the main story. Despite a largely positive experience with random players, I'm not burdened with the fear of not carrying my weight (shout out to multiplayer anxiety). And I'm free to go at my own pace since I dictate when the party moves. That's all well and good, especially for getting familiar with dungeon mechanics, but those reasons aren't necessarily what make the Trust system so important.
Throughout FFXIV, it always felt a little odd that your long-time allies, Scions of the Seventh Dawn, would often conveniently show up in cutscenes once the dust settled, or they'd be fighting their own side-battle that you'd rarely get to see play out. But now, we see them participate in the consequential battles, and they are active in your success.
We wanted to make sure that we're depicting them on this journey together and with you, so that players would fall even more in love with the characters and see them in that kind of light...make them more alive in this game we play. - Naoki Yoshida, producer and director of FFXIV
Take the first dungeon, Holminster Switch, for example (see the video above); it's your first taste of the high stakes of Shadowbringers' story, with creatures of Light consuming the people and wildlife, and setting villages ablaze. This is also a resolution for a smaller, yet tragic arc for the major character Alisaie and a close friend of hers. When you bring Alisaie and her twin brother Alphinaud along as teammates, small bits of dialogue between them give insight into the struggles she's faced with. Alphinaud has been such an important character since A Realm Reborn, and finally he's actively picking up the team with his scholarly healing abilities. Similarly, we get to see the enigmatic Crystal Exarch walk the walk and take part in the fight he's helping lead, adapting to whichever role you need filled.
Holminster Switch also exudes a sense of urgency through well-scripted sequences and a powerful theme song that sets a bold tone for the dire situation. So, to overcome it with the ones who are integral to the events at hand, rather than players you probably won't see again or that don't exactly have a place in your personal journey, builds a stronger connection to the cast and narrative stakes. After all, it was one of the major reasons for creating the Trust system.
FFXIV director Naoki Yoshida himself shares the sentiment, and told me in an interview, "We had this goal of [telling a story about] trying to save the world from immediate doom, but you never really felt that sense of battling together with the members of the Scions. We wanted to make sure that we're depicting them on this journey together and with you, so that players would fall even more in love with the characters and see them in that kind of light...make them more alive in this game we play."
Yoshida-san continued, "We've manually programmed this AI so that it will bring out the personalities of these different characters, and we have spent a lot of development resources in order to bring out these characteristics."
He also spoke to the balancing act of making sure it doesn't overshadow the multiplayer aspect that's crucial to FFXIV; it's still an MMORPG. And in my experience, the trade-offs are easily recognizable. The Trust system only applies to the main story questline dungeons and is specifically designed to be less efficient than a competent party that uses optimal attack rotations and tactics. You'll also wipe and reset to your last checkpoint if you yourself get knocked out in battle. Overall, it'll take up more time to clear dungeons through Trust. One benefit first-timers get, however, is that AI-controlled teammates already understand how boss battle work--they'll telegraph and brace for enemy attacks accordingly and set themselves up for phase transitions properly so the party doesn't wipe from misunderstanding mechanics.
Finally, you can share some of those pivotal, hard-fought battles with the characters who matter most in the Shadowbringers expansion.
Accommodating different types of players is an important goal for Yoshida-san, who said, "With any aspect of it, all of our players seem to enjoy different elements of the game." And for those who rather enjoy going solo, he stated, "It's not necessarily a bad thing to want to play in an MMORPG by yourself and so, I feel that it might be nice to have a system that allows for that."
Although I'm not finished with the main questline for Shadowbringers quite yet, I do understand that the Trust system changes after the last quest is complete. The AI characters are brought back down to level 71 and must be leveled up by taking them back into early dungeons to gain EXP--they do not sync to the proper level in the post-game. It admittedly sounds like a strange choice, and I'm not sure it'll be appealing to grind dungeons to level them back up. For me, I'm content with its existence as a means to support stronger storytelling.
Speaking more broadly, it's easy to think of the Trust system as the development team sowing the seeds for preserving the rich narrative aspect of FFXIV. In its most recent count, Square Enix reports that over 16 million players are registered with the game. But far into the future, when a player-base naturally wanes, those instanced dungeons tied to crucial story quests would become a nuisance to run if it solely relied on matchmaking or forming parties. Retrofitting previous content with the Trust system wouldn't be without its constraints, though.
Yoshida-san spoke to how ambitious of an undertaking it would be, saying, "We mentioned that it will cost a lot of development resources in order to program the AI. If we were asked, 'Will we be applying this to previous content, like areas in A Realm Reborn?' it's going to be a very difficult decision because again, it takes massive development resources. We will need to make a decision if we want to continue applying this system to contents that are coming in the future."
The world and narrative of FFXIV has spanned nine years at this point, accounting for the original launch which is the vital foundation for all that's happened in the game. Finally, you can share some of those pivotal, hard-fought battles with the characters who matter most in the Shadowbringers expansion. Admittedly, this perspective on the Trust system's importance hinges on how invested you are in FFXIV's story. But I, and many others, see that FFXIV has transcended its MMO sensibilities to become one of the great tales told in the storied franchise.