'Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail' review-in-progress: So far, FFXIV's new dawn has failed to grab me

Final Fantasy XIV Dawntrail in-game screenshot
Travel to far away lands and challenge the master of elements, Valigarmanda (Image credit: Windows Central / Square Enix)

Back in 2021, I was asked by my colleagues to check out Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV) during its sudden burst in popularity when World of Warcraft players migrated to Final Fantasy XIV during the controversial World of Warcraft: Shadowlands expansion and when Blizzard Entertainment was getting into legal hot water.

Almost immediately, FFXIV had me hooked from A Realm Reborn all the way to the climactic finale of Endwalker (which I loved when I reviewed it many moons ago) for many reasons. It treated the player like they’re the main protagonist of the story, it had a fun tab-target-based combat system that served as a good introduction for players new to MMORPGs, and compelling storylines and characters that paid homage to Final Fantasy’s legacy while standing on their own merits. Not to mention it had some of the most awesome and catchy music in the entire Final Fantasy franchise.

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This leads me to today’s subject, Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail. This game is Final Fantasy XIV’s fifth major expansion and is billed to mark the beginning of a new era for the MMORPG with a more grounded storyline to give players a break from constantly saving the world, new player jobs to master, new locales to explore, playable female Hrothgar, and new epic bosses to fight.

Unfortunately, and it's a bit heart wrenching to say this, but this new chapter of Final Fantasy XIV is not off to a good start.

Master new abilities and Jobs to slay the fiends of Tuliyollal

Slice and dice monsters with the new Viper Job (Image credit: Windows Central / Square Enix)

Before we get into where this expansion drops the ball, let’s take a look at what it gets right. Firstly, Final Fantasy XIV has bumped the level cap for player Jobs up to Lv.100, which means every Job has been given a wide range of new abilities and reworked ones to play with. While I haven't had time to play with all of them, I do like the new explosives, tools, and drones my main Job, the Machinist has received in this expansion. In addition, I love that they gave Gunbreaker Job the "Lion Heart" ability. It originally hailed from Final Fantasy VIII, as represents one of the franchise's most powerful and renowned Limit Break super moves. 

But that’s not all, Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail brings two DPS Jobs for players to master that will help them conquer their enemies – the Viper and Pictomancer. The Viper is the first original Job created for Final Fantasy XIV that’s not pulled from a previous Final Fantasy title. 

The Viper is a fun Job to play if you prefer slicing and dicing at close range. It is a fast-paced, simple but effective Job where you string together combos with your dual blades. At the end of a combo string, you can finish with a flourishing execution, where you combine the blades into a double-ended saber that will slice monsters to ribbons.

Who would've thought painting enemies to death could be so much fun? (Image credit: Windows Central / Square Enix)

Viper is great, but its fun factor pales in comparison to the new Pictomancer Job in my opinion. Inspired by the character Relm from Final Fantasy VI, the Pictomancer is a strange Job where you use your imagination to paint magic spells and monsters into existence and attack your enemies. Their game plan primarily centers around preparing paint drawings and bringing them to life at the right time to form powerful damage rotations where you cycle through summoning laser-shooting Moogles, calling forth dark, pastel-colored meteors, and smashing skulls with comic-book stylized hammers.

Pictomancer is awkward to use at first, but once you get the hang of it, this Job becomes so satisfying to use in battle. Not to mention it has a wide variety of spells that not only deal damage but can support the party with damage mitigation and damage-boosting abilities. It also feels really good to control as half your toolkit can be cast while moving. Pictomancers have a mobility spell with a short cooldown timer to help you explore areas faster and escape incoming boss mechanics.

Team up with friends or with NPC party members to take on Valigarmanda (Image credit: Square Enix)

You’re going to need to master these new Jobs and abilities quickly as Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail has some rather fearsome foes to contend with. The gorgeously detailed dungeons of this expansion feature enemies and bosses that can hit surprisingly hard and feature some mechanics that are not immediately obvious to figure out. These mechanics require paying attention to your surroundings and attack patterns to figure out where the enemy is going next and how to avoid getting one-shotted.

This is especially true for the epic Trial boss fights as these battles are no joke. Dawntrail’s Trial bosses are crazy, hit like trucks, and throw out lots of mechanics at once for players to keep up with. Figuring out these bosses’ gimmicks while maintaining damage uptime to efficiently kill them was a jolly good time and even more satisfying than most bosses from previous expansions.

FFXIV: Dawntrail still gets a ton of stuff right, and the combat and PvE gameplay loop remains as rewarding as it is satisfying. But so much of FFXIV's surge to popularity revolved around its characters and story delivery, and Dawntrail feels like a step backward in a variety of ways. 

This adventure was meant to be a vacation, not tiresome work

The Warrior of Light and their friends setting sail for new adventures (Image credit: Windows Central / Square Enix)

A lot of my criticism for Dawntrail revolves primarily around the main story, which is usually the biggest main selling of Final Fantasy XIV. The premise is that after saving the world from an apocalyptic event called ‘The Final Days’ in Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, our player character and their friends, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, have been invited by a new Hrothgar character (think lion people) called Wuk Lumat, to travel to the new continent of Tuliyollal.

There we must help Wuk Lamat win a contest called the Rite of Succession where the winner is chosen to become the next ruler of Tuliyollal. She wants to win so she can preserve her people’s peace and happiness, and prevent other contestants with sinister, selfish agendas from claiming the throne. Along the way, we will also be searching the entire nation of Tuliyollal for the legendary city of gold which has yet to be rediscovered.

Enjoying Dawntrail's story will largely be dependent on how you view Wuk Lamat as a character as she takes up the most screen time. (Image credit: Windows Central / Square Enix)

A huge chunk of Dawntrail's storyline is meant to be a low-stakes, chill adventure to give long time players a reprieve from constantly saving the world from scheming villains, tyrannical empires, and mighty demi-gods — a summer vacation if you will. While some players may enjoy this more laid-back approach, I don't think it will deliver for everyone. 

This 'summer vacation' came off more like a boring business trip where I was assigned to play bodyguard for a princess as they made diplomatic relations with vague allies. The Rite of Succession arc of the story drags on for way too long with lots of repetitive scenes of characters establishing new lore. It's difficult to elaborate without heading into spoiler territory, but there are many scenes where the mood is all over the place, leading tonal whiplash that breaks immersion. Dawntrail seems to struggle to balance its attempts at being "light hearted" at times, while simultaneously trying to build up new stakes.  

Galool Ja Ja from Final Fantasy XI returns to host the Rite of Succession in Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail (Image credit: Windows Central / Square Enix)

Not to mention the story devotes too much screen time to Wuk Lamat's journey to becoming the next ruler. While I did find Wuk Lamat herself to be endearing, her character grows very little beyond her first appearance compared to other characters you meet in the expansion, and listening to her constantly spouting desires for peace and happiness for hours on end gets old fast. 

I feel Wuk Lamat's character arc could've been more fulfilling if she started as a more flawed character and grew into a better person by the end of it, much like how Alphinaud grew from a pompous-know-it-all in A Realm Reborn to a smart but humble hero in Heavensward for example.

As it stands, Wuk Lamat just isn’t compelling enough of an NPC protagonist to warrant over half of the story focusing on her quest for the throne of Tural. Personally, I feel some of the screen time spent on Wuk Lamat could’ve been better spent on other existing characters that desperately needed it. 

For example, without giving spoilers, there’s a certain new major villain who comes off as very two-dimensional with barely any nuance or backstory to justify why they are so evil. This could’ve been fixed with more scenes showing us their past in greater detail and having us talk to them personally to get into their head. Instead of engaging directly with the character, we only hear elements of the backstory in a vague, second-handed way. The investment in adding dimensions to the expansion's central villains should've been higher, because the current direction feels more like the product of having a villain for the sake of needing one in a combat-oriented video game.  

Exploring one of the many beautiful and exotic locales of Tuliyollal (Image credit: Windows Central / Square Enix)

Now, I will concede without divulging spoilers, the main story does start to get a lot more interesting once the Rite of Succession arc is over. The stakes get raised, and we get introduced to wild lore concepts and intriguing plot hooks to set up future expansions. 

However, this only starts to happen once you’re over 30 hours into the Main Scenario Quests, and even then, the third act still suffers from the slow pacing issues from the first two acts, some giant gaping plot holes, and rehashing repetitive story beats of previous expansions. By the time I reached this point, I was so bored to tears from the dull Rite of Succession arc that I no longer had any investment in the story and I could not bring myself to care for the characters. 

Bakool Ja Ja, one of the Rite of Succession's contestants vying for the throne of Tuliyollal (Image credit: Windows Central / Square Enix)

What compounds the monotony of the storyline is the middling quest design of Dawntrail’s Main Scenario Quests. You will be spending nearly all of your playtime running around, watching cutscenes, doing fetch quests, gathering info from NPCs, and doing tedious "stealth" missions, while occasionally tackling dungeons and Trial bosses every four to five hours, with very rare solo-instance fights.

Now while the same can be argued for previous Final Fantasy XIV expansions, each of them at least had more interesting and faster-paced storylines with a fair amount of solo and group-instanced combat segments to things fresh. Even A Realm Reborn and Stormblood, which many fans consider to have the least interesting main storylines, were more compelling. FFXIV's big bads like the Garlean Empire, Ascians, Primals, and other mysteries were around to contend with. But now that we've gotten rid of them all by the end of Endwalker, it feels like the developers were struggling for ideas to keep us invested in the Main Scenario Quests until the third act.

No game shouldn’t demand players to sit through dozens of hours of tiresome and mundane fetch quests, repetitive script writing, compounded by the sense you're being bounced from NPC to NPC playing a particularly dreary game of telephone. The morsels of good aren't adequate enough to justify this slog of a journey to get to them.

FFXIV's Xbox Series X|S launch disaster

Climb the mountains of Urqopacha to get a bird's eye view of the land. (Image credit: Windows Central / Square Enix)

I would be remiss if I didn’t up bring the issues plaguing the Xbox Series X|S version of Final Fantasy XIV. When the game was released in early access, Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail had technical issues causing the Xbox Series X|S version of the game to be subpar. These issues range from the game freezing when transitioning to different zones, boss mechanics in certain Trials and Raids not working correctly, and animation glitches.

Square Enix is currently trying to resolve these hiccups as soon as possible but there’s no denying that this is yet another major misstep for Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail. Although, it's unclear whether it's Square Enix or Microsoft's development environment that is ultimately to blame. 

Thankfully, there were no issues with the PC version I played, at least, save for busy queues on launch day. 

UPDATE (07/09/2024): On July 7, 2024, Square Enix rolled out a hotfix for the Xbox version of FFXIV: Dawntrail fixing the issues and is preparing to grant all Xbox and players ten days of free time game time as compensation for putting up with these technical hiccups. 

The free game time will granted to Xbox players on July 11, 2024. For more information regarding the free game time, check out the official Final Fantasy XIV website.

I hope Square Enix can rethink its story delivery 

The Warrior of Light marches with other players to face the unknown. (Image credit: Square Enix)
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Overall, I have been disappointed with Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail. While the new Jobs are fun to mess around with and the new bosses are satisfying to conquer, they do not make up for an abysmally dull storyline with many hours of uninteresting cutscenes with little to no combat, bland characters, and pacing slower than a Tonberry.

It kills me to have written this up, as I loved Final Fantasy XIV and the clever ways it reimagined stories and characters from previous Final Fantasy games to fit its narrative. I'm not asking Dawntrail's Main Scenario Quests to be an overly dramatic war story like Heavensward or dealing with cosmic cataclysms like Endwalker, it's just that I know that Final Fantasy XIV is capable of telling fun and compelling, low-stakes stories that don’t take forever to sell. Look no further than the Allied Society Quests (formally known as the Allied Beast Tribe quests), Job Quests, Role Quests, and even the hilarious Hildebrand quests for evidence of that.

However, the writing and pacing for Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail’s Main Scenario Quests were so painfully hollow and uninteresting that I was actually tempted to skip the cutscenes just so I could get to the point, which has never happened to me before in all my years playing Final Fantasy XIV.

If you’re a diehard Final Fantasy XIV fan, you may get a kick of this expansion, especially when the post-launch raids arrive. However, if you prefer JRPGs with complex plots with fast pacing and high stakes that suck you in right away, then I can’t recommend Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail to you. If you're in FFXIV just for the PvE, though, the game is as fun as ever. I suspect more people than ever will be thumbing over the cutscenes through this expansion, though. 

FFXIV is well-carried by its core gameplay loop, but it was always the story that set it apart from its competitors. I'm not sure if I'm in the minority or not here, and I've for sure met people who have enjoyed what Dawntrail has to offer. But I suspect many will miss the bar set by some of FFXIV's previous expacs. If Dawntrail's campaign is going to be the standard for expansions going forward, speaking for myself only, I'm worried I may have to permanently leave one of Square Enix's Best PC games behind for good. 

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Alexander Cope

Alexander Cope is a gaming veteran of 30-plus years, primarily covering PC and Xbox games here on Windows Central. Gaming since the 8-bit era, Alexander's expertise revolves around gaming guides and news, with a particular focus on Japanese titles from the likes of Elden Ring to Final Fantasy. Alexander is always on deck to help our readers conquer the industry's most difficult games — when he can pry himself away from Monster Hunter that is!