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Final Fantasy XIV Dawntrail
Image via Square Enix

Review: ‘Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail’ makes you a bit part in someone else’s story, and that’s okay

This is Wuk Lamat's world, we're just living in it.

It’s been 11 years since Final Fantasy XIV crawled out of the ashes of its disastrous 1.0 release with A Realm Reborn. Four subsequent expansions have seen the player base balloon to new heights, surpass its MMO competitors, and (thanks to the amazing Yoshi-P) surf a wave of good vibes.

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But every wave must eventually crash against the shore and recede, and Dawntrail may well be proof that XIV is now ever-so-slightly past its prime.

By the conclusion of Endwalker, you’d squashed two entirely separate cosmological apocalypses – it’s time for a vacation. Enter the New World of Tural, Final Fantasy‘s take on Mesoamerican and South American culture, history, and architecture.

The nation’s beloved Dawnservant (aka the king) Gulool Ja Ja has decided he’s too old to rule and needs a successor. The four candidates are his birth son, a cocky fighting champion, and his adopted children Wuk Lamat and Koana. You’re on Team Wuk Lamat, helping out a good-natured cat lady with confidence issues as you travel the land battling your rivals in challenges set by various distinct cultures. At the end of your path? The fabled city of gold.

Those anticipating the Warrior of Light taking center stage can think again, as Wuk Lamat is unambiguously Dawntrail‘s protagonist. She goes on the hero’s journey, grows as a character, deals with emotional conflict, and drives the narrative. As for your Warrior of Light? Well, you’re honestly just kinda there for moral support and pitching in with bashing any large monsters.

During cutscenes your character’s role is to silently stand at stage rear, with the camera occasionally cutting to you nodding or smiling, just to remind the player that you’re there too. On occasion, this very peripheral role in this story gets a little absurd. In an early quest, Wuk Lamat must tame a troublesome alpaca. You help her secure the special saddle she needs to calm them down, but are told only she is permitted to do the actual taming. So Wuk Lamat heads off alone to do the fun stuff, while you sit around at camp twiddling your thumbs wondering if she’s okay.

Final Fantasy XIV Dawntrail
Image via Square Enix

If Dawntrail were a typical Final Fantasy game you would play as Wuk Lamat (and, indeed you occasionally do). For many players it’ll be an underwhelming experience to spend 40-50 hours as a passive cheerleader/bodyguard to the real hero but, to be fair to the writers, there’s only so much you can do with a generic zero-personality everyhero. That said, if the adorkable Wuk Lamat rubs you up the wrong way, you’re going to have a rough time getting through Dawntrail.

Diminishing your active role in the story has the knock-on effect of highlighting XIV‘s prehistoric approach to quest design. Simply put, after 11 years the designers really should be able to think of quests more creative than talking to three people and returning to the quest giver or, if you’re lucky, fighting three monsters inside a purple circle. Endwalker‘s tedious tailing missions also return but, frankly, even though they’re bad they’re at least something different.

Final Fantasy XIV Dawntrail
Image via Square Enix

For me, the busywork of the MSQ quest is the plain bread surrounding the delicious sandwich filling of the dungeons and trials, i.e. the content that forces you to sit up and pay attention. There are no structural surprises here for XIV veterans: each dungeon contains three bosses interspersed with mobs. but while the creativity font might have run dry on quest design, Dawntrail is still finding awesome and tricky bosses to fight.

Most of these leave little room for error and require you to quickly figure out their mechanics. Fail to understand what’s going on in time and your adventurer will end up as a miserable heap hoping a healer will rez you. By the time you’re into the level 95 and above dungeons, the bosses don’t hold back, tossing fast-paced mechanics at you and then layering them on top of one another. They will all be mastered in time, but expect to die in later dungeons until you figure out what’s going on.

Dawntrail also ushers in a lovely new graphical update for the entire game. Materials, faces, and clothes resolution all get noticeable uplifts, though it’s the improved lighting system that properly dazzles. There are firelight conversation scenes that zip past “this looks good… for XIV” to outright “this looks good”.

Final Fantasy‘s long history of musical excellence is also on full display from the moment you arrive in Tural and the upbeat big-band bop of Tuliyollal kicks in. Each zone’s theme is great, though a later blues guitar-led tune had me exploring the map just to hear it play out.

As for the overall story? I won’t get into spoilers, but the focus on appreciating unfamiliar cultures and the necessity for a leader to understand the people they lead is decent stuff. Later into the game things fall apart a little after a twist everyone and their dog should see coming – and I wish later environments hadn’t been spoiled by marketing – but settling into a familiar Final Fantasy groove of villains screaming and transforming into godly beings mid-battle is a tried-and-tested formula.

Maybe Dawntrail was destined to be an anticlimax. Endwalker wrapped up eight years’ worth of dangling plot threads in truly bombastic fashion and there was no way Dawntrail could reach those heights. Even so, this is ultimately a story your character is barely involved in – things would probably play out in roughly the same way if you weren’t there at all, which isn’t particularly satisfying.

And, while the graphical glow-up indicates XIV has a good few years left in the tank before it looks obsolete, they need to give us more interesting things to do during the MSQ. Perhaps some of these dull quests are down to engine limitations that can’t be worked around, but in that case it might be time to think about slowly and gently winding down XIV and pouring that experience into a sequel that’s not built on PlayStation 3-era tech.

Dawntrail isn’t XIV‘s most creative, interesting, or well-written expansion, but it’s still brimming with personality, vibrant scenery, great music, and incredible bosses. So, unless you have a serious problem with babysitting overly optimistic cat girls, you’re going to have a decent time.

The reviewer purchased his own copy of the game.

Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail
'Dawntrail' shoves your character so far into the background of its story you may as well not be there. That said, the vibrancy and personality of Tural is a real breath of fresh air, and the dungeon bosses have never been more satisfying to take down.

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David James
I'm a writer/editor who's been at the site since 2015. Love writing about video games and will crawl over broken glass to write about anything related to Hideo Kojima. But am happy to write about anything and everything, so long as it's interesting!