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FF14 Dawntrail proves Final Fantasy’s future is brighter than ever

After playing FF14 Dawntrail for several hours during the media tour, I’m very excited to see what the new expansion has in store for us.

FF14 Dawntrail proves the future of Final Fantasy is brighter than ever - A Warrior of Light in the new FFXIV expansion, a blue-haired female Hrothgar wearing the Viper outfit.

With FF14 Dawntrail now less than a month away, we at PCGamesN had the chance to play several hours of the new Final Fantasy 14 expansion ahead of time. The next stage in the story for the critically acclaimed MMORPG takes us on a journey across the seas to Tural, where Endwalker’s emotional ending to the first decade-long story arc gives way to the promise of new adventure. But after more than ten years with a single game, has the well started to run dry? The good news is that the answer seems to be quite the reverse.

As an on-and-off Final Fantasy 14 player since the 2.0 launch of A Realm Reborn (and to be honest, more ‘on’ than ‘off’ in recent years, as FF14 has steadily gotten better and better), you’d have had to drag me kicking and screaming from the chance to get an early hands-on with its latest expansion, a month ahead of the FF14 Dawntrail release date. Has my time experiencing the new classes made it agonizing to come home to one of the best MMORPGs in its as-yet unexpanded form? Yes. But am I more excited for our adventure come the end of June? Absolutely.

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First things first: let’s set the expectations for what I actually get to try. What we’re playing, in developer and producer Naoki Yoshida’s own words, is an in-development build from Wednesday May 1, so some aspects including combat balance are still subject to change. We have one character representing each class, all at the new level cap of 100, including Dawntrail newcomers the Viper and Pictomancer. We’re also able to explore Tural’s hub city of Tuliyollal and the first two regions, Urqopacha and Kozama’uka, with full flying mount freedom.

Content-wise, we can run the first dungeon both in duty support and in groups with our fellow testers, and there are FATEs and hunt targets out in the world. That, however, is about the limit of things. Save for a few brief hints during the dungeon (which I’ll keep to the end of this article) there is no story content and no MSQ; indeed, many NPCs are either covered up or absent entirely. Those that do speak all say nothing more than, “Welcome to Tural!”

It’s a little disappointing not to get any real sense of the story, although we know from what’s already happened in Endwalker patch 6.55 that we’re helping new Hrothgal warrior Wuk Lamat in a leadership contest, and that we’ll likely run into some of our fellow Scions on opposing sides of the field. That said, once I create a Hrothgar lady of my own and take her on a stroll around Tuliyollal, I’m immediately pulled in by just how beautiful everything is.

FF14 Dawntrail preview - The hub city of Tuliyollal.

The returning FF14 Dawntrail benchmark tool has already been revamped and improved since our preview event, meaning you can get in and take a look at the graphics update for yourself. That said, seeing the new clothing and environments first-hand is really something else. This is still fundamentally Final Fantasy 14 as you know it (which remains to this day one of my favorite games to look at anyway), but it’s noticeably brushed up in almost every sense. The cloths, metals, and leathers look remarkably good up-close for a game now closing in on 11 years old.

The music is impeccable too, not that we’d expect anything less from FF14’s not-so secret weapon, Masayoshi Soken. Our hub ambience is a big-band, soft-jazz rendition of the Dawntrail main theme, and it’s been rattling around in my head in the week since I played. Our dungeon dive is later accompanied by an upbeat, samba-style rhythm packed with percussion that kept me bopping along even on my fifth run, while the boss themes favor more traditionally dramatic string-led orchestral grandiosity.

I spend some time experimenting with my beloved Ninja – the Huton upkeep is gone, replaced by a simpler system that still encourages flipping between the Armor Crush and Aeolian Edge variants of your core combo. Of the two new classes, however, it’s the Viper that most catches my eye. Much like the Ninja, it provides a very fast-paced rotation with a lot of buttons to press, with a little of the Samurai’s various combo options.

FF14 Dawntrail preview - The Viper fights a FATE boss.

The benefit of both new jobs is clear: you can achieve more with fewer buttons on your hotbar. In the Viper’s case, just two buttons deliver four potential three-hit combos. You can use any combination of the two, with the order changing both the positional requirements and the buff you’ll get for finishing the set.

Group attacks work much the same way, while in either situation a special bonus hit can be snuck in after each successful three-attack set, and a separate ability combo pops up occasionally for you to weave between your other attacks. Finally, you can spend your meter to briefly unleash an especially flashy Super Saiyan-style burst damage combo.

It takes a little getting used to, but I quickly wrap my head around it – and if you’re struggling to keep up, the game smartly adjusts its button highlighting to help you stay on top of the combos you’ve done recently and the ones you’re due to pull off next. It’s a really cleverly designed class, one that turns just a few hotkeys into a lot of possibilities.

FF14 Dawntrail preview - A Pictomancer using their spinning hammer attack on a dungeon boss.

I don’t quite wrap my head so neatly around the Pictomancer in my time with the preview build, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it; quite the reverse. The animation set is as delightful as early footage suggests – in particular the three-hit hammer combo feels fantastic to deliver, while the Splatoon-style slide is one of the most satisfying mobility abilities to use yet. Indeed, perhaps the most striking aspect of my time with Dawntrail is just how distinctive and creative both its new jobs feel.

Pictomancer also takes advantage of the new button-reduction system: its main single-target and AoE combos are delivered using just one hotkey each, with a second button to use a more powerful variant that acts as a way to spend your meter and build up to yet more potent attacks. Painting mid-fight does feel a little arduous, but the idea of building up several pieces of art in sequence to unleash especially devastating finales is a good one.

After a bit of experimentation, I group up with seven other people at the event to tackle a hunt mark – Queen Hawk. She’s a nasty one that quickly wipes most of us within a few seconds of our first attempt, courtesy of a buff that causes her to assassinate anyone who stands too close while it’s active. After four or five attempts, we get things down, and while I’m called away for my interview with Yoshi-P towards the end of the fight my group manages to carry me to victory nevertheless.

FF14 Dawntrail preview - A Viper fights a dungeon boss, watching out for a nearby incoming attack.

Before I dip briefly into the narrative side of things, let’s talk about dungeon mechanics – after all, Yoshida says he wants FF14 Dawntrail fights to feel less repetitive. For the most part, the trash pulls and the boss fights feel in line with what you’d expect from a modern-day FF14 dungeon, but it definitely feels a little more involved than you might expect from the first major encounter of an expansion. There’s even a particularly curious set of mobs halfway through that has some rather fascinating implications.

While they aren’t breaking hugely new ground, all three bosses were very fun. In particular, the second features a rather satisfying mechanic testing your ability to find the safe spot between four vine whips. The final encounter, meanwhile, packs in plenty of tricks, and gets stronger as the fight goes on by feasting on local prey and calling in a whirlwind that bounces around the arena delivering periodic spread attacks, forcing you to keep a close eye on your positioning at all times.

While there’s almost no story to tell of in our preview, we do get a brief glimpse of it in the dungeon, which appears to be part of a contest between several of the rival factions competing to take charge. As our group’s path is diverted by sly acts of sabotage, the tone remains one more of light-hearted whimsy and wonder.

FF14 Dawntrail preview - The Warrior of Light is joined by Alphinaud, Wuk Lamat, and Krile on a dungeon adventure along beautiful wooded paths.

The competition may be serious, but these people are having fun, with the boundless enthusiasm of Wuk Lamat leading the way; it’s a far cry from the harrowing opening offerings of Shadowbringers’ Holminster Switch or Endwalker’s Tower of Zot. English localization lead Kate Cwynar tells me there will still be plenty of reasons to cry in Dawntrail, but this early section definitely feels more in line with the “big energy” she mentions in our interview.

So where does that leave us? Honestly, having just about wrapped up a replay of the full FF14 MSQ that I’ve spread across the past year, I’m more than ready for some easygoing enthusiasm. I’m certain the drama and the devastation lie in wait. Overall, however, my brief brush with Dawntrail has reassured me that when Yoshida says Creative Business Unit III is already lining up the next ten years of Final Fantasy 14, he and the team are actually in a position to deliver on that – maybe even more so than ever before.

Before you jet off to Tural, make sure you’ve sorted out everything on your FF14 Island Sanctuary with our handy guide. You’ll also want to keep a close eye on the FF14 server status and maintenance times, so you aren’t caught out by any pre-Dawntrail downtime.

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This article is based on time spent playing an in-development build of Final Fantasy 14 Dawntrail, and content in the final version is subject to change.