I was given the lucky opportunity to get a guided tour of all the improvements and new content that the game had added with the most recent update, and it's certainly one of the more impressive drops the game has seen. Two entirely new summons, a new quest type, the penultimate missions in Wings of the Goddess, new Notorious Monsters, new areas... it's dwarfing to even consider it. I only had a chance to hit the highlights, and even then it was a lot to cover. So jump on past the cut, and see what's there to be seen.
Trial of the Magians
The first stop was the magical moogle located within Ru'Lude Gardens that held the key for the Trial of the Magians quest line. I was informed that the concept behind the Magians started with taking the ultra-rare Relic and Mythic Weapons and making them relevant even with the increased level cap. (You don't want a year's worth of playtime to suddenly be obsoleted, right? Right.) From there came the whole system, which currently just works with weapons, but eventually is planned to move into armor as well as "lifestyle" enhancements such as movement speed or tradeskills. (There will likely also be some abilities in a method reminiscent of the current Merit system.)
Starting the whole affair involved grabbing a weapon from a chest located just to one side of the moogle, which contained more or less anything you could want. It's also possible to use a Relic or Mythic weapon, if you're one of the dedicated souls who has one. Trading it to the moogle from the once-glorious kingdom of Kupolika allows you access to a number of trials, each of which asks for you to kill different things. Sometimes it's a target number of enemies, sometimes it's just a specific NM. Either way, choosing a trial gets it branded onto the weapon, and trading the weapon becomes possible again once the trial is completed.
The whole system allows for a branching set of trials -- that is, choosing different trials on the same base weapon will lead to getting a different weapon in the end. It's meant as a branching path, allowing characters a number of choices as to how they want the weapon to grow. Relic and Mythics get the least upgrade from the process, but that's not taking into account how much higher they start off as. It's a nice alternative for players who can't or won't get access to those weapons, a nice way of keeping the highly rare weapons as valuable as ever, and another way to advance your character even after the level 75 ding.
Voidwalker Notorious Monsters
I have to admit, at first I thought these were going to be NMs that were used as tanks by sneeringly evil Black Mages, but it turns out they're actually imports from Abyssea. Why they've traveled over isn't clear just yet, but they don't seem happy to be in Vana'diel, and the adventuring populace will no doubt be happy to help them part with their valuables now that they're over.
Assai Nybaem is the NPC who starts the process of hunting these creatures down, happily selling you a Clear Abyssite for 1000 gil. (Which is pretty much chump change, to be fair.) From there, you use the Abyssite to locate the monster in question by dropping into a crouch and healing. When you're in the right general area, you'll get a message that the Abyssite detects something in a given direction. This is followed by darting about and looking for the monster, which will instantly spawn with your party having claim once you find its exact location.
The rewards? A number of accessories and crafting materials, all of which are optimized for Level 75. In addition, there's also the chance to "upgrade" your Abyssite to the next tier of potency, allowing you to find more powerful monsters. It's not assured, so it's sometimes necessary to continue buying more Clear Abyssite, but in the process of trying to get to the top-tier Black Abyssite you're bound to get at least a few nice tidbits. And at the top lies the dread wyrm Yilbegan, whom we took on during the tour.
Yilbegan has a number of dangerous status effect spells and a powerful breath weapon, as well as no visible HP bar to make the fight more challenging. He's a bit different than standard wyrm fights, but it should feel fairly familiar to anyone who regularly hunts down Nidhogg and friends. (Hunting Jormungand, of course, is strongly discouraged.) Ironically enough, we got a ram hide when we dropped him, prompting much laughter. They can't all be epic.
Castle Zvahl and the Summons
Since we were already in the northlands, we might as well stop at Castle Zvahl, right? Or better yet, head to the just-added Castle Zvahl in the Shadowreign era, filled with demons that make the modern Kindred seem like refreshingly docile dinner guests. Far from the run-down castle of the present, this location seethes with unholy energy, which makes it just the sort of spot to grab a bit of elite new help. Such as the two newest tools in a Summoner's arsenal, Alexander and Odin.
As it was explained to me, it was important that these two Avatars keep their status as being rare and powerful entities. Having Odin trot along behind you like a lost puppy didn't seem appropriate for such an intimidating figure, after all. Thus, the two new summons are only available when a Summoner's Astral Flow ability is active, which limits each of them to one command each. It's a bit of a drawback, certainly, but the one ability is pretty blessedly powerful. Alexander summons a mighty shield that reduces the damage the entire party takes by a ridiculous amount, somewhere in the neighborhood of 80%. From my observations it was in addition to effects such as Phalanx, which allows for some pretty ridiculous mitigation.
Odin, on the other hand, kills things. To demonstrate, we pulled a large group of demons, summoned Odin, and let him work his magic. The number of killed enemies depends on how much MP the Summoner has as well as how many enemies are within range -- in this case, a group of seven enemies was torn down to two in just a second. NMs are not subject to the instant kill, unfortunately, but they do take a large amount of damage -- again, based upon MP and how many enemies are around. While neither summon will be part of a regular rotation, both have an epic feel to them and suitable abilities for their previous appearances.
Last but not least came the new missions, which come close to wrapping up the storyline of Wings of the Goddess once and for all. This was the area where I had the least experience, but it was still a fun ride even if I was jumping in on the second reel of a movie. The mission we ran was smack-dab in the middle of the new updates, featuring the inimitable Count Bifrons doing his best Dracula impression in front of Portia. Without going into too many details, it's another masterfully done cutscene that shows just how well Square knows the game's engine and how to make dramatic scenes run smoothly.
The highlight of the cutscenes, for me, was watching the Shadow Lord in action against the Allied Forces. It's easy to get complacent about the Shadow Lord, since he's not exactly a horrible fight in the present time, but seeing him in his full grandeur makes it clear why he was such a terrifying villain in the game's lore. I was also informed that by capturing Zvahl in Campaign battles, it was possible to obtain the Shadow Lord's armor, which is unspeakably cool. (If for nothing else than the idea of running through Jeuno and terrifying war veterans at the sight of it.)
We closed out the tour with a quick question about Abyssea, and a confirmation of earlier suspicions that it would be targeted straight at higher levels. (There was, however, a mention of easing the leveling process for lower players. Details were not forthcoming.)
If you have an old level 75 character and have a hankering to head back to Final Fantasy XI, now would be the time. The game's improvements have made it more playable and varied than ever, and there's a heap of different things to do for almost every character with this update. Plus, it has moogles casting spells with heart animations at you when you unlock a destructive new weapon. What else do you want from a game?