Ishgard and Ala Mhigo both cast long shadows over Eorzea, but neither one is accessible to players. There are details about both swimming through the game, but it's always secondhand, always with one or two pieces gleaned from outside sources. In its own way, this makes both cities more alluring -- because one we know to be the heart of darkness and the other could be almost anything when the gates finally swing open. If, in fact, they ever do.
Ala Mhigo could be said to have more influence on the game's atmosphere simply because of why it's no longer around. The most military city of the five, it also happened to be the closest to the Empire. So when the Empire came, the city stood alone, confident in its might. And it fell. The city is now under the control of the Empire, with a resistance movement flitting back and forth across the border between Imperial lands and the Shroud in hopes of demolishing the Empire's power.
Unfortunately, the result of this is that all we know about Ala Mhigo is suspect because we've got a bad case of unreliable narrators.
We know that the refugees have established a small enclave nicknamed Little Ala Mhigo in Eastern Thanalan, and we also know that there's a large displaced population in Ul'dah leading to some tensions. The Mhigans within Ul'dah generally find their fame as gladiators in the arena, with the most prominent among them leading the Immortal Flames as an Ul'dahn. But the only people we've seen, by and large, have been either the gladiators that fled or the resistance fighters who continue to wage a largely unsuccessful battle against the Empire.
This isn't to say that the Empire is probably a bunch of nice guys; there's evidence of just how far the Garleans are willing to go, up to and including brainwashing via magical means. But it also means that we don't actually know how Ala Mhigo fell. We don't even know whether it was truly a case of superior firepower or there was treachery from within. The stories we receive are fragmentary at best, and they don't paint a comprehensive picture of what actually took place when the walls fell.
Ala Mhigo could be a smoldering pile of wreckage with residents stuck in tents. It could be a bustling city flush with Imperial technology. We know that there's definitely a sizable portion of the populace unhappy with the regime change, but very little else is known about the state of events beyond the Shroud.
Of course, we still know more about Ala Mhigo than we do about Ishgard, which is somewhat ironic because we can almost get to Ishgard.
Really, if you've been playing the game and haven't yet bothered taking the trip, I recommend doing so. It's not a long journey, and on a chocobo you can run to the gate with nary a concern. Go ahead and reach the boundary, look across the bridge, and gaze that the city we know is there but can't yet see.
All we know about Ishgard is fragmentary. It's a religious city, certainly, home of holy knights and a long-standing war against the local dragons. But beyond that, we know nothing. There are no refugees, no resistance movements, no communication from within and no answers for inquiries. It's like the Wonka factory at the beginning of the old film. Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out.
OK, there's been a little communication, mostly in the form of chocobos. But other than that, Ishgard offers no aid in the fight against the Empire and asks for none in return. The city stands alone, and the outlying settlements seem disinclined to talk on the matter.
The result is that we know almost nothing about the city. We know a handful of details and not much else. If you want to be boring and focus on the real world, you can probably say that Ishgard was meant to serve as a hub city for the higher game but just never got implemented... but I think there's a different explanation.
We know that something big is coming at the changeover for 2.0. The obvious thing would be a full-on Garlean invasion, during which all of the bubbling pots finally boil over into explosive conflict. But while it's entirely possible that what's coming around the bend is summoned Primals and invading airships, I think there's another possibility. That perhaps more is going on in the closed city in the mountains than is immediately obvious. Something carefully planned, something meant to end several conflicts, something... cataclysmic.
I'm fully expecting to be wrong on this point. But it would be a fantastic twist to see the city that we've all seen and never entered fling open its gates... only for us to find out that it might not be quite as friendly as hoped.
As always, feedback is welcome down in the comments or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I'm going to either try something a little more out there or talk about the early roadmap we've seen for patch 1.22. Since next week is also PAX East, I'm going to be a wee bit distracted. You'll forgive me, I hope.
From Eorzea to Vana'diel, there is a constant: the moogles. And for analysis and opinions about the online portions of the Final Fantasy series, there is also a constant: The Mog Log. Longtime series fan Eliot Lefebvre serves up a new installment of the log every Saturday, covering almost anything related to Square-Enix's vibrant online worlds.