The core game, pre-Zilart, is a bit foggy to look upon from my perspective. I didn't start playing until the game's launch in the U.S., which means that Rise of the Zilart is essentially part of the core game in my memory. Still, the game's story launched with four main story arcs to be resolved -- the individual nation arcs (each character would only see one at a time, remember), the renewed Shadow Lord, the ancient Zilart machinations, and the fate of Tavnazia.
You could argue that the Zilart and Tavnazia weren't outright elements from launch, and it's true that neither arc was stated as such at first. But the Zilart presence was felt from the crags and Jeuno right from the outset, even if they weren't named as such. As for Tavnazia... well, the opening cinematic is all about the city falling. Chekov's gun is in full effect for both.
Between the first two expansions, all of these threads were resolved. Chains of Promathia put a particular nail in the coffin for the Zilart, having tied that story in with Tavnazia's fate in a wonderfully clean resolution. And while those stories were undeniably excellent, the result has been a game that's floundered for direction ever since.
From a storytelling perspective, Aht Urhgan was a bottle show. The fate of the Near East was only vaguely tied to the fate of the more familiar continents. When the end of the story has you finally leaving, it feels almost like an admission that there wasn't much keeping you around in the first place. Wings of the Goddess was kind of a non-starter from the beginning, since the basic conflict had you solving a problem that had already been solved years before the start of the game.
Yes, I know that there was an explanation for why the events in the past were relevant to the present. It's still a kludge.
I'm not saying that either story was bad on its own merits (I've made it clear many times over how much I loved Treasures of Aht Urhgan), just that both of them feel like additions well after the fact. Which they are, certainly, but compared to the fairly smooth integration of previous storylines, the hiccups are a bit more pronounced. There's less investment than you get with some of the more urgent plotlines.
Of course, what really clinched it for me was the ending of Abyssea, specifically, the plotline that it was a version of Vana'diel where Promathia won. That's a straight-up appeal to nostalgia right there, especially with the connection between the boss and the original antagonist only in place due to some of Prishe's dialogue. (Promathia had a very distinct look that I was always fond of, so perhaps that part is personal preference, but still.) And as has been said elsewhere, when an ongoing story is reaching into its past for material, it's because the present isn't all that interesting.
But how could it be? The Shadow Lord is dead, and his reincarnation is dead, and his reincarnated dream is dead. Short of tearing down Castle Zvahl, there's not much more to be done there. Each of the nations has sorted out the vast majority of its problems -- twice now, really, considering that you've also gone back in time to fix previous iterations. (One wonders whether this would destabilize the present, but then, that's why time travel is a mechanic best left alone.) The Zilart are gone or completely defanged, functionally not an issue either way. Tavnazia is still a wreck, but slightly less of one, and the whole plot with Promathia is done. Exactly how is the next storyline going to top the one where you killed a god?
Normally this is where I'd throw a suggestion out there, but I'm honestly unsure how the game can progress from here myself. The story of the game has been handled wonderfully, but I'm not sure what can be added that would really feel like a conclusion instead of a needless side-trip. And that's a problem when you're talking about a game that has built its reputation on the strength of its storyline -- a well-deserved reputation, I might add.
I still want to see a boxed expansion, but it's going to be a rough ride to make an expansion's story feel relevant again. It'd be a truly sad fate if the narrative was the first thing to go as FFXI enters its twilight years.
Obviously, with story being as subjective as it is, everyone's going to have a different take on this particular issue. So as always, I'm interested in hearing what you think, by email (email@example.com) or in the comments field just yonder. Next week, the odds are against Final Fantasy XIV's patch 1.16 being on the live servers (although I can hope), but I'm reasonably confident there will be enough interesting material coming out of GDC anyway.
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.