Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail Is a Brilliant Upgrade to the Beloved RPG

Inverse Score: 9/10

by Lucas White

Going on vacation as the Warrior of Light is about as complicated as it sounds.

One minute, you’re experiencing a level of hands-on, multicultural tourism most folks can only dream of. Not just eating the local delicacies, but making them yourself, collecting the ingredients and learning the deep history of conflict-resolving cultural bonding behind the dish as you smoke meat wrapped in banana leaves in the ground.

But moments later, you might discover a hidden secret, a holy grail of the local mythology most locals don’t believe even exists. But rather than the magical source of wealth and bliss the legends suggest, it’s really just a portal to another world. And when a bad guy opens that portal? Vacation’s over, folks.

Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail has arrived, and it’s in a heck of an unenviable position, following up the climactic blockbuster that was the previous Endwalker expansion. Luckily, Dawntrail, quite frankly, rules. It’s a fresh start for the game’s audience, a new adventure for the heroes, and a thematic rollercoaster that uses a romantic atmosphere to obscure a deep dive into questions about legacy, mortality, leadership, and loss.

Paying It Forward

Wuk Lamat is Dawntrail’s main character, reducing your “Warrior of Light” player character to a supporting role.

Square Enix

The Warrior of Light, Final Fantasy XIV’s world-saving protagonist, certainly craves adventure, but sometimes, there’s no better calling than a chance to help someone along the way. Enter Wuk Lamat, a contender for the soon-empty throne in Tuliyollal, the capital of Tural or the “New World” on the opposite end of the map. She fears the peace her father curated won’t outlive his reign and has joined the competition to become the new Dawnservant. Turns out, it’s within the rules to assemble a squad for backup in the trials to come.

The most striking part of Dawntrail is where it places us in the story. The Warrior of Light takes a backseat almost entirely to Wuk Lamat, the honorary protagonist of the hour. You’re in more of a deuteragonist role now, but crucially as a mentor. You’ve already saved the world several times over. Now, it’s time to pass on your hard-learned lessons, skills, and knowledge to someone else who’s ready to take the world on in their story.

Dawntrail takes players to a mysterious city of gold.

Square Enix

Wuk Lamat is a strong presence, comparable to the likes of Monkey D. Luffy (One Piece) or Estelle Bright (Legend of Heroes) with her infectious, optimistic energy and hidden ferocity. Her story isn’t just about becoming a king in a moment of political turmoil. Geopolitics are the easy part, and lord knows Final Fantasy XIV has more than exhausted its share of aristocratic melodrama. Instead we’re treated to a story about building community through understanding across disparate cultural contexts. We follow Wuk as she stops at each major region, not just to solve a problem and check items off a list, but to learn about her people and how each group contributes to the identity of Tural.

Dawntrail’s greatest strength is how it presents a thematic core, builds the story around that core, and escalates the stakes and conflicts to absurd levels. As Lamat’s journey progresses and she learns valuable lessons, the game sets up for those lessons to be directly and cruelly challenged in its second half. The story has the simplicity of a babyface chasing a championship in a pro wrestling storyline, but with the intelligence and confidence to throw everything back in the new champion’s face after the big win. After all, once you win the title, you have to defend it.

And if you’re a Final Fantasy IX fan, the back half of the story deliberately weaponizes your nostalgia for that game (and assumed enthusiasm for the long-rumored remake). We won’t get into spoilers here, but it’s done in a way that’s deeply fascinating — when it isn’t mortifying.

Dungeons? Dangerous. Vibes? Immaculate.

Dawntrail’s dungeons are stunning to look at.

Square Enix

Dawntrail’s story was so compelling and resonated with me so profoundly, I would’ve been satisfied if this Final Fantasy XIV expansion was a visual novel. But there’s a whole video game in here to play in between the cutscenes, one you’re intended to want to keep coming back to over and over. In most ways, the gameplay structure continues from where Endwalker left off, making little adjustments to some of the game’s newer gimmicks. Stealth sections have updated UI elements made to cut out some guesswork, for example. If you get too close to your mark a circle will form on the ground under them. When they turn to look back, an arrow lights up around them to make sure you understand. These are the moments that remind us we’re still playing an MMO, for better or worse.

The dungeons are a riot. Each Trial is a combination of interesting enemies, impressive setpieces, and bosses that are fun to engage with even if you’re returning to a dungeon for various farming needs. Being able to take a group of NPCs instead of other players continues to be a rewarding addition, giving you the freedom and time to take in the sights, read the lore, and experience bonus dialogue and character interactions you won’t get otherwise. I love being able to move at my own pace through a dungeon while still progressing the story, and multiplayer is always an option for future playthroughs.

A Visual Upgrade

Dawntrail feels like a mix of tourism and adventure across new parts of Final Fantasy XIV’s already sprawling world.

Square Enix

Another big part of what makes Dawntrail great is almost coincidental. With the latest update, the devs also rolled out the first part of a major visual update. While Final Fantasy XIV certainly has a style and visual identity of its own, it’s also over a decade old. The updates to lighting and texture clarity really help that style sing, while some of the smaller touches — like hair, equipment animations, and environmental details — elevate the experience in more subtle ways. It’s the same game you’ve been playing for hundreds of hours, but with a new coat of paint that confidently masks its age.

The new zones utilize the visual upgrades to their fullest, with explosions of color from different light sources, dense vegetation in outdoor areas, and plenty of new gear that’s fun to just look at. Saying too much would venture into spoiler territory, but the story’s halfway point pairs the narrative twists with a dramatic aesthetic clash. Some of that is visible in the 7.0 Patch Notes, but I’d recommend keeping anything you haven’t already seen (in marketing or official update streams) unseen until you can experience it all for yourself. Screenshots and compressed footage won’t do some of this stuff justice, especially with the added thematic weight you’ll be carrying.

I’ve come along on the Final Fantasy XIV journey as enthusiastically as most of my peers, but I wasn’t planning on jumping into Dawntrail right away. Endwalker didn’t quite do it for me, and I was content to let my subscription lay dormant. Thank goodness it came across my work desk despite my apathy, because Dawntrail has taken over Shadowbringers as my favorite slice of storytelling in Final Fantasy XIV. Wuk Lamat’s journey, from its early sense of adventure and optimism to its second half full of sadness and existential dread, is the complete package. It’s a well-told, concise, and earnest story that avoids all the pitfalls I was worried about and took me to places I was not emotionally prepared for. I could actually see myself replaying Dawntrail in its entirety just to pore back over this adventure and look for missed details and re-experience the highs and lows. That’s a first for me, nearly a thousand hours in.


Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail is available now for PC, PS4 and PS5, and Xbox Series X|S.

INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.
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