This post contains significant spoilers for Shadowbringers.
I finished the Main Story Quest for FFXIV: Shadowbringers last night. I have mixed feelings on it. I should note that everyone else seems to be raving about the story, and are extremely happy about the expansion. So I appear to be out of step with the community at large.
When I see a new story or game, there are two dimensions along which I evaluate it: execution, and ambition. And perhaps I value ambition too highly. I'd rather see something where the creators aim high, and stumble. Of course, the best works are those which combine the two successfully.
Shadowbringers is a case of superb execution, but also far less ambition than the previous expansions. And that makes Shadowbringers somewhat of a disappointment to me.
I should start off with the good. The small moments, the characterisation, the interactions with the Scions, the dungeons and trials, all are absolutely excellent. The best FFXIV has ever been.
However, suppose I told you a story about a demon invasion. The demons invaded, conquered the lands, and magically created an eternal night. People wandering outside might get attacked and killed by roaming demons. Demons sometimes transform their prey into new demons. The hero needs to lift the night by killing the demon lords. There's one human kingdom which allies with the demons. None of the kingdoms are particularly new or interesting, mostly because they're all remnants of older kingdoms from before the invasion.
This is a pretty cliche fantasy story. One that's been done many times. Yet this is exact same story of the first 80% of Shadowbringers, only with a palette swap. Instead of being shown as "demons", the enemies are shown as "angelic". Instead of eternal night, it's an eternal day. Only there is zero difference in behavior. The change is only skin-deep.
The last 20% is an Ascian story. But it did not feel much different than the Lahabrea story from ARR. The execution was superb, true, with a great villain and set-pieces. But ultimately it was just a retread of what had happened before. There were moments where I thought the Ascian would do something new, take the story in a different direction, and break new ground. But ultimately that never happened, and everything fell into the old patterns.
I would rate Heavensward as the best expansion, then Stormblood, then Shadowbringers, and finally ARR. Stormblood stumbled a bit in execution, but I thought it was more interesting and more ambitious than Shadowbringers.