Final Fantasy XIV Stormblood preview: The dungeon

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One of the core parts of Final Fantasy XIV is dungeon crawling. I’m reluctant as heck to say that it lies at the very heart of the game – after all, there’s acres of content and gameplay which never involves setting foot in a dungeon, and that’s even if you count the other instanced content which is technically not a dungeon under the same header – but it’s sure somewhere near the heart. One of the lungs, perhaps. Or the aorta. It’s important, that’s the real takeaway.

So it only makes sense that as part of our hands-on look at Stormblood, we would get to dive into a dungeon. I can’t tell you the story behind Shisui of the Violet Tides here, but I can tell you it was synced to level 63 and it was very visibly part of the aesthetics of Othard. It was time to take on the challenge of the dungeon with nothing more than pluck, determination, and a large number of role skills and class changes pretty much none of us had yet acclimated to!

And thus I took Red Mage as my job in the dungeon, because I hadn’t made it hard enough on myself yet.

I freely admit that I actually had an ulterior motive in taking Red Mage, or more accurately, three ulterior motives. The first was the fact that it meant I would get a chance to really put the job through its paces, something that’s harder to do when just exploring around the world. The second was that as I didn’t have the interface I was accustomed to at home, Red Mage would keep me on my toes and more likely to pay attention to what was actually going on rather than trying to hit abilities and doing the wrong thing repeatedly.

And the third? Well, I was pretty sure I could play a job I had never seen before that day well enough to make a positive impression. All things considered, I think I did pretty well.

One meta-element here which I feel is important to note is that we all synced down to level 63, which means that the dungeon unlock pattern is notably different from Heavensward. Each leveling dungeon in Heavensward unlocked on an odd level and synced to an even one, which meant that you were winding up in dungeons with people who had no new ability and those who didn’t. The fact that this syncs to 63 implies to me that the unlocks will be on even levels, ensuring that people always have a new ability to play with. I would guess, based on this, that we’ll have leveling dungeons at 60, 62, 64, 66, and 68, with 70 reserved for top-level dungeons as always. (This also bypasses the issues of Great Gubal Library prior to the item level sync.)

I just moved here, but I would still like to live here.

We started in an area which I can’t help but think of as Dangruf Wadi – Far East Edition, which will make perfect sense to Final Fantasy XI veterans. There were little coral bushes, geysers of water, sea creatures swarming around, shallow ponds… you get the idea. If you think of the Sahagin area in La Noscea, you won’t be too far off.

Like any trash pulls in an FFXIV dungeon, these were segmented in a few to an area, with a geyser launching us into the next area each time we finished with a given batch. It was a good chance to get a handle on our AoE capabilities and learn some of the rough patterns of the area, which is always welcome.

The first boss was a crustacean sort who attacked, as you do, and had a habit of both summoning adds and occasionally latching on to a party member. That meant we had to quickly destroy one of his legs, which flipped him onto his back and applied Vulnerability Up to him. It wasn’t the most mechanically complex boss fight I’ve seen, but the obvious point of comparison is Sohm Al, and this already felt more awake and engaging.

Once the first boss was dispatched, we began moving through an Eastern-style palace, with sliding doors of rice paper and various Eastern guards accosting us. These were probably the more bland trash pulls of the whole thing, without much taking place outside of paying attention and having some nice scenery. It was filler before the second boss.

The mechanics of the second boss took us all a little bit to figure out, but once we did, it was pretty cool. The boss is surrounded by four treasure chests, one at each of the diagonal compass points (northwest, southwest, et al). Running into a treasure chest hits you with an Old debuff – your character turns into an old, shambling wreck, unable to use abilities or move quickly. This is almost always a bad thing. However, the boss periodically uses a seduction move and then a large-area spinning kick… but the seduction fails if your character is Old.

Again, it’s not a terribly complex mechanic, and we didn’t lose anyone. But once we got it, it made the fight much easier. There were parts that got a little touch-and-go, which gave me good opportunity to use my Red Mage utility spells when our healer got caught in a couple of seduction attempts. Making full use of Chainspell and heals, we pulled through and moved to the last section.

I'm happy to say that Othard doesn't feel like Japanland Theme Park, unlike some games I could name. Cough.This area was out on the walkways above the saltwater marshes, and it had a new wrinkle in the form of slowly drifting puffer fish who would explode when someone walked nearby. The result was that these trash pulls had added AoE fields popping up unexpectedly, forcing us all to stay on our toes. It was also around this point when I finally realized why I couldn’t seem to pull off my Verholy/Verflare combos; specifically, because we were level synced below when Red Mage learns those spells.

Stupid? Yes, intensely. But in my defense, I had never played this class before that day, and I figured it out faster than our Summoner (who mains Summoner) noticed that Shadow Flare is now instant cast. (There was a lot of us giggling at one another for not noticing or missing things, which made the overall experience much more fun.)

Once we hit the final boss, a tentacled monstrosity clearly derived in model terms from Cuchulainn, it was time to hit the really big guns. The boss had a lot of tricks, including summoning adds, turning the room into a whirlpool where she would dive and resurface, and some nasty AoEs to dodge. I don’t recall any specific mechanics which taxed us beyond “kill adds, dodge bads,” but it required a fair bit of mobility, and for Red Mage in particular I had to be careful to time my melee rushes so that I didn’t get caught in something nasty or hit her before she submerged.

Once it was all over, we enjoyed the obligatory moment of celebration and evaluated our loot, which had a couple of nice models (the gear design team has not taken this expansion off). The whole experience felt no longer or shorter than the average Heavensward leveling dungeon, albeit a little slower as we were learning things for the first time.

Compared to its obvious equivalent in Heavensward, Sohm Al, the dungeon felt far faster and much more fun. One of the things that bothered me about Heavensward was that the first few dungeons felt so mechanically simple that you could sleepwalk through them; by contrast, I felt more engaged during each of the boss fights. It also emphasized careful play, mobility, and timing; standing in place during these fights is not something you can afford to do on the regular, so you should be prepared to move and adjust repeatedly.

At the end of the day, though, this basically just sent a simple message: the high points of FFXIV’s dungeon design are being carried on through to Stormblood, and if you’ve been impressed by the game’s design so far, you will continue to be impressed. The dungeon carries on the high standards in visual flair and entertaining mechanics, and it still requires attention to detail while not feeling overly punishing on a single mistake. It’s more of the same, perhaps, but “the same” is already really great.

I may also now qualify as a world first NA player clearing a dungeon on Red Mage, and I attracted praise from the staff members watching me. Ulterior motives validated.

Disclosure: Lodging and travel expenses were provided by Square-Enix for the purposes of this preview event. Well, except for the two Lyfts I had to take, and the price of the BART, but those weren’t a big deal. I had never actually used Lyft before, but I was suitably impressed by the experience I had here. Good on you, Lyft! You’ve got some great drivers in San Francisco, it seems.¬†All of the content previewed is, of course, under development and subject to change before release. I will not be held responsible if the final boss of this dungeon becomes less waifu-material before it launches.
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