Wisdom of Nym: Deep-diving Final Fantasy XIV’s leveling structure

Now the story can be told...
I do a lot of leveling in Final Fantasy XIV. This is, in part, because I am stupid; for several dumb reasons I have my main character and six alts, which is not seven only because Balmung is currently locked. (As soon as that changes? Seven.) I also have a spreadsheet tracking my progress across every character that currently has me finishing up – as in, bringing a single job for each alt and every class for my main – in early November. So I spend a lot of time thinking about leveling. And I think the game is better than it’s ever been in Stormblood, in leveling as well as other departments.

Of course, there are people who aren’t as happy about it, for understandable reasons. There are dead spaces for every job in the current leveling setup, levels where you get either nothing or no impactful additions. (A trait boosting your primary stat is definitely important, but it doesn’t really change what you’re doing.) It’s even prompted some people complaining about how late certain jobs get their core mechanics and how the level sync works.

So let’s talk about all of this. And more to the point, let’s start by explaining why a lot of the staggering of abilities amounts to, in fact, a good thing.

This is, I should note, not the same as saying that all abilities feel good at the level cap.Of course, to talk about that we first need to agree on something that seems, at least to me, fairly non-controversial: At max level, every single job seems to be designed to require about 24 buttons, give or take a few. This is not a law of nature, but I can reliably fit all of my necessary abilities on two hotbars, allowing for a bit of spillover for role actions and stuff that I don’t need to hit reliably and quickly every time like limit breaks.

That many abilities, however, is not really the same as the core mechanic. Case in point: The core mechanic of Dragoon revolves around maintaining Blood of the Dragon and upgrading it to Life of the Dragon for powerful Nastrond spam, a cycle of building and spamming that keeps up routinely. And that mechanic isn’t fully in place until level 70. So why isn’t the job’s mechanic more frontloaded? Why do you have to wait until 70 for something so central?

Dragoon is useful here specifically because we can break down how it works so easily. In order to get that central mechanic, see, we need all of the following:

  1. A full three-hit weaponskill combo for a fundamental balance.
  2. A fourth hit that can only be accessed when Blood of the Dragon is active.
  3. Blood of the Dragon itself.
  4. Jump, which is where the main boost of Blood of the Dragon is found.
  5. Geirskogul, the ability that’s only up during Blood of the Dragon.
  6. Mirage Dive, which actually allows unlocking Life of the Dragon.
  7. Life of the Dragon itself.

That’s nine abilities, and through the strictest numerical rules, you could get away with having all of that in your toolbox by around level 16. Of course, you’d also have no other traits, none of your other important maintenance skills like Heavy Thrust, no buffs, and so forth. And you’d also have to move Jump from being the initial job-defining ability for Dragoon into Lancer, which is… problematic.

It would also change the fact that leveling is specifically meant, over time, to teach you how to play the game. Not always explicitly, but the slow roll of abilities is very intentional; even the jobs that start at higher levels still start with more simple structures before rolling out more complex ideas. Dragoon, for example, spends the first 50 levels teaching how to maximize your Heavy Thrust time and rotate your two combos, then it introduces you to your Blood of the Dragon extension to make them four-hit combos, then it introduces the idea that Blood of the Dragon is more than just a buff to Jump and Spineshatter. By the time you’re on to the core mechanics, you’ve had time to examine and understand how the earlier parts of the job work.

If you want to see the alternative in action, well… play Monk. Functionally, Monk is pretty well complete at level 50; every subsequent ability is there to more or less either smooth out your flow or give you something to do when Monk is otherwise stuck with downtime. As a result, it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying to get to higher levels simply because, well, your core rotation isn’t changing. It’s the same all the way along.

And believe me, once you're used to Blood of the Dragon, you miss it on alts who don't have it.Yes, this does feel a bit lopsided at times. It feels strange, for example, to not have Blackest Night on Dark Knight until 70 when it so fundamentally changes the availability of Blackblood… but it also serves as a big show-stopping ability when you’ve learned how to manage and use your Blackblood skills up to that point. Instead of being taught right away that it’s functionally unlimited, you learn to use the skills more sparingly and don’t try to spam them when you can use them more often.

This, I think, is part of why the game’s level sync works the way it does. Yes, as a 70 Machinist, I don’t like being synced to a level with Gauss Barrel but with no actual control over my heat. But while there are spaces to shove, say, Cooldown into an earlier slot, none of them has the feel of teaching the job or the satisfaction when you get to a level and find out you can control your heat – or when you find out you want to run up your heat at the right times. It makes those last abilities feel satisfying.

Of course, the obvious argument is that you could just get a tutorial instead of being “taught” through leveling, but I think that’s missing the point of how this sort of teaching works. The point isn’t that the game tells you to use abilities in a certain order; the point is getting that into your muscle memory. You don’t have to be told “Heavy Thrust, Chaos Thrust combo, Jump, Full Thrust combo, refresh Heavy Thrust” at any point because you learn each piece individually. By the time you’re working everything together, it feels natural and instinctive.

Dead zones while leveling are not fun, and they’re a bit of a problem. But they’re also an inevitable function, and they reflect a desire to make sure that the dead zones come not at the end or the beginning of leveling but toward the middle. In fact, most of the highly dead zones come at a period where the game’s initial story is moving into high gear, thus giving you something else to get tied up in… and also at the point where you learn about jobs and how they work.

Plus, the mechanics are designed to work with what you have. When I sync Monk down, I miss having my Chakra gauge… but I also don’t have as much time during boss fights where I can’t do anything but open my chakra, nor are there as many jumps that would justify Tornado Kick. Few fights in Tam-Tara would even last long enough to break out Life of the Dragon if I could, and with the extra damage that would generate they’d be even shorter.

At the end of the day, I think the game’s leveling process remains very strong, even though there are several portions along the way that aren’t as much fun to be in. It’s about the journey and the destination alike, and when you consider that the game is designed to reward you with your best skills at the point when you’ll be using them most consistently… well, it makes a certain amount of sense.

Feedback, as always, is welcome down in the comments or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Next time, we’ll finally have the second part of that live letter, so we can talk more about patch 4.1. Heck, hopefully we’ll even have a date then.

The Nymian civilization hosted an immense amount of knowledge and learning, but so much of it has been lost to the people of Eorzea. That doesn’t stop Eliot Lefebvre from scrutinizing Final Fantasy XIV each week in Wisdom of Nym, hosting guides, discussion, and opinions without so much as a trace of rancor.
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