One of the things that I really do love about Final Fantasy XIV, from relaunch to now, is that it is indisputably a game that begins as it means to go on. By the time you have reached 50, you’ve seen all of the styles of content that the game intends to throw at you, and from there it’s just a matter of execution and new versions of that content. Being a veteran means that you half want the designers to surprise you with something completely new and half fear the upheaval that would cause.
Zone maps and the lackluster depths
Here’s the biggest weakness with the way that the zone maps were presented. I entirely understand the choice to have no underwater or swimming combat, and the rationale there was smart. It also meant that the underwater areas could be big and expansive, giving you plenty of stuff to look at. Far from uniform scenes, the underwater stretches of each region of the game feel distinct and different in entertaining ways.
It’s a pity, then, that there’s not much to do down there. The Ruby Sea in particular suffers from this. A huge chunk of the zone is devoted to a gigantic seascape that, while gorgeous, offers no real content beyond gathering nodes and the aforementioned gorgeous seascape. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve yet really gotten content that makes great use of going underwater; similarly, there’s a reason that no other zone makes much use of underwater exploration. It’s not even present in The Peaks or The Fringes.
This would all be a major problem if the expansion maps suffered for lack of things to do as a result of the diving. Fortunately, while swimming has yet to be rolled out in all the places it would be nice and remains something of a curiosity on a whole, the actual maps are still big and nice. It doesn’t feel like we lost out on content in exchange for swimming, so it’s hard to feel too cranky about it.
While Heavensward had a few zones with some major issues (Churning Mists looks bland, Azys Lla is empty, Sea of Clouds is a pain to navigate), Stormblood largely avoids these problems. It can be a bit annoying dealing with the two elevations in The Peaks, but flying between them isn’t horribly onerous; the Ruby Sea has that big underwater stretch in the middle, but the actual islands are interesting and there are some neat switchbacks.
Three of the zones are also nicely bisected in a way that feels very organic, allowing the story to explore content and travel further without more overall zones. After the initial two starting zones, Heavensward basically has you go zone-by-zone and clear each one out; Stormblood, on the other hand, uses half of its zones twice over, and each one has both a unified look and a distinct visual character to each half.
Overall, I think I prefer the zones in Ala Mhigo and Othard. They have some failings, but they feel at once more grounded and more interested in doing stuff with the entire map. Pity about diving, though.
The leveling dungeon experience
I was none too fond of the first two dungeons in Heavensward because both of them felt perfunctory. Thankfully, that isn’t a problem we have in Stormblood. In fact, the earliest dungeons are arguably the best leveling experiences in the expansion; if you’re looking for a dud in the bunch, I’d look to Doma Castle, and even that is debatable.
While the early dungeons are definitely tuned and meant to be easier mechanically than the expert-level dungeons immediately beforehand (likely as an easier on-ramp for people who finished up the MSQ and then took a long break), they’re also not simple by any means. It’s entirely possible to wipe on bosses or trash in both Sirensong and Shisui, and I’ve watched more than a few overconfident players loudly profess that leveling content is stupidly easy before dying to easily avoided mechanics.
In general, it seems like the dungeons here were tuned toward both experimenting with new mechanics and presaging things that would later be very important. The stacking debuff fields and the forced movement abilities in Sirensong come up again later, as does the necessary debuff of Shishui and the plethora of mechanics present in Bardam’s Mettle. There are familiar mechanics, but the team clearly is still trying out new styles of fights and new ways to pace a boss encounter.
Doma Castle may be the weakest of the batch, but most of that is just due to a bunch of mechanics that come down to well-telegraphed dodging instead of asking you to do something different. It’s still a fun and interesting instance. As a whole, the leveling dungeons retain the high quality of dungeon content that the game has long trafficked on, showing off both unique designs and fights that require attention without being unfairly difficult.
The one complaint I really have is that the dungeon gear from Doma Castle is also really underwhelming. It’s a version of gear from the last expansion that you can’t dye, despite the base version being open for dye. Kind of a missed opportunity there, even if it has thematic justification.
This obviously wasn’t in the game at launch, but I’m including it here because there’s not a whole lot to be said about Heaven-on-High that’s wildly different from Palace of the Dead. It covers a narrower level band and the fact that it’s split into 1-30 and 31-100 instead of Palace having 1-50, 51-100, and 101-200 is probably a good thing on a whole; there’s less fluff and more effective content to pull you into the meat of the content. The top-level aspect of the content seems to have been downplayed compared to its work as leveling content, although that might just be my perception.
Regardless, Heaven-on-High made it clear that the Deep Dungeon format can indeed be brought format and remains compelling without requiring massive rewrites. What we had here were edits rather than wholesale alterations, and those edits make the game mode stay interesting and different. I look forward to our third Deep Dungeon in Shadowbringers, as I have no doubt we’ll get one.
Of course, this expansion as a whole did a lot of work to make leveling more doable across the board. Alliance Roulettes and bigger rewards for beast tribes had a big impact, as did things like the experience bonus on FATEs; it doesn’t feel like Heaven-on-High is as vital simply because, well, there’s just a much broader spectrum of ways to level. So on a whole, this expansion made for a better time when exploring the game world, even if that meant that things like the Deep Dungeon weren’t quite as arresting at first.
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, we’re going to start talking about expert-level content, starting – once again – with the dungeons. And there’s a lot to talk about there, even as we had fewer dungeons than ever before.