For all that dungeons are a core part of the Final Fantasy XIV experience, this expansion was the lightest on top-end dungeons. Where Heavensward wound up with 13 over the course of its lifespan, Stormblood only got up to 10, as this was the first expansion without a new Hard dungeon in every single patch. This has some benefits (we now have a much longer backlog of dungeons to convert into speculative future hard modes), but it does make it almost stunning that we didn’t wind up feeling that pinch of fewer dungeons.
Every expansion of the game has meant that we’re getting fewer dungeons per patch. In the base game, we wound up getting 15 dungeons over the course of the patch cycle, while Heavensward offered 10 and Stormblood only gave us a paltry seven. How horrible! In terms of sheer numbers, I mean. In terms of actual dungeon quality the dungeons not only maintained the standards of Heavensward but actually improved on them in several points. And one small change actually helped this out a lot, as we now had a broader cycle of dungeons available in Expert roulettes.
One of the big problems that we did have all through the prior expansion was having two options for any given Expert roulette, handing out the exact same rewards and being at exactly the same point in terms of gear scaling. I opined at the time that we really could have done just fine by expanding the cycle to having four in the roulette at once, something that actually did happen when 4.1 added Skalla into the rotation along with Temple of the Fist, Kugane Castle, and Ala Mhigo.
Generally speaking, the lower number of dungeons didn’t wind up being something we particularly felt as a grave loss. We went from having two dungeons in the rotation on patches with two new dungeons to three in rotation when we just got one, there was less space for things to get particularly stale, but we did have the space to make each dungeon a little more involved. Obviously the reduced dungeon workload wasn’t devoted solely to enhancing the existing dungeons, but it does seem to have had something of a knock-on effect.
It also avoided one of the crucial problems that could easily hit the game’s format, one of scaling. Obviously, FFXIV has confronted scaling issues more or less since launch; the addition of slightly older dungeons into the rotation could have made things rougher, but since the introduction of new Allagan stones always coincided with having two new dungeons introduced, overall balance was well-preserved. The scaling was tuned for each Expert to feature three dungeons of roughly equivalent challenge, and the gear ceilings always allowed for a variance in power without getting overwhelming.
Of course, this seems like as good a place to touch on class design as any, which was clearly meant as a response to the problems that we saw in late-expansion Heavensward. Rather that trying hard to hit the brakes on what had become the preferred way to pull things, Stormblood instead pushed abilities and job design to make mass-pulling more of a game of interaction instead of blandly waiting. Pretty much every job has a more involved AoE rotation than spamming one or two abilities (Red Mage and Ninja have among the simplest AoE rotations and even they require work), and tanks have various different choices to make to maximize output and survival during those huge pulls.
Dark Knight in particular seems to have been tailor-made to walk on a knife’s edge between utter invulnerability and near-death during mass pulls, using Blackest Night, Abyssal Drain, and Quietus to keep threat and keep moving. It’s actually fun to play, rather than a matter of massing things and waiting for slow but unengaging damage to tick things down.
Moreover, the actual pulls are spaced so that they do have their own character even if you pull everything up to the next barrier. There’s usually an enemy or two or specific mechanics that keep you familiar with the pulls up to each gate, but the pulls can be split up if your gear level is lower or you’re unfamiliar with the dungeon or whatever. Instead of forcefully hitting the brakes on the way players were enjoying the game, the dungeons lean in on the actual play and doubles down on making it more fun.
It’s telling that my hopes for dungeons in Shadowbringers comes down to being basically the same. I sure wouldn’t mind two dungeons in each patch and maybe four-dungeon Expert rotations, but if nothing at all changes that will be great also. Keep on keeping on.
This seems like as good a place as any to segue to this particular topic, really. This was the expansion that really leaned in on job gauges for everything, with all jobs save Blue Mage getting one. And the results of the gauges were… well, let’s say mixed.
It’s fair enough to say that none of the gauges made a job worse. Several of them, however, were not appreciably improved by the gauge, either. That’s fine in and of itself, but sometimes the gauges felt less like a mechanic of the job (Red Mage, Samurai, and Black Mage spring to mind) and more like a mechanic in search of some abilities to care (Paladin, White Mage, and Scholar). At best they did a good job of reinforcing what was already cool about the jobs.
Beyond that, the overall job design continued on in the vein of the concepts put forth in the prior expansion, with all jobs basically varying between “accumulate and unload” mechanics and “maintain status” mechanics. All of the jobs now feature some balance of the two at this point, although it’s frequently in isolated bursts; Paladin wants to accumulate MP to unload Holy Spirit spam, but it doesn’t build beyond that. Dragoon gets some interplay with accumulating Eyes of the Dragon, but it’s still more about maintaining Blood than building up to Nastrond.
While the homogeneity between given job practitioners remains an issue, it’s not an issue between jobs. Yes, it’s still kind of blah that any two Black Mages play the same; any given Black Mage plays wildly differently than any given Red Mage or Summoner, though, despite all having the same role. The jobs feel distinct and intriguing still, and most of them reward a fun amount of mechanical precision without being punishing of mistakes. That’s not universally true (playing Ninja with high ping is a bit of a nightmare), but it does seem to have been a goal.
By and large, I feel like the next expansion is the time for the team to focus on refining the job gauges and balance elements that exist in the game. There are jobs doing better than others (as we’ve discussed) and gauges that make more or less sense, but the foundation is there, and nothing has had its identity changed to the point of irrelevance.
And, you know, we need some internal customization. I say that every time.
Feedback is welcome in the comments below or via mail to email@example.com, like always. Next week? Trials, raids, and all of that fun content. We’re onto the back nine!