As Final Fantasy XIV’s first major expansion, Heavensward had a lot to live up to, and carried a pretty heavy burden, as far as solidifying the game’s foundation for the future goes, and now that it’s nearly over, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the expansion did well and what it didn’t. Sporadically over the next couple of months I’m going to collect some of my thoughts on various legs of the game. So far, I’ve talked about Anima Weapons, the Diadem, and the Main Scenario (spoilers!). For today, I’m going to be talking about Heavensward’s dungeons, both as individual pieces of content and in their role as one of the game’s central pillars.
It’s pretty difficult to progress in FFXIV without doing dungeons at least some of the time. They’re one of the better ways to level (though the Deep Dungeon now rivals them, at least in speed run groups), frequently required for the Main Scenario, and the main “delivery vehicle” for end-game Tomestone currencies. Most players, from the fairly casual non-raider to the dedicated end-game player will end up running a lot of dungeons over the course of their time in the game, and so it’s pretty important that they be strong content in a variety of ways.
In a general sense, I would say dungeon design has been a mixed bag in Heavensward, but given that dungeons are fulfilling two different roles (leveling content and core repetition content for endgame), I suppose that’s not surprising. Dungeons are frequently judged in two ways: how difficult they are, and how “fun” they are when frequently repeated. Because of their dual nature, it’s often quite difficult for a given dungeon to rank highly in both of those ways. A dungeon might be more engaging due to its difficulty but become dreadful when it’s done repeatedly precisely because of that difficulty.
Furthermore, whether a dungeon is a “leveling” one or an endgame changes whether difficulty or “farmability” is more important. Leveling dungeons can be farmed for experience, but we’ve also got a lot of ways to get experience outside of them, so they don’t have to be—this often allows them to be tuned for a more stable sort of difficulty than endgame dungeons can be. Endgame dungeons, by contrast, are frequently run ad nauseum for Tomestones, and runs that proceed at a slow place due to higher enemy hit point totals or (Twelve forbid) wipes can get tiresome even for players (such as myself) who generally enjoy dungeon gameplay.
On the difficulty front, Heavensward’s leveling dungeons were generally less forgiving than the leveling dungeons of A Realm Reborn. This makes sense, of course, since they can be designed assuming the player is much more familiar with the game post-50 than they would be at level 30 or so. Since the dungeons also come every two levels (as opposed to every three levels in ARR), their difficulty tends to be more steady—even coming in at the max level for a dungeon doesn’t provide a huge advantage, which makes the experience mostly the same whether you’re fresh to the dungeon or coming back to it for your next job (or a Leveling Roulette). That has both positives and negatives, of course, but in broad strokes, Heavensward’s leveling dungeons are polished experiences.
Heavensward’s standout example of fairly difficult tuning is the Vault, the penultimate leveling dungeon for the expansion. Relative to a lot of other dungeons, the Vault feels noticeably different, in that its mechanics, while not brutal, do require competent execution. It’s easy for any member of the party to die from a lack of awareness here, especially on the final boss, which stacks overlapping mechanics with relatively high incoming damage. Thanks to its position as a leveling dungeon, the Vault is also finely tuned with respect to incoming damage and enemy health pools, in a way that endgame dungeons usually aren’t. The dungeon also plays with the normal structure to a degree—for various segments of it, enemies actually charge the player, giving the dungeon a bit less of that static feel so common in most other dungeons.
The only leveling dungeon in Heavensward that’s left, I suppose, a bad taste in my mouth is Dusk Vigil. As the expansion’s first dungeon, it ends up facing some of the same issues that level 60 dungeons do. The initial Heavensward experience is tuned around an average item level of 110, but the highest attainable item level at level 50 was 130, and Dusk Vigil (to its credit) allows for players to make use of their hard-earned gear from A Realm Reborn. That creates something of an uneven experience and also makes the dungeon feel a bit unrewarding, since, like many endgame dungeons, there’s better gear for that level range than the dungeon itself rewards. Outside of its somewhat interesting final boss, most of Dusk Vigil is also just largely unmemorable, with bosses that don’t feel imposing and an environment that’s more or less Stone Vigil again (which we’d already been to twice in ARR).
As mentioned, Dusk Vigil is similar to endgame dungeons in that your gear can outstrip its intended tuning level. Heavensward’s level 60 dungeons are, truthfully, a lot less polished than the ones meant for levels 51-59. These dungeons typically need to account for a much wider range of player power than leveling dungeons do. Antitower, for example, is set to a minimum item level of 180, but allows gear up to level 240, which is a range three times greater than Dusk Vigil’s (and later Heavensward dungeons have even wider ranges). Core players will typically find dungeons to be very easy, since they often have gear 30 or more item levels higher than the dungeon’s baseline, which tends to remove difficulty from the equation for all but the freshest level 60 characters in a given dungeon (and then only if most of the group is similarly at the low end of things).
When it comes to “farmability,” though, few dungeons work as well as Great Gubal Library (Hard). Even at release, Gubal HM was easy, tuned for an average item level 40 levels below the patch’s i250 baseline (provided by both crafted gear and drops from Alexander). Nobody looking for a challenge was going to find it here (I wouldn’t be surprised if the dungeon is easy even at the baseline i210). What Gubal HM (and other dungeons like it) does have, though, in lieu of difficulty was a sense of momentum, through a combination of briskly paced enemy placements and pulls and bosses that live only just long enough to avoid becoming dull slogs. It easily remains the most memorable level 60 dungeon for me (though there are other competitors, like Gubal’s companion dungeon, Xelphatol, or Sohr Khai).
Not every endgame dungeon is a fast-paced demonstration of our ever growing power, though, with Aetherochemical Research Facility absolutely coming in as my most hated of Heavensward’s dungeons. While there’s a strong design incentive for ARF to have a more tightly controlled power range that more resembles the range of a leveling dungeon, since it’s the capstone of the base Heavensward Main Scenario and something very fresh level 60s are going into, it’s item level sync is far more strict than any other existing dungeons, capping players in a way that prevents the full benefit of gear that was available in the very same patch cycle. On top of the low item level cap, ARF is also excessively gated, with almost every pull doled out to the party in a controlled fashion, completely robbing the dungeon of a satisfying sense of momentum.
The more exciting sense of momentum I mentioned regarding Gubal HM is something common to most Heavensward dungeons, though, and it’s present enough that it seems to have been part of the overall design direction for dungeon content in the expansion. While the team has long been fond of gates and other walls meant to control pacing to a degree, they seem to now design most dungeons with a sense of rhythm that wasn’t often present in A Realm Reborn’s dungeons, which were overly fond of gated areas and tightly controlled enemy waves that can make progress feel like it’s slowing to a crawl.
On the whole, Heavensward dungeons are shorter than ARR’s (with even long runs taking about 25 minutes at most, opposed to the 30-35 minute runs that formed the tail end of the average possibility in 2.x). They also frequently “speed up” after the second boss, in that the number of enemies is reduced, or if there are a lot of them, they can often be gathered and eliminated in spectacular fashion (Gubal’s last full pull is a great example, but more recently we saw the same in Baelsar’s Wall). This sense of momentum does a lot to help with the sense of burnout that can come with repeated runs of longer, slower dungeons (of which even Heavensward has a few).
All the momentum in the world can’t help with the other, greater sense of burnout that comes with doing the same content day in and day out, though. Since dungeons are so central, we’ve always gotten more new dungeons than we do any other piece of content, in part to keep things interesting. Starting in Patch 2.1 during A Realm Reborn, we got three new dungeons per major content patch (one all new area and two re-imagined Hard Mode dungeons). That changed in Heavensward, though, where the team moved to providing only two per major patch, stating a desire to produce other types of end-game content. And while we have gotten additional content for most content patches (normal mode Alexander, the Aquapolis, the Deep Dungeon, and the Diadem), this has lead to some problems for dungeons in general, in the endgame.
For most core players, Expert Roulette ends up being the main reason they queue for dungeons. Other Roulettes are frequently not vastly useful, since Heavensward’s reward structures have largely devalued everything outside of the weekly capped Tomestone (Scripture, as of writing). Since the team has stuck to only including the most recently released dungeons, Expert Roulette has been a coin flip for about two years now, and that means the dungeons inside it can get old fast. Since endgame dungeons are at their core repetitive content, they can very easily feel like chores—variety can at the least keep things from feeling too stale. If you’re running Level 60 Roulette, you might see a dungeon you’ve not seen in months, but with Expert Roulette, chances are you saw the result you pull within the last few days.
This is admittedly made a bit worse in that the “dungeon formula” has gotten pretty stable over the last few years. Earlier dungeons in ARR were often more varied than the dungeons that came later in 2.x, containing environmental hazards or other novelties (such as the Tonberry Stalkers in the original Wanderer’s Palace), and for the most part, those things are pretty rare these days. When they do show up, they’re often less interesting than they are annoying, since most people want a smooth, uneventful run that’s over quickly—many of us have done hundreds or thousands of dungeons at this point—so things like the roaming tornadoes in Neverreap can be absolutely irritating.
This ties into the other major issue facing endgame dungeons—they simply aren’t rewarding in and of themselves for players who do them the most (and keep the queues running). Past the level cap, players who keep up with weekly Tomestone caps hit a point early on in Heavensward’s lifespan where dungeon drops were largely irrelevant to their main jobs (and sometimes, even their other jobs). Take the gear in 3.4’s dungeons (Gubal HM and Xelphatol), which was i235. On its face, that’s not so irrelevant—it’s better than the base level of the last raid tier’s capped Tomestone gear (i230). However, Patch 3.4 also added, of course, its own capped Tomestone gear (which was i260) and crafted/normal mode raid gear that was i250. Even 3.5’s dungeon gear is only i245, released at a time when players who kept up with weekly caps were probably i260 or higher on their main jobs. So, of course, players who cap their weekly Tomestones regularly are going to want to finish as quickly as possible—the only meaningful reward they get is at the very end of the dungeon, and that reward is dissociated from the dungeon itself, further contributing to burnout.
This is really part of a larger problem with FFXIV’s endgame activities, though, so I don’t want to dive into it too much in this post, since I plan on another retrospective that talks about the endgame structure as a whole. I will say, however, that I think dungeons, and the overall community, would benefit from being meaningful for more than just Tomestones. The gear drops they reward should be the main reason they exist, rather than serving only as catch up gear for newer or more casual players or Grand Company Seal fodder for more dedicated ones. I’ll probably talk about my thoughts for how that should be set up in a later retrospective, though, as the game’s reward structures need a lot of work.
As with a lot of Heavensward, the dungeons have been a mixed bag. I was a really big fan of the slightly more difficult dungeons from 51-59, and also really enjoyed the greater focus on momentum and pacing throughout the expansion’s dungeon design. But with the reduced number of dungeons (with none of the additional content we got in exchange really serving as a good way to cap Tomestones), the problem of burnout is a much bigger danger in Heavensward than it ever was in ARR. That’s something I really hope changes in Stormblood, but with dungeons being such a core component of the game, I don’t know that major changes will ever be forthcoming. That being said, I think there’s still room for improvement without really changing the foundation too much, and I’ll hopefully talk more about that soon.