I'm not even supposed to be here.
Every MMO eventually ends up running into the same problem: stagnation. The genre itself is inherently focused around the concept of a feedback loop, but eventually that loop runs into diminishing returns. How long will a player run the same kind of dungeons for the same kind of rewards until they just get fed up and quit altogether? How can you change the game without getting too risky so you can stay positive on subscription returns?
Plenty of developers have tried to find solutions; a famous example being World of Warcraft’s garrison system, an almost facebook-style base building mode where every couple hours you could send followers out to get you gold, crafting materials, or even things like mounts and pets. Ultimately it reduced the amount of things players could do once they reached end-game drastically. Why go kill enemies out in the world, or run dungeons for crafting items when your garrison could get the same items with little to no effort on your part? Even worse, why even leave your garrison at all? This type of content was meant to give players a reason to login every day but it ultimately gave players a reason to just avoid playing the game entirely. Even when they did feel like playing, other players being in their own instanced garrisons meant the experience was much more solitary.
Other developers have tried putting focus on being different: Providing a menagerie of randomly generated daily quests, shuffling around PvP modes every so often, or adding one-off baubles like mini-games to try and make the game feel more varied. At best, they last for a decent amount of a content cycle. At worst, they can cause players to get so frustrated they stop playing en masse.
Final Fantasy XIV itself is no stranger to poor decisions. Hell, 2.0 FFXIV was called A Realm Reborn because of the mistakes made in 1.0, a time in which the game was so atrocious Square Enix opted to wipe out the entire in-game world to start over anew. After finding success in their new ideas, the development team started to play it pretty safe from then on out; why try to change what had already fixed so much?
With 3.0’s launch, the development team was finally faced with the issue, players weren’t going to stick around if the patch cycle was going to be two dungeons, a raid, and a boss fight every time. Unfortunately their desire to “stay safe” while still trying to mix it up were a little less than successful. Between the disaster that was The Diadem, a pseudo-open world type dungeon where you could gather, explore, and fight at “your own leisure”, and poorly executed minigames like Chocobo Racing and Lords of Verminion, their attempts to freshen up the average player’s day-to-day have all been met with staunch criticism from the player base.
That’s what makes Patch 3.35’s Palace of The Dead a welcome change. It demonstrates both the development team’s willingness to try new things, as well as showing they do in fact have what it takes to pull something fresh off well.
Palace of The Dead is an almost rogue-like take on an FFXIV dungeon. Your goal is to make it through fifty procedurally generated floors of a labyrinth, check-pointed at sets of ten floors for convenience. On the surface, that sounds like it could just be like any other dungeon, but there’s a few tricks: you can enter the dungeon with any party composition of up to four players, your armor and weapons will no longer affect your stats, and most importantly, your character level will be set back to one. This means that as you progress through the dungeon, you’ll be leveling back up to sixty, albeit at a much faster rate.
That’s one of the best features of this new mode, it allows players of any level or class to go into a dungeon together and progress at the same rate. Do you have a level twenty-six buddy slogging through the main story who just really wants to play with you but is stopped at every turn by level gates? Well hey, pop on over to the palace and run a few floors with them; you’ll both be on a level playing field and get rewards like pets, mounts, or materia that you can both use.
More interestingly, you’re able to obtain items called “Pomanders,” which provide a myriad of features ranging from temporary stat buffs, to treasure chest drop rate boosts, to the ability to change into a giant manticore who can one-shot every enemy for a full minute. These items, and the thought you have to put into using them, really help make Palace of The Dead feel like a fresh experience. No longer are you just running through the railroaded dungeons you’d do any other day- you’re exploring! You’re not waiting for the same old mob wave to finish, you’re weighing your options: do I use this Pomander to remove the traps here or save it for later? Should I risk going into this last uncharted room on the map to see if there’s a silver chest, or do I just hurry to the next floor? These types of situations can be fun to strategize for in a full party, or satisfyingly tough to face when running it solo.
Now, I’ve done a great job of explaining what makes this new dungeon good, but like the headline says, it’s a good start. There are plenty of issues to be found: underwhelming bosses at each tenth floor, simplistic difficulty when in a party, low drop rates for certain items, and an overall short length (around four hours to get to floor fifty). While these issues are annoying, they’re still minute enough that I spent more of my time in the dungeon having fun with my friends than complaining about it. While it was kind of a bummer to see a re-skinned boss that could be defeated in under a minute just thrown in on the twentieth floor, I wasn’t actively frustrated by it. That’s what makes this experimental content better than something like The Diadem, which just felt like it was draining actual years off my life after just ten minutes. What helps this content succeed as well is its position as “Side Content.” This isn’t your 7th run of expert roulette this week, this is something fresh, something you can do when you just want to hang out. Palace of The Dead provides an option, and for what it tries to do I think it executes it pretty well.
Another reason I say “start” is because the plans the development team has for the content seem incredibly promising. Drop rates have already been adjusted in the most recent hot-fixes, and Patch 3.45 is set to add over a hundred new floors that have been described as being much more difficult than the fifty that are playable right now. It will depend on what the development team considers difficult, but if things like traps become more varied or something you can actively watch out for, or enemies intimidating by way of debuffs rather than just straight up damage dealing, the actual traversing of the dungeon itself could become an interesting challenge.
Final Fantasy XIV in its current form exists because of developers listening to player feedback. It’s been witness to many low points, but always manages to bounce its way back up in new and engaging ways. While it may not seem like much now, Palace of The Dead is a welcome breeze to the doldrums of FFXIV, which can only get stronger with time.