In the depths of the Central Shroud, a new menace arises. Travellers talk of undead horrors walking the lands. Gridania’s best and bravest soldiers are barely able to hold back the encroaching menace. They need heroes to venture into the tombs of former kings and restore the undead to the dignity of death.
Okay, so I’m not going to do a sudden career change and become a fantasy content writer.
A few words of caution are needed before we dive in. First, the description and reviews which follow are based on Beta content. The game is still in development and things will change. Thus, while I think this is a fair assessment of Tam Tara Deepcroft as it played in Beta, it may not be as accurate about the launch (or even next Beta phase) variant of Tam Tara Deepcroft.
Second, this description and review is a bit spoiler-oriented. I will avoid giving out major spoilers (e.g. no discussion of specific mechanics here), but it’s hard to talk about the dungeon properly without talking about aspects of the game and zone design.
Third, when I talk dungeons, I talk from the perspective of a tank. I have, on rare occasions, played DPS and healed in MMO’s, but I’m generally the tank. So, if I’m focusing a bit too much on threat mechanics and encounter composition, that’s my tanking bias shining through.
So, with that all cleared up, let’s begin!
A Dungeon Preview
Tam Tara Deepcroft is the first dungeon available to beta players. It is located in the central shroud, just south of Bentbranch Meadows. The dungeon is designed for a “light party” of four players (full parties are eight players) and is tuned for players in the 15-19 level range. At least for the present, entry into dungeons requires at least one player to run out to the dungeon entrance to talk to a gatekeeper NPC. The remainder of the party need only be in the same zone as the instance.
The Final Fantasy series is recognized for high production values in its cinematics and the introductions to dungeons do not disappoint. Players are treated to a camera pan through of the dungeon accompanied by theme appropriate music.
Once into the dungeon, players will discover that FFXIV treats dungeon instances a bit differently than other MMO’s. Dungeons are timed, you have one hour to complete the instance or the duty fails. Additionally, while the main objective is linear, there are branching paths which might just contain some additional treasure. Does the party make a mad dash to complete the objectives? Or, should it branch out and explore some side rooms, possibly increasing the loot haul, but risking failure?
For TTD, the primary goal is taking down a set of magical barriers preventing the players from reaching “the big bad.” Doing so requires working your way through the usual dungeon encounters. Several of these count as mini-boss encounters and one Lieutenant is present along the way. The fights are not overly complicated, but there is enough here to make the dungeon interesting for lower level teams.
Completing the objectives for the instance rewards players with another cutscene as the primary dungeon boss is introduced. Fans who have watched the benchmark video multiple times (/raises hand) will recognize the entry sequence as that occurring just prior to the Limit Break.
The final boss fight is a good one. While not as mechanically complex as fights in later dungeons, the fight features stages and a mechanic that is best avoided but can be worked through. Your party is going to need to coordinate reasonably well to get through. For experienced teams this won’t be a major challenge, but for new players learning new roles, Galvanth is a nice step in a group-oriented direction.
A dungeon crawl wouldn’t be a dungeon crawl without loot and TTD is no exception. The dungeon is stocked with a series of treasure chests. All of the major encounters end with a treasure chest and there are a number of chests scattered throughout the dungeon for explorers. Some of the explorable chests are cash-drop oriented, but several have magic items. These explorable chests are usually on off-branches, pushing parties to consider stepping off the primary path at the risk of running out of time.
So, What Did I Think?
Tam Tara Deepcroft (TTD) is best thought of as a new player dungeon. I don’t mean that pejoratively as in, for instance, “summer action movie.” I mean that TTD is setup to transition players, both old and new, into the grouping aspects of FFXIV. At the point you enter TTD, characters have a very limited ability tool-set to draw on. For example, as a Gladiator , I had a threat combo, a pbaoe threat generator, a ranged threat generator and a couple of defensive abilities. I had no ability to “snap aggro” and pickup threat if a party member took it. Those abilities come later.
Gladiators lacking on demand aggro is actually important going into this dungeon. Up until this point, players have largely played either solo (questing) or in parallel (on FATE), but really no group mechanics have been at play. TTD is where classes begin learning about threat mechanics and the roles each class plays in a combat team.
This is where the FFXIV UI is nice. There are two threat meter systems available, one attached to the party UI and the other floating. The party meter displays the amount of threat that each party member has on the current target while the floating meter tells each party member the amount of threat they personally have on all encounter targets. Combined, the two meters do a good job of keeping the entire party aware of where things stand on threat management.
FFXIV has some nice visuals for threat too. When a player engages a target, a white arrow ars from that player towards the target. When a creature acquires threat on a new target, an orange arc runs from the creature to the target. These tools help a party keep track of who has what on them. TTD is built to help players get used to the tools and to use them reflexively, I really appreciate that design step. Obviously, if you don’t like threat based and role based combat systems, such things won’t appeal to you, but I think we’re talking different audiences at that point.
The encounters are nicely laid out. The early fights are pretty straight forwards while latter fights feature more monsters per encounter and encounters that are better spaced out, making it a bit more challenging for the Gladiator to hold aggro. Particularly when going through TTD in a low-level team, Conjurer’s have to make decisions between healing and threat. Spamming heals will keep that Gladiator standing, but you will very quickly find yourself getting attention from most of monsters. DPS, similarly, are learning when to engage, when to lay it on and when to back off a bit.
Ranged creatures like to stay at ranged, meaning the party has to work to keep pack fights under control. It’s not hard work, but for people new to their roles, it’s a good learning step. Those are skills that come in handy later and TTD helps you learn them. I really get the sense that the designers of TTD were trying to build better party players and, as a long time dungeon tank, I appreciate that.
So called “trash mobs” in FFXIV aren’t paper towels. They have some hit points and they do some damage, particularly to those not walking around with a cargo ship’s worth of metal attached to them and carrying a barn door for a shield. Having played a number of MMO’s recently where trash mobs are simply “stack em up and burn em down,” I like seeing the trash fights be at least modestly threatening again. An experienced group will still run through these on auto-pilot, but TTD is very useful for those without thousands of dungeon hours of experience.
I am a bit more on the fence about the dungeon timer idea. I like the idea that how well a team played should influence party rewards in a dungeon. I think that some form of performance metric could be useful in helping with the replayability of dungeons. I don’t, though, think that a timer is the right metric. Timers encourage bringing all DPS and overleveling to and overpower a zone, not learning to play the encounter while its still challenging. In a level based system, over-leveling the content always trivializes it and putting a timer on the primary objectives, I fear, runs the risk of people missing what’s good about TTD.
TTD for a new group of level 15’s in quested/crafted gear is a fun, reasonably challenging zone. TTD for a group of level 19’s is a speed run. You already know players are going to be going for speed, my fear is that the timer system is going to encourage pick-up groups to treat the dungeons level requirement as three to five levels higher than intended. That’s a shame because there is some really nice dungeon design here.
My other concern about time as a metric is that it turns a dungeon crawl into an episode of “the Amazing Race.” No offense to the TV show of the same name, races are cool and all, but dungeons are supposed to be about challenge and exploration. The timer effect turns the monsters into speed bumps to be avoided, not challenges to be overcome.
Closing on a positive note, though, TTD demonstrates that FFXIV retains the group oriented roots of the series. While the outdoor game is, at least in beta, a very soloable experience, the dungeons require teammates working together. Having finished each of the three dungeons available in Beta 2, the complexity increases in each dungeon. Assuming that the 40+ level content increases in complexity, the end game dungeon and raid game for FFXIV should be right in line with what the group/role based MMO fans are looking for.
Additionally, the experience gains for dungeon runs are solid. Players looking to level up in group play will find that the pace of dungeon xp-gain is at least equivalent to outdoor grouping and FATE. Atop that, the group players get to see some really interesting content, learn important party roles for later game play, and bring in some unique looking gear with great stats. As a group oriented player, this gives me all sorts of happy thoughts.
There won’t be a companion piece at Eorzea Reborn for this article. The NDA still applies outside of media sites like MMORPG.com, so I’m not going to get into specifics about FFXIV over at Eorzea Reborn until that drops. I will be putting together an underground review for Toto-Rak and Haukke Manor, the other two dungeons available in the last Beta. A quick preview, the encounters get more complex, the loot is pretty cool, and the zones have great ambience.
What are your views about dungeons? How should a game deliver group content? Should low level dungeons be built for accessibility or “kick you in the teeth,” hard? Hey, wait, is that a treasure chest around the corner? Drop down into the discussion below and share your thoughts.
Ryahl is a columnist for MMORPG.Com. He is also the host and primary author for Eorzea Reborn and TSWGuides. He has been playing MMO’s since 1999 and spends most of his MMO time underground in dungeons. You can follow him on Twitter @EorzeaReborn or just argue with him in comments anywhere he posts.