It’s been a long time coming. Deep Dungeons have returned to FFXIV, with Heaven-on-High offering Stormblood’s take on Palace of the Dead. These randomly generated dungeons were a highlight of Heavensward,and showcased a completely new approach to the game. Now I’ve had some hands-on time with the sequel, something struck me about what PotD got wrong — and HoH gets right. (Note: This article will assume a base level of knowledge about Deep Dungeons and Palace of the Dead. If you’re lost, check out my preview from last week, or, better yet, leap in yourself!)
In many regards, Heaven-on-High is the antithesis of Palace of the Dead. Rather than going deeper and deeper underground, you’re clawing your way closer to the heavens with each floor. Gone are the miserable caves that occupied most of PotD — the aesthetic, at least early on, ranging from japanese-style manicured gardens and tatami mats. The story, too, is much less grim. I’ve not run into any NPCs who died in the main scenario, for starters.
Window dressing aside, though, it’s not all that different to palace. Pomanders and the Accursed Hoard are back. Traps, floor effects and mimic chests return, along with the way you level up weapons and armor. And the structure of ten floor blocks with a boss at the end is brought forward essentially unchanged, barring a few twists here and there. One of the coolest of these are wide-open floors with no walls, trapped exits, and patrols from all sides.
Get past 30, though, and things start to change. The challenge starts ramping up, and individual enemies bring out mechanics you’d expect to see in boss fights like stack markers. Mimics go from being a funny annoyance to a genuine threat, and running around carelessly and tripping traps can end a run. The decor starts to change, too; the Tatami give way to segmented ruins with a weird, almost cyberspace-y aura coming off the walls. The journey to floor 100 — the final stage — is treacherous indeed.
For those that have read my prior Deep Dungeon sermons, this will probably evoke a sense of deja vu. That’s because this is pretty much what I said about floor 100+ of PotD, which few people made the journey to see. These latter floors were what made palace so damn special; it was the closest thing we’ve received to four-man savage content, which is something people have been asking for for years. The only problem was that it took so long to get there, and finding a group for it that could hold together the entire time was genuinely really difficult.
And so the conclusion I’ve come to is this: while Heaven on High isn’t different enough to change the minds of people that hated PotD, it does offer an opportunity for those that wanted to see the latter floors but never had the time or motivation to do so. If you never looked into a floor 200 Palace run, then you’re probably not aware of just how much graft it took. You could start at 50, but that still meant trudging through 150 floors; my group and I would approach this by doing 50 stages a session, so a full run would take three days. Furthermore, everything up to floor 150 wasn’t all that interesting once you’d done it a few times.
Compare this to Heaven-on-High, which only has 100 floors — and where the good stuff starts rearing its head as early as floor 30 — and it’s easy to see why Heaven-on-High is potentially much more appealing than its predecessor. It’s a bit like how the Challenge Log made Eureka appealing to those who were on the fence: It was never going to rope in people who were set against it, but it’s done a great job of bringing the content to a wider audience.
At first, I was kind of sad that the overall number of floors were cut down from 200 to 100, but the more I think about it, the smarter the decision feels. Myself and some FC mates ran 20-70 the other night in about two and a half hours. That’s the length of an average midcore savage raid. It required almost no preparation, and we saw the lion’s share of the tower. Sure, we wiped on the 70 boss (we had a disconnect and didn’t really understand the mechanics until it was too late). But it didn’t come at the end of a couple of days of progress. There was much less to be mad about, and, if we want to go back (and we do), we don’t need to set aside more than an evening.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. It still seems like it’s way too hard to solo as any job other than a Red Mage, and solo runs are still way too reliant on RNG, but I need to do some more testing. Summons and the new pomanders are a nice addition, but it’s been almost two years since Palace of the Dead was released and it seems like they could have iterated more upon the formula.
But Heaven-on-High still marks a considerable step forward because it’s broadened the audience for this sort of content. There weren’t that many people who managed to hit PotD’s deepest floors; one of the reasons I became such an evangelist for it was that it deserved way more interest than it actually gained. Fast forward to today, where there are multiple groups in my FC who’re slogging their way to the top, and at least one person who’s already managed it.
That’s the starkest difference of all, and perhaps that’s what Square Enix needs to iterate upon the formula further. A lot more people are going to experience the rigors of the Deep Dungeon, and a lot more people are going to have opinions about what the content’s like and how it can be built upon going forward. While Heaven-on-High isn’t a revolution, perhaps it’s not too much to say that it might pave the way for one.