Show me Heavensward: a Final Fantasy 14 diary – week 9

heavensward character

This is an ongoing series in which we explore the world of Final Fantasy XIV and all it has to offer – including the Heavensward expansion content – starting from scratch with a brand new character. Join us as we venture into Eorzea… 

Week 9: The Eorzean Escape

This being the final entry in my Final Fantasy XIV diary, I thought it only right to reflect on the past months and come to some sort of conclusion as to what it is that has made delving deeply into the game so enjoyable. Plus, it’s Christmas, so trying to unwrap the whole thing and understand it from a perspective beyond the aesthetic and immediate feels like a valuable point of meditation at this time of year.

In any case, I didn’t want to add another ‘This is what Christmas is like in FFXIV’ article to what is surely going to be a very tall pile by the end of this weekend.

Whenever I load up A Realm Reborn, click myself into the world and come to some sort of plan as to how I’m going to spend the next few hours, I’m always hit with a sense of loneliness. Not loneliness of the melancholic, isolated sense, but something altogether more positive, something calming and welcome.

FFXIV Heavensward

Amid the hustle and bustle of other mainstream games, obsessed with firing engagement after engagement at you in some vague scattergun approach to making sure you’re having an awesome, amazing, incredible (insert your own superlative here) time, here’s a game that dials the pace right back. FFXIV asks you what you want to do. It puts all the emphasis on you to create your fun out of what it offers.

For that reason it’s both welcoming and distant. On the one hand you’re greeted with open arms, on the other you’re left to your devices. To borrow a cliché: you more you put in, the more you get back. It’s like learning a foreign language. Probably.

As a result, then, when the rewards do come they feel infinitely more worthwhile than those that are awarded in other games for simply going through the preset motions. That loneliness, whilst certainly (to some extent) coming from you having to force the engagement for yourself, might then also come from the conditioning other games have forced upon us when it comes to their obsession with praising players for even the most questionable successes.

To enjoy FFXIV you almost have to go through a de-conditioning chamber to get there. That is, if you’re otherwise used to spending your gaming time playing only mainstream propositions.

A similar pattern of reward is achieved by the likes of Dark Souls or Sunless Sea, although much of their ‘loneliness’ is derived from the high walls of difficulty they throw at you – setting up the feeling that you’re alone through a lack of ability to attain whatever lies behind the brick.

FFXIV Heavensward

FFXIV is not a difficult game in the traditional sense – far from it – but it does require a level of dedication and a desire to understand its intricacies that some might deem difficult.

This is all getting a bit philosophical, perhaps, but that’s indicative of the impact FFXIV has had on me since being triggered to think about the act of engaging with it, rather than simply playing it as a means to pass the time or ‘complete’ it. When thinking back on this MMO it’s not the events, the quests, the loot or the narrative that come to mind, it’s the overriding feeling of a wholly positive form of isolation.

Perhaps isolation isn’t the right word at all. Solitude or seclusion might be more appropriate.

In a way, FFXIV offers the ultimate form of videogame escapism. You’re not escaping into a world of bullets and guns in which your mind is forced to switch off so that your reflexes can enjoy free reign over your cerebral material. Instead you’re escaping into a world that forces you to act in an intelligent, thoughtful way in order to derive any satisfaction from its treasures. Your mind is escaping into another world, rather than simply being distracted by a constant onslaught of action and potential for digital death.

While other MMOs attempt to trigger the same kind of emotional response as a means to retaining the player base over a period long enough to claim financial success to shareholders, FFXIV’s approach feels entirely lacking of any cynical, profit-driven, undercurrent. Whether that really is true or not is almost beside the point given that it’s not visible from within the game itself. It’s a quality that allows you to absorb the design choices with an open mind, celebrating the fact that they’ve been designed with the player, rather than pure profit, as priority.

FFXIV Heavensward

Of course, player satisfaction and profit tend to go hand-in-hand, but the balance can be skewed in favour of the latter. I don’t want to name names, but there’s a reason why so many other MMOs have failed to retain their players and have had to go down the free-to-play route in order to attract anyone anymore. FFXIV, instead, continues to charge its player base a subscription fee – highlighting the fact that people will pay for something that harbours value, rather than settle for something inferior but free.

That value spawns from the fact that FFXIV asks you to engage with it just as much it engages with you. It’s a two-way relationship that feels meaningful over the long term, one that alters and deepens as you understand its world and your fellow players more readily.

This diary may be over, but my FFXIV relationship certainly isn’t.

Click over the page for week 8 to read about a tale of three cities

FFXIV Heavensward dungeon

Week 8: A tale of three cities

By and large, Final Fantasy XIV is brilliantly designed when it comes to making sure its many regions are populated by active players. The way in which quests keep you moving across the map, revisiting areas previously trodden in a bid to uncover new narrative and loot. The way in which important blacksmiths and traders are scattered far and wide, embedding precise areas with a sense of specialisation and expertise. The way in which levequests and similar, of high and low level, are dished out across Eorzea.

All of these things, and more, encourage a constant flow of players to spread out across the furthest corners of the world in a way that doesn’t feel forced or perfunctory. For a game of this scale and scope, it’s an achievement that shouldn’t be ignored or underestimated. World design is about more than pretty trees, a day/night cycle and the geometry complexity of your architecture.

There is an area, though, that is more popular than any other. Popular to the point that it can at times resemble Mong Kok, an exciting and overwhelming area of Hong Kong that has one of the highest population densities on Earth. Or Walmart’s TV department on Black Friday, if you prefer.

Limsa Lominsa is FFXIV’s Mong Kok (/discount TV retailer): a hustling, bustling place that everyone seems to want to be. Comparatively, at least. Admittedly, looking at screenshots hardly gives the same overcrowded impression as the Hong Kong district, but you can only accurately judge a place against another that shares its universe. Besides, exaggeration is good for making a point… says the politician.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Limsa is one of the game’s three capital cities, making the other two – Gridania and Ul’dah – look like ghosts towns by contrast. Try it for yourself, if you don’t believe me. Login (there’s a Free Login Campaign throughout December) and teleport yourself across the three cities, soaking up the mass up digital humanoid sweat. Only in one place is the smell overwhelming.

Why is this so? It’s tempting to say it’s because Limsa is the most visually attractive of the three, its bleached-white spires and vivid blue sky setting a heavenly image when positioned against the deep forest greens of Gridania and the sandy beige and browns of Ul’dah. That’s not the primary reason for its population density, though, and it never would be in a game like this in which efficiency and speed of progression is, for most players, key to their decisions of movement and interaction.

After the initial buzz has worn off, visual splendour takes a back seat to aspirations of personal development.

The reason Limsa is so overpopulated is because of the way its city-planners have approached its blueprint. Most impactful in this regard is the fact that city’s shopping district and, most importantly, its market boards, have been nestled right up against its aetheryte (read: teleportation hub).

Both Gridania and Ul’dah require you to walk, or teleport within each their respective local aetheryte network, to reach these trading posts. Sure, this represents a minor time sink, but… efficiency.

This is only the foundation of the overcrowding, however, it’s not the whole story. Given the popularity of Limsa as an accessible financial hub (again, like Hong Kong), others are attracted to the place specifically due to the knowledge that it’s going to be busy and, potentially, full of interesting people.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Within FFXIV, busy places are your best option when it comes to finding parties to adventure with, striking up conversation with random strangers, looking for a guild to join and, of course, indulging in that most quintessential of MMO activities: setting off a flash mob of dancers. Even if no one joins in with your dancing you’ve at least drawn attention to yourself, indulging in modern society’s obsession with achieving 15 minutes/one Vine’s worth of fame.

In addition to that, these community aspects anchor you to Limsa through the positive vibe they emit. Consciously or subconsciously, when a task can be achieved in any one of the three cities you’re most likely to opt for the one that has left the best impression and the one that is filled with something in addition to the same NPCs, wearing the same clothes and standing in the same position.

To say the result of Limsa’s popularity is entirely negative would be wrong. Indeed, it’s nice to know that, whatever you’re doing and wherever you are, you can always zip along the quantum teleportation highway and get social. This could be particularly beneficial if you’re someone that tends to hit the solo side of FFXIV’s offerings more often than not and doesn’t interact with others in the wild. It could be, then, that things were always planned this way.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Perhaps Gridania and Ul’dah were always planned as calmer retreats from the crowds of Limsa.

What the population density highlights is just how delicately these things must be handled and how thoroughly they must be thought through before implemented, just as in similar examples in the real world.

It’s an apt reminder of how useful videogames with free economies and free movement of their populace can be when it comes to investigating social trends and sciences and predicting how real people will act under certain conditions. Hong Kong’s city planners take note.

Click over the page for week 7 to read aboutthe power of eight

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Week 7: The power of eight?

Final Fantasy XIV’s eight player dungeons are a world unto themselves. Dubbed ‘Full Party’ excursions, their link to the rest of the game is fragile at best – revolving more around narrative implications than any of the gameplay systems that serve you so well elsewhere in Eorzea.

As a tank it’s vital that I maintain a rigid control of the battlefield when playing a dungeon designed for a four player ‘Light Party’ squad, but that simply isn’t the case in the Full Party alternatives. With eight players you have so much fire power and healing potential at your disposal that it’s possible to sit back and, quite literally, do nothing. Given the comparative strength of the enemies that are thrown at you, these dungeons are as easily beaten with a team of seven as they are with all eight.

In all honesty, I don’t entirely lament the lack of challenge. Given how much I struggled with some of the latter four-player dungeons, a break from constantly having to stay alert represents something to that most middle-class of affairs: the mini-break. However, given the grave situations that typically underpin the reasons for raiding these dungeons, it would be remiss to pretend that the action blends smoothly with the plot.

Not that that is necessarily of grave importance. Depending on why you play an MMO, it might be that the comparative lack of required input is a wholly positive experience. For sure, the ease of completion allows for the kind of friendly and relaxed communication that often leads to the development of longer term relationships across the digital space.

The most beneficial result of these chats is that I come into contact with people that are incredibly well-versed in all areas of the game, their knowledge and assistance becoming an enormous asset when tackling the more difficult activities unlocked once the main quest is finished.

There are so many veteran players grinding the eight-player dungeons for the typically easy and generous shot of experience points they offer that it’s almost impossible to not trip over three or four of them on any such raid. So, while their direct value as a means to improve your skills in negligible, Full Party raids offer a direct route into the Final Fantasy XIV classroom that is otherwise difficult to come into contact with without trawling message boards and spamming the in-game chat channels.

What remains a worry, though, is that none of this is going to sufficiently prepare me for the 24-player raids – none of which I’ve attempted at this point. While I’ve worked out the best tank tactics for the four-player dungeons, I don’t feel the eight-player variety has taught me anything about how to work alongside other tanks when it comes to drawing the aggro of the assembled enemies and making life as easy as possible for our assembled healers.

The fear is that those first outings as part of a 24-person squad are going to make me feel as though I’m starting the entire game all over again at the ground floor… complete with complaints from fellow players about me being a ‘n00b’ and not understanding what a tank is and how I should be acting.

In general, the Final Fantasy XIV player base is extremely welcoming and patient – but that frequently gets thrown out of the window in the heat of the moment when you’re halfway through a lengthy dungeon.

It’s not uncommon for someone to greet you warmly when you first meet each other through the dungeons’ Duty Finder system, only for that same person to swear maliciously at you for not acting in the precise way they demand. In part that’s a failure on my part for not playing well… but only in part.

Ultimately, the eight-player dungeons are a conundrum. While in gameplay terms they lack a degree of challenge and thus don’t develop you a whole lot in and of themselves, they also passively put you in touch with Final Fantasy’s very best teachers.

You could argue that they’re much like the school system; the lessons you learn in class tend not to prepare most students for those elements of life that will eventually become vital to their existence, but the friendships you make while you’re there most certainly do.

Click over the page for week 6 to read about that annoying friend

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Week 6 – That annoying friend

Being part of a Free Company (read: guild) isn’t all sunshine, rainbows and holding hands in benevolent prayer circles. Sometimes you’ve got to put up with chatter so inane that it makes vanity-induced tweets about your breakfast look positively Shakespearean.

The problem, of course, could be that I’m part of a guild that allows simply anyone to join. Guild research and acceptance is necessary to really get what you genuinely want from a game like Final Fantasy XIV. However, I joined for this gang for a specific reason.

If you read this column regularly then you’ll hopefully remember the mysterious benefactor that bestowed upon me a weapon that, while not flashy or rare, was superior to what I had already in my possession at the time. Looking the person up revealed that she (the character is female, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the player is) was a member of a Free Company that was more than happy to take on new members, including those with little experience of the game.

Buoyed by the brief, generous interaction with her, and the company’s openness for fresh faces of all sorts, I signed on the dotted line. While the lack of acceptance requirements does make for some ‘tasty’ chat during almost every login, the benefits far outweigh the irritation. If you could even call it that… there’s little denying that, when you’re in the right mood, snippets of babble like the following are entertaining in a certain kind of way. Small doses and all that…

Clan Member 1: i am sexy. i am sexy one. i has a big bick.

Clan Member 2: send pic or it didnt happen. i managed to get a dick pic from a german homophobe once 🙂

Clan Member 1: i didnt even say dick. i said bick.

Clan Member 3: ty. im leavin. bye.

Backtracking a little here, the plan as stated in my last diary was to comment on the opening of the Heavensward content. Having reached the pre-Heavensward level cap of 50 previously, I naively thought that the new content would be imminent. Wrong.

In advance of accessing Heavensward you must complete all of the available story missions in the ‘base’ game. Given that I was a couple of levels above the required minimum for story missions when I hit 50, it turns out that that equates to a lot of content before the curtains open.

That’s the reason for me talking about the Free Company now. Childish though it can be, there are individuals within it armed with the knowledge and experience to explain higher level ideas and dungeons and assist you when possible.

Furthermore, given that they are well aware of the exorbitant amount of time and energy it takes to dedicate yourself to reaching, defeating and carrying on past the final missions, they can be a valuable source of encouragement and congratulation. It’s not uncommon now for me to move up a level, have someone in the company recognise that fact and take it upon themselves to send a message of congratulations – privately or via the public chat log.

When you’re required to attain a million or more experience points to advance just one level, that kind of seemingly transient and shallow praise is more powerful than it sounds and, for sure, provides more incentive than idly watching a lonely, disenfranchised number tick up more up digit with all the warmth and comfort of a digital alarm clock striking 6am.

Clan Member 2: bick. dick. same shit.

Clan Member 1: or is it?

Clam Member 3: youre in the wrong chat.

Clan Member 1: or am i?

Clan Member 3: yeah.

While some members are uninhibited when it comes to voicing in their irritation at others, there has not yet (from what my own eyes have seen, at least) been any desire to kick people from the group. Despite the immaturity of some of the comments, those making them have tended to be of a very high level. It would be obvious to suggest that they’re making the comments to overcome the act of high level grinding, which can be legitimately psychologically draining if you don’t have other distractions to keep your mind from blanking out and fading.

While griefing those that are supposedly there to assist you might not be as personable a solution as listening to a podcast or slapping on some music, it’s certainly a solution and I’ve been surprised by how patient others can be in the face of it.

Admittedly, I’m a voyeur in such situations. If writing about this kind of thing doesn’t scream voyeur then I don’t know what does – even if I’ve taken the route of not revealing who these people are. They can reveal themselves if they so chose, I’m not the internet police (read: government).

Despite the voyeuristic nature of my visions of such dialogue, though, I still feel a part of the of discussion. For certain, the existence of these sorts of discussions are an aide when I play. If I’m affected by it, I’m a part of it.

I long for someone to turn silly and ridiculous, ridding the chat of serious talk of DPS, healing buffs and dungeon strategy for a brief moment to reveal a humanity that reminds that there are people playing and interacting behind the digital facade. So long as those same people are willing to help and educate when a genuine question is of them, they can be as silly as they like. It seems the entire company feels the same way.

Click over the page for week 5 to read aboutthe end, a beginning

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Week 5 – The end, a beginning

Given the existence of Heavensward, those final few missions and levels that make up the ‘core’ Final Fantasy XIV experience provide an odd sensation. While things are ramping up and approaching the kind of crescendo expected of any RPG, let alone an MMO, the knowledge that there’s more to see and do after the finale imbues everything with a resurrection-esque vibe.

On one level you’re aware that something is about to end, but on another you feel safe and secure in the knowledge that there’s a new, albeit connected, life to be lived after the credits roll. Yes, if you don’t have Heavensward there are bits and pieces to do after the plot rounds itself up, but nothing of the scope supposedly offered by the expansion.

It’s here that I find myself, on the eve of resurrection. One fight concluding, another about to commence. I make no apologies for the excessively inflated sentiment and melodramatic tone – climbing to the climax of FFXIV has been a long and taxing journey. Pulp-grade theatrics, if only for a few hundred words, is allowed.

In truth, the pomp is a release.

Levelling up at these advanced stages has been, for the first time since this journey began, a real time sink and challenge. Writing ‘resurrection’ allows me to dream of a new beginning earned from a vicious end.

Whereas it was easy earlier in the game to level up a few notches above the minimum requirement to launch core missions, doing so when you’re getting closer to the end game content is a genuine slog.

Very quickly you release you must work much harder to give yourself that comfort blanket of a few extra levels, knowing that you possess skills and abilities that go above and beyond the minimum requirements needed to proceed. Knowing that you can tackle whatever is thrown at you, whether alone or in a group, allows you to sit back and, much of the time, play on autopilot.

Given how much more intently you must concentrate on your actions and how you’re managing your inventory, attacks and equipped gear, some might even go as far as to say that FFXIV doesn’t even start until you find yourself dying on a regular basis. While I would certainly not want to any that kind of outlook, it is certainly true that the tone changes from being delightfully open and inclusive to charmingly challenging and competitive.

Part of my problem was that I had become so used to be many levels above the minimum requirement that I had paid little attention to the quality of my gear. It just wasn’t necessary, so long as everything was roughly suitable my inflated character stats would take care of the rest.

Of course, I would take a cursory glance over my inventory on a regular basis in order to make sure I’m holding and wearing the best bits I’ve got on my person, but any decision was based purely on what I already held rather than thinking about what I might possibly be able to hold.

Turns out, shockingly, that a tank without a decent sword gets found out fairly quickly when you’re engaging in tasks and against enemies that are at least your equal in strength and stoutness.

Quite bizarrely, the catalyst for me paying much greater attention to my bling was not death or struggle but the actions of a mysterious, benevolent benefactor. Wandering through La Noscea on a sunny day I was approached by a man with a terrible haircut wearing a tunic that looked incapable of slowing down a fly, let alone scuppering a sword.

Without warning or explanation he decided to give me a new sword, better than my old. I said ‘cheers’, he teleported off. His location and reason unknown, his fashion sense inexplicable.

The sword didn’t prove to be useful for too long, and a few levels later it was replaced with something better. However, the whole incident has had a marked effect on how I approach equipment and the value I assign to it.

While the gifted sword was useful as a weapon for only a short time, the fact that it was acquired in such unusual and seemingly friendly circumstances gave it a meaning that went above and beyond its cold, hard numbers and attributes. As a result, replacing it became about more than simply the ones and zeroes. I’m hardly sentimental – evidenced by the fact that the sword has since been flogged – but I wanted what I subsequently held in my hand to be truly and undoubtedly better than the mysterious present.

That approach has filtered down into every piece of gear I find and I now pour over every detail of each fresh acquisition in order to make sure I really am as prepared for danger as I can be. In turn, this has seen fortunes improve and deaths become less frequent.

Despite claiming a lack of sentimentality, I’m going to say this: that brief encounter with the mysterious benefactor, whoever they are, has done more to prepare me for whatever awaits in Heavensward than almost everything else I’ve seen and done in FFXIV thus far.

Consider this a toast to them.

Click over the page for week 4 to read about the struggles in Brayflox

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Week 4 – Tanks for nothing

As a tank, you’re key to progressing past the Brayflox Longstop dungeon as it exists as part of the main narrative quests. Bosses are designed in such a way that without practised execution of the tank’s key abilities your party is destined to fail. Most importantly, if you can’t keep an enemy mob’s ‘aggro’ (read: attentions) focused on you then you’re not only going to get your backside handed to you, you’re also going to rub your dungeon-raiding allies up the wrong way.

I was kicked from two different parties, made up entirely of strangers, for poor tank play within Brayflox. The first time around the party died three times tackling a sub-boss, resulting in my expulsion. Although, in my defence, the healer wasn’t doing their job either.

On the second attempt we made it all the way to the final boss, the green dragon Aiatar, before I was kicked for not properly exerting enough influence over its movements. For reference, Aiatar can heal itself using pools of green goo that it vomits out over the course of the battle. As a tank it’s your job to have Aiatar focus on you and follow you around the battlefield… preferably, away from its self-styled healing zones.

Suffice to say, I failed in that task miserably the first time around and, without warning, my ad-hoc allies booted me from the party for my performance. Being booted after you’ve gotten all the way to the final boss is enough to make you want to throw your PC out of the window.

Thankfully, the internet exists and is able to provide detailed insights to the most niche of topics and queries. Unwilling to fail again, I dumped Ivana Tank – my Eorzean doppelganger and future champion of the realm – into a safe sanctuary and took to the eternally sexy world of digital message boards and FAQs.

Final Fantasy XIV Heavensward

The number of sources detailing how to play better as a FFXIV tank was matched only by the number of comment and forum posts, and even lengthy YouTube videos, complaining about poor tank play across dungeons in general and within Brayflox in particular. It seems that I am not the only tank that has discovered Brayflox to be a genuine sticking point. Up until then things had been plain sailing, with strategy needing to cover no more than how you intelligently manage your tactical points (TP) and magic points (MP).

Learning about how to efficiently garner (and retain) the attentions of enemy mobs gave me not just great excitement for finally having the knowledge to best Brayflox, it also makes you more excited for what is still to come – particularly when it comes to the higher level Heavensward content.

While the journey through FFXIV had undoubtedly been entertaining and expansive up to this hurdle, the required depth of combat had been shallow compared to the various non-combat options available for you to indulge in. Being forced to think tactically and as part of a team is daunting and works to discourage you from tougher dungeons when you’re not feeling especially alert, but the knowledge that you’re going to be tested pushes you into wanting to understand the most minute of combat details.

In turn, this acts to further draw you into the game and uncover forms of depth and sophistication that simply isn’t there during earlier hours.

Final Fantasy XIV Heavensward

Returning to Brayflox following my self-help sessions saw my party and I overcome the challenge on the first try. This time not only was I doing the job of a tank properly, keeping enemies focused on me with a success rate that came as a total shock, but I was flanked by a healer that knew exactly what they doing.

I was doing my job properly, and that allowed to perform their own responsibilities similarly well. And vice-versa.

As I write this I’ve moved a significant distance beyond Brayflox. However, the dungeon is by far and away the most vital experience FFXIV has provided over the past couple of weeks. Since then my understanding of how teams that include only one tank should operate has increased many times, to the point where I am able to quickly judge and act upon a situation before a fight has begun. Not only do I know how to start fights in a way that draws maximum attention to myself, but I know how to manage them through to their conclusion.

Final Fantasy XIV Heavensward

This increased intensity has seen me duck out of the fray more often in order to visit the Golden Saucer, the theme park acting now as my preferred place of rest and relaxation. As the going has gotten tougher, the ability to leave combat behind (but still continue some sort of progression) is most welcome and reveals the Golden Saucer to be more than the inane distraction some claim it to be.

It’s that constant altering of perspective as you progress through FFXIV that makes it such an exciting proposition. Just when you think combat is getting stale you’re throw into a situation in which you need to rethink your prior strategies. In turn, the increased stakes shine new meaning and value upon other elements – such as the Golden Saucer. Constantly, you’re asked to raise your aspirations and disrupt your previously safe thought patterns.

If that isn’t an essential element for a game that asks you to sink hundreds of hours into it then I don’t know what is…

Click over the page for week 3 to read about the beauty of healing

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Week 3 – Healer dealer

There’s nothing quite like a friendly stranger who brings with them an offer of assistance. Suddenly, when all seems lost and out of reach, here is a person that you don’t even know with the answer to your problems.

But before this begins to read too much like a Hallmark card, let’s genuinely celebrate the fact that, some times and in some places, there are friendly people out there who are happy to help. Sometimes, difficult as it may be to believe, people are nice.

My problems started in a dungeon, our four-person team eager to get through the catacombs as fast as possible, kill the boss and exit with the loot claimed and another mission ticked off. Up to this point I’d been holding my own as a tank despite my startling lack of experience playing the role. While I understand the concepts of attracting enemy attention, sucking up damage that would otherwise be inflicted on my teammates and staying on constant attack, I am left wanting when it comes to combining these actions at speed when faced with more powerful foes.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Previous characters I’d used have been of the ranged variety, with me looking to avoid enemy attacks as much as possible. Even though I’ve been playing the tank role for some weeks now, there are still moments in which I feel as though I’m performing a completely alien role and am uncomfortable with the range of actions at my disposal. Now and again it would be nice to be able to take a step back from the main throng of battle and send a few lightning spells into the mix from a safe distance.

Not being as adept as a tank as I could be is fine when playing solo as you’re rarely up against enough enemies at once to make considered use of your abilities a necessary requirement for success, but as a team going through an enemy-filled dungeon co-operation is essential.

On this occasion my problem was keeping enemies engaged and focused on me, the usual combination of ‘Flash’ and ‘Provoke’ not working to keep the mob of foes from attacking those team members with less health. Rather than complain and berate my execution (as I’ve experienced in the past) one of our number, our healer, decides to take in upon his/herself to give real and helpful advice on how to more effectively time and combine my unique tank abilities.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Aimed with better knowledge on how to combine Flash, Provoke and Shield Bash to keep enemies in a single, easily manageable group – whilst simultaneously stunning the most dangerous moves out of enemies when they threaten to deploy them – our fortunes in the dungeon improve. Prior to the lecture two of us had died and had to return to the entrance. After the lecture the deaths stopped.

With the boss dead and the loot gathered, I was left with a message from my temporary mentor. Verbatim:

“Keep tanking and learnin Ivana Tank i know you will be a great tank one day! :)”

Immediately after that I try to add this kind, helpful, knowledgeable adventurer to my friends list. They reject it, insisting that they have too many friends already. Life goes on.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Leading up to my ad-hoc lesson I had been toying with the idea of doing some extra research on ‘tanking’ in Final Fantasy XIV, hoping to pick up enough useful tips and ideas to become more of an asset to partners during dungeon runs and similarly challenging events. As a general rule I had been resisting the urge to look to the internet for help with anything other than cartography, it often being much easier to pinpoint locations using manually annotated maps than sticking to those provided in game.

Anything relating to my skill at interacting with the game in a way that impacts my standing within it – including combat, trading etc – must be learned from within the confines of the game. I can’t, then, simply jump into a new forum thread and learn how to make millions of Gil quickly through the trading marketplace.

The reason for doing so isn’t so much that I consider such extra-curricular activities as a form of cheating, it’s more to do with the idea that the players within the game hold between them all of the knowledge you could ever hope to gain. Therefore, it feels like a failure and a shame to rely on the internet for information when you’re quite literally surrounded by it in the digital space. The equivalent would be to stand next to someone reading the sport pages of a newspaper, only for you to get your phone out and struggle for a signal as you look for the football results. Just ask. It’s quicker, easier and you enjoy the benefit of human interaction.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

It’s a huge shame that the kind individual I met in the dungeon rejected my offer of official friendship, but at the same time the rebuke only serves to strengthen any desire to seek out new potential allies with dedication from here on out. Knowing that genuinely benevolent beings are running around this warped digital world is a comforting feeling, making any search for a raiding party or Free Company that bit more meaningful.

Click over the page for week 2 to read aboutlearning to love the grind

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Week 2 – Grind over matter

People tend to fall into two camps: those that love the grind, and those that abhor it. For some the grind is a satisfying means to an end, a constant (if slow) progression that can be accurately tracked and planned – the rewards trickling down at a predictable, useful, safe rate. For others, it’s dull and driven by a simple set of design troupes that tap into and gratify primitive psychological wants. Human psychology drives us to attain more and empower ourselves. Grinding presents a means to, on a shallow level, achieve that empowerment.

I’m more than happy to allow myself to be swept away by this current of shameless psychological manipulation, but only when it’s done right. Too many games focus on too few elements when it comes to asking you to engage with the grind, meaning the whole process becomes a chore akin to other daily routines: washing up, watering the plants, buying toiletries, using toiletries.

Final Fantasy XIV manages to circumvent the bulk of the tediousness through a diversity that hasn’t tended to get much credit. The vast majority of praise levelled at FFXIV revolves around its appealing visuals, friendly community and constant drip feed of new content, but there hasn’t been anywhere near enough applause levelled at the skilful integration of grinding.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Once you hit level 20 the grind begins. From here you need to spend some serious time levelling up and working out the most efficient way to do so. Yes, it sounds like a job, but the diversity of options makes the entire process an unusual joy.

There’s a certain pleasure in working out that on a given trip to Western Thanalan I can complete two missions, polish off two more sets of monsters from the XP-heavy Hunter’s Log, tackle a few Levemetes and pick up new quests that trigger the same patchwork of objectives in another region. Once you’ve been playing FFXIV for a while you get to be extremely skilled when it comes to arranging these patterns in a way that not only allows you to level up very quickly, but to do so in a way that minimises backtracking.

Arranging tasks becomes a game in and of itself, your prior experience adding directly to your skill in efficient planning and execution. You learn the best alignment, you put it into practise and then you’re rewarded for it. Thus, the holy trinity of game design is fulfilled within this most seemingly tiresome of endeavours.

I bring up the grind for two reasons. Firstly, it’s what I’m doing now and it’s what I’ve doing for the past week. I’ve become so good at tearing through missions quickly that I don’t even have to look at the screen anymore to accept missions, pull up the correct map or open up my Hunting Log. Once I’m at a screen I am familiar with, I know the fastest way to access the info I need and I don’t need my eyes to do it. Muscle memory developed.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Secondly, and more importantly, too many games, players and developers try to undermine the grind by either trying to circumvent it as much as possible or coming up with excuses as to its inclusion. What these people are forgetting is that the grind, when designed correctly, is not a means to the end. The grind is the end, it has a value in and of itself despite any future earnings. To successfully engage with the grind is to be rewarded for the grind. It’s what Plato would have said, at least.

It’s the layering of content that allows FFXIV to deliver what is surely the finest grind found in today’s MMOs. As you’re always out to conquer multiple goals at any given moment you never feel as though you’re mindlessly ploughing through the same kind of content ad nauseum. Even more impressively, completely new ideas, locations and tools are added at regular intervals all the way through the range of available levels.

Completing a mission, then, acts as a mini success. Unlocking the next tool or game mechanic is a major success. The artful construction and timing of these rewards working to generate a constant stream of progression that, while at times illusionary, prevents you from ever feeling bored or disconnected.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

The fact that I’m playing as a Gladiator does make the grind somewhat easier. With a sizeable catalogue of damaging attacks and a health bar that would make Ifrit jealous, I’ve got the freedom to dive headlong into the field without too much worry regarding the dealing and suffering of death.

In fact, the Gladiator is so suited to a life of solo grinding that it’s possible (and beneficial) to quite quickly move yourself four or five levels ahead of the mission curve. Smashing your way as quickly as possible through the main missions is simple when you’re far ahead of the recommended strength level, allowing you to concentrate on more fiddly tasks while you’re moving through the core narrative.

Some say that grinding with friends is the best way to go, the social interaction preventing the onset of boredom. I would say that grinding with friends is the best way to render the unique joys of grinding obsolete, which may well be your preference.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

However, to grind with friends is to lose the meditative aspect of the task. Focusing fully on a single job, allowing yourself to be sucked in and fully consumed by it is a liberating experiencing – allowing you to disregard everything else and put all of your energy into performing one particular role to the best of your ability. The focus and the lack of distractions is calming, providing a safe framework within which you can define every aspect of your experience in a way that is personally rewarding.

Then, once you’ve accomplished your task and hit a level high enough to start taking on the game’s most difficult challenges, that’s when you can jump out of self-reflection mode and start reaping the benefits of your meditation by teaming up with equally skilled allies.

The true test of any MMO doesn’t rest in its combat or in the availability and quality of its one off events. These help, of course, but they are insignificant in the face of those tasks that you’re going through daily.

FFXIV’s grind feels just like how a grind should feel like in that it doesn’t feel like a grind at all. It’s involving and diverse and from that enjoyable base the rest of the game can flourish.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Click over the page for week 1 to read about the start of our journey

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Week 1 – Ivana be an adventurer

Call me vain, but I care about how I look. If I’m going to be spending the next however-many-hundred-hours parading around a digital world then I want to look my best. That’s why it took me something above 30 minutes, although less than 60 (I’m not that vain), to decide what my new Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn character looks like. Yes, there exist options to alter your look down the line but to humour them suggests a failure of initial design on your part.Nothing’s perfect, though, so I’m not wholly satisfied. But she’ll do for now. Meet Ivana Tank…

Yes, she’s an adventurer. No, she doesn’t agree that her garments are unusual. Probably, her delicate skin is going to get burnt in that bright sun.

A bit of background on Ivana. She’s an Au Ra, a race added to Final Fantasy XIV’s Eorzea with the release of the Heavensward expansion. The origin of the scales that adorn our heroine’s face, and the tail that adorns her read end, are a matter of dispute: some Eorzean scholars declaring that the Au Ra are somehow related to dragons, others saying that there’s no evidence of such a link.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Despite the scientific and anthropological dissonance that playing as an Au Ra generates, I chose the race primarily because I think they look good (we’ve already covered the whole ‘vanity’ thing). Further, I chose them because it would probably be a good idea to provide some opinion and info on what value the Heavensward elements add to the wider FFXIV project. This is a journal, and reading someone else’s journal is supposed to awaken you to some new understanding of them/us/you. That’s how it goes in the movies, at least.

Ivana is a tank, hence her subtle surname. She is of the gladiator class, she particularly likes to wield a sword in one hand and a shield in the other, her nameday (read: birthday) falls of the 5th Sun of the Fourth Umbral Moon, and she prefers white wine over red. Her hobbies include dancing with strangers, trying to work how a Tiny Mandragora’s physiology could possibly work, and dreaming about owning a big house.

Here she is lusting over a mansion found in the Globet residential district, a place where the rich citizens and guilds of Eorzea are able to invest in property.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

One day I’ll have the money to buy something like that. It’s always good to set yourself lofty goals.

There is much work to do before anything so aspirational can be accomplished, however. Earning money, making friends and, of course, levelling up through the class ranks are present and correct here as in all MMOs. Being of the gladiator profession means Ivana begins her journey in Ul’Dah, only the second most complex of Eorzea’s three primary cities.

Naval city Limsa Lominsa is, far and away, the most difficult place in MMO history to navigate. Once you’ve memorised the way stairwells interlock with bridges you’re fine, but until that point you’re struggling. Gridania is mercifully simple in its construction, mirroring the calm forest that surrounds it. Desert oasis Ul’Dah seems initially convoluted, but in reality it takes only a short while to understand its various gates and halls.

Starting in Ul’Dah, then, allows you to navigate between places more quickly. In turn, that allows you to pick up and complete quests more quickly and, resultantly, level up easier.

Ivana is already at level 20. I’m going to level with you here (get it?) and reveal that this is not my first time playing FFXIV. Many hours as a different character and class have previously been ploughed into Eorzea, meaning it’s easy enough for me to race through the early going in a bid to get to the more interesting stuff involving social interaction, co-operation and the quest for buying power.

Level 20 is where things start to get interesting from a social perspective given that new dungeons that requiring a multi-class party start appearing with some regularity. Until level 20, I’ll be honest, I raced through the game as efficiently as I possibly could – picking up every quest and completing them in hasty batches depending on the region of operation.

An additional trick is to take instant notice of your Hunting Log, a list of creatures that you can kill to earn experience points. Completing sections of the Hunting Log awards you with bonus XP that is invaluable for moving quickly through the early ranks. Most of the monsters listed are stationed within easy reach of your starting area (the monsters in the log change depending on your class and starting city), so it’s worth going through and working out which you can tick off whenever you enter a new quest area.

It’s a tip that has been around since the launch of FFXIV, but it remains a helpful one for new players.

Upon completing a few quests, vanquishing a reanimated stone golem and kitting myself out in my new threads, I return to Ul’Dah and am greeted by a young lady in lingerie. Awkward silence ensues.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

I wasn’t sure if I should strip down, too, in a bid to perhaps make her feel less conspicuous. Given that others were present, I decided against it.

Eager to remove myself from what was becoming an uncomfortable situation, I decide it’s about time Ivana got out and started meeting new people. As a gladiator of Ul’Dah the first dungeon you come across is labelled ‘Sastasha’ and is unlocked by playing through the ‘It’s Probably Pirates’ quest.

It’s a simple dungeon that sees you ultimately bring down a bi-pedal, humanoid sea creature that goes by the fishy moniker Denn the Orcatoothed. I might have played FFXIV before, but I’ve not played the tank role.

All was going well until we, myself and my three randomly-selected companions, came up against Denn. Despite enjoying a sizeable health bar, Denn’s is not all that formidable. His attacks, in particular, leave much to be desired. Difficulty is enhanced through the introduction of minions throughout through the battle, forcing you to keep an eye on the intentions of multiple enemies.

As a tank, I see it as my job to make sure any enemies are focusing their attentions on me. I’m the one with the massive amount of hit points, so I’m the one that should be absorbing any damage. Whenever one of the minions would attack an ally and start whittling away their comparatively vulnerable health bars, I would cease occupying Denn and go over to help.

This was met with disdain from one particular player, who scolded any focus on the minions whatsoever. ‘Just focus boss’, were the only words to come from their mouth for the entire duration of the raid. I didn’t like the tone, but as a newbie tank I decided to just do what I was told. My journey will one day come full circle and I’ll get to utter ‘Just focus boss’ on some rookie. #Lifegoals.

FFXIV Heavensward diary

Sastasha was quickly followed by a second dungeon, Tam-Tara Deepcroft, featuring an octopus thing as a boss. None of my three companions for this one accepted my friend request after our successful raid, but I did have the pleasure of being in attendance for a healthy discussion on which was the best Carbuncle (read: fox/dog thing that accompanies summoners). One non-friend was on the side of the topaz edition, the other liked emerald. Emerald would better match Ivana’s skin tone.

We won the day. Octopus bad guy never made it back to the void.

Now that Ivana is suitably experienced in raiding dungeons, presiding over Carbuncle debates and dealing with public nudity, she is ready to start branching out, making new friends and searching for the right kind of guild to join.

If you’d like to share in Ivana’s adventures you can find her on the Chaos server, Odin world. She’s great fun to be around, she’s open-minded and she loves to meet new people. She’s not on Tinder and she doesn’t plan to be.

You don’t want to end up like this guy by not taking up the opportunity to journey with her…

FFXIV Heavensward diary