I am, as we’ve hopefully already established, somewhat rusty in my Final Fantasy XIV skills, having been away from the game for some time. And for many lapsed players, fear of that rustiness can prevent you from coming back out of fear that you’ll “let down” your fellow players when it counts.
Fortunately, Final Fantasy XIV comes with a bunch of great content that solo players can enjoy by themselves to build their confidence back up. And while it’s no longer the most current or relevant content in the game, one of my favourite places to go train up — or just try something a bit different — is Palace of the Dead.
For those unfamiliar with the various types of challenge that Final Fantasy XIV offers, Palace of the Dead is one of two “Deep Dungeons” that the game offers. Originally introduced partway through the Heavensward patch cycle (with the follow-up Heaven-on-High introduced partway through Stormblood), the Deep Dungeons were intended to be a different kind of challenge to what most of the game offered.
As the name suggests, they’re long dungeons in which your aim is to get as far as possible. In the case of Palace of the Dead, there are 200 floors in total, though the latter hundred can only be accessed if you clear the first 100 without having a full party wipe at any point. (And if you’re playing solo, naturally “full party wipe” means “getting KO’d once”!)
They’re distinct from the main dungeons found throughout Final Fantasy XIV, though, and for a few reasons. Firstly, each floor is randomly generated. We’re not talking anything massively labyrinthine or anything here — the maps are very obviously grid-based and built out of randomly selected, prefabricated rooms — but it does mean the experience is a little different each time.
Secondly, and probably more significantly, progression in Final Fantasy XIV’s Deep Dungeons is completely separate from the main game. Enter Palace of the Dead and you’ll be reset to level 1; Heaven-on-High will set you to level 61. Not only that, but your usual equipment is useless — instead, you’re provided with “aetherpool” weapons and armour that you’ll gradually power up over the course of the dungeon as a whole. Not only will beefing these up make your progress easier, but if you max them both out you can turn them into a weapon for use in the main game.
Sadly at the time of writing all the possible weapons are largely irrelevant for current Final Fantasy XIV endgame play, but they make nice glamours if nothing else. Plus both Deep Dungeons are great for levelling alt classes; each block of 10 floors you clear gives you a nice chunk of “real” XP.
If you have painful memories of how long it originally took to get from level 1 to level 50 on A Realm Reborn’s original release, don’t fret, though; although Palace of the Dead resets you to level 1, progression is considerably faster. You’ll likely hit level 20 or higher by the end of the first “block” of 10 floors, which will take about 20-30 minutes if you’re playing solo and cautiously.
The reason why this is nice for returning Final Fantasy XIV players is that the accelerated progression means you get a gradual drip-feed of new abilities to re-familiarise yourself with, but this process happens over a matter of minutes rather than hours. That means you don’t need to spend ages boring yourself with simple 1-2 combos with most classes; it’s not long before you’re having to make proper and appropriate use of your class.
The balancing of Palace of the Dead also means that you have to play your class properly. While the dungeon eschews the usual “holy trinity” requirement of tank, healer and two damage-dealers, you do need to pay attention to monster attacks, area of effect markers and that age-old Final Fantasy XIV strategy of “don’t stand in the thing”. Because you can’t rely on your top-notch endgame gear soaking up damage for you, you need to make sure that you’re either mitigating that damage before it gets to you, or doing something about it once you’ve been hit by it.
This can be especially challenging for Final Fantasy XIV’s damage-dealer classes, who typically aren’t set up to take big hits or perform big heals. But it’s by no means impossible; most of the cross-class “role” skills available in the game provide the opportunity to do things like heal yourself, absorb a portion of the damage you deal as healing or simply reduce incoming damage. And the collectible “Pomander” items you gather throughout Palace of the Dead provide further opportunities to increase your character’s damage dealt while reducing the damage they take.
For the most part, the main floors of Palace of the Dead can be cleared solo by any class without any real difficulty. It’s the bosses, who show up every 10 floors, who can pose a significant threat. And once again, the fact that you have no-one to back you up means that you need to perform the mechanics of each fight properly, because attempting to just “power through” is a sure-fire route to getting yourself killed — and to locking yourself out of the second set of 100 floors, which provide serious bragging rights if you can clear by yourself. (I got up to 180 by myself back in my Heavensward heyday.)
The one real issue is that both Deep Dungeons caps progression at the maximum level of the expansion they originally appeared in, meaning you don’t get a chance to play with the abilities you’ll get later in the current game — and some classes play very differently at the level cap!
Palace of the Dead stops at level 60, while Heaven-on-High runs between 61 and 70. In theory, you’ll learn all about your 71-80 skills over the course of Shadowbringers’ main story — but the omission of a Deep Dungeon equivalent for the third expansion means you’ll have to find alternative ways to practice solo if you want to build your confidence back up before playing alongside real people again.
Thankfully, Shadowbringers does provide an option for this in the form of its “Trust” system, whereby you can bring a number of NPCs from the main story along on dungeon runs with you in lieu of actual players.
That’s something we’ll explore in more detail another day, though, since you don’t unlock this until you’re into Shadowbringers’ main story — and, as you probably already know, I’m still replaying A Realm Reborn in New Game+ mode at present to get myself back up to speed on the narrative! I have a lot of work to do…
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