The Returner: Soloing Final Fantasy XIV’s old endgame

The Returner: Rediscovering Final Fantasy XIV

The night I reached level 50 for the first time in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn — back in the 2.0 era — was an incredible experience. I was already involved with a wonderful, supportive Free Company — the folks from the Giant Bomb community, who are still active over on the Ultros server on the Primal data centre — and everyone was quick to congratulate me on my achievement.

“Time for Castrum and Prae, then,” someone said. I’d heard people mention these before, but I didn’t really know what they were — other than that they were something you did when you hit level 50. And that, at the time, my guildmates were more than happy to get a group of seven other people together to help me enjoy this milestone in my journey with Final Fantasy XIV. A process which, as it turned out, took until about 5 in the morning. I didn’t regret a thing.

Final Fantasy XIV

For the unfamiliar, Castrum Meridianum and The Praetorium — Castrum and Prae for short — are the two dungeons you run pretty much immediately on hitting level 50 in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, assuming you’ve been keeping up to date with the storyline. They differ significantly from everything you’ve taken on before in that they involve eight players in a party instead of four, and they are very heavy on the cutscenes.

They are the final two “story” dungeons, after all, and they feature some of the base game’s most spectacular boss fights — concluding with a multi-part “final boss” confrontation against Ultima Weapon. If you had been umming and ahhing over whether Final Fantasy XIV felt like a “real” Final Fantasy up until this point, Castrum and Prae should put any of those doubts to rest.

But the cutscene-heavy aspect of these dungeons caused a few problems over the years, since a lot of people who had long since reached Final Fantasy XIV’s endgame just wanted to grind these two dungeons for the rewards they offered — and people who wanted to play like that just wanted to rush through without watching cutscenes. To make matters worse, even if there was someone in the party reaching this dramatic part of the story for the first time, these wannabe speedrunners would still race ahead, telling the newbies that they should just “watch the cutscenes later” rather than being able to enjoy them in context.

And let me tell you; Gaius van Baelsar’s Big Speech is meant to be experienced in context. Tell me; for whom do you fight?

Final Fantasy XIV

The situation got so bad that Square Enix eventually made the cutscenes in Castrum and Prae unskippable, so that people could actually enjoy this part of the story rather than being bothered by impatient people. It’s an inelegant solution — and it’s rather telling that from Heavensward onwards, all Final Fantasy XIV cutscenes occur either before you start or, more commonly, after you clear a dungeon — but it does at least allow people to experience the whole thing in context when they get there for the first time.

Many years after I was lucky enough to be able to experience these dungeons as intended, I finally made it back to this point in Final Fantasy XIV through my New Game+ run. And this time around, as a level 70 Samurai, I was more than capable of running them solo — which meant not only could I enjoy them at my own pace without worrying about seven other impatient complainers snapping at my heels, I could also enjoy the immensely satisfying experience of being one tiny little redhead with a shiny katana single-handedly taking down the (supposed) ultimate in Allagan technology.

And boy, was it fun. There was always a slight disconnect in Castrum and Prae in that the cutscenes focus on your character and not your seven companions who are helping you out — running them solo eliminates this issue altogether, and makes you feel like the true hero that these dungeons really make you out to be. Bonds of friendship be damned; I want to feel like a god-slaying badass.

Final Fantasy XIV

The nice thing about running these at level 70 was that the level 50 enemies in both Castrum and Prae put up just enough of a fight to make it feel like you’re being slightly tested — whereas in the run-up to 50, it wasn’t at all uncommon to one-shot bosses with the Samurai’s most powerful abilities. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was still pretty easy and I was in absolutely no danger of dying at any point, but all the bosses took a fair few hits to take down — and I even had to do a few mechanics along the way.

The Castrum-Prae-finale sequence in Final Fantasy XIV is one of my favourite moments in the whole game — not least because of its incredible music — and I’m glad it still kept some of the magic even when running it solo. Now it’s onwards into the post-50 stuff and the run-up to Heavensward, where I suspect things will start to get a little more challenging to solo — but we’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

In the meantime, out of curiosity I decided to step into The Binding Coil of Bahamut solo, just to see how much — if any — of that I would be capable of taking down as an unprepared, not especially experienced level 70 DPS with fairly bog-standard gear. I previously ran all of Coil back in the day — not in the most timely manner, I must confess, but I can legitimately say I have cleared all of Coil with a party of like-minded people back when it was reasonably current.

Final Fantasy XIV

For those unfamiliar, The Binding Coil of Bahamut is the raid cycle from the 2.X releases of Final Fantasy XIV, consisting of five “Turns” in The Binding Coil of Bahamut, and four more “Turns” in both The Second Coil of Bahamut and The Final Coil of Bahamut respectively. For the most part, each “Turn” consists of a complex boss fight, but in the first set of Coil Turns, there’s some light dungeoneering along the way, too.

Turn 1 features a short dungeon on the run up to its main boss; Turn 2 features a series of minibosses that affect how the main boss fight unfolds; Turn 3 is a nightmare of springy jump pads that doesn’t have a boss at all; and Turn 4 is a gauntlet of powerful enemies rather than a single boss fight. Turn 5, which consists pretty much entirely of what was originally the toughest fight in the game, established what “The Coil formula” would tend to be from that point onwards.

Turn 1 initially went quite well. I took down the trash enemies along the way with ease, and dispatched the first miniboss without any difficulty. Upon reaching the main boss, a giant snake named Caduceus, the challenge level ramped up significantly. While I didn’t need to follow all the mechanics of this fight by any means, I certainly needed to pay attention to some of them along the way — because there are quite a few moments throughout Coil, and indeed the later raids in Final Fantasy XIV, where failing to perform mechanics either instakills you, or delivers damage based on percentage rather than flat values.

Final Fantasy XIV

It actually took me three attempts to take down Caduceus as a level 70 character with gear about two hundred levels higher than the circumstances under which this fight is “supposed” to unfold. But I managed it eventually.

Turn 2 was another matter, mind; Allagan Rot or no, it turns out that eight stacks of Vulnerability Up can still allow a level 50 raid boss to flatten a level 70 idiot without any difficulty whatsoever. So that was where my Coil adventure ended for now — I’ll probably return to it when I hit level 80 and have some decent gear, but it looks like it might potentially be an exercise in frustration for my current, somewhat rusty skills!

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Pete Davison
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