Like riding a bike

I’m back to playing Final Fantasy 14 again after over a year and a half off. When I quit (again) back in October-ish of 2019, Shadowbringers was still fairly fresh – a lot of folks were still making their way through the main scenario, and the more hardcore were working on the harder raid content. I found myself in the latter camp, working with a group of folks out on the east coast a couple nights a week. We had made our way through the first raid after about a month of trying, but a confluence of people getting busy with school or running for their lives ahead of Tropical Storm Imelda along with my workload spiking caused both the raid group to have to go on hold and for me to have to quit altogether.

The raids themselves are quite fun, and even in the normal difficulty mode tuned for the player base at large, they can be quite challenging. I saved a video replay of the first time I cleared the fourth encounter –

I’d saved the video partly because it was my first clear of the raid content that released with Shadowbringers, but also partly because I’d figured out the dance routine just well enough to be able to save the raid from a wipe at about the mid-point. Common wisdom about the use of limit breaks in the game seems to be – usually you want the DPS to have it, and there may be specific events which require the tank to use the limit break instead, but if a healer has to use it, that usually means the attempt was destined to fail and the healer just prolonged the inevitable. So this was a fairly unique set of circumstances to have happen all at once.

Over the last 8-or-so years that I’ve played this game, I’ve gone into raids as a DPS, as a tank, and as a healer. Healing seems to be uniquely challenging in that not only do you have to dodge all the same stuff that everyone else has to dodge, but you also have eight health bars to watch, you have to be aware of when the heavy damage is incoming (both the things that are raid-wide and the things that are focused on one or both tanks), and you still have to pitch in on damage dealing when there’s nothing else going on.

Then once you have all of those things figured out, you start optimizing. Do you need to drop a huge raid-wide heal just because everybody’s at 85% health, or ignore it and let them recover on their own? Do you have to stop and heal the tank through a tankbuster, or can you throw an instant-cast shield and trust that they’ll mitigate the rest of the damage themselves while you continue throwing out damage?

In the harder difficulty content (which the above is not), you go so far as assigning healers to tanks, giving people specific spots to stand, and building up internal rhythms that you follow rather than playing a more read-and-react style. You know when the encounter starts you can cast four damage spells before the first big tankbuster comes in, then the team has to fan out and you have to stand on this particular square, and so on. The penalty for not doing the right thing or not healing the right person at the right time is stiffened too; a boss that doesn’t get downed in 10-12 minutes tends to start throwing out massive raid-wide damage as punishment for taking too much time, so if too many people have too much downtime on the DPS charts, the chances for failure skyrockets.

Anyway, it’s a lot to think about, and the worst part is there are 7 other actual people involved. So you can imagine that having this many buttons to press, and needing such detailed knowledge of encounters, and knowing that the penalty for not doing your particular job is that other players’ characters take a dirt nap, there’s a lot of stress and anxiety around getting back into shape and being able to play again if you’ve taken any measurable amount of time off. Maybe the worst part is that the game doesn’t store your hotbar assignments on the server, so you come back to the game with an empty hotbar and need to rely on muscle memory kicking in before you can get your act completely together again.

Thankfully, one of the new features in the Shadowbringers expansion was the ability to run dungeons with AI counterparts. Seems to defeat the purpose of an MMO to offer single-player modes, and the playing the game this way is definitely a lot slower than playing with other humans who have optimized their play styles, but it does give a low-stakes way to figure things out again. After about a day of playing with the bots, I had my hotbar sorted back out, and in comparing my new hotbar to what I had in the video above, the results were nearly the same. Leading up to Shadowbringers, the recovery time was closer to three or four days.

Square-Enix is on about a two-year cadence with Final Fantasy 14 expansions; that is to say, they’ll release an expansion, then spend the next two years releasing periodic content updates/additions before releasing the next expansion. We’re at the tail end of the Shadowbringers expansion now, with Endwalker (the next expansion’s title) slated for release in just a few months. So since I stopped playing shortly after Shadowbringers came out, that means I have roughly two years’ worth of content to get caught up on in the next four or five months. Should be doable, but this is going to wreak havoc on my backlog. I was a portion of the way through Yakuza 5 (itself part of an endeavor to play through the entire Yakuza series), and I had a handful of titles that were on the radar for immediate playthroughs after that, and now everything’s on hold. Oops.

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