Say what you like about Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail's story, but these bosses and dungeons are some of the dev's best work so far

Krile, a lalafell pictomancer from Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail, smiles happily while lit by a campfire.
(Image credit: Square Enix)

Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail's story has had a bit of a mixed reception all-told, with 'divisive' being the word of the hour. I recently wrapped up the MSQ and, to keep things spoiler-light, I'd say that reception is very much deserved, even if there were plenty of parts I liked.

I won't go into it too much here, but I feel like Dawntrail has strong characters, ideas, and a great plot on paper, but it's let down by uncharacteristically sub-par dialogue and a messy execution. Which is strange, because gameplay-wise? FF14 is in one of the best states it's ever been in, bar one or two job design thorns (I hear Black Mages are having a rough one).

Unlike most MMORPGs, the story is the beating heart of Final Fantasy 14—but its combat encounters serve as the rib cage protecting it. As vital as a good plot is to FF14's identity, the lion's share of your hours are going to be spent running dungeons over and over. Luckily, they're so good here that I'm more excited for this expansion's future than I was for Endwalker and Shadowbringers, even if their stories were lightyears ahead of Dawntrail's.

First, though, some context. Endwalker, the game's previous expansion, had a massive gaping hole where its midcore audience was—"midcore" being a player with a decent skill level who likes a challenge, but lacks either the time or willingness to hop into "hardcore" content.

The game's fights were either punishing, ultra-hard gauntlets—like the Dragonsong's Reprise—or battles you could sleep your way through. Variant Dungeons skirted close to bridging this gap, but their reward structure was incredibly poor, and there was no real reason to go back to them after you'd explored every route and snagged your mount.

Dawntrail, so far, hasn't just fixed this difficulty problem—it's produced some of the best dungeons in the game's history. There's just really no competition.

Delicious in dungeon(s)

A lizard lets out a triumphant scream in one of Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail's dungeons.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Dawntrail's dungeons are all-time greats, and the only one that falls short is the introductory level 91 dungeon—which is more of an ease-in to the new design standard, anyway.

Before this expansion, FF14's bosses would often tackle players with the same set of rote telegraphs—even if you were completely unfamiliar with a fight, you could pretty much just stumble your way through by being able to recognise a stack marker. You'd forget about them the moment you left the place.

Dawntrail's dungeon and trial bosses, by comparison, are immediately memorable. Every single boss comes out of the gate roaring with unique visual tells—which marry the old with the new, taking the player's understanding and throwing in something bespoke for flavour.

My favourite examples so far include a rotating conal AoE with added, electrified fences to dodge as you move, a set of spinning teacups you have to keep track of, and Takeshi's Castle. Those who have done the fight know what I'm talking about.

It helps these mechanics actually hit hard enough to kill you. Square has become far meaner with its damage numbers, though that's counter-balanced with more forgiving dungeon shortcuts—which'll spit you out right in front of the boss you messed up. This mirrors the studio's philosophy with its harder content (Extremes and Savages), where death is typically a minor inconvenience, and you can go again in moments.

Crucially, dungeon bosses also don't baby you anymore—layering their mechanics on top of each other with surprising speed.

A boss in one of Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail's dungeons stands, menacingly, over a platform.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

For the unfamiliar: Final Fantasy 14 will often introduce you to mechanics in isolation first before combining them. In Endwalker, these mid-fight pseudo-tutorials were so slowly paced that the boss would only start doing interesting stuff when it was almost dead.

Not so in Dawntrail. Particularly in the level 100 "Expert" dungeons, the game's happy to let failure be your teacher instead. I have, while playing Dawntrail, said out loud: "Oh, you cheeky bastard" as my character either eats a vulnerability debuff or drops to the floor, ass-up, several times. Mischief is the word that comes to mind. The encounter design team is messing with us, and it's simply delightful.

The best thing is, these bosses aren't that much harder in the traditional sense. Once you get accustomed to their shtick, they're a slight step-up—but they straddle the line between being just difficult enough to keep your eyes open, while still being manageable for your daily roulettes.

Mischief is the word that comes to mind. The encounter design team is messing with us, and it's simply delightful.

One genius move on Square's part is how many of these bosses make use of mechanics from harder content in the game's history, but with their teeth filed down for public consumption—after all, why not? Why assume that your layman can only deal with telegraphs they've seen 100 times?

As for the more hardcore content, we'll need to wait and see. I've only beaten one out of two of Dawntrail's current Extreme trials, and while the difference is less noticeable I've still had a blast—one mechanic I adored was "Mountain Fire", a breath attack so fierce that even with a tank taking the brunt of it, flames still spread out either side of them, forcing the whole group to clump up behind them as the boss hopped around to melt us from different angles.

Despite all of my frustrations with story, I'm excited beyond belief for Dawntrail's patches. If Square Enix keeps this pace up, its dungeon bosses, Alliance Raids, and trials are going to elevate the entire expansion into a league of its own, middling MSQ or no.

Director Naoki Yoshida absolutely meant it when he said that the team was revamping the game's battle content: Dawntrail's writers might be on thin ice, but its encounter designers have won my trust in buckets and spades.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.