Final Fantasy XIV's new Variant Dungeons are the best new content Endwalker has added yet
It’s no big surprise that I’ve been thrilled with Final Fantasy XIV’s latest expansion. Not only did it launch in an excellent state, but the steady stream of updates has already cemented Endwalker as a fan-favorite expansion - and assuming things shake out as expected for the rest of the patch cycle, it seems like a shoo-in for the game’s best expansion overall. It just so happens that Patch 6.25’s new Variant & Criterion Dungeons is the best content that Final Fantasy XIV has received in years.
Over the years, players have become spoiled for choice with options for what content they want to engage with at the endgame. Obviously, players can run regular dungeons with friends or strangers, or they can choose to raid, but even beyond that systems like Deep Dungeons and Eureka/Bozja have continued to offer different gameplay styles for capping your weekly tomestones, while including unique rewards that players would have a reason to want to engage with.
One thing that’s perhaps been lacking, however, is a form of higher-tier difficulty content designed around light parties; if you have a group of 8 players, you can run Extreme Trials or Savage Raids. If you want to feel like an ant, a larger part of a swarm, you had Eureka and Bozja. While Deep Dungeons have existed since Heavensward - and believe me, I love myself a good few runs of Palace of the Dead or Heaven-on-High - it’s a little bit too esoteric compared to other activities in XIV.
Variant & Criterion Dungeons feel like a natural progression for XIV. Earlier dungeons from the game’s life featured exploration, but there was never really much reason for players to engage with it - leaving it a bit of a missed opportunity. So while dungeons have continued to become more and more linear, offering dungeons with true puzzles and branching paths felt like an easy fit for “higher tier” content targeting smaller groups of players. In practice, the first iteration of the concept has been an instant success.
The Sil’dinne Subterrane tasks players with exploring ruins underneath Ul’dah, and offers 12 different routes for players to discover. While the first boss encounter of every run will be the same with only minor differences depending on the arena, the final engagement depends on the route a player or group has explored. As you progress along 3 main routes, you’ll run into a number of puzzles - whether immediately obvious or not - which completing will unlock additional hidden routes that not only uncover more lore about Ul’dah’s history, but also will ultimately fill out a checkmark for said route in the dungeon’s ending guide.
The overall pacing of each run is about the same as a regular dungeon, while offering you 30 weekly tomes per clear. Completing every route in the dungeon will unlock a new mount, and players have a chance of finding a number of other unique rewards every time they clear the Variant Dungeon. Players who want to truly challenge themselves can try out the Criterion Dungeon variant, which acts like a “greatest hits” of all of the Variant Dungeon mechanics and bosses, while also increasing the difficulty to something on-par with Extreme and Savage Difficulty 8-player content. If even that isn’t enough for you, there’s even a “Savage” version of the Criterion Dungeon that buffs encounters even more and offers a number of restrictions.
Variant & Criterion Dungeons, even with just our first example of them, feels like something that always had a place in XIV’s design - meshing gameplay with story and lore in a way that it feels odd it’s taken so long for it to manifest. Regardless, the dev team's latest experiment has been a resounding success, and with the confirmation that even more of these dungeons are on the way, it’s hard to contain the hope that these might become a new staple of XIV’s content pipeline. For my money, this has been the most exciting piece of content Endwalker has added to the game, and I’d only welcome more of the same idea elsewhere.