A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy XI (PC)

A NOTE before we begin: FFXI is an MMORPG and thus impossible to truly complete. All I can offer is a write-up of my own experience, as comparatively brief as it ended up being. Special thanks to Sierra Hollow, Alex Dybell and Owen Watts for being so willing to help me out with this one. Much appreciated, guys.

By the turn of the millennium, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games were quickly becoming a phenomenon within the gaming industry. Through the proliferation of the internet and the rapidly evolving technology behind it, developers were being provided with the tools they needed to create increasingly elaborate online-only products. Before World of Warcraft provided the modern template and public face of the genre, the likes of EverQuest, Ultima Online and Lineage dominated the MMO landscape, championing the World Wide Web as a platform for players across the globe, enabling them to participate in a constantly evolving online mechanism.

While it’s ultimately impossible to perfectly replicate any individual player’s understanding of any form of media, two players’ time with a linear, curated video game is likely to bear some similarities when compared side-by-side. This simply isn’t the case with MMOs; there, the core of the gameplay is, directly or otherwise, shaped by social interaction.

Having poured far too many hours into RuneScape during my early teens (much of which was spent fletching bowstrings to sell for 500G a pop), I can appreciate that my own stories differ significantly from that of other players’, far moreso than any single-player game feasibly could. That’s the appeal of the genre in a nutshell: The chance to partake in a unique yet shared experience within a global community, one that is both personal and public.

This is the environment that Square was stepping into with Final Fantasy XI (Online). Developed alongside both FFIX and FFX, the 11th instalment was the brainchild of series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, quite possibly his last significant decision before leaving the company. Inspired in no small part by the rampant success of EverQuest, Sakaguchi conceived of a Final Fantasy MMO and entrusted Hiromichi Tanaka to oversee the project. Tanaka, a Square veteran from the NES days who also oversaw Chrono Cross and Xenogears, was a fine choice for a game which, it was said, would be, “…the most representative Final Fantasy [of the series].”

It was an ambitious project even by Square standards. With the generational leaps between previous sequels, it was merely a case of adjusting to the new hardware; with FFXI, they were moving into entirely unfamiliar territory. Square had worked with Windows platforms before while porting over FFVII and FFVIII – this time, they would be using the most powerful graphics processor on the market to realise Vana’diel, the most expansive and malleable world in the series to date. The decision was also made early on to enable cross-platform compatibility with the Playstation 2 (and later the Xbox 360), the first MMO of its kind, adding considerable work on top of an already mammoth task.

Tasked with a $24 million budget that would reportedly take five years of constant player interest to recoup, a monthly subscription fee was implemented, offsetting server costs and enabling the upkeep of the infamous PlayOnline client. Though primarily a launch application for FFXI proper, PlayOnline was intended to serve as an all-in-one hub for Square’s various online services, uncannily presaging the emergence of Steam and digital distribution clients in general. (PlayOnline is decidedly not Steam, but we’ll get to that.)

Unveiled at the Square Millennium event and released in 2002, FFXI remains the series’ most profitable entry to date. With a peak of 500,000 active players in 2006, in spite of the relative failure of the PS2’s Network Adaptor required for online play, the game was an unqualified success, heralding the next bold step for Square and ushering them into the 21st Century.

But a lot has changed since 2002. FFXI arrived into a gaming culture where MMOs had not yet achieved the sweeping popularity they would later enjoy, as evinced by the trailblazing World of Warcraft and Guild Wars. Since the advent of those two titles, and the later release of Final Fantasy XIV, XI’s influence has gradually and inexorably eroded. As the user-base declines, its continued existence is now an overlooked footnote in the chronology of both its series and its genre.

15 years is nothing to sniff at, however. For my part, I’d always been intrigued by the concept of an online-only Final Fantasy but balked at the subscription fee and my computer’s less-than-optimal system requirements. The chance to experience something completely new in a Final Fantasy game was almost too good to be true, but my RuneScape PTSD had conditioned me to regard MMOs with cynicism. I quickly realised I would need help – or, to use the parlance, a party – to tackle this monumental commission. Enlisting the aid of Sierra and Alex, we all set about installing the free 14-day trial, creating a Square-Enix Shop account in order to download the necessary game files.

This, it turned out, was only the beginning of our troubles.

After the two hours or so that it took for the game and its numerous expansions to install, we were quickly confronted by the PlayOnline Viewer. This is not an exaggeration: The PlayOnline Viewer is single-handedly responsible for thousands of prospective players throwing up their hands and calling the whole ill-advised venture off. Sleek, zazzy and impressive for the time, the Viewer is a cumbersome, unintuitive and over-designed abomination in 2017, with excruciating load times and irritating elevator music.

It also asks that you create a Square Enix account – separate from the Square Enix Shop account, of course – in order to access PlayOnline. So we toddled over to Square Enix, created a separate account, availed our inboxes to ding with the confirmation email and signed right in. Once signed in, we discovered that Final Fantasy XI was only playable if we had a PlayOnline account. We investigated the PlayOnline website, only to find that there was absolutely no mention of a PlayOnline account. The game could not be played without it, and it was nowhere to be found.

This was the point, after several hours of chugging back and forth between websites, emails and fruitlessly Googling FAQs – before the game had even been played, by the way – that Sierra and Alex called it quits. They promptly installed World of Warcraft, out of exasperated spite, and cackled heartily as Azeroth immediately provided them with fun and frolics.

Stubborn to the end, I persisted. With considerable help from Owen, I discovered that creating a PlayOnline account was done through the Square Enix account and required the same activation key that was provided with the free trial obtained from the Square Enix Shop account. Obviously. Armed with this arcane knowledge, convinced that I was only putting up with this bollocks because it was free, I logged in to the PlayOnline Viewer and was confronted by a mandatory update prompt. I clicked it. Nine hours later, I was finally ready to play Final Fantasy XI.

So I did. After watching the expensive, poorly-voice-acted CGI intro sequence that depicted the prelude to the story proper (the free peoples of Middle Earth five Enlightened Races of Vana’diel marched against Sauron the Shadowlord in the Battle of Dagorlad Crystal War and defeated him, sort of), the game crashed. I reloaded. It crashed again. Third time’s the charm; I was then, mercifully, transported to the Character Creation screen. Of the five races – the human Humes, the elven Elvaan, the gorilla-tank Galka, the scantily-clad Mithra and the diminutive magic-based Tarutaru – I chose the lattermost option.

I wasn’t out of the woods yet. From there, I was asked to pick a Job and, suddenly, after all that nonsense, my ears pricked up. FFXI takes many gameplay cues from Final Fantasy III, and chief among them is its return to the Job System. Though initially restricted to the starter classes of the original instalment, progressing through the game grants players access to the advanced classes like Ninja or Summoner, with the option to have both a ‘main’ Job and a sub (or support) Job in tandem, the latter being half the level of the ‘main’ Job that allows them to use all the skills below that threshold. (Still with me?)

The overwhelming majority of the game is tied up with questing and levelling, as you’d expect, and in that sense FFXI is the closest to a ‘true’ role-playing game the series has seen since the NES days. There’s certainly a plot to FFXI and its expansions – and, by all accounts, some astoundingly deep lore to go along with them – but the core experience is centred on levelling up, battling monsters and adventuring through an enormous open world. You’re not controlling a pre-defined character with a pre-existing history you have no influence over – you’re the hero. You’re just a nobody adventurer trying to make a name for himself, with all the agency and liberty that comes along with it. Freedom can be daunting.

My Tarutaru run was so brief I didn’t even get any screenshots. This is because FFXI doesn’t deign to hand-hold its players, or provide easily accessible tutorials – instead, it hurls new players into the thick of things and demands they adapt or be deluged. As it stands, I was the latter. So intimidated was I by the vastness of the world, the confusing lingo and my inability to find the goddamn Menu key, I logged out, deleted Dripcloud the Red Mage Tarutaru and tried to rationalise what was happening.

The fact of the matter is that FFXI, at its core, demands company. By design, it encourages player co-operation and party-ups, offering Linkshells – the game’s moniker for Guilds – to both guide newcomers and bolster veterans. At its peak, with hundreds of thousands of active players, both of these options would have been easy to accommodate. For many players, some of whom continue to log in daily, its obtuseness and difficulty is precisely why it became so enthralling for them in the first place. Challenge forged a community.

But for a new player in 2017, with no prior knowledge, it is simply overwhelming. Without preparation completely separate from the game itself, a newcomer is likely to feel just as crushed and perplexed as I was, hopelessly running around Windurst like a headless chicken, frantically mashing keys just to find out what they did. Reincarnating Dripcloud as a Warrior Hume in San d’Oria did little to help and, after dying multiple times with nothing achieved and three hours wasted, I finally opted to look up some (incredibly helpful) online guides.

Through them, I came to realise how the developers have counteracted the gradual erosion of its user-base and the community therein by implementing ‘Trusts’ – essentially, over-powered NPC summons that serve as your de facto party – and Records of Eminence – glorified check-lists giving players exorbitant amounts of EXP and swag upon completion. The game’s lauded commitment to grindy challenge has been somewhat replaced with an expedited process that compensates for the lack of human players.

Perhaps that’s why playing FFXI feels so desolate. It’s a lonely experience wandering back and forth from San d’Oria, slowly hacking away at beasties while the game lags, watching a lone Elvaan jog back and forth from Home Point to Home Point as the sun sets, rises, sets. The entirely open world, still impressive even now, feels empty and lifeless, and its size only serves to make the player feel tiny and despondent as they grind away at rabbits for 10 EXP a go. It’s not inspiring; it’s disheartening.

Even when I understood how to navigate the game’s endless menus (designed for joypads, not keyboards), how to reach the right quests, how to activate special attacks, how to wreck foes’ day with Trusts, I knew. After I’d logged a paltry eight hours and 24 minutes of pointless busywork, I knew. Frankly, I knew it from the start: The game is as obtuse, slow, boring and soul-sapping as its installation process, and I had nothing to gain from playing it.

Final Fantasy XI is a broken experience. In the 15 years since its 2002 launch, it has been surpassed by its peers, forgotten by its fans and all but replaced by its successor. What remains is a shadow of a sprawl, a ghost world populated almost exclusively by scattered NPCs and over-powered monsters. It’s almost tragic that such a beautiful and fully-realised world, with deeply considered mechanics and design philosophies should be buried beneath these mounting layers of escalating rubbish. But that is what the game has become (if it wasn’t always like that to begin with).

Perhaps it beat me. I didn’t have the constitution, the gumption or the willpower for it. There’s another thing I don’t have for it: Time. Perhaps if I was 14 again and armed with enough time and disposable income to buy a solid gold boat, I’d fall in love with FFXI as so many did in its halcyon days. Private ‘legacy’ servers like Nasomi and Valhalla keep the dream alive for many remaining (or new, naïve and masochistic) players. Elsewhere, the game’s dedicated Reddit page sees old hands waxing nostalgic about Linkshell grinds on runs through the infamous Valkrum Dunes, or exchanging horror stories about the 18 hour superbosses, or pointing fresh players in the right direction.

This was my favourite moment. It’s too perfect, and a sample of just what could have been.

I can only admire their willingness to overlook (or embrace) the game’s flaws to find a diamond underneath. I can’t take it away from them. Theirs is the kind of communal appreciation so palpable that it’s impossible to diminish with any kind of criticism. My eight hours and 24 minutes is no doubt laughable to them – a veritable teardrop in the ocean – but it’s their ocean. It’s personal.

As miserable as the time I had with Final Fantasy XI was, I can’t bring myself to hate it. Even though I briefly joined Sierra and Alex in their Warcraft sojourn – and almost immediately found myself having a jolly old time – I don’t regret the fleeting hours I spent with Sakaguchi’s EverQuest rip-off. Hating Final Fantasy XI would be denying those players their experience; it would be denying a community their joy and, moreover, it would be denying the design philosophies that empowered it. It’s dated and sluggish and ponderous, certainly. It’s also a relic of a bygone era, one still vaguely worthy of cautious – very, very cautious – investigation.

Next time, in the new year, we look at a game that survived five years of mismanagement, mental breakdowns and a decidedly mixed response to become a re-appraised darling over a decade later: Final Fantasy XII.

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