Sometimes you got to do what you got to do to play Final Fantasy. You know? No one likes jumping through hoops to get what they want and I’m no exception, but for me -- well, let’s just say I’ve done my fair share of jumping. In the name of temporarily satisfying my perpetual need for that magical feeling you can only get from loading up a new Final Fantasy game, I’ve gone through numerous trials and tribulations that no man should ever be exposed to. Playing Final Fantasy III on the SNES was a big, fat to-do - involving a junior high classmate who cruelly refused to let me borrow the cartridge-based game despite the fact that he had already beaten it and was assured complete ownership of my first born. Finding a copy of Final Fantasy VII when it was first released was akin to tracking down a reasonably priced MIB tickle-me-Elmo on eBay during the x-mas of 2000. Playing Final Fantasy IX required a substantial monetary investment due to the fact that I didn’t own a PlayStation at the time and had to put up cash collateral for a rental unit … then kept it and the game for 22 additional days.
But when the big one hit, and I’m talking about Final Fantasy X now, I was prepared. Like a good consumer, I pre-ordered the title months in advance and checked in daily as the game’s release date approached. Long story short; my pre-order was about as useful as a butter knife in a gunfight. Three days and 10 gallons of gas later, Spira was spinning.
However, none of the aforementioned hoops I’ve been forced to hop through to get my Fantasy fix would compare to the “dozen-hour ordeal” that was Final Fantasy XI on the PC. In fairness, I am on a dial-up connection (broadband is against our religion in Montana), but it took upwards of nine hours just to install the game’s various “required” updates! The installation process was preposterous, and the waiting excruciating. When, finally, I was able to step foot in Final Fantasy XI’s world of Vana’Diel, I was met with an awkward control setup that was nothing like the traditional Final Fantasy games; foreign gameplay dynamics, an overwhelmingly complex interface and basically just an extremely intense, all-purpose hatred for everything, in general -- stemming from my disappointment that the game turned out to be more EverQuest than Final Fantasy. Fast-forward three months. My red mage hits level 32, my other car is a chocobo, and I’m cold pimpin’ on the sidewalks of San D’Oria in the most prohibitively-expensive armor gil can buy. A sinking sense of immobilization that one might feel from waking up from a coma washes over me. My eyes lazily roll back into my head. Level 33 is in sight.
Sure, it may not be your traditional, CGI-laden, Final Fantasy. And the learning curve may be steep. There may be no offline component. The time commitment required to get good may be chronologically insane. You may need to spend over $150 just for the required hardware (HDD, Network Adaptor, USB keyboard) to get up and running. And you may be expected to fork over $13 a month for the cost of subscribing to Square’s PlayOnline and Final Fantasy XI services. But like I said, sometimes you gots to do what you gots to do to play Final Fantasy -- and part XI, you’ll be glad to know, does not allow your efforts go unrewarded. In return for your generous donation of time, money, and tears of frustration, you’ll receive a genuine sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
While the story in Final Fantasy XI can hardly hold a candle to the intriguing yarns of the offline opus’, it is still quite good, if only by MMORPG standards. If FFXI’s story description read like a corporate staff-wide party invitation found posted on the plasterboard wall in any given workplace not associated with the video game industry, it might look something like this:
ALL PS2 PLAYERS WHO OWN A NETWORK ADAPTER, HDD, AND FINAL FANTASY XI ARE HEREBY INVITED TO VANA’DIEL
WHAT: Three very different and independent nations united against the swarming armies of evil beastmen threatening to take over the world by harnessing the elemental power of special, magical crystals. Or something.
WHEN: Soon, hopefully, as hordes of nasty monsters, beastmen, and small fuzzy bunnies are destroying cities and circling the very homes of our residents.
WHERE: The desert mining town of Bastok. The fortress city of San D’Oria. The forest-ey federation of Windurst.
BRING: Brave adventurers willing to write the history of the world we call Vana’Diel. Oh, and fight hordes of fuzzy bunnies.
Transferring the character I worked countless hours to develop on the PC version of the game over to the PS2 was a surprisingly simplistic procedure, requiring only the input of my player id, password, and some other bits of basic information pertaining to my Pandemonium server bound character named Carthanial. I did start getting flashbacks of the dreaded “dozen-hour ordeal” during the mind-numbingly long patch downloads, but once the data on the harddrive was suitably rendered, the game proved to be solid and stable, with only minimal lag over my dialup connection. This, in spite of the fact that the original Japanese release was plagued with server instabilities and all sorts of technical craziness ranging from game balancing issues to easily exploitable gameplay dynamics.
But even though the game has been refined to the point where SCEA was comfortable with pre-loading it on every 40GB HDD they ship out, purists will likely come away from their initial experience with a bad taste in their mouths. There are many reasons Final Fantasy XI will inevitably frustrate fans of the traditional series, not the least of which include its awkward gamepad/mouse/keyboard control setup. Expect to spend the first few hours with the game just learning how to properly harness its somewhat awkward controls. Even after overcoming the initial obstacle of efficiently moving your character around, you’ll still have to wade through wave after wave of low-level enemies and contend with a learning curve that’ll leave those expecting the relative simplicity of Fantasy’s past in the dust.
The point I’m trying to drill into the minds of prospective buyers is that if you go into this game with the wrong expectations, then your first impressions of it may very well keep you from realizing what makes FFXI so uniquely satisfying. But then again, this is a horribly time-consuming experience. Time is money, they say - and when it comes down to it, all the gil in Vana’Diel won’t do much to pay your bills. Well, that is unless you’re willing to sell it on the virtual blackmarket at $22 per 250k gil.
Compared to other MMORPG games such as Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot, Final Fantasy XI is probably your best bet if you have yet to experience the ludicrous time-drain that is the “online RPG.” Not because it has the best graphics (which it does), or server stability - but because you don’t have to contend with trifling gameplay aspects that are normally present in this sort of game. For instance, you don’t have to worry about constantly resting, growing fatigued from running too much, or even eating for that matter. The world of Vana’Diel is constantly changing (for the better) and all sorts of surprises consistently await those who play the game on a regular basis, such as visual modifications to the scenery in order to reflect the styles of the various holidays. Final Fantasy XI also includes the FFIX-inspired elemental card game called TetraMaster that, I can personally attest to, is dangerously addictive. Though you will have to shell over an additional dollar per month to play it.
While most MMORPGs only allow you to initially choose your race and class and develop your character based on those race/class choices, Final Fantasy XI gives you the freedom to change job classes whenever you want. Let’s say, for example, you chose black mage as your primary job and after casting countless offensive spells and dispatching enemies from a distance just isn’t fun anymore, you can switch to the warrior job class and get all up in a monster’s face with some straight-up melee combat. You’ll have to start your secondary job from the first level, but you can always fall back on the strengths of your primary job when your sub-job skills don’t cut it. Aside from the aforementioned jobs, white mage, red mage, monk, and thief classes are also available right from the start of the game. In addition, you’ll earn the privilege of selecting paladin, ninja, ranger, summoner, dragoon, and dark knight job classes once you’ve sufficiently leveled up and completed a unique quest.
More than any other decision you’ll make, it’s the job classes you choose to excel in that will determine what you can and can’t do in Final Fantasy XI, but your choice of player race is also important. Depending on whether choose the familiar humes, the fancy-lad elvaan, the small (in stature) munchkin-like tarutaru, shake your tail with the cat girl race of mithra, or kick it ogre style with the galka player race - your physical appearance and starting point will be very different. Some basic stats of your character change with the race you choose as well, but since you can change job classes whenever you want, you’ll still be able to experience most everything the game has to offer without having to settle for character aesthetics that you don’t particularly care for.
The one thing you will miss in Final Fantasy XI, regardless of your job class or race, is the high-intensity, strategically-driven combat elements of previous Final Fantasy games. Fighting monsters in FFXI, like most every other MMORPG, is a very straightforward procedure. Simply target the desired enemy (which can be somewhat tricky with the dual shock when there are multiple targets on-screen) and click on attack to exchange blows until either you or the monster is dead. Watching your character fighting baddies in Final Fantasy XI is nowhere near as fun or engaging as the active time battles of the recent PS2 games, but you are able to change things up a bit with spells and special moves, or chained skills, which required allied party members to pull off.
Speaking of party members, you’ll need’em, a lot - particularly when you’re a higher level character that can hack and slash low level monsters by the dozen without breaking a sweat. It’s simple enough to level up when you first start out, either by completing lowly fetch quests or thwapping fuzzy bunnies, but once you get serious about earning experience, you’ll need to join a party, preferably one that is well balanced. Any good group will include lots of characters that can bring the heat and a couple healers to tend to the injured characters on offense. Finding a well-rounded party in Vana’Diel is pretty easy and the streamlined search feature allows you to easily find a group that is in need of your specific skills. These sorts of party-finding tools come in very handy and should be a standard feature on all MMORPGs henceforth.
You’ll snag a lot of loot throughout your many journeys in Vana’Diel, and whatever you can’t stuff into your pockets or sell on the auction block you can store in your ever-useful Mog House. Every resident of Vana’Diel is given a Mog House and aside from storing excess inventory, it also serves as your default spawn point when you die. Any gil that is owed to you from auctions can be collected at your Mog House as well. Switching jobs is done by talking to a moogle that resides in the Mog House. Plenty of stuff can be done from here, obviously. Being a homebody is a habit that is easy to fall into in Final Fantasy XI. Large chunks of time can easily be whittled away by customizing your Mog House and creating and maintaining a healthy indoor garden or any number of other Mog-related activities. For the first few months of playing the game, you’ll probably learn something new every day.
Visually speaking, Final Fantasy XI is a great-looking PS2 game and probably the single best-looking MMORPG currently on the market for the system. The PC version looks better, of course; the higher resolution, increased processing power and cutting-edge video cards that are found in today’s computers are vastly superior to the aging PS2 hardware, but all that is to be expected. The sound presentation is right on par with previous Final Fantasy’s, though it’s theme song tends to repeat a little too often during the hundreds of hours you’ll inevitably spend with the game. The aural feel of the proceedings is distinctly more uplifting and whimsical then the almost melancholic styling of some other popular MMORPGs. Environmental sound effects litter the battlefield and immerse you into the lively environments; small woodland creatures can be heard in the distance or the violent sounds of player vs. monster clashes as you make your way across the wide-open terrain.
All in all, you couldn’t really ask for much more in an online RPG experience. Square managed to capture most, if not all of the addictive, endearing qualities of the genre while retaining a decent amount of good ol’ fashion Fantasy elements. Be warned, however, that those who lack the stamina to stick with it long enough may ultimately feel gypped and burned. While Final Fantasy XI may not be your older brother’s Final Fantasy RPG, it is an experience that (eventually) lives up to the name of its predecessors.