Final Fantasy XI Is An MMO..WHAAAAAAT?*

*honest reaction from my *checks original release date* 13 year old self

Yes, I don’t know about you, but the knowledge that the next numbered title in the Final Fantasy franchise was quite a shock to me, and as a young unemployed child, meant it would forever be out of my reach. But now I’m an independent lower class individual and thus free to spend my hard earned and not very substantial paycheck on anything I wish. So last november, before I decided to embark on this journey, I decided to pick up the FFXI “Everything and the Kitchen Sink” edition for about $10. Along with the $13 monthly sub, it’s a bit of an investment, so then the major question is, was there a desirable return?

FFXI Looks Surprisingly Good For Its Age

Now when I say it looks good, I’m not saying you’re going to be blown away, but considering its age, FFXI isn’t as hard on the eyes as one may think. The areas a big, and empty for the most part, but there’s kind of a charm in that big empty space. character/monster models themselves are a mix of stylized proportions (big round head mandrogas) and more realistic (most character models, more fierce creatures like tigers and such). that come together to give the pow of realistic graphics, but with the staying power of more cartoony designs. To be honest I’m surprised how well it works, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some updates to the engine or something. If there’s a part where the age of the game shows the most, it’s probably in the animations and spell effects. Animations themselves aren’t bad, but the pool of them is small, usually a simple catch all special move animation and some low impact looking spell effects. some of them don’t even make that much sense. If you were shown the spell effect for provoke, you’d probably have no idea it was a threat generation ability.

For The Love of God Use A Controller

To the developer’s credit, they made sure every facet of FFXI bleeds Final Fantasy, right down to the combat being all menu based. Unfortunately, with MMO’s, combat is in real time, and can sometimes depend on a well timed stun/heal/taunt, which makes the system kind of horrible and clunky to use. Oh sure playing with just the keyboard isn’t really that hard, but it’s a weird non standard setup, while outside of a few important remaps, controllers almost flawlessly fit to anyone who’s ever used one for an RPG before. There are other ways around some of the clunk, such as setting up macros for each important skill. Yes that’s right, unlike today where macros are generally used to condense keystrokes or add extra functionality (such as mouseover healing) just macroing abilities by themselves is useful in FFXI merely to bypass having to root around in the menus. Regardless of any fancy tricks I employed, certain things just felt horrible. Switching targets mid battle, or even transitioning to a new target after the old one died is a hassle (sometimes the target would auto switch upon death of current target, but it seemed a crapshoot) and if you’re facing some dangerous enemies, that couple seconds of floundering to cycle to the appropriate target can cost you some serious HP, especially since Trust NPCs (we’ll get to these in a sec) don’t react to anything until you’ve attacked a mob. Besides control issues, the game also just lacks a lot of quality of life aspects and streamlined delivery of information that MMO’s are expected to have these days. Buffs and Debuffs don’t come with timers attached to them and ability cooldowns are only displayed if you try to recast the ability. The combat log itself can quickly become overloaded with text and sometimes finding some of these bits of information can be a pain in the ass. There are addons, activated through the Windower mod, which can add extra functionality and display important information (along with fulfilling its name and allowing window and alt tabbing functionality without crashing the game). Now to be honest, if you’re just having a good old time by yourself in leveling content, these addons and extra info isn’t really TOO important, but it does give extra perspective on to how good we have it these days in MMOs. In FFXIV i know exactly when my DoT/HoT/Buff/Debuff etc will expire and can plan my moves, all of which are easily accessed via hotkeys.

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FFXI’s Heavy Party Focus Is Mainly A Detriment Now, But SE Has Made Changes In Light Of Top Heavy and Declining Player Base

Back when I was young, and filled with the naive hope that any amount of chores could convince my mother to pay for a MMO subscription I had two choice laid in front of me, the slightly older FFXI or the new World of Warcraft. I loved both IPs but if there was one thing that pushed me in the direction of WoW, it’s the fact that FFXI was famously party centric. Past a certain point, accomplishing pretty much anything required a party. Many were the tales of people who couldn’t find a party, or had a class that no one wanted (balance has always been shit apparently). Their nights were spent either trying to find a party, or just logging off with nothing accomplished. Being somewhat the opposite of a social butterfly, I decided to go with the much more solo friendly WoW (before that was the even more solo friendly Guild Wars). The game also placed a lot of emphasis on items and economy being player focused, something that I’m sure old time MMo players herald as a lost virtue, but again here it mostly impedes. Jobs that relied on a certain level of player provided consumables to do their job, like Ninjas requiring ninja tools to Evasion Tank (it really does work, I tried it myself) or “spin the elemental wheel” might be finding themselves a bit fucked these days with supply of both gil and tools hampered.

Now the good news is that SE seemed to be on point with changes to help make the remaining players, and any interested newbies, have a much smoother ride. One of the biggest additions is the Trust NPC system. Basically by acquiring ciphers, you can summon specific characters from FFXI to serve as NPC companions (like henchmen from Guild Wars). Now these npcs aren’t quite problem free. Getting decent ones can require work, or due to restricted time based acquirement processes (like seasonal events) be even impossible. Also the npcs won’t actually react unless you perform an active attack on an enemy, and spells don’t count so even the black mages need to give the mobs a love tap. That means no going AFK in a dangerous zone to use the bathroom, thinking your trusts will protect you. Beyond that however trust that excel in any of the holy trinity roles well enough that you can play whatever role you want, be it healer, damage dealer, or Tank. The last few patches have also eased the necessity of player production as well, offering items such as the aforementioned ninja tools at reasonable prices (and even allowing an extra Trust to be used). Some probably consider these chances sacrilegious, but in implementing them SE has show to posses a realistic view of their game and what problems prevail with an ageing and dying playerbase. Honestly I give their willingness to implement smartly targeted systems like trusts and important item merchants a total A+ rating.

FFXI Is A Game That Elicits Conflicting Emotions

Generally speaking, I know what I like, and I know what I don’t like. However, and this may be appropriate considering how different XI is, there are so many things about FFXI that I just can’t decide about some of these things. The positives and negatives sometimes weight to evenly on the scales in several key areas. Trying to segue between each topic is causing me to convulse so let’s switch to back to our old friend, the super short titled sections

Leveling is Done Purely Through Grinding Mobs*

In modern MMO’s the majority of experience for leveling is acquired through completion of quests to do various things, kill certain enemies, interact with certain objects or people, or you grind dungeons which offer either bonuses on completion or just higher density and higher XP mobs. FFXI does away with all the window dressing and pretext and just says go out and kill shit. Now I guess you could say that’s not technically true with training manuals and Records of eminence, which act like quests and give you an experience bonus once you complete a certain combo of enemy kills (or just kills in general). However these are super passive set and forget repeating bonuses. Instead of going to and from quest hubs, you find a nice little camp of enemies and post up for the next hour or so committing localized genocide on the nearby inhabitants. This may sound uninteresting, but honestly it was amazingly and refreshingly free of bullshit. Leveling inevitably becomes a slog, and sometimes the hoops modern questing demands (dear escort questleves in FFXIV: Go Fuck yourselves) just bogs down the process. Leveling in FFXI slots perfectly into the “Turn on Game, Turn On Youtube, Turn off Mind” strategy of grinding and sometimes that’s really all I want to do. That being said, when you don’t want to tune out, basic leveling offers nothing to raise the stakes. Also as you move higher up the level ladder, and xp requirements increase the period of the satisfying level up notifications become increasingly sparse and the numbing grind of it all becomes unbearable. As you get to higher levels, mobs start linking up and spawning in groups, which exacerbates the clunky UI and target switching. Once the honeymoon wears off, you’ll find yourself wishing the leveling experience offered more.

Quests Feel Like Actual Quests

If you come from the camp of big !s and simple checklist quests so close to the quest giver you wonder why they don’t get off their asses and do it themselves, FFXI’s proper quest system is more like something out of D&D. Finding them often isn’t easy, and there are entire webs of prerequisites necessary to complete some of them. Quests will send you off on what feels like actual journeys to various places. FFXI limits fast travel to major cities and certain outposts and you have to visit them at least once before they become available. So when you set off for a new land, it really does feel like you’re traversing regions and lands. The quest to travel from my characters starting city of Windurst to the bustling port town of Jueno was a good 30 minutes of travel (maybe even more, it was over a year ago). On the way I past some old stomping grounds, and new territory with new creatures that were a bit terrifying. See FFXI doesn’t tell you what level enemies are, you can check them for a general descriptor, but any exploration of new lands quickly involves scoping out the fauna to see just how dangerous a territory you’re in. Sounds great huh? well unfortunately like the leveling system, once the newness wanes and the fresh excitement starts to die down, you realize a lot of it is just grindy busywork.

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Because of the time lengths involved, questing is extremely prohibitive to anyone looking to jump on for less than an hour, and a large amount of quests lock off certain features and content. When you try to speed up the questing, you quickly realize that a large portion of quests seem to boil down to a basic strategy of spamming Prism Powder (sight stealth) and Silent Oil (hearing stealth) and just bee lining to whatever object you need to interact with. Sometimes you don’t even have the option of a classical quest assault as updates to the game have put outrageously high level enemies in areas needed for low level quests. Just trying to finish the main storyline of the base game required travel through an area that was populated by enemies so strong they one shot me and all of my trust npcs, even the tank ones. Even the joy of exploration tends to lose its way once you realize that some destinations tend to repeat themselves. Hope you like the beastmen stronghold regions because you will be returning to all of them extremely often. In the end, questing in FFXI requires a lot of patience and the willingness to navigate a tangled web of prereqs and game updates that can inhibit your progress or render whatever guide you turn to for aid, useless. The story of FFXI’s quests seem interesting, but sadly I never got passed the initial launch plotlines because I had reached a quest that required visiting many locations and just the thought of it made me tired. Maybe any alteration of the quests would be too sacrilegious, maybe SE already did changes and I’m seeing the improved versions, but considering how wonderfully the developers managed to shift the games party/leveling mechanics to account for the dwindling player base, I’m quite surprised that quests, especially the main story ones, didn’t seem to receive as much care and revision. But at this point maybe that was more investment than they really wanted to commit to the game.

FFXI Boasts A Large Field of Jobs

We got your standard warriors, thieves, monks, samurai, ninjas (evasion tanks, yes it actually works) and all the mages of the rainbow. If you’ve ever loved a FF job, chances are it’s here. Even the more niche like Dancer and Geomancer are there if you want them. Add in the ability to take on a second job as a sub job (max level is half the level of main job) and any thematic dream you may have can be fulfilled in your FFXI adventures. But don’t ever feel overwhelmed or locked in to your decision, switching both main and sub jobs is as easy as a trip to your mog house to switch it up to whatever suits your current fancy. Now there is a bit of an asterisk there, upon the start of your FFXI journey the selection is paired down to the starter jobs, with “advanced” jobs requiring completion of quests to unlock. Most of these quests aren’t too difficult, but as mentioned, prerequisites, legwork, and some logistics of just getting to the areas can be a major hassle, however I was able to unlock everything I wanted without too much trouble. So while you don’t get to start off right away as the fearsome DRK (Dark Knight) it does give you something to build up to.

However, like every other aspect, this comes with some drawbacks. While the sky may seem the limit, in reality it is not so. Non mage classes don’t have a whole lot of activated abilities inherent to the job, and weaponskills require TP which is only built through auto attacking. Combat boils down to making sure you’ve got your applicable self buffs up, and unless you’re doing something special, auto attacking until you can use a weapon skill or if you do have an active job ability, casting it on cooldown. Mages probably don’t fare much better based on what little i tried of them. Just casting whatever their most effective spell is for the enemy. Tanking didn’t seem to much more active, when leveling my ninja it boiled down to keeping my shadows and aggro buff up, and applying Provoke on cooldown. FFXI just doesn’t have the proc based systems that modern MMOs use to add variance into rotations, or really even the skill based to generate interesting rotations (although sometimes modern rotations get a little too crazy, yes I’m looking at you FFXIV Dragoon). Even with the subjob system your choices are deceptively few and far between, at least if you have an eye towards synergy. Oh sure you could throw Dancer on your Dark Knight and dance around in massive heavy armor, but if you’re trying to follow recommended set ups, or do actual group content with other people, you might run into some trouble. If you’re a physical damage dealer, you’re going to want warrior for its dps increase cooldown, if you’re a tank you want warrior for provoke as well (both help holding aggro). Looking into the past it’s easy to find a lot of instances where the player base itself, in conjunction with the game, pretty much removed all sense of actual viable choice. Reading comments, and listening in to Mr. Happy (a relatively well known FFXIV streamer) makes it pretty obvious that FFXI was a game heavily beholden to balancing issues (not surprising considering the number of jobs) and a playerbase that would actively shun certain jobs at certain points. I’ve even heard that some jobs were quite literally useless in entire sections of content due to the balancing at the time, or the design of the content. Now obviously I’m sure guilds of easy going people and friends were more lax, but still, the stories i’ve heard seem to go above and beyond what I’ve seen in other MMO’s.

Rereading these last few segments, I’m trying to see if i visibly lean one way or the other, pros beating out cons or vice versa. If you think I lean one way or the other, I can promise you that in the course of playing FFXI i was cut down the middle to the point where I just literally could not decide about how I felt overall about the game at any given time. Regardless of how I felt however, there is one thing that I could never deny…

Final Fantasy XI Was Far More Entertaining and Fun Than I Ever Expected, Or Than It May Ever Have A Right To Be

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Despite the back and forth between the good and bad, at the end of the day I found FFXI to be fun as hell. Oh sure it started to wane as I got farther in and leveling requirements got harder, but that’s true of every MMO. I took a $10 chance on a diversion to keep me busy as I was putzing around with nothing else to play, and in the end I got an MMO I paid over 3 months of sub to immerse myself in like any other modern MMO. A lot of times when old MMO players start to wax nostalgic I roll my eyes as I wait for them to tell me to get off their lawn, and while FFXI reinforces some things are remembered way too fondly by those old farts, I also can’t deny that there are some mechanics and designs that I feel should, and could successfully make a comeback on to the modern MMO scene. Now that being said, it’s worth remembering that in the MMO world, FFXI is kind of ancient, and the game has just officially been put in maintenance mode (no new content updates) on the PC, and I believe all console versions will be taken offline soon. I don’t know how long they plan on keeping the PC version running, but while I definitely got my money’s worth, I can’t really recommend this game to anyone who hasn’t already invested in it. If that doesn’t dissuade you, there are a couple relatively active servers, and I imagine SE could just merge them all down to one server and basically just forget it exists while people unwilling to move on enjoy themselves till the end of time. I don’t know if that’s what they’ll do however. I would personally love it if they worked out a system where as long as you’ve bought a box copy of both, one monthly sub could pay for FFXI and XIV. I highly doubt it’d cause a negative overlap and loss of cash, and I can’t honestly see FFXI costing them too much money these days now that active development is over. I’d sure as hell pop in every once in awhile. But again, I doubt that’ll happen, especially since they’re doing something weird next year with “mobile versions” of FFXI. Still in the end I greatly enjoyed FFXI and that will always be true.

Next Up: A Journey to Ivalice

Hot damn we really are getting to the end of our little journey through time and JRPG space. Next up on the list is Final Fantasy XII, the FF swan song of the PS2 era. Unfortunately my copy of FFXII and PS2 are a bit out of my reach at the moment, so I acquired an alternative way of playing it. Good news is that meant I got to try out the updated International Zodiac Job System. So how does FFXII stack up to the rest of the series? and does the updated mechanics of the re release fix the old complaints or just add more? Join me next time as we find out.