I need to start this one off by clarifying a few things. I do not currently play Final Fantasy XI but have a long history with it that includes five years (on and off) and about forty days of accumulated actual play time. I never really got too far into it so I won’t necessarily be discussing the merits of the endgame content. That said, Final Fantasy XI was and still is a huge part of me and my past. I guess that’s stating the obvious but providing a logical basis for the opinion I’m about to express is completely necessary. MMOs are, by nature, games that need a significant investment to receive any sort of return. Don’t be surprised when this game scores high on my list then, because what I gained from it is the result of what I put into it…and that was MY decision.
FFXI was a weird creature to be sure. It’s hard to say why Square decided to jump into the MMO market, much less do it with an official numbered entry in their most important franchise. Even when the very first whispers of a Final Fantasy MMO were heard the fan base was immediately segregated. I was, of course, on board because Ultima was getting tired and I loved Final Fantasy. One side squawked that it was an abomination that could never live up to the storytelling of a traditional FF while the other applauded the RPG giant for getting involved in the burgeoning MMO market. As far as I’m concerned it was a brilliant move. There is simply not a single game franchise out there more suited for the idea. Final Fantasy has a enormous history of excellent characters, music, story telling and a king’s wealth of gameplay ideas and foundational systems to draw upon. It’s the exact same move as making Final Fantasy Tactics: implant the core ideas into another genre that it damn near is perfect for. Taking the job system from the franchises roots and applying it to a completely open, completely new fantasy world was just plain and simple common sense. The way in which it was executed though, like Tactics, is genius.
It’s pretty legitimate to wonder why Square would name an online game their XIth Final Fantasy. To me it’s just a name ya know. Who cares if it’s XI or 34/22 years XXI? Like who really cares? If it’s called Final Fantasy Online it’s still the same game, right? Adding legitimacy to the title, Square didn’t just throw some random dudes at the development either. Uematsu was involved with the music, and Square scribe Masato Kato (Chrono Trigger/Cross, FFVII, Xenogears) lent his talents to the story. Everyone else filling in the blanks who weren’t highly recognizable developers took the opportunity to go beyond any expectations as well. The character, armor and weapon design is top-notch and the gameplay systems are more creative and functional than almost every other main entry Final Fantasy. But that’s all mostly superficial stuff, really. We expect SE to put out a high budget project, right? The point is… while it didn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense to name it number eleven at first, FFXI did indeed earn its title in much the same ways that any other Final Fantasy does: Deep gameplay, an epic story and polished production. What I’m asking you here personally is to accept that it really is the official XIth Final Fantasy and to get over it. Not only that but it presents a more intriguing, more personal (obviously) and much more progressive take on the beloved franchise.
To better understand what I see in this game you have to examine the philosophy behind Final Fantasy XI. From very early on the creators had a very specific agenda. Priorities were laid down in a different order than most other games of this ilk and that dramatically changed the entire feeling of the game itself. The main idea here was immersion. Final Fantasy XI can’t be run in a window. To window FFXI is to disobey the terms of service. Why? Well for one, it makes it just that much harder to hack. I honestly once never in five years had a single bug while playing. Literally. My shit was never missing, my character was never glitched. My account security was a goddamn impenetrable fortress. Everything worked every day in every area. Every. Single. Time. That’s saying something, ya know? I mean, console games that come out today release with tons of bugs, some that never get addressed. People bitched incessantly about FFXI and the inability to run it in windowed mode, but what were they missing out on? Oh… well they couldn’t chat on AIM or do online shit or add bullshit into the programming. I’m sorry you fucking fourteen year old, does your ADD require you to check your facebook every fifteen minutes? A wonderful side effect of this design choice was that it insulated us intelligent adults who were actually there to experience something from idiots who couldn’t separate themselves from the idea that you should be able to Tweet from inside your MMO. I met so many responsible and fun people in this game! I suffered tenfold the retardation in my first thirty minutes of WoW than I ever did in my whole FFXI career. It is just simply a community of people who like the game, want to play with other people who like the game and are willing to help each other obtain the (almost) impossible goals within it.
The second and much less recognized result of this all-or-nothing philosophy was that you actually played the game. You didn’t set your guy on auto-pilot and go do your homework. Some ridiculous guild of maxed out characters never ran you through dungeons and outfitted your characters with insane shit you didn’t earn. You became immersed in it. Your focus was on the game because you didn’t have a choice. That was you in there, not some avatar, not one of maybe fifteen characters you rolled around in. Final Fantasy XI let your character learn every job, learn every skill. All you had to do was put in the work and you could do it. No creating a new character for each job. The effect that mindset had on the player was astounding. Sure, fishing was hard and boring but you couldn’t bot it. When you caught a damn fish you CAUGHT A MOTHER FUCKING FISH BABY! Every little task was magnified by the fact that you actually had to put effort into it, you had to pay attention and you had to care. If you didn’t, then you just wouldn’t succeed. Maybe I catch a fish and because I can be an equally adept chef, I cook that sucker up into a food buff. I think a lot of MMOs miss the point of YOU BEING THE CHARACTER YOU’RE PLAYING AS. If Kevin Lee was magically transported into Vana’diel, Kevin Lee would go do everything he wanted to do. Kevin Lee wouldn’t want to sit out while Kevin Johnson tagged in to go fish. When events took place in the story, you were you every time. You were living that story, playing it out as a singular character. No ‘switching out to my mage ’cause he’s better for the dungeon’ here. If you want to be a better mage, go cast some spells. By the end of your stay in Vana’diel you had one character who had experienced everything and that’s so important. Maybe I’m old fashioned but I remember when RPGs were about fantasizing that it was you defeating evil, going on a crazy adventure in some fantasy world. Because of FFXI’s downright insistence on being an isolated and fully complete, immersive experience I was able to have a much more pure affair with the world I was cheating on the real world with, and that made it exponentially more rewarding.
Each and every reason why I love this game is a result of the core values of the game itself. Here’s a list of stuffs:
– Until fairly recently, every task beyond level ten was designed to be done as a group. Level grinding, dungeon raiding and boss encounters all absolutely required the help of five (or more) good people. They wanted people to make friends and adventure together and I loved that. Finding a group was tedious at times but there is literally nothing more beautiful in this world than when a group of strangers comes together to achieve a common goal in Final Fantasy XI. It’s a feeling that ‘s impossible to describe, but every single FFXI veteran knows the elegant artistry displayed by a finely tuned party. On the flip side we all know too well the chaos that can erupt if even just one member of a party doesn’t know how to be a functioning part of the machine.
– Power leveling is somewhat gimped compared to other games. It is of course possible but sometimes difficult to manage and time consuming. People do it (I preferred not to) but it wasn’t like you got to the level cap in a day or got some crazy outrageous gear from it. The most popular usage was just to have a high level character support a group that was grinding, which took away some of the intensity but it didn’t completely ruin the experience.
– NO PVP. Thank god. I mean, to some people this is an affront to every online game law book ever written but Final Fantasy XI was about working together, not working against each other. The world was just so much classier because of it, too. No dueling, no body camping, no loot stealing, no STUPID SHIT, MAN! Just honest to goodness adventure.
– Ok. FFXI is terribly hard. It’s common knowledge. You lose exp when you die (and can de-level), it’s nigh impossible to escape from an assailing mob, almost every mob that isn’t easy is difficult, some dungeon experiences teeter on the edge of completely outlandish, the exp needed to get even one level after lvl. 50 is astronomical compared to previous levels (the mobs are getting more difficult on a higher curve than the one you’re leveling up on), the higher gear sets are so rare and expensive that only the most very elite players can get them…you get the point. It’s gotten easier after the years and the support staff being what it is has always listened to community chatter about certain things, updated them and made the game better. I just consider the difficulty and complicated battling subtleties litmus tests that people who shouldn’t be playing will fail and go play WoW.
– Totally awesome story missions. Following the storyline in FFXI is a ridiculously difficult task that ends up leading you through the most amazing areas and plops you right in front of some seriously insane boss fights. The story is good enough to be a driving force for you to get that next level to become strong enough to defeat whichever monster stands at the end of the tale. Besting the Shadow Lord (the final boss of the original storyline) was a victory that I shall hold dear to me forever. I mean, no console RPG can ever hope to provide the same awe inspiring moments if only because of how hard you’d fought and how far you’d come to achieve them. They were intensely personal because they weren’t happening to Cloud, or to Dragonmaster Alex…Final Fantasy XI was the epic that told the tale of you.
– The beautiful world! FFXI is outdated, sure. It’s still artistically and thematically leagues above any other MMO and the visuals still hold up (no ‘blocky’ PC graphics). When you consider the amount of content and the size of the world that’s here, it’s striking how much of it is consistently detailed and breathtaking. There just aren’t big opens fields or parts of the map with less interesting environments than the next. Every single piece of the world has a strong identity and personality. The major nations are diverse, their cultures are reflected perfectly in their respective cities and it all just seems so damn cohesive.
– The dedicated design staff deserves at least a solid mention. They were diligent in keeping gil-farming to a minimum, banning accounts that deserved it all while providing expansions and almost weekly updates that gave solutions to the difficulties many players were having. The expansions themselves were all ginormous additions (new jobs, new storylines…new everythings). They have continuously nurtured their baby until it grew and evolved into a monstrous beast. As fun as it was on opening day, it is exponentially more fun and playable now…beyond description even.
Vana’diel’s personal memoirs were yours for the writing. The ones that I helped tell are sealed away in my memory and will remain there forever, finished. I’ll never go back and that’s a good thing. Khreo had his victories…his defeats, but because of the time I spent with him in that world he is a more pertinent character than any other that has come from the mind of any man. His tale came from the imagination that matters the most, mine. The world of Vana’diel being crafted so purposefully as an engrossing and extraordinary place ensured that I will never forget my time spent there, or the friends I made. It’s impossible to recommend such a game to anyone but were I ever asked which MMO was best…FFXI gets my vote. When you hear people bitch about the absurd grind and the ‘waiting for a party for ten hours’ argument you just have to remember that “great thinkers have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds”. Anybody who complained about those things were in the wrong place to begin with, and likely found their way to something more user-friendly. If you were like me (an adult, smart, into serious gaming) you welcomed the slightly outside of the box concepts that Final Fantasy XI introduced and recognized them for were they were: advancements.
There are a boatload of deeply rewarding experiences that my gaming habit has provided me with, but more than half of them are right here. I’ve gotten so utterly nostalgic just writing this review and listening to the music that there have been moments where I had the urge to call my friends whom I played it with to get back into it with me. I won’t, of course. Not with Final Fantasy XIV so close…but I do want to say thank you for the good times Final Fantasy XI. I don’t regret a thing.