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Not so Final Fantasy – ‘FFXI’ and the Series’ First Foray into MMO Territory

Not so Final Fantasy is a tri-weekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.

On 31 March 2016, almost fourteen years after the game first released in Japan, Final Fantasy XI’s PS2 and Xbox 360 servers were shut down for good.

Fortunately for those who still maintain an interest in this venerable old MMO, it remains playable on PC to this day; receiving regular patches to keep the game running smoothly for its loyal fanbase. And yet, despite XI’s impressive longevity, I must confess, I’ve never actually played it.

Not because I didn’t want to, mind. Though initially sceptical about Square’s decision to abandon the series’ single player roots – temporarily, of course – the more I learned about the game, the more excited I became. Until, that is, I discovered it required a monthly subscription. Admittedly, I could have covered the cost using the earnings from my weekly paper route, but that would have left me short on money for Pokémon cards and sweets. Similarly, I could have sought help from the bank of Mum and Dad, but I couldn’t, in good conscience, expect my parents to fork out each and every month for this one title alone. Upon this realization, my visions of conquering the vast, picturesque landscapes of Vana’diel slowly faded.

What’s the point of this article, then, if I’ve no first-hand experiences on which to reminisce? Well, obviously this won’t be a normal retrospective. Instead, using my knowledge of the wider series and the treasure trove of Final Fantasy XI-specific information available on the net, my aim is to consider how and why Square Enix’s first foray into the MMO genre achieved the level of success it did and, more importantly, to show some love to a game that perhaps doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

Possibly the biggest hurdle it had to overcome at the time was proving to long-time series aficionados, myself included, that, despite the drastic change in direction, XI was still very much a Final Fantasy game. And it really is. Flush with numerous features and series tropes even casual fans couldn’t fail to recognize, XI displays a commendable reverence for the past.

First and foremost, as with all good Final Fantasy titles, it’s anchored by a strong central narrative. With the peoples of the world facing extinction at the hands of a seemingly irresistible force – in this case represented by a pantheon of capricious deities rather than a maniacal court jester or a time-manipulating sorceress from the future – it falls to the player and his/her band of fellow adventurers to neutralize this divine threat and return peace to the world. Along the way, the player encounters a familiar cast of colorful NPCs, evocative locations, colossal fauna, and yes, even the odd magically-infused crystal; accompanied by another sumptuous soundtrack arranged by legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu.

Pretty much par for the course in terms of setup, easing the player into this strange new world with the tenderness of a mother. Nevertheless, being a shared-world environment, I can only imagine playing through this welcomingly familiar narrative feels slightly different from other Final Fantasy games. At the end of the day, each individual player’s centrality to the events of the story is entirely subjective. So, while they may be integral to the plot from their own perspective, as far as the other inhabitants of Vana’diel are concerned, they’re just another potential ally. The Yuffie to their Cloud. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a jarring or inferior experience.

Yes, seeing countless other adventurers undertaking the same quests in the same physical world might diminish the importance of any given individual’s endeavours, in the same way that multiple pairs of Hobbits taking multiple evil rings to multiple active volcanos to destroy multiple dark lords would make the efforts of any given Frodo and Sam feel somewhat less crucial. But with a selection of available starting points to choose from and the freedom to complete quests in any order the player desires, one person’s journey through Vana’diel is likely to be vastly different from that of another. While the sheer variety of custom avatars – a mechanic which was itself a significant departure from the pre-fabricated heroes of the past – adds to the sense that each adventure is, in actuality, unique.

Gameplay-wise, there’s a similar mixture of the old, tried and tested Final Fantasy formula and more traditional MMO elements.

Sitting alongside a bestiary of intimidating monsters, multi-phase super-bosses, an extensive job system that operates much like Final Fantasy’s IV and XII, a map that gradually opens up as the player delves deeper into the story, and an arsenal of over-sized weapons, is a unique blend of real-time and turn-based combat. A fundamental seed change in design that, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say, was revolutionary for the series, heavily influencing its mechanical development in years to come.

Instantly noticeable is XI’s decision to eschew the random encounters of the past. No longer would players be brought to a screeching halt as the screen devolved in a haze of swirling color to a self-contained battle screen, wherein they’d be confronted by the snarling maw of their latest foe. Instead, monsters within close proximity to the player could be seen ambling around the world minding their own business, letting the player choose who to fight and when. Whilst I, personally, still prefer the tension of not knowing when I’ll be forced into a confrontation, the appeal of this type of approach is immediately apparent. I know only too well the dread of starting yet another battle trapped in the depths of a sprawling dungeon 20 minutes from the nearest save point with a severely depleted party.

In terms of the actual combat mechanics, however, XI operated at a similar pace to previous titles in the series. Though a more real-time-orientated player system meant that enemies were no longer forced to wait patiently for their turn as a highly orchestrated dance played out on screen, absorbing blows with casual indifference while the ATB gauge filled, it certainly wasn’t a frantic, arm-exhausting exercise in button-mashing either. As with all classic Final Fantasy games, the player selected their attacks from a comprehensive menu of commands, combining different abilities to manipulate the flow of the battle. A far cry from the slick, hectic confrontations of FFXV, XI sat somewhere in between the two extremes of pure real-time and calculated turn-based combat, broadening its appeal without sacrificing the tactical nuance the series is known for.

All the same, at its heart, Final Fantasy XI is still very much an MMO, and, as such, places a heavy emphasis on cooperative play.

Assembling a well-balanced squad of up to six players is essential to completing a quest or bringing down a particularly challenging foe in FFXI. Each member has to bring something different to the table, their chosen class complementing the rest of the party ensuring that they’re capable of dealing with a broad range of enemies and scenarios. Naturally, the most effective groups will be comprised of friends who know each other and their individual play styles, however, with an in-built translation tool helping players communicate with fellow adventurers from around the world using a set of stock phrases, match-making was a perfectly viable alternative for those who struggled to fill the remaining five slots from their friends list alone. There was a third option, specifically aimed at those who prefer to fly solo or, translation tool aside, are uncomfortable playing with complete strangers: the charmingly named ‘Adventuring Fellows’ – a group of AI-controlled companions who can be called upon to provide aid during battle. But, for serious players, a squad of human players was a must.

Cooperation aside, of arguably greater importance to the game’s success as an MMORPG was the fact that it never ceased to evolve over the course of its decade-and-a-half life-span. Outside of the usual updates and bug fixes, five fully-fledged ‘expansions’ and six smaller ‘add-ons’ (the latest of which arrived as recently as 2015), have been introduced since 2002, providing countless hours of additional story content and a multitude of exciting new quests to complete. The relative lack of PvP options and the lengthy EXP grind were never fully fixed during these updates, unfortunately, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of some, while the graphics are jarringly outdated by today’s standards. But, thanks to this steady flow of new content and Square’s relentless attempts to improve, XI retained a core of players who were always ready and willing to return for the latest raft of goodies.

Whatever way you look at it, Final Fantasy XI marks a turning point for the series. Not just because it was the first Final Fantasy MMO, but because of the influence it’s had on traditional single-player entries like XII, the XIII trilogy, and XV more recently. While the success and lasting appeal of XI was surely the single biggest determining factor in Square Enix’s decision to return to the MMO genre with FFXIV.

Yet, strangely, despite precipitating this wholesale shift in the series very DNA, the key to XI’s success appears to lie not in its differences from, but in its reverence for the past. XI’s creators might have seriously worried its mainline status prior to launch, but for producer Hiromichi Tanaka, it remains the most ‘Final Fantasy’ title of them all. And, while that’s a debatable statement when viewed through the lens of the wider series, with an undeniable air of familiarity pervading the entire game, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from, and why so many loved and continue to love it.

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