ESTNN’s Lahftel takes us back for a closer look around one of the MMOs that built the genre to celebrate FFXI’s 20th anniversary.
With the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy XI, I returned to Vana’diel to figure out how an MMORPG can age gracefully. So bear with me for a moment, as I try to explain to you why this is still a journey worth making.
My journey through Vana’diel started long, long ago. I vividly remember many lazy afternoons, spend grinding or desperately looking for quest NPC’s while most of my friends played Counter Strike. At school they’d talk about the crazy rounds they played the day before, while I was already agonizing over what I’d do in Final Fantasy XI once I got home. And back in the late 2000’s, Square Enix’s MMO was not even a blip on anyone’s radar. The genre was dominated by Blizzard’s World of WarCraft; a game that revolutionized the genre and the industry to an extent we still feel today. But, I never felt the urge to play WoW. And I certainly blame my bias on growing up with Square Enix titles for that (and the state my life is in now.)
Today I can appreciate World of WarCraft for what it is and the revolution it kickstarted. But while returning to Vana’diel this last week, it dawned on me that there was a lot more to Square Enix’s other critically acclaimed MMORPG. So let me sell you on the experience. And attempt to explain how an MMORPG can stay true to its vision and age gracefully.
PlayOnline and Setting up Final Fantasy XI
When we talk Final Fantasy XI, we have to talk about PlayOnline. An odd piece of software that only XI players know still exists. In short, it was Square Enix’s attempt to create something like Blizzard’s battle net. Just for the Japanese market and centered around their IPs. And while other platforms evolved and changed with the times, logging into PlayOnline is still like I remember it. Spoiled by convenient game launcher’s and smooth buying experiences, it was definitely something. Luckily, Square Enix has integrated PlayOnline into their modern structure. So setting it up was at least somewhat effortless. So after buying a code for Final Fantasy XI’s Ultimate Seeker edition from the Square Enix store. You register the code, and download a couple of zip files from the Final Fantasy XI website. Weird.. but with the installer that works somewhat smoothly.
After registering the code to your Square Enix account, you also get your ID and password for PlayOnline. You can now use this to log into the PlayOnline launcher. But that would still be too easy wouldn’t it? Yes. Next you have to activate your Final Fantasy XI service account on Square Enix’s website, and also activate your character slot.
Now, you’ll pay a subscription fee, which is included in the purchase of the game. But you’ll also pay a separate fee for each character. So if this is as confusing as it sounds, (and it should be) here is Square Enix little tutorial. This is probably the biggest hurdle to entrance XI has. But once you’re able to log into the PlayOnline launcher, its smooth sailing from there. (The menu music is also pretty good.)
Do keep in mind however that both settings for XI and PlayOnline have to be launched separately from those two programs. You’ll also have to adjust the aspect ratio in the game itself as well.
“It all began with a stone, or so the story goes..”
To this day, the opening cinematic makes me feel things. And luckily I’m so far removed from the last time I played Final Fantasy XI, that this is more like rediscovering your home town after having left a decade ago. I do vaguely remember how I started back then, as a hume red mage in Windurst. Back then I started there because the flavor text told me that Windurst was a hub of learning and magic. Perfect for an up and coming red mage right? Oddly, almost 15 years later I would subconsciously make the same choice. Only to realize a day later, that my role playing habits haven’t changed a bit.
Similar to back then, you get a little introduction to Windurst and its people. An NPC tells you to talk to the guards at the gate to familiarize yourself with the city and learn your trade. What’s your trade? Adventurer of course.
That NPC also tells you; should you ever be lost, check the records of eminence in your quest tab. (A feature that I did not remember at all, and its comparatively new actually.) Those records serve as a sort of guide line; especially in the tutorial section, on where you should go next, how to unlock useful features and who to talk to.
But how to get to the guards at the gate? Where is that gate? Well.. Final Fantasy XI doesn’t have any quest markers or a minimap. No, you have to open your map and look for the gate. Once you get there you have to find the NPC that will give you the quest. I was amazed by that very simple experience of having to talk to NPC’s to find your way around. So I made up a rule to not look up anything the internet. Instead I’d talk to NPC’s or ask other players for guidance. (Which I’ll cover in a bit more depth later on.)
Slow, Steady, Uneventful and Satisfying
Tasked with helping out in an experiment, I talked with some scholars and then ventured out into the world to find a magic tower. Getting anywhere in Final Fantasy XI takes time. Maps are vast, cities have complicated layouts and you can quickly get lost. To some players, this can be frustrating. For me, it’s immersive.
The simple act of tracking over a low level zone to an objective feels like an adventure. On the way to the aforementioned tower, I decided to take it up with the local wild life. Fights were slow; I barely had any abilities and even minor foe’s managed to beat me within an inch of my life. But getting that level up, and noticing what difference it made was invigorating.
It took me about 30 minutes to get to the tower, complete my task there and come back to report my success. I hadn’t really done much besides getting to level 8 and talking to some NPCs. Yet, it was an adventure, the long trek… The few times I barely manged to beat a foe stronger than me. That chest piece one of the enemies dropped, that I’d be able to wear at level 11. And the small narrative unfolding, teasing bigger things to come. And that’s probably what hooked me, the odd satisfaction that comes from figuring out how to get to a place and back. The slow gradual pace that allows one to soak in the sights. And the story.
The Value of Connection and Trust
Once I returned and handed in my quest, I was rewarded with another one. I remembered what made Final Fantasy XI so special back in the old days.
See in the world of Vana’diel there aren’t player guilds or Free Companies. Players would band together with Linkshells; like player chatrooms basically. So, I asked in the shout chat if there is a Linkshell for new players and low and behold, I got a few direct messages telling me to join one. So I did, introduced myself and was greeted by mostly veterans eager to give advice. Maybe I got lucky, but whenever I asked a question, not once did I get someone just linking some website. Instead they patiently explained whatever it was I had to do, or what I did wrong. When I asked if there is anyone around who’d want to party up and level a low level job. I was told to pick up Trusts.
Trusts in XI are AI companions that basically exist to allow you to play the game solo. Yes, playing an MMORPG solo is unheard of for some. But you try to find new players in a 20 year old MMO to form a party with in a reasonable time frame!
Trusts exist to allow players to experience most content and catch up to the endgame. They also enable you to do the story missions without much hassle. A godsend and probably the most useful addition to the game in its later years. After doing a series of quest in your records of eminence , you unlock a variety of trusts for any situation. And after doing so, I was primed to set out and adventure to my hearts content.
Adventure in your Heart
While I described my early journey, this is most certainly not what you have to do to play Final Fantasy XI. Nothing stops you from just heading out and leveling. Something that the games does really well is the lack of direction. While the modern gamer might hate this ‘make your own fun’ approach to the playstyle, the lack of structure feels really refreshing in 2022. Especially in the MMO space where you kinda get railroaded towards certain types of content. If you log into XI there’s no to do list or an endgame to chase, instead you get to pick your own projects to work on. And that’s something I loved even back on my first playthrough. Be it following one of the many stories of Vana’diel, leveling a job, crafting, looking for better gear, hunting a notorious monster or just exploring the world. It was always the player’s choice. Its something I can still see influencing Final Fantasy XIV’s endgame to this day. Difference being that XI is a lot more open ended, nothing stops you from tackling these tasks in any order.
The story expansions and addons are only required to unlock new areas and certain features. And nothing stops you from doing most of them in any order you like, a select few are continuations of previous ones though.
There is nothing that compares to walking into a new town, only to trigger a cutscene that’ll start yet another adventure. If you start playing now, you have two decades of content to experience, and with the aforementioned trusts and/or a group of friends its very effortless to do so.
Character Customization and Combat
It’s a lost art, to build a system that allows players to make their character whatever they want to be. Want a warrior who dabbles in red magic on the side? A thief that moonlights as a bard to buff their party? Anything is possible, thanks to the stellar sub job system that only elevates the already amazing selection of jobs and playstyles.
After completing a quest, you’ll be able to combine jobs you’ve already leveled. Your sub job might only be half the level of your main job, but you get a small stat bonus and all the abilities your sub job would have at that halved level. If you now group up with other players, and coordinate a little. You can form an almost unstoppable party to go up against the endgame challenges.
Combat in XI is also a different beast. Final Fantasy’s classic active time battle system meshed quite well with dial up internet. While its slow pace can be a little jarring today, it gives you time to think and react. Combat is a lot more open ended. Spell elements and effects matter. Suddenly its about timing the right moves, coordinating with your group for devastating combinations or taking the damage for someone else. There’s a lot of depth here, a type of depth we kind of lost when moving to more fast paced systems, especially in online games. And if you take anything from this article with you, play XI for the combat alone, it goes from slow and steady. To slow, steady, messy and really satisfying when you manage to pull off some big brain ability combo.
Tales of Vana’diel
One of the praises you’ll hear often for Final Fantasy XIV is that is has a great story for an MMO. That praise often makes me cringe, yea most MMO stories are just serviceable. But the reason I feel in love with XIV is the same reason I fell in love with its older sibling. Final Fantasy XI has a story that is well worth being a main entry of the franchise. And it puts other MMORPGs to shame, even it’s successor XIV in some aspects.
The defining difference between the two MMORPG’s is structure. Final Fantasy XIV’s story is linear and knows exactly what kind of adventure it wants to send you on. XI’s story, on the other hand, is more the sum of its parts. The stellar world building and the sheer effort that went into making this world feel alive. And while the stories will lean very heavy on the fantasy side of things, that doesn’t mean it can’t do characters. While you won’t find some ground-breaking drama here. You will find a fantastic tale of heroes and villains and of magic and the world’s relationship to it. Basically everything that makes a Final Fantasy great. I’d love to talk at length about characters and twists and turns, but I want you to go out there and meet those people and live that story. Words written here won’t do it justice.
A Place to Call Home
I think most MMORPG enthusiasts can agree that an MMORPG doesn’t need exciting gameplay, a grandiose story that throws you for loop after loop or pretty graphics. What makes an MMORPG is that comfy feeling you get when logging on. You start living a part of your life in these worlds, and the only thing it takes is that feeling of being welcomed. There are many elements that play into this. A world that looks exciting to live in to start with, a welcoming community and a sense of belonging. So even after 10 years, I can still log on every day and feel at home here.
Sure I miss some of the comforts that other MMOs have, but this is still a home that I subconsciously missed. I missed hanging out in the breath-taking city of Jeuno and agonizing over where I should go next. The satisfaction of logging off after doing anything I wanted to do that day and being excited to do more tomorrow.
While Final Fantasy XI will eat up your time, it’s far from that harsh MMORPG from way back then. Its like a comfortable blanket you can wrap yourself up in. A home away from home, that encourages you to make your own fun. So, maybe XI is less of just a game, its a playground. And its mechanics and functions are just the swings and slides for you to mess around on.
And what a playground it is, if you’re willing to open yourself up to the experience. I doubt you’ll regret it. Who knows, maybe you’ll make XI your summer home that you take a vacation in every year or so?
Memories Deserve to Stay Alive
While there was some fear that Final Fantasy XI would close its gates, it’s final story content was released back in 2015 after all, the journey is still far from over. Recently Square Enix has started to integrate a new quest line into the game. Soon there will also be yet another tier of endgame equipment for players to obtain and who knows what comes after. There are currently no plans to shut it down. And there is still a lot of love from the development team and the community being poured into Vana’diel even when it seems like its best days seem far behind it. As long as people play it, XI’s doors will remain open. So I hope that I get to write this piece again in five or ten years.
Concluding this mess… Just Buy this Game and Try It Already!
The dignity Final Fantasy XI has been treated with is nothing short of amazing to me. The thought of growing old is scary. So is the thought of a game you used to love growing old… especially online titles that need a stable audience. You’ll see them twist themselves out of shape to lure in new players. Eventually becoming just a shade of their former glory, going free to play and adding a cash shop. But it’s different here, it seems like XI never lost what made it so special to begin with. And why I now have very complicated feelings about it.
There is this world I see, where Final Fantasy XI really took off in the west, one where it wasn’t dwarfed by World of Warcraft. And for some reason I would’ve really liked to see that world. XI is criminally underrated in the west and in the larger Final Fantasy fandom and its a god damn tragedy.
While being far from perfect and clunky to play, I easily fell back in love with it. And that’s not just due to nostalgia googles either. While I consider the current XIV probably the marriage of the soul of XI and the accessibility WoW. Final Fantasy XI and the doomed 1.0 version of XIV have something really special. Something hard to put into words. It a sense of immersion in an online world. And only XI managed to recreate it during the last week I played it. And I’ll keep playing XI, while hoping you’ll will at least give it a try. I want to see this game flourish once more! It deserves a many more eyes on it and it deserves all the love it gets.
The game’s currently on sale till the end of the month. And I implore you to give it an honest try. Play though the base game’s story and the first expansion before you make up your mind. If you love Final Fantasy, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
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