Final Fantasy XI Import Impressions
Final Fantasy XI

Final Fantasy XI is out in Japan, and Freelance Reporter Andrew Church gives his impressions on the first online Final Fantasy.

Despite all the hubbub around its mostly failed launch, Final Fantasy XI itself--now that it has begun to stabilize into a somewhat playable form--seems fairly promising. The interface isn't overwhelming (and is in fact improved from the beta version), the story shows potential, and gameplay (including the requisite "systems") is solid. Whether this will translate into an overall "good game", though, is still an open question.

I played the beta version of FFXI for about two months, which gives me a slightly different point of view from someone new to the game, but in comparison to the beta version, FFXI has improved considerably in several areas. One of the more important, if not more noticeable, of these areas is the interface. It does an excellent job of not getting in the way, as opposed to the beta version which had a tendency to cover half of the screen or more in windows. It also includes a time-of-game-day clock, an important tool since some shops close during nighttime hours. Players with a keyboard can take advantage of a number of shortcut commands, such as Ctrl-C for "check" (examine a PC or enemy) or Ctrl+T for "tell" (talk to a specific player). The use of Ctrl-key combinations is a vast improvement over the beta version, which just used single keypresses and thus led to many accidental actions, such as accidentally calling for help on a monster. (Normally only one character/party can fight a particular monster at once; calling for help allows other players to join the battle, but as a penalty, no experience points are gained even if the monster is defeated.)

The FFXI world has also been greatly expanded. The town of Bastok, for example, consists of four distinct areas, each large enough that it takes a couple of minutes to walk across, plus a small dungeon; although I haven't counted, I wouldn't be surprised if the number of NPCs exceeded a hundred. It's quite possible to spend several hours just exploring the town. (On the other hand, the size can quickly get annoying when trying to get from one end of the town to the other; rumor has it that there are Sprint Shoes to be found somewhere, though.) The world's looks are no letdown either; if perhaps not up to the level of FFX, they do a more than passable job of bringing out each area's individual characteristics, like the wasteland surrounding Bastok or the bright sunlit fields of Rolanberry. The music enhances the environment as well, though regrettably many areas lack background music entirely.

Unfortunately, I haven't advanced far enough to be able to say much about what story, if any, FFXI has, but I can say that the NPCs and fetch quests in the initial areas, though they're mostly "here's-how-you-play-FFXI" sorts of things, hint at greater depth later in the story. For example, there's the barely-tolerant relationship between the Humes and the Galka of Bastok, or on a lighter note, the woman who scolds you for reading the letter her daughter asked you to bring to her (if you read it). Some of the dungeons, too, tell their own graphical story of events past. While it's still too early to tell one way or the other, I'm going to be optimistic for the moment based on Square's previous successes.

With respect to gameplay, Square has certainly done its duty in the "systems" department. One thing that seems surprising at first glance is the high prices on some items, with ordinary potions clocking in at a hefty 900 gil. This does, however, serve a purpose: to encourage players to trade among each other. The game provides a "bazaar" system which allows players to set prices on items in their inventory; entering an item in the bazaar list causes an icon to appear next to the character's name, and anyone else can look at the bazaar list and easily buy items they want. Since shops will only buy items for about a quarter of their original price, selling an item to another player at half price is a win for both. It's also possible, of course, to trade on the fly without having to register items in the bazaar list.

Nor is barter the only way to obtain items. Among FFXI's other "systems" are item creation and fishing. The latter needs little explanation to anyone who's played Breath of Fire before (though one does have to wonder when FF turned into a fishing game), but the item creation system is fairly complex. Monsters will occasionally drop crystals of each of the eight elements; using these, one can "merge" items together-- often other items dropped by enemies--to form a new one. Just about anything, from potions to high-level weapons and armor, can be created if you have the right ingredients, though rare items will need the help of a guild--or a lot of practice.

Battles are conducted in real-time, using an "auto-attack" system similar to that found in other MMORPGs; unless you specifically tell your character to cast a spell, use an item or take some other action, the character will repeatedly attack as fast as possible (how fast depends on what kind of weapon you have equipped). You can start a battle by simply targeting the monster--monsters are just NPCs, and visible like everything else--and selecting Attack; once you take your first swing, the monster becomes "yours", and no one else outside of your party can attack it unless you deliberately cancel your attack (or die), so there's no need to worry about someone coming along and stealing the XP from you with a single blow. On the other hand, once you attack a monster, it's nearly impossible to keep it away from you if you change your mind; your only hope is to move to a different area before you run out of HP, or get someone else to kill it for you. Winning a battle will earn you XP, gil and items if you're lucky, and "battle points"; this last statistic both allows you to obtain special equipment or other items, and also increases your home country's standing in that region. Once a week, the countries' totals are compared, and the country with the highest total becomes the region's "owner". Aside from bragging rights, this causes that country's guards to be placed throughout the region, selling items and providing services (including home point setting--"home point" refers to the place you're warped to when you die) to players from that country.

One other important point is that Square is emphasizing friendly play as a goal of FFXI, and the game is designed with that in mind. Aside from the trading mentioned earlier, one of the most notable features of FFXI is that there is absolutely no player-killing permitted; you can't even attack other players, much less kill them. While this may bother some people who like the challenge of fighting against other people, I at least find it a great relief, since I don't have to worry about watching my back for ultra-high-level PCs going after my level-5 character. (As a matter of fact, three out of six pages in the developers' notes were devoted to an explanation of why they decided to disallow player kills.) I suspect this also helps foster the "random passersby casting Cure" effect and the generally friendly atmosphere of the game, which is one of my favorite aspects of FFXI overall.

Nonetheless, there are a number of troublesome and frustrating facets to FFXI as well. Probably one of the biggest is the fact that you can't take your character to another "world" (server); you're locked into the server you start in, and if you want to play on another server you have to create a new character--and cough up the 100 yen per month for it. Compounding this is the fact that you can't select which server you want to play on, unless either you already have a character on the server or someone purchases a "world pass" (currently about 250 gil for up to 5 people, though the price goes up with the number of characters registered on the server) and lets you use it. As can be imagined, this can put a significant dent in your plans if you are planning to start FFXI with some friends and you all want to play on the same server.

Another major problem is the handling of experience points. Not only are experience points awarded based on the difference in levels between your character and the monster you're fighting--beating a monster at the same level as you, not an easy task, nets you 100 XP no matter what level you're on--experience points required for leveling up increase with level, so that it takes progressively more time to advance. Square claims that this is designed to encourage party play, but since XP in a party battle are calculated based on the player with the highest level, anyone even one level lower loses 20-30% of that XP, and the "XP bonus" for party play alluded to in the instruction book doesn't actually exist, party play is at best a break-even proposition for the highest-level player, and anyone with a lower level is actually worse off than if they played solo. In fact, just about everyone I've talked to in the game so far has commented on how pointless it is to play in parties; we can only hope Square will listen. (As a side note, the beta version _did_ have an XP bonus, didn't reduce XP until about 5 levels below the highest-level player, and was generally considered very well-tuned. Maybe the programmers released the wrong version of the program?)

All said, it's still hard to tell whether FFXI will succeed or not; a lot of that depends on how well Square can recover from FFXI's disastrous launch, and how well they listen to their players (which, if their actions so far are any indication, is "not very well"--their most recent server update failed to fix any major problems and also reduced several jobs' HP levels). Still, FFXI has the advantage that it can be upgraded as needed, without forcing the players to go out and buy a new copy of the game, and with work I think FFXI can do quite well--for an online game, at least. It won't be a substitute for classic RPGs, but those with time on their hands may want to keep an eye on this one.

by Andrew Church, Freelance Reporter - Tokyo    
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