Over the years, I may have spent more money on Final Fantasy XI than any other MMO. It’s undoubtedly my first MMO, and it’s not something I can really walk away from. I’ve bought new copies of the game on a couple of occasions and restarted the game a couple of times, but I never felt like making the effort to track down my old original account and get back in on the character with the most playtime.
And then this past week I decided to just do it, and I found myself oddly swept up in everything. And I found a lot of things that just struck me right away as… well, odd.
Maybe none of this will seem unusual to you; perhaps you’ve been playing the game with dedication for years, and some of these things aren’t even altogether new to me from my brief dalliances back in the game. But this one feels more real, on some level, than previous excursions. I’ve found and seen things that strike me as unusual. So walk with me to a game that’s supposedly in maintenance mode and practically updating with more content than some live games.
1. The game still looks gorgeous
The fact that FFXI is a good-looking game isn’t exactly what I would call news. The game looked good when it first came out, because Square-Enix loves to throw money into graphics with the fervor of a compulsive gambler presented with a row of slot machines. But the game is also old now, having launched in 2002 in Japan… and yet it still looks really good, better than several games which launched later. (Sorry, City of Heroes – I love you, but FFXI doesn’t have mitten hands and painted faces. I promise you, I’ll say really nice things about you in two weeks.)
It definitely shows its age, especially with its odd external configuration utility and archaic aspects like a lack of proper anti-aliasing. But for a game that’s old enough to be entering high school, the thing just looks a bit rough, and it’s aged better than a lot of other games which have received extensive graphical upgrades since launch.
2. The new/returning player guide is insane
Official guides are usually sort of garbage – they’re hideously out of date, cover your first steps out of the starting gate in the game, and don’t cover important concepts. Which is why the Adventuring Primer on the official site blows me away, because…
Well, look at that. Seriously, go and come back. We’ll still be here.
It’s not just that it breaks down content by levels in a clear and concise fashion, nor is it that the guide includes lots of tips with each bit of content to make sure that players know how things work beyond the bare minimum. It’s also the fact that the whole thing includes narration on the front end tailored to what you want to do. If you’re just staring and wondering where to start, the answer is actually provided, rather than forcing you to just click around blindly.
The guide is not, unfortunately, 100% up to date. But all it’s missing is the information about the finale story and the last few bits added with recent updates, and I’m more than willing to give that a pass since there’s no major revisions coming down the pipe. This is a great guide, and it absolutely blows my mind that the game’s team put this much effort into something most companies just plain ignore past launch.
3. It’s a bit like a shut-down park at times
If you’ve never played the game before, maybe you can’t tell that it’s older and faltering. I can. Logging into my account that’s lain fallow since 2006, my friend list is filled with deleted names. I walk through cities and they’re empty of all but a few people. Auctions sell slowly if they sell at all. It’s the perfect time to camp Leaping Lizzie, but the whole thing has the feeling of a theme park that’s just about to close down… and you can tell exactly why it’s closing down as you walk around.
4. There’s a lot of kludging involved to keep it working
Not revamping FFXI would have killed it dead. There’s no arguing about that. The game’s mechanics of pulling and camping don’t work when there’s no one to pull and camp with. But rewriting the game from the ground up would also be a terrible decision, which means that the developers have had to put in a lot of very heavy-handed modifications to keep the game playable.
Trusts, Records of Eminence, and Fields of Valor are all major changes to the game’s mechanics just to make it possible to do anything while functionally alone. Rhapsodies of Vana’diel makes it a bit easier, with a few very soloable portions that ultimately let you bypass some of the built-in limits to the game. Experience gains are greater, the path of content is eased, and by and large there are lots of elements that wind up very transparently hammered together from half measures.
5. Some of the kludges wind up being brilliant
The thing about Trusts is that they kind of address a longstanding issue with any sort of narrative-heavy game. Why don’t these major NPCs help you do anything? Sure, it’s not technically the NPCs along with you so much as copies of them, but it’s close enough to feel right. You feel like the game is allowing you to actually adventure with these characters.
The style lock functionality – a quick version of a cosmetic system that’s a bit dicey – works out to provide options that not even Final Fantasy XIV offers by allowing you to mix and match things you could equip, even if you couldn’t equip both items at the same time. That’s one of the things I liked about the game back in the day, and it’s one of the things I still like about it. Sure, a lot of it seems to have been assembled from a mixture of fever dreams and hatred, but sometimes in the mix of all these half-solutions, what emerges is legitimately different from anything else you could find.
6. It’s still intensely counterintuitive
Last night, I was heading out to Xarcabard, which was one of the “original” endgame areas. To get there, I had to pass through several groups of enemies that were in their 30s… followed by enemies in the late 80s. To get to an area filled with enemies in the 40s. And if that makes sense to you, please don’t tell me about it, because I fear that much like the Cthulhu mythos merely knowing this stuff will somehow corrupt my mind.
For all the kludges made to keep the game working when you cannot find a party to do your limit quests or enter Abyssea, the game still retains that baroque opacity that has long characterized it. It’s a very odd feeling. On the one hand, you have tools to make leveling and getting supplies so much easier… and then, within a moment of seeing those elements, you’re doing a quest that clearly hasn’t been updated since 2001, knowing that the next several steps in the quest line are much easier. Things do not work the way you expect them to much of the time.
7. There are still bits other games should be learning from
I’ve never seen another game take on MMO storytelling quite like FFXI does, which strikes me as baffling because it works so well. Why, you ask? Because the story branches. Constantly, clearly, and effectively. The game’s expansions all head off in different directions, covering different events and threats, and the big mission line wrapping up the game’s live story will frequently pause if you need to complete an existing story from the past.
Stuff like the game’s passive Conquest PvP systems are also oddly compelling and serve as a decent answer to issues that many other games have wrestled with over the years. There are lots of subtle and positive mechanics in the game that are still leagues beyond what other games have in place. Final Fantasy XIV is very much FFXI with modern design sensibilities, but even it could take some lessons from this game; many other titles have a long way to go.
8. The brutality of it is oddly charming
In some ways, I really like the fact that FFXI doesn’t care about me.
The game does, in fact, allow quite a large margin of error at this point. It didn’t used to allow for much, but at this point you don’t have to be afraid all of the time. But you do need to be afraid some of the time. If you go in unprepared, you can fail, and there can be consequences. There are areas of the game that are downright unfriendly. Navigating certain dungeons is tricky, and you need to prepare ahead of time and ask questions about how you will avoid detection and take out enemies while you head toward your destination.
This is reflected in some of the kludges, too. Records of Eminence and Fields of Valor are every single “kill X of Y” quest in history with all artifice stripped away, and while that might seem a bit bland, it’s also brutally resonant. You go out and you kill things according to these criteria. The game will not validate that decision or damn it, just present it as a fact of existence. There is no need for sugar-coating it. I appreciate, on some level, the game’s willingness to discard with pretending that the latest iteration of a kill quest is somehow unique; it’s just another brick in the metaphorical wall.
9. Those updates just keep coming
April’s version update added mounts and Ambuscades. I don’t really know much about the latter yet, but I know that the former makes so many trips much easier. It also makes you really long for mounts when you can’t have them, even if the areas where you can’t have them are quite predictable. Field areas become easier to navigate, rental birds become less vital, but the game as a whole isn’t broken by them. And that’s a supposedly post-maintenance update.
You can argue over whether or not the game has “enough” content, but the fact is that the developers are still updating and introducing elements. They just aren’t adding in new stories to pursue. It means you’re largely done if you’ve been following the game along with fervent dedication for more than 10 years, but for many people such as myself, it’s a chance to see a lot of what had been inaccessible due to the demands.
10. It’s become what I wanted years ago
I realized this as I was leveling in Rolanberry fields, enjoying a leveling pace that was brisk without being too fast, using smart pulls and a solid NPC party group to take out enemies with minimal risk to myself. I had to keep my eyes on wandering Ochus, of course, but I was holding my own. And I was making plans about what could be done afterward when I realized that now, after I had left the game behind, it had reached the point I had longed for back when I dropped this account the first time.
The world is lonelier now. I can appreciate it in ways that I could not then. But that flexibility, the option of taking on challenges with an eye toward party composition without being hamstrung by specifics and coordinating large groups of people, being able to see and exist and interact… it makes Vana’diel feel like a home again. Like riding a bike years after the fact, realizing that you can enjoy this again.
I wouldn’t recommend the game to people who haven’t played it before. But I’m here on Siren, playing and enjoying myself, working my way through content, roleplaying, and generally enjoying the world. It won’t last forever, but the trip back has already surprised me in a lot of positive ways.