You don’t have to dig very far to find my articles saying nice things about Final Fantasy XI. I say them often. I’d be inclined to say nice things about the game at this point even if just for the fact that years after it supposedly entered maintenance mode, the game is not only getting monthly updates but substantial ones – including story updates, which were supposedly the thing that was definitely not happening any more! That’s pretty ace.
But having nice things to say about it doesn’t mean that I have only nice things to say about it. This game has not universally aged like fine wine; it has several elements that have aged poorly, aspects of modern design that don’t mesh well, and even just some telltale signs that the people currently working on the game don’t want to fix some problems even if they are things that could technically be changed. So today, I want to actually break that down. Yes, it’s Say Hard Things About Stuff You Like day.
1. PlayOnline is awful
Look, we all know why PlayOnline exists as the game’s launcher. The idea has always been to create something that would run correctly in both the PlayStation 2 environment and PCs, and it was a compromise to deal with the fact that the PlayStation 2 wasn’t really made as an online machine, yadda yadda yadda. None of that matters. PlayOnline is an awful, awful thing that is a terrible wrapper for the game, it was designed as a multi-game launcher that never actually got the multiple games part working right as anything more than the technical definition, and the only reason to keep it around now is that I’m pretty sure the game catches fire if you remove it. PlayOnline is garbage.
2. The game is impenetrable
What does “Counter +1” mean? I understand if you can’t put all of that information into the game because of character limits (it’s important to remember that the game is, by all accounts, still programmed for the PS2; we’ll get back to this later), but that doesn’t mean you can’t still provide information to the players. There are games with full item databases available for fans to peruse complete with additional information, and I know the designers know this because one of them is made by the same division. So much information about this game is obscured and unclear for no reason other than the fact that it’s always been this way.
3. Controls are unclear and weird
Look, I am not here to pillory the game for the fact that space isn’t jump (there is no jumping in the game). That’s not the problem. The problem isn’t even really the way that you control things mostly with the numpad and the arrow keys. It’s weird, but you develop muscle memory and then it’s fine. But it’s hard to rebind, and the fact of the matter is that the game is not even on PS2 any longer. Quite literally. I understand that there are limitations due to age and design, but it shouldn’t be so hard to explain to a new player how to walk around or open the menus.
4. It gets really lonely
The game has done a great job of making sure that a game designed in the days of MMOs as solo self-contained social hub (which is a concept worthy of its own article) can still work now. You no longer need to manually assemble a party to level, which is good because while there is a community it’s mostly at the level cap doing level cap things. So, awesome. I can go out and just play and level solo, something I always wanted.
And I’m thankful.
But I’m lonely. Because the game is still a relic of a time when MMOs were your social network. You didn’t talk on Discord and Twitter and also hang out in the game. I have a robust list of friends in Final Fantasy XIV I talk with in and out of the game. But FFXI is a big social hangout in many ways, and while it’s been re-engineered to work well solo so you can still get a lot of the experiences, you know that once there were social frontiers that are gone now, especially if you were around back in the day.
5. Existing problems are often left alone
While the current people in charge of this game do not have the contempt of the original head, Hiromichi Tanaka, there are a lot of those contemptuous problems that are just… left in place because, well, who cares? The game isn’t really expected to grow too much at this point; it’s for the people who remember it and want to revisit it. Which is a sure way to make it even harder for the game to grow. And this ties directly into the next point…
6. Tutorials are useless
FFXI does, in fact, have a tutorial quest. It was bad when it was first added and doesn’t tell players much about how to actually play the game. It’s even worse now, having even less meaningful information for new players. The actual guidance you need for things like getting set up with Trusts and using Valor and Records of Eminence just does not exist; the tutorial for Records of Eminence requires you to first check Records of Eminence. It’s like having the tutorial for a mechanic be introduced only after you know what the mechanic is. It’s not great! It’s not the best it can be!
7. The world feels disconnected
This is not a universal problem with FFXI, to be fair. For the first two expansions, Rise of the Zilaart (which was included in the initial North American release) and Chains of Promathia, the new zones are organically connected to the rest of the game world. However, the other expansions require you to do specific things to access their zones, often going into areas you might not know about, and in at least one case you can permanently screw yourself by getting teleported to a location that’s hard to come back from without realizing it. And again, the total lack of guidance might mean that people have no idea these areas aren’t being shown to them!
8. Information is badly curated
So let’s just assume that you can’t put all of this into the game for some reason. I don’t know what that reason might be; let’s say El Chupacabra because I always pick El Chupacabra. Or maybe it’s the fact that it’s held together by coding on ancient PlayStation 2 programming rigs that should have died a decade ago, whichever. You could at least make up for this by having a great website design with loads of information on it that points you in the right direction and makes sure you know what you’re doing!
Instead, what you have is a very badly aged website still designed and optimized for people using monitors that find 1024 x 2768 to be luxurious screen real estate with tiny screenshots, bad information design, and zero linking to the various fan-curated wikis, which are also not great! You need to be pretty good at figuring out how to search information just to find out how to clear a quest! Forget Dark Souls; FFXI is the real “git gud” game.
9. Arbitrary limits hold it back
You have to mod and hack the game to get it to display at 60 FPS. And before you tell me that this is a limit of the ancient programming kits used to make the game, the benchmarks run at 60 FPS. The designers know how to do this. There are a lot of things in the game that are just arbitrarily done in the way they always used to be done for reasons that no longer apply, and for a game that does generally look good and run well this is just not necessary.
10. It really shows its age
Some of these things can be fixed. But not all of them, and the fact of the matter is that the things which can’t be fixed stand out like sore thumbs because yeah, you can’t ignore it, the game is old. It’s from a different era of design, and all the patch jobs to keep it playable show up as patch jobs. This is a shame because there is a genuinely good game to play here. It just requires a lot of work to… you know… actually play it.