I Spent My Summer Playing The Wrong Final Fantasy MMORPG - Part 2: This Is The Most Mean Spirited Game Ever Made
By ZombiePie 38 Comments
Author's Note: If you missed the first part of this series, here's the link:
Part 11: I Completed All Of The Starting Quests, And I Want My Goddamn Time Back
I want to weave you all a tale regarding why the highly anticipated "conclusion" to my series on Final Fantasy XI has taken as long as it has to write and publish. First, no game quite like Final Fantasy XI has ever made me feel like a useless sack. After concluding my time with the game's original questline, the game left me with an empty and unsatisfying impression. I felt as if I had seen broad brushstrokes hinting at an epic story or world, but nothing ever transpired into something grand. Sure, the base game provides an exciting story about kings and queens trying to restore their decrepit nations' former glory. However, these plotlines were tried and true tropes I have seen in countless prior Final Fantasy games. Even Final Fantasy XI's most ardent defenders will struggle to say its "vanilla" storyline is its best effort.
I spent upwards of thirty-five hours completing the initial suite of quests and was left astonished at what little I had to show for it. I had an excessive amount of raw materials for the smithing mechanic, crystals I could utilize to enchant equipment, and a myriad of class-specific weapons to use if I intended to switch things up with my character's job. What I did NOT acquire in my thirty-plus hours was a full understanding of how to play it efficiently or with any sense of satisfaction. I did NOT get a tutorial on how to set up macros. Nor did the game clue me into how to stack items or manage my inventory. Speaking of inventory management, while Final Fantasy XI taunted me with greyed out inventory slots and a promise I could somehow unlock those slots, I never knew where to make that happen. At no point did I open a secondary or alternate job. Instead, I was stuck fetching documents for foreign ambassadors as I wallowed, trying to make all of the bolted-on post-launch quality of life additions work in a game that is now eighteen years old. Final Fantasy XI is a game stuck between different eras; that much is not up for debate. Every waking minute you play it, you see distinct styles and teams that have come and gone trying to keep the game alive. It's simply astounding.
This rambling leads me to a point I made in my first post: you should avoid the vanilla questline like The Plague. Because the current meta skews so heavily towards the game's newer systems (i.e., Records of Eminence, Field Manuals, Trusts, etc.), any mission or quest from the game's launch feels like a complete waste of time. As mentioned in the previous episode, my starting hub world was San d'Oria, and most of my vanilla quests involved helping a prince modernize their crumbling empire. In one such pursuit, "Her Majesty's Garden," the primary rewards for this nigh were a map of the Northlands Area, 2,000 Gil, and 2,000 EXP. For those wondering, two thousand experience points is a drop in the ocean, and you can get a comparable amount of experience points just by setting up three to four Records of Emminence. Likewise, Gil is useless as the in-game economy has utterly de-emphasized it in favor of guild specific currencies. Finally, we have the map, which you can now buy outright from a nondescript map merchant RIGHT NEXT TO THE MAIN QUEST GIVERS! It simply amazes me how Square-Enix has taken the time to make the end-user experience objectively easier without updating any of the older missions in the game!
Even worse were the times when the game would doll out rewards that were entirely irrelevant to my specific build or character. For those who may have forgotten, my Final Fantasy XI character is a warrior catgirl because if I am going to play a nigh twenty-year-old video game, then I want it to be as much a teeming nightmare as possible. And before you ask, yes, I used a Dexterity-based race for a Strength-based class. Nonetheless, to return to an earlier point, there were more than a dozen or so quests that gave me magical-based items that were all but useless on my character. The real stinger were the quests that provided summons for the Summoner class, a class, mind you, that involves completing a seven-part process, which took me about one hour to complete. Obviously, this quest was entirely separate from the main story and only unlockable after reaching level thirty with my character. So, here I was, just carrying Shiva in my pocket, with no idea on what to do with her!
That's just one way you can overshoot the intended "path" the game has for its players. With the new quality of life additions, the player has even more unintentional ways to screw themselves than ever before. For example, take me, who entered the city of Jeuno with a character at level twenty-two and ended up triggering the Crystalline Prophecy missions on accident. Normally, I wouldn't even consider exploring the Grand Duchy of Jeuno because Malboros and other horrible monsters guard its entrance. However, because I could summon a mini-army of Trusts and run at triple speed, I was able to blow past the game's standard barriers with relative ease. As a result, I had no idea these optional missions were well out of my reach. Yet, the game still allowed me to attempt them with my puny character. As you might expect, I regretted doing this because of the game's boss design, which we will discuss shortly. Nonetheless, it is another example of Final Fantasy XI not knowing what to do with its conflicting eras. By going to Jeuno and repeatedly dying before I realized I wasn't ready to tackle the city's missions, I lost hours of my time.
Part 12: The Boss Design Is Downright Cruel
Final Fantasy XI is one of the most mean-spirited video games I have ever seen in my life. This game pummeled me into oblivion. I spent months desperately trying to learn every possible macro, job, and viable character build to see as much of it as possible for this blog. I practiced techniques and strategies for hours by repeating low-level missions. I teamed up with a handful of community members with Final Fantasy XI accounts. And yet, the game still managed to make me feel like I was a sorry sack of shit. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I lost levels and experience points (do not worry, my sweet summer child, we will talk about this) due to fucked up boss encounters. And as I tried to understand what I had possibly done wrong, I discovered that this is just how Final Fantasy XI rolls. At any point, should the JRPG gods feel as if you have not provided them with sufficient tribute, Final Fantasy XI will wreck you without warning!
Mind you, the solution to many of the game's most challenging encounters is to team up with other players and coordinate raids. Unfortunately, there are two significant issues with this remedy. First, Final Fantasy XI's community is thoroughly entrenched and isn't exactly bending over backward for new players. I was able to team up with two Giant Bomb users that wanted to help me out of the kindness of their hearts, but even they recognized some of the late-game content I wanted to see would require larger teams of players. Second, even with player-based help, you still need to spend hours grinding to make your characters viable for any of the game's post-launch content. Speaking of which, you might have heard on the internet that Final Fantasy XI recently got a new story-based expansion pack. What you might not have heard is that the new content requires characters above level 100. So, for new users like myself, we are still stuck wallowing on shitty quests from 2002 before we can get to the "good shit."
Now, let's talk about the fucked up boss designs in this game. As is the case with any MMORPG of this era, every significant battle revolves around the "Holy Trinity" of MMO character classes: Tank, Healer, and DPS. Furthermore, most boss encounters require you to spend most of your time performing a series of moves to open up limited windows in which you deal damage. This trope can be found in games as old as Ultima Online and even graces modern MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or even Final Fantasy XIV. However, Final Fantasy XI takes this concept to a breaking point. First, the game's user interface is so bad it's downright impossible to tell which buffs or debuffs are on your character while they are fighting. This is a continual source of annoyance as mistiming a single debuff or buff could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
But that pales in comparison to the most significant issue with the bosses: . Virtually every boss in the game starts by inflicting your party and you with a ton of adverse status effects. In many cases, the game only gives you a handful of minutes to resolve these debuffs before you die. And if you are playing the game solo, which I did for the most part, may God have mercy on your soul that your Trusts remember to heal you instead of your other companions. Related, the immunities and spells the bosses have at their disposal are no laughing matter. For example, the "Shadow Lord," who is the main antagonist of the base game, can use every single element as well as darkness. Additionally, he has invincibility frames and stances that allow him to alternate between being immune to physical or magical damage. That last part is especially heinous as you'll often find yourself marching to the margins of the battle, depending on your character's class, waiting to jump in to do damage.
Another aspect of Final Fantasy XI's boss design that drives me up the wall is the game never knowing when to stop. Every single boss in this game has at least three forms, and in a handful of cases, boss battles immediately transition into other boss battles. When I was trucking through the Rise of the Zilart expansion pack, one of the earliest "Notorious Monsters" you encounter is the "Ace of Batons." It alone has two forms, and it fights in tandem with three other "clones." Likewise, after beating all four of these assholes, you immediately juxtapose to a multi-part encounter with Tatzlwurm and Yali. The game doesn't even give you a moment to catch your breath before plopping its ass on your face and shouting, "How do you like these apples?" And I haven't even mentioned how in that boss encounter, you have to worry about an NPC tagging along who can fucking die and cause your mission to fail instantly!
Part 13: The Game Punishing You Harshly For Dying Is The Worst! THE. WORST.
You might be wondering why I'm making such a big stink about Final Fantasy XI's bosses. Well, there are two reasons for my intolerable grousing. First, they underscore the soul-crushing amount of trial and error that defines large swaths of the game. A boss's elemental affinities are poorly communicated in-game, and their weakness and strengths are mostly unknown until you are in the thick of it. The second and more important point to make about the bosses is how harshly Final Fantasy XI penalizes you for character death. Mercifully, the game changed its rules on character death for levels one through thirty. However, upon reaching level thirty-one, the old KO penalties from yesteryear take effect.
And in case you were wondering, Final Fantasy XI's death penalties are:
A player who is Level 1-30 does not lose any EXP as of the May 2011 update.
A player who is Level 31-67 loses what would have been 8% of their max EXP for that level.
A player who is Level 68 or higher loses 2400 EXP.
Let's return to the penalties for the higher levels. I don't give a rat's ass what some of Final Fantasy XI's defenders might have to say about this, but having a static experience point penalty for character death fucking sucks. I don't care if there are a handful of status buffs I can use to mitigate this penalty. The fact remains, there are circumstances in which your character's death can drop their level. Hours of progress can be undone, at no fault of the player, . As I hope I have already shown in my previous sections, virtually every part of Final Fantasy XI is designed to work against the player's interests. Boss battles can take hours; fetch quests involve long aimless treks through desolate wastelands; random encounters can spring random TPK inflicting AOE spells.
Six. That's the number of times my player character dropped a level as a result of dying. And you know what? Let me paint a more exacting picture about one specific death spiral I found myself in the game. I had just turned my character into a level 70 warrior-monk multi-class murder machine. With this "avatar," I finally felt as if I was prepared to tackle the Chains of Promathia expansion pack. However, in the nearby outskirts of Jeuno, I kept running into Malboros. Even if I ran away from one, its highly aggressive aggro allowed it to steamroll me even while I was fleeing. In one such case, I encountered a Malboro, and it inflicted my character with a paralysis-based status effect and just wailed away on them until they were dead. Upon using a warp stone to revive at my Home Point, I discovered I had lost a job level. I was then presented with a choice. I could either grind for hours on low-level enemies to regain that level or attempt to make the same trek once again and use the more challenging encounters to recover my progress.
As you might expect, I foolheartedly plotted a course for Jeuno yet again. After about thirty minutes, I was nearing the full recovery of my lost job level when you guessed it, another Malboro popped up and beat me to a bloody pulp. As a result, I lost a portion of my progress and found myself nearing the loss of another level. Almost comically, or by my stubbornness, I aimed for the same grinding position, but this time was KO-ed by a different Malboro near the area's entrance. This time, however, my death resulted in the loss of my second job level. Shattered, I decided to recover everything I had lost at a windmill farm near Jeuno, but it took nearly two hours to do so. In those two hours, I honestly was at a loss of words to describe how broken I felt. But you guessed it; I was aiming to murder at least one Malboro all by myself. I summoned trusts, popped off every imaginable buff, and even consulted an almost ten-year-old FAQ, all in the name of my bloodthirsty quest for revenge. It wasn't an intelligent thing to do, and this alone is why I lost six levels. But when I finally killed my first Malboro, it was one of the most satisfying things I have ever felt while playing Final Fantasy XI. Nevertheless, the experience reminded me of one of the most forgotten and darkest parts of Final Fantasy XI.
Part 14: Hey, Remember How This Game Almost Killed People?
The grind of Final Fantasy XI is far from a satisfying one. Unfortunately, there are few things in the game that do not lead to some form of grinding. The quests, side quests, social interactions, and horizontal progression require you to sink in hours upon hours into sub-systems embedded into sub-systems. I'm not one to talk, with me being someone on a long quest to beat every single Final Fantasy game that has ever been made. That said, my favorite entries in the franchise have a lot more going for them beyond seeing numbers go up or donning my characters with shinier armor. They usually have lived-in worlds where I feel inspired to explore and interact with NPCs or partake in mini-adventures. Final Fantasy XI provides its players with few tools to interact with its world beyond quaint dialogue sequences and cinematics, which scream their age. And even if you try to appreciate every part of its world, you are going to need to sink in a considerable amount of time to see this skillful worldbuilding.
I mentioned "horizontal progression," but that's a fancy way of saying MMORPGs should have distractions beyond leveling your character. World of Warcraft has pet battling, and Final Fantasy XIV has more distractions than it can shake a stick at, to the point where it is almost to its detriment. Final Fantasy XI does not present enough opportunities to interact with its world outside its core leveling experience. Even the ancillary events and activities are in the name of grinding for gear or eking out new levels for your primary or secondary jobs. The result is that Final Fantasy XI feels impersonal. Even when I tried to kick up my boots in my Mog House, I was immediately greeted with side quests to don my room with plants or fetch quests that would funnel a furniture store owner with raw materials for new barstools. And even then, my room didn't exist within the greater world and instead was relegated to an ethereal plane of fantasy suburbs.
All Final Fantasy XI has going for it is its grind, and it is a grind that keeps going. I once equated the combat system of Final Fantasy XIII to spinning plates, and that metaphor equally applies to Final Fantasy XI. You pop buffs and debuffs on a regimen that would make a pharmacist proud. You rotate members of your party like a conga line. If I were feeling incredibly "generic," I'd quote Mr. Miyagi and say playing Final Fantasy XI is all about remembering the lesson of "wax on, wax off." Even then, when your character levels up, the numbers go up, and for many, that provides a warm tingly feeling. To the handful of you looking for a massively multiplayer experience that de-emphasizes the human element and doubles down on its mechanics, I can see you enjoying Final Fantasy XI. That's doubly so now the game has provided alternate ways for players to live out its world by themselves.
This detail leads me to the topic of this chapter: this game ruined people's lives. Every part of this game inflicts a distinct loot-grind Skinner Box, and as a result, every conceivable reward dolls out at a snail's pace. That is why it did not surprise me when people shared stories of this game sucking away their souls on my last blog. I get it, because I too, almost fell down this rabbit hole. When I traded out the rags that initially graced my character for iron greaves and scale mail, I felt good inside. The fact this minor improvement took ten real-world hours fell to the wayside, and I promptly set a new target for a dragon helm and winged boots. The job classes range an even more ridiculous gamut. Some involve minor fetch quests, whereas others entail three to four-part adventures that take DAYS to complete. For whatever reason, I decided to make my character a Paladin, and the fact it involved a detailed three-part epic quest, wherein one of the parts took three hours alone, disappeared. I got a shiny trinket, and I felt happy.
Well, for like three hours. At some point, I started to run up against the same fucked up bosses and ruinous random encounters. Here I was, doing what the game wanted me to do, and I was still struggling to tread water. The expansion pack content especially proved problematic as it required large parties ranging in the double-digits and characters with a doctoral dissertation worth of macros and hotkeys. My struggles felt like a reflection of what I perceive as the innate cruelty that defines Final Fantasy XI's design. No one boss best articulates this point as codified law quite like "Absolute Virtue." For those of you who do not know the "legend" of Absolute Virtue, it is by FAR the most notorious boss in Final Fantasy history. The boss's attack pattern could wipe out any "normal" party within turn two and the developers even deliberately "nerfed" any in-game tactics that would make beating it possible. The devs wanted to make a boss in the game that remained unbeatable, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. And when a team of players spent eighteen hours straight trying to beat it, with many passing out and vomiting out of exhaustion, Final Fantasy XI was forced to change its way, but only modestly. Final Fantasy XI only superficially paid for its sins, and that leads me to my next point.
Part 15: Doing Exactly What The Game Expects You To Do FUCKING SUCKS!
I mentioned earlier that I made my character into a Paladin. It is a class I have a great deal of fondness for as it is the class I used in World of Warcraft, and I have a lot of nostalgia for D&D's 3.5E Paladin. So, in this specific case, to create the avatar I wanted for role-playing purposes, I was willing to stomach Final Fantasy XI's Byzantine bullshit just for shits and giggles. Right off the rip, I have no idea why every single quest giver in this game is so fucking hard to find. The lack of quest and NPC markers certainly don't help. Still, Final Fantasy XI derives a sadistic pleasure in hiding every story or quest important NPC in non-descript nooks or far off platforms that can take HOURS to figure out how to navigate. Solemnly, I feel as if I lost a whole hour of my life trying to learn where the fuck the initial quest giver was to start my adventure towards knighthood.
No matter, the first task towards becoming a Paladin seemed simple enough: get this quest giver the root of some random vegetable in the surrounding area. I completed this task in about fifteen minutes and initiated the next quest to go to a waterfall. I found the waterfall in about thirty minutes but had no idea how to "prove" I had achieved my journey. I spent approximately twenty minutes aimlessly searching a surrounding cave to pick up some random quest item that would trigger the mission's next step. It was not until after I consulted a guide that I realized I had to interact with some stalactites and collect their "dew." Nowhere in the quest log was there any mention of this collectible. Luckily, the quest involved nothing but level ten enemies, so it is not as if the cave's inhabitants posed any challenge. Nonetheless, given how slow the combat progresses, even the most basic battles can absorb upwards of five to seven minutes.
All of this misery leads me to the final mission in becoming a Paladin, "A Knight's Test." Because this game truly hates me, the quest giver decides now is the time to have my mission steps to be in the form of riddles. Not having any of this shit, I pulled up a guide and discovered I would need to consult a couple of guards in Victory Square. After collecting a bunch of books, I learned that before I could become a Paladin, I would need to obtain a legendary blade called the "Knight's Soul." The last time someone saw this blade, it was in Davoi, a location THREE LEVELS AWAY from the quest's starting location! Eventually, we are going to talk about how fucked up the in-game traveling is in Final Fantasy XI. Still, I cannot emphasize enough how much of your time completing quests involves aimless walks across bleak plains, deserts, and mountain ranges. For this one quest, I would estimate 70% of my time involved walking. And it's not like the game is showcasing a bunch of visually exciting backdrops! It's the same empty fucking fields and drab forests, over and over again!
This mission is also a perfect example of how little Final Fantasy XI communicates to you when it gives you a task. Upon entering Davoi, I knew I needed to retrieve a broken sword, but nothing more. I had a general idea it could be found in a disused well, but that's it. Above, I have included a map of Davoi provided by the handy Final Fantasy XI Fandom page, which saved my ass more than once. In the picture I have provided, I will note I entered Davoi from "Junger Forest" by J-6 and needed to navigate myself to the well at E-10. With that in mind, I was hoping you could look at that map and tell me how I get to the well. Don't worry, I'm in no rush and am willing to wait for your answer. Please, take your time. Oh, and before you ask, the overlapping dark portions of the map are the underground or dungeon portions of the environment, and they do indeed overlap and block parts of the "normal" level. That is something you will notice with every single map in Final Fantasy XI, by the way!
Are you ready for the answer? Alright, first, you need to find a broken bridge over at I-8 and find a "transition point" into the underground portion of the environment. After trudging through the lake, you now need to follow the river to J-10. When you enter the "exit" at J-10, your character will warp to the entrance at D-8. From here, you need to march a short distance to a sandy alcove where you can pick up the broken sword. Does the game open a portal that instantly teleports you to the entrance of the dungeon? NOPE! Instead, you need to re-trace your steps back to the entrance a second time before you are able to leave the environment and "cash-in" the sword to unlock the Paladin job. However, the quest giver, Balasiel, then reveals that while your character can call themselves a Paladin, there are another twelve or so quests to complete before you can don the armor and equipment associated with that job. Final Fantasy XI employs this ass-pull garbage with every single one of its sub-classes and alternate jobs, and I fucking hate it so goddamn much! I went through pure Hell to unlock one job only to discover most of its upside is locked behind another ten or so quests.
Part 16: Getting Around In This Game FUCKING SUCKS!
I alluded to this topic earlier, but it is now time to discuss how much it sucks to navigate the world of Final Fantasy XI. It isn't good, and leveling up your characters makes the problem only marginally better. Disregarding walking and using a Chocobo, there are TWELVE separate fast-travel mechanics in Final Fantasy XI. For those of you reading this blog long after its publishing date, it would not surprise me that another two fast travel systems have been added. The immediate issue here is that each of these systems has its own currency. Knowing which currency coincides with the appropriate fast travel system is a complete and total shit show. When I mentioned earlier that Final Fantasy XI has a bunch of post-launch bolted-on nonsense that makes the game's UI and end-user experience WORSE, this is the clearest example!
The first of these systems, Home Points, are the easiest to explain. Throughout Vana'diel, you will find glowing crystals that you can use to warp to other activated waypoints. These Home Points are the most recently added transportation system in the game, and they are one of the few that do not require the player to invest in a dedicated currency. All the player needs to do is walk up to a crystal and activate it, and it will be added to their list of possible warp points. The only thing I will add is that you can tell these crystals were added to the game post-release because they have a higher resolution texture than the rest of the game. You also have the Survival Guides, floating books that you can use to travel to different exterior environments. These books, however, require you to spend either 1,000 Gil or 50 Valor Points. Valor Points are gained by consulting Survival Guides and killing a designated number of monsters.
Next, you have the "original" cadre of transportation systems. Airships and ferries still exist in Final Fantasy XI, but they have been de-emphasized to such a degree that the once burgeoning airship and ferry hubs are now deserted ghost towns. Part of the reason behind the Final Fantasy XI community abandoning these forms of travel relates to them not reflecting recent changes to the game's meta. The stopping points and "connected areas" for the airships and ferries have stayed the same since the game's launch, and they barely reflect the newer expansion packs. The expansion packs even sport their own warp crystals and dedicated transit systems that live and die within their respective environments. The Rise of the Zilart expansion pack has what it calls a "Proto-Waypoint System" that requires the use of a dedicated currency called "Kinetic Units."
The result is that every attempt Final Fantasy XI makes to "optimize" the player's experience fails miserably. Every time you navigate or discover a new city or hub, you have to go through the same mating ritual of learning the best way to explore that environment. Furthermore, the newer quality of life additions are so shamelessly bolted on that they often break the game's worldbuilding and narrative scaffolding. On occasion, you see icons or portals just hanging out in random parts of the world, and they stick out like a sore thumb. For example, the Cavernous Maws tie in with the Wings of the Goddess expansion, but they still float around the environment with no prompt to clue the player on what the fuck they do! Finally, when I eventually did try to complete the expansion packs, I often struggled to remember what gated transportation systems I needed to interact with to re-initiate those quests after returning to the base game!
Part 17: I Played The Expansion Packs, And That Was A Horrible Mistake!
I want to make it clear Final Fantasy XI does a shit job of indicating the "correct order" of its post-release content. To make matters worse, the game even starts its expansion packs in the "wrong order." In my case, I triggered the "Rhapsodies of Vana'diel" questline, which is the FINAL MAIN SCENARIO IN THE GAME, before Rise of the Zilart or Chains of Promathia. Likewise, as I wrapped up the launch story missions, I triggered the "Crystalline Prophecy," "Shantotto Ascension," and Abyssea add-ons BEFORE activating the "Treasures of Aht Urhgan." This, in turn, made the game's CONSTANT in-game prompting to gain the Puppetmaster, Corsair, and Blue Mage jobs all the more bewildering. Playing Final Fantasy XI's expansion packs reminded me of my attempts to get into Fate/Stay and A Certain Magical Index. Every second I played them; I felt like I needed to consult a flowchart to know what the fuck I was doing or watching.
What makes all of this confusion even worse is that you can start the expansion packs in any order or sequence you'd like. After getting my feet wet with Rise of the Zilart and getting the basic gist of it, I was able to fast travel to a different location and start Chains of Promathia. At no point did Chains of Promathia force me to go back and finish up my shit in the main story or any expansion content that preceded it. It goes without saying; I found this to be absolutely bananas. Worse, the game has removed the level requirements for Zilart and Promathia. However, the instancing and quest design in both have remained the same. As a result, while you can play these expansion packs at any time, doing so with a character under level eighty would be a fool's errand.
I understand that I am in the "minority" when it comes to playing Final Fantasy XI in the year of our Lord, 2020. However, the game still bears some responsibility in communicating with its players the requirements for its content. In the case of Promathia, there is no longer a level restriction on any Promyvion area. Yet, the game has an unmistakable idea of which order it wants you to explore these environments. So, the fact that it does NOTHING to communicate what that order may be is endlessly frustrating. Likewise, the lack of an in-game "Codex" or "Story Log" drove me fucking crazy. Often, I would initiate different story cutscenes and then be at a complete loss of who any of the characters were or what I was doing to progress their storylines. Other times, I would watch a cutscene and not know which expansion pack or add-on it was addressing, which is a shame because the storytelling in the expansion packs is stellar!
Before we can get to that, we first need to have a long talk about how you even start the expansion packs. First, none of the post-launch content should be attempted with characters below level forty, and that's doubly so if you are playing the game solo. The Rise of the Zilart missions are accessible after attaining Rank 6 in your home nation, whereas Chains of Promathia triggers the moment you install it. As my previous paragraphs have hopefully communicated, this is a problem for a new player like myself. Nonetheless, let's start with Rise of the Zilart as a case study as it is the expansion pack I had the most experience playing. Rise of Zilart pops off the moment you beat the main boss of the initial story. After defeating the Shadow Lord, you find your character magically teleported to the land of Norg. The game is not at all shameless that it could not make its expansion packs an integrated part of its pre-existing world, and I find that thoroughly hilarious. It's even worse for Chains of Promathia, wherein you need to enter the basement of an unmarked tower before the game teleports you to a different continent.
Admittedly, I went into the expansion packs with realistic expectations. I didn't anticipate they would stray too far away from what I saw from the initial batch of story quests, especially when it came to their design or scripting. I general, my anemia proved correct. Most of what I played involved long treks to collect far off MacGuffins prophesize to defeat a legendary evil. Nonetheless, I was taken aback by how obvious it was that Final Fantasy XI has seen "leadership changes" during its lifespan. While the expansion packs certainly devolve into aimless fetch quests, they also have a lot more elaborate level design than what you see in the rest of the game. Often, this works for the game's benefit, but not always. The game's newer content is trying to do far more complex things with the same tools and assets Final Fantasy XI had when it launched in 2002. In some cases, I found myself breaking the game's mission scripting or marveling at the game's internal gears grinding to a halt.
Part 18: Have I Mentioned How Much This Game Hates You?
In a little bit, I will share why I was pleasantly surprised by Rise of the Zilart and Chains of Promathia's storytelling and narrative plot beats. At the same time, I still do not think you should play either. It took me the better part of a month to create a character capable of scratching these expansion packs' surface. Each requires a massive time commitment, and I am not ashamed to admit I did not finish either. Additionally, as "quaint" as I found the game's attempts at worldbuilding, I would be hard-pressed to say it properly holds its own against other numbered Final Fantasy games. When I say Final Fantasy XI's storytelling is "cool," I mean it the same way you call an over-excited high school English teacher who enjoys teaching Kurt Vonnegut "cool." Likewise, Final Fantasy XI's pacing is downright atrocious at times. The cutscenes often feel excessive and clock in at around ten to fifteen minutes and are usually only found at the beginnings or ends of the more involved questlines.
More importantly, all of the content in the expansion packs is soul-crushingly difficult. Even the basic encounters can stun-lock your character into oblivion if you are not prepared. In the case of Rise of the Zilart, after you spend three or four missions wining and dining with the major NPCs, the game promptly plops you into a dungeon full of level sixty enemies. Somewhat humorously, the game calls this location the "Den of Rancor," and it is conveniently next to the "Sacrificial Chamber," and both thoroughly kicked my ass. Part of the reason for this is that the expansion packs are far more interested in having you solve complicated puzzles than the original game. These puzzles involve a lot of backtracking and frantically checking every corridor for a quest important object or trinket. With this, the likelihood of the game randomly springing some cheap bullshit on you jumps exponentially.
Speaking of which, we need to talk about the "Notorious Monsters." Every significant location in Final Fantasy XI has the chance of spawning a monster that is one thousand times harder than what you usually encounter in that environment. These monsters are a real issue in the expansion packs as their spawn rate is higher than in the base game. And to echo an earlier point, the penalties of dying feel especially harsh while playing the post-launch content. Getting offed by these monsters is incredibly demoralizing as you cannot plan for them as they are anachronisms when compared to their surroundings. To highlight, when I entered the "Sacrificial Chamber," I encountered a trio of level sixty Tonberries that ganked my character and then stabbed her to death. My defeat almost dropped my character an entire level, and I had to re-do about thirty minutes of quest progress due to that setback.
This happens all the time, and it never stops happening. . It is not some fucking secret that Final Fantasy XI veterans don't know about; everyone I have talked to who has played this game nods their head when I tell them about my Tonberry experience. So, because I did not know any better, I thought the solution was to continue to power grind my character and hope, at some point, they would "turn the corner" and be able to lay waste to everything that stood before them. When I started the first boss dungeon in Chains of Promathia, I discovered that one of the bosses has an ability that drops all of your party members to 5% health. That's just a thing it can do. When this happened to me the first time, my character fucking died within seconds because they were afflicted with a negative status effect that dropped them to zero health before I could do anything about it. And Final Fantasy XI's cutscenes removing all prior buffs and positive status effects upon starting a storyline boss battle is horseshit!
Another issue that always pissed me off is how easy it is to break the expansion packs' mission scripting. This game is almost twenty years old, and it still has some launch-era bugs and glitches that its development team has never fixed. Because the expansion packs are still working within the game's initial PS2 architecture, they struggle to keep their patchwork together at times. For example, during Chains of Promathia's "Below the Arks" mission, I accidentally entered a different Promyvion zone before beating the boss encounter required to end the mission. In doing so, I got credit for exploring the environment and successfully created a "memory," but the quest remained incomplete. To add insult to injury, I had to start from scratch upon re-entering the level to reach the boss again. As a result of my fuck up, Harith would not offer to convert Recollections into Anima to make the boss encounter easier. Which, I will tell you, was a massive
Part 19: After Fifty Hours, I Started To Understand The Appeal Of Final Fantasy XI
While discussing Final Fantasy XI's story, I will use videos from other Final Fantasy XI players to support my discussion. In the first clip, you will find a YouTuber, Ruaumoko, reviewing the current lore of Final Fantasy XI. As you watch that first video, you'll notice how complex Final Fantasy XI's inner machinations become as you get deeper into its post-launch content. With the second clip, I have a compilation video of every cinematic and cutscene in the Rise of the Zilart expansion pack. Rise of the Zilart features over an hour's worth of cutscenes and dedicated storytelling. For a pre-World of Warcraft MMORPG, that is simply amazing. I certainly think EverQuest is the MMORPG that started the industry trend towards cinematics and substantial worldbuilding with the MMO genre. Nonetheless, Final Fantasy XI deserves its share of credit for laying the groundwork for complex storytelling in an MMORPG. Now, that statement comes with a ton of caveats, but I say it both honestly and earnestly.
Admittedly, there's a ton of "noise" you need to process when you tackle Final Fantasy XI's expansion packs. The game rattles off an endless stream of proper nouns, and it rarely, if ever, provides an appropriate amount of frontloading when dolling out its lore. Characters appear and speak to you for upwards of ten to fifteen minutes, and very often, you will never have significant interactions with them again for hours upon end. That said, this is a game that impressed me with what it does with the limited toolset it has at its disposal. Despite its lack of voice acting, the characters pantomime in an expressive enough way where I never struggled to understand their intended or conveyable emotions. Likewise, the quality of the writing, while riddled with techno-babble, is incredibly well-done. Some of my favorite moments in Final Fantasy XI occurred when the game provided me with opportunities to listen to elaborate parables from wisened sages or flamboyant tales from iconic figures like Gilgamesh or Shantotto.
Chains of Promathia is the obvious example of the best and worst Final Fantasy XI has to offer. On the one hand, it provides a diverse ensemble cast with a vivid assortment of new environments. Each location attempts to sweep you off your feet as it conveys distinct cultures and societies that are unlike anything you have seen before. On the other hand, it is inscrutable in its design, and its ambitious narrative is often too big for its own good. I think I have already made the case that the expansion packs are cruel and unusual punishment for their difficulty, so I'll stick with that last point. Final Fantasy XI violates the classic axiom of "brevity is the soul of wit." It has a lot to tell you, and once it gets started with a new plot beat, it doesn't know when to stop. Promathia has SIX new locations, all with sub-regions and their own distinct naming conventions. On top of that, it also sports TWELVE brand spanking new "zones" that immediately get added to your fast travel system without warning, thus making an already cluttered system even busier. Then, there are the nigh dozen new named characters and the quest specific NPCs that you have to remember if you have any hope of seeing the game's end content. It's a lot to take in for veterans of Final Fantasy XI, let alone a neophyte like myself.
Again, I want to give the game credit where credit is due, but I struggle to do so because it often funneled me into death spirals or elongated cutscenes. To highlight, when I first entered the duchy of Jeuon, I had a specific task I wanted to complete. However, the game had other plans and decided to introduce the "Crystalline Prophecy" add-on. The nigh twelve-minute introductory cutscene, which has a dozen new characters and proper nouns to boot, caused me to lose track of my initial endeavor. However, this cutscene never appropriately conveyed that this add-on boiled down to a series of missions that involved slaying several Notorious Monsters. Had I known this fact from the onset, I would not have bothered with it in the first place. The same goes for Treasures of Aht Urhgan. When I saw the introductory cutscene for this expansion, my interest piqued at the prospect of living out the life of a swashbuckling pirate. However, this excitement plummeted when I discovered it was a guild-heavy add-on that emphasizes the game's raiding and fortress mechanics. There's so much beautiful storytelling to get out of this game. Unfortunately, you have to tolerate A LOT of the game's innate bullshit to see even a sliver of it.
Part 20: Don't Play Final Fantasy XI
It has been a long time since I have unequivocally told my readers to avoid a Final Fantasy game. I certainly have a reputation of being more pessimistic about the Final Fantasy franchise than most fans, but I rarely implore my viewers to straight-up "skip" a game. The last time I can think of issuing such a declaration would have to be Final Fantasy II. So, it is with little to no hesitation that I say none of you should play this game. Don't do it. Play Final Fantasy XIV instead of this messy relic of a bygone era. Every part of its design feels mean-spirited and downright cruel. While decent, the story requires an insane time-commitment I could not fathom even during my earlier years of life. And what is the upside to that investment? A handful of characters and cutscenes Final Fantasy XIV has done better ten times over?
Look, if you are someone who is currently playing Final Fantasy XI and are enjoying your time, you do you. I will not tell you to spend your time elsewhere because you've likely made your "decision," and nothing I can say will change your mind. Such is the case with anything you feel passionate about and have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours playing. Yet, if this is the first time you are reading about Final Fantasy XI, and you are looking for a fun experience with a beautiful world and memorable cast of characters, be aware, there is nothing here for you. You are going to have to wade through reams of text and low-poly textures and character sprites to find even a fragment of a good story. All the while, you will have your soul crushed time and time again by cruel boss encounters, Byzantine quests, and endless grinding that leads to nothing. Nor does Final Fantasy XI rise to the occasion as an example of "responsible game design." Instead, it expects to be the only thing you play in your life for months upon end, and if you are not willing to do that, you will NEVER see that which has enamored the community that continues to stand by it for the past eighteen years!
I can almost predict what defenders of Final Fantasy XI are going to say as they read this blog. They are going to type away that this game made sense when it first came out and that by playing it today, I lack the proper context for understanding its appeal. I heard these sorts of comments on my last blog, and I can only assume I will listen to them again with this post. Let me make something nakedly apparent to all of you: I'm sick of these comments. I'm sick of them. I'm sick of saying I hate Final Fantasy XI and countless people telling me to "relax. I'm sick of people saying I need to show respect to an almost twenty-year-old game. If Final Fantasy XI was something worthy of respect, then why did none of its mechanical ideas carry over into the rest of the MMORPG landscape? What big-budgeted MMORPGs cite Final Fantasy XI's design as their source of inspiration? What from this game amounted to anything sustained and visible in both the franchise that its name comes from and the video game industry in general?
Don't tell me how to feel about this game. Fuck this game. This might have been one of the most miserable playing games bearing the Final Fantasy name I have chronicled since Final Fantasy XIII. And at least in XIII's case, it committed to a single era of game design. Final Fantasy XI, at least today, is a fucking mess. You can tell as you play it that the game's design team has turned over to a different group at least five times. There's nothing in it you are not better off experiencing elsewhere, especially considering we live in a world where Final Fantasy XIV exists. . And as I wrap this series up in a fit of rage, I'm only now beginning to come to terms with my next blog series being about Chrono Cross.