The Mog Log: The trial of Chains of Promathia, part 2

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|06.12.10

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The Mog Log: The trial of Chains of Promathia, part 2
It's just as well that there haven't been any huge revelations of late regarding Final Fantasy XIV (aside from the lovely new character creation video), because we're knee-deep in the trial of the second Final Fantasy XI expansion and we've got no room for anything else. After last week's examination, which included excellent discussion and some really interesting viewpoints from the community (seriously, guys, pat yourselves on the back), we're going to dive back into the meat of the trial and try to determine the worth of Chains of Promathia via examining everything there is to examine. And that's a lot, I tell you.

Last time, we examined the use of level caps and the lack of new jobs in the expansion. The former looked awful at a glance, but upon closer examination had some notable positives. The latter was... well, it was just plain a keenly-felt omission. This week we're going to dive into what's considered by many to be the biggest part of the expansion -- something so overwhelming that its repercussions are felt to this day. No serious discussion of the expansion would be complete without this most celebrated element.

Yeah, okay, kidding.

The story
The story of Chains of Promathia is huge. There's no way around it. It's huge in scope, huge in emotional impact, and huge in importance. Over the course of missions and quests, you slowly move from what seems like a routine (if really bizarre) event at Delkfutt's Tower into what might very well be the end of the world.

Yes, that opening cutscene counts as "routine." You live in a world filled with dragons and yagudo and magical spells. This stuff is pretty straightforward.

And there's something insane in how effective it all is. Sure, objectively you know that the odds of them actually ending the world are basically nil, since that would be one heck of an impediment to playing the game any further. But in the midst of the actual events, you really feel like something momentous is going on. The final battle is so intense not just because of the challenge, but the emotions involved.

Heck, the central revelation is so intense and interesting that I still don't want to reveal it. It's almost six years old and I don't want to spoil the story. What does that say?

From a literary standpoint, there are plenty of things worth critiquing in the Chains of Promathia storyline, and it's sorely tempting to make use of my college education specifically to pick it apart. Then common sense comes back, and I remember that critiquing the storyline of an MMO is really pointless. Especially when it's a story that's emotionally relevant and dynamic. You don't expect that from most video games, period.

There is no way I can call the story of the expansion anything but stellar. The designers clearly knew it, too, because that was how they portioned out the lion's share of their rewards.

Kids these days really have no respect for how video games used to be. If a game advertises that you'll be playing it for forty hours, that means that it's going to take about twenty hours to get through half of the game's content. This might not seem like a big deal unless you grew up and started gaming on the NES and its ilk, where a forty-hour game would often be a game with four levels that could each be completed in roughly ten minutes each.

Those "forty hours" were very real, however. Because it would take ten hours of resetting and dying off and restarting to get through the first one, only to lose all your lives on the second level and start over.

Why do I bring up this digression? Well, aside from my natural love of asides, most MMOs tend toward the more current school of thought. CoP was very, very old-school in its presentation. Your reward for beating a boss was not a random piece of equipment. Beating the boss and advancing the story was the reward. And if you were lucky, you could then get access to a new area where you might have the chance to farm for equipment like you do elsewhere.

Compared to the non-stop farming of most MMO content, this approach is to be welcomed in many ways. Had Blizzard been in charge of the design, you'd be running Promyvion over and over just to try and pick up a weapon. The idea that the time investment is focused upon developing strategies, uncovering the necessary items, and just fighting the boss over and over until you win... that's impressive and appreciable.

But this really is a double-edged sword. Like it or not, progress in MMOs is generally tied very closely to progress with your character -- and as a result, there are big stretches of this expansion that are essentially dead ends in terms of progress. The opportunities for new and better equipment needs to come in somewhere -- usually in areas that are locked off until you've progressed through the storyline. Which means that at the worst of times, it feels like progress through the story is your chance to start making an effort toward a reward.

Furthermore, CoP was tuned to be hard. It wasn't quite the experiment in masochism that some have called it, but the idea was clearly that you were going to need to get roughed up a fair bit. Most bosses would not go down on the first attempt, not until you had at least half the party knowing the strategies cold. In a game where death means a real step backwards in leveling, this is kind of a mixed bag. Yes, it means you're going to pay much more attention and work much harder to avoid dying, but it also means that death is that much more nerve-wracking.

And if your reward is not having to go back and do these areas again... what happens when your friends are aiming to head through Chains of Promathia? Do you help them and go back through again, or do you leave them to fend for themselves?

I'm overstating some of the issues here, and for those of us that were lucky enough to have a skilled group of players who were all focused on getting through the expansion, this was no problem. But not everyone has that, for various reasons, and if you don't... there aren't a lot of chances for you to get through the expansion. The lack of rewards that aren't progression through the storyline and access to new areas mean that people aren't as inclined to help out. With level-capped areas, it wasn't an easy or painless venture to help someone clear through missions. It's problematic, in short.

However... this wouldn't be complete without pointing out something intensely relevant. Every time someone complains that MMOs are just thinly-disguised timesinks and longs for a real challenge? Chains of Promathia provided exactly that, in spades. You were given truly challenging content that you couldn't simply outlevel or outgear, with a well-crafted storyline and beautiful areas to explore as your reward. It's something that pretty much every game before and after has struggled to provide.

Recess for a verdict
While there are a lot of other subtle elements that could be discussed for ages, we're going to head into recess right now. Our next two weeks are scheduled for our usual community roundup and Q&A, so July 3rd will be the day that we deliver the ultimate verdict and wrap this series of columns up. It will also be where we take a look at comments that have been put forth on both this and the prior article.

As always, questions, comments, and so forth may be sent to Eliot at Massively dot com or left right down in the comment field. Many thanks to everyone who commented on the last column, and thanks in advance for this week. Also, thanks for not flaying me about delaying the conclusion and leaving everyone on a cliffhanger.
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