Second Wind: Final Fantasy XI

Screenshot -- Final Fantasy XI

Here's a fun fact about me: Final Fantasy XI was one of the first MMOs I ever played. I had dabbled in Ultima Online and EverQuest before it, but at the time those games came out, I was but a wee lad of nine or so, and I truly had no idea what I was doing in either of them. What I did know was that I was in love with the idea of sharing a massive, persistent world with thousands of friends (and enemies) waiting to be made.

So when Final Fantasy XI came out stateside in late 2003 (it launched in Japan in 2002), I was firmly in the grip of some kind of JRPG mania thanks to Final Fantasy IX, Legend of Dragoon, and others of that ilk. Naturally I took to the notion of a massively multiplayer Final Fantasy game like a Black Mage to a comically oversized hat. I was a devout player of FFXI for a couple of years after that, before all of my FFXI-playing friends decided to jump ship to some uppity little newcomer called World of Warcraft, and I've had an on-again, off-again (mostly the latter) relationship with FFXI ever since.

So when I started a column based on taking a second look at old favorites, I knew that I owed FFXI a revisit. But in a way, I was hesitant to do so. As I said, the game originally launched back in 2003, making it a decade old later this year, and I'm quite aware that games that old seldom age well. I knew going back to the game now would be tantamount to taking off the rose-tinted glasses and crushing them underfoot, but sometimes that's just the way it goes. But since the Seekers of Adoulin expansion recently went live, I figured now was as good a time as any. Of course, that's despite the fact that I can't remember the password to my old-as-dirt account containing my high-level characters, so I had to start over again as a noob.

The first thing I was reminded of upon logging into my newly created Elvaan Red Mage (a Windurstian citizen because he's a rebel like that) was how utterly appallingly archaic the game's UI is. Y'all should know by now that a game's UI can easily make or break an entire game for me, and I've seen some bad UIs in my time, but Final Fantasy XI's is the clear winner (or loser, as it were). It's painstakingly obvious that Final Fantasy XI's UI was originally created with the console crowd in mind, and in almost 10 years, not a bloody thing has changed about it. It's still just a gigantic tree of menus and confirmation windows with which players must contend to do damn near anything.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the game's interface woes comes in the form of the auction house. Even disregarding the fact that the AH interface is about as barebones as it gets (thereby making even browsing for items a hassle), the process you have to go through to post an auction is absurd. It is as follows: First, select the "sell" option, then scroll down your inventory window until you find the item you want to post. Then set the price (which, by the way, you can't do by simply... you know... typing in the numbers) and you'll get a confirmation window confirming, yet again, that you wish to sell the item. Then you have to confirm that you accept the transaction fee (usually a paltry sum of money hardly worth noting, and since it's based on a percentage of the asking price, it could easily be displayed when setting the price, but no, another confirmation window was apparently necessary). Finally, after all of that is done, you have to confirm for the third freaking time that yes, you do in fact want to sell the item, and voila, you've posted a single auction. Oh, and you sell things either as single items or in stacks of a predetermined amount of items (12 for crystals, for instance), so there's no selling partial stacks. Maybe there's some kind of logic behind this, but I can't claim to fathom what that may be.

Screenshot -- Final Fantasy XI

Once you've managed to learn your way around the game's warcrime of an interface, it's time to get to questing. Oh wait, I'm sorry, did I say questing? I meant mob-grinding. Final Fantasy XI's only "quests" are unmarked (which is fine, really; I don't particularly care for the gold-exclamation-point system), and moreover, they do not reward any XP whatsoever, meaning that their only purpose is to help you earn gil or items. This would be fine if that didn't mean that the only way to progress is via an endless mob grind. The closest thing that FFXI has to a questing system comes in the form of Fields of Valor, which allows players to undertake "training regimens" that, when completed, grant bonus experience and gil plus a form of currency known as tabs, which can be traded in at a Fields of Valor book (of which there's one at the beginning of each zone) for a variety of rewards such as buffs, food, teleports back to your home nation, and so forth.

While Fields of Valor does help make the grind a bit faster by rewarding bonus XP in addition to the XP gained by killing monsters, the fact remains that it's still nothing more than a mob grind, and unless you're really fond of running back and forth between the Fields of Valor training manual and the designated mob locations (which can range anywhere from a five-minute run to a 20-minute one or more, depending on the mob), you can expect to simply repeat the same training regimen over and over until you're a high enough level for the next one up. In short, it does nothing to alleviate the grueling mob-grind; it simply makes it slightly faster.

Screenshot -- Final Fantasy XI

Of course, I can get behind a mob grind if the combat is fun, but Final Fantasy XI's combat, especially in the early levels, has changed about as much as its UI has -- that is, not at all. For those of you who have never had the err... pleasure of experiencing combat in FFXI, it goes a little something like this: You stand there and autoattack, which ever-so-slowly fills your TP meter. Once your TP meter reaches 100%, you can then execute a weapon skill (though it's generally ideal to wait for it to fill to 200% or 300%, which takes much longer but results in a stronger weapon skill), and then you repeat the process. It's worth noting that it's fairly uncommon for the TP meter to fill completely in a single fight, so the majority of the fights will consist of nothing but exchanging autoattacks until one of you is dead.

There are so many issues with this system that I don't even know where to begin. First and foremost, it limits player interaction to an incomprehensible degree. Even as a spellcaster with a (very small) array of spells at my disposal, I found that most of my fights consisted of pulling the mob with a magic debuff, then I'd get up and go make a sandwich or something while the mob and I traded blows. The other issue with this is the fact that, thanks to the timed-autoattack style of combat, chances of surviving an encounter with more than one mob are pretty slim unless you outlevel them by a substantial amount. Combined with the fact that the only way to get a mob to de-aggro is still to run to a different zone (and FFXI is quite liberal with the definition of "melee range"), this can turn a trip across just one zone into an hourlong affair if you're not careful. These things may be different at higher levels, but considering the disparity between the amount of time it would take to get to those levels and the amount of time I'm willing to dedicate to endless mob grinds, I have no plans to find out.

Also, Final Fantasy XI is a punishing game, but not in the good way. I'm all for unforgiving, difficult games; Dark Souls remains my favorite game of all time for that very reason. But if a game is going to punish players for failure, it needs to equally reward them for success, and moreover, it needs to feel rewarding. FFXI does neither of those things. Rewards for success are generally limited to a paltry amount of XP (of which you'll lose a portion next time you die) or an item or some gil if you go through the trouble to complete a quest. But my main issue is with the latter point: I never felt as if I had actually earned anything because I never actually did anything. Sure, I'd cast a spell to pull, and refresh my buffs when they wore off, but ultimately it was just a battle of the RNG that I sat and watched rather than actively participated in. That, to me, is a game-killer.

There are a few smaller nitpicks I have with FFXI: It controls like a lobotmized mule, for one. Also, there's far too much running around and far too little actually doing fun things. I'm all for huge, expansive zones that take a while to cross, but game content needs to be planned accordingly. Leveling tends to involve more running than it does fighting, and just getting to the zone in which you want to level can take upwards of 30 minutes, more if you're unlucky and end up making friends with the local beastmen along the way. This is somewhat mitigated by chocobo travel, but you can't get your chocobo riding license until level 20, but I wouldn't blame anyone who didn't even make it that far.

These things aren't even the worst of Final Fantasy XI's problems, though. The worst thing about it, as many would probably guess, is the population. Or rather, the lack thereof. Final Fantasy XI is a game that lives and dies by group content, largely because soloing is dangerous even in the early levels, and later on it can be tantamount to suicide. As such, it's imperative that zones be populated, groups be available, and so forth. Unfortunately, it seems that the only folks still playing Final Fantasy XI are the truly devoted, by which I mean people who have already sunk hundreds of hours into the game and are already max-level. I ran into very few people outside of Windurst (which itself was nearly a ghost town, presumably because expansions have established new social hubs), and those I did come across were usually high-level players just passing through.

Screenshot -- Final Fantasy XI

Finding a group in FFXI was never particularly easy, but I don't ever remember it being so close to impossible just to find one or two people around your level. Yes, I could stick around and level up until I start finding more players, but the fact of the matter is that I feel no impetus to do so. There are a number of MMOs out there that don't require 20+ hours of dull and grindy gameplay before I can actually enjoy them.

There are some things about FFXI that I appreciate, believe it or not. I've always enjoyed the game's class/subclass and advanced class system; I remember the feeling of accomplishment when I first unlocked Samurai back in the day, and it's a feeling I've since been unable to replicate. The story missions, once the steam starts to pick up, are as good as any you would expect from a Final Fantasy title, full of quirky stories and characters, and it's really just a shame that there's so much mob grinding tedium between them. And of course, many of the old-school design features that may (read: almost certainly will) frustrate players lend well to the game's immersion. Many people bemoan the game's lack of marked quests and its primitive map, but I honestly rather appreciate them. It's refreshing just wandering around town talking to people, not knowing who might have something for you to do.

Unfortunately, I don't feel like that sense of immersion, however warm and fuzzy it makes me feel, can counterbalance the ancient, designed-for-consoles UI and the mind-numbing endless grind that comprises the game's leveling system. When you add that to the facts that early zones are nearly deserted, the economy is horribly inflated due to many (perhaps most) of the players being max-level or close to it, and it being nearly impossible to find a group outside of the expansion lands, what you end up with is a game that is not at all welcoming to new or returning players. Contrary to popular belief, I do not require instant gratification from any game, but I do require some form of gratification before I've invested countless hours of my precious free time into it, and Final Fantasy XI, regrettably, just doesn't deliver. I had some great times with FFXI back when I was younger and had more time than I knew what to do with, but in the modern era of MMOs (and the era of not having a wealth of spare time), Final Fantasy XI just doesn't shine like it used to.

For more news and opinions about Final Fantasy XI and its new expansion, check out Massively's The Mog Log column.

MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions can change with them. That's why we're here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or twentieth) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? That's what we're here to find out as Massively gets its Second Wind!