For the first time console gamers can experience and appreciate a cross platform, multi-lingual MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), whereby both Japanese and English gamers can interact with one and another, no matter which side of the continent, on whatever platform, PS2 or PC. Not only that, but it's also Square's first effort at the online scene, which to be blunt, does sound slightly over ambitious coming from a developer who gave us uninspiring non-RPG titles such as The Bouncer, Driving Emotion Type:S and World Fantasista. Just what is FFXI? Another Final Fantasy themed game certainly, another failed effort away from the story book RPG? Certainly not.
Experienced MMORPG players very well know that a storyline isn't the genre's selling point, to say the least. MMORPG storylines are not important in what is a genre which lives for it's endless gameplay rather than it's streams of cutscenes. FFXI, staying true to the MMORPG genre, does give the storyline a backseat. However, Square's rendition of a plot, which develops through updates in a game which will never end is very commendable. The fabulous and rather emotional CGI intro accompanied by a great orchestral theme from Nobuo Uematsu quickly gives you an idea of the game's mood. Set in the world of Vana-Diel, an evil force has struck terror across the land. Towns and villages, men, women and children slaughtered brutally by rampant animals and monsters commanded by an evil force known as Shadow Lord, who seems to desire complete control over the land of Vana-diel. Whether or not this is the case remains to be seen, as there are many plot twists and turns which will seem conspicuous throughout progression, which flows through optional missions for those interested.
Vana-diel is populated with 5 races which include Humes; your average human, either male or female. Elvaans; a tall, pointy eared race who are best used at the front of a fight. Mithra; a sexy cat-girl who is very agile in battle (FFIX's main lead, Zidane, was also a Mithra, however FFXI only allows you to be a female). Galka; a gorilla-like race who can certainly take damage well, and last but not least, TaruTaru; small 2-3 feet gnomes who are undoubtedly the cutest of the lot. Like the very first Final Fantasy, six starting jobs are available to select from the start; Warrior, Monk, White Mage, Black Mage, Red Mage and Thief. Of course, careful consideration needs to be applied before creating your own character. If you're looking to be mainly a melee player, then look no further than the Elvaans, who have the highest strength potential out of the 5 races. If you're more of a magician, TaruTarus are recommended. Each race has its own strengths and weaknesses for the various jobs in the game.
After creating your own player, it's time to take he/she into the world of Vana-diel. The game consists of 3 starting kingdoms. Bastok, a country who utilise their mining resources and alchemy skills to have a hand in the economy. San d'Oria, home of the Elvaans, the population is very holy and religious, and lastly, Windurst, a kingdom which focuses on supplying Vana-Diel with vast supplies of food. Each race has their own home country and if you choose to become it's citizen, you are given your special country ring to aid you on your way. However, there is no right or wrong choice here. Your choice of starting Kingdom only determines which route you take through the story, which can be altered at any time for a small amount of Gil (the Final Fantasy currency).
In order to advance through the game proper your character will be required to level up. A most fundamental and critical part of any online RPG is raising your character status by battling, which is what you will spend the most time doing in FFXI. Square have developed FFXI with an emphasis on teamwork and unlike previous Final Fantasy games, FFXI allows up to 6 players in one party. The battle system adopts the much maligned auto-attack approach which has long since become a standard for MMORPG's. Limit breaks make an appearance once again, this time known as Weapon Skills, which can be chained together to form a Renkei. Renkei is vital in defeating very strong monsters as quickly as possible. As well as being visually impressive, Renkei also requires constant attention and a quick response, creating an additional level of complexity. Not every party member needs contribute to a Renkei, since different jobs carry with them different responsibilities.
What really makes FFXI shine is the choice to change jobs (like FFV), which multiplies longevity tenfold. One day you may decide to be a hard hitting Monk, and the next you can become a holy White Mage, eventually finding home with your preferred job. The advantage this has is that it negates the need for you to create a new character should you wish to change your existing job. As you progress through the game, you may accept a quest for your Support Jobs. Subbing a job along with your main, will allow you to inherit it's active and passive abilities (only half of your main level), and gives a stat boost depending on which support you have chosen. Though it's advisable to use a support which further strengthens your main's plus points, any combination can be used as you see fit - you have complete control on your own play style. Progression in the game allows you to unlock advanced jobs such as Samurai, Summoner or even Dragoon. The game at this point in time contains 14 playable jobs which broadens your choices, where each job has it's own role in the party.
The world of Vana-Diel is represented in a beautiful manner, with it's own distinct style and look. Models and designs represent a look very typical of Square RPG's, and will be very appealing to previous Final Fantasy gamers especially, as monsters such as the almighty Behemoth are depicted as they would expect them to be. A certain feel of nostalgia is brought home when you engage a classic Final Fantasy beast. The PC version of the game features higher resolution (hardware dependant), which can look smoother, but whether it's a PS2 or an updated PC you're playing on, the game looks beautiful.
Character models have been implemented well, with a varied approach, offering you your own form and look, whether you want to be portrayed as a mysterious Elvaan, a charismatic Mithra or a super cute Tarutaru (no doubt you'll fall in love with them). Armour and Weapons available in the game are mostly varied with their own distinct look, with much armoury and weaponry from previous Final Fantasy games making an appearance, such as Beatrix's "Save the Queen" sword. The game's soundtrack consists of composition between Naoshi Mizuta, Kumi Tanioka and one of Japan's finest; Nobuo Uematsu, which undoubtedly is another worthy addition to your OST collection. Town themes have been composed to a high standard also, you'll sometimes find yourself remaining in one place simply admiring the music. There are various battle themes which are also very well orchestrated and these never become tiresome or repetitive.
Something which the game requires is a lot of time and devotion. Invest this and it will reward you with game time which justifies it's monthly fee. It's that immersive and engrossing, which means if you commit yourself to what the game has to offer, your other consoles will become nothing but dust collectors. Undoubtedly, this game offers far more playtime than the entire series put together, with constant tweaks and updates ensuring the experience remains at its best, through the constant evolving gameplay. Where some MMOs in the past had PvP (players vs player) thrown in just for the sake of it, Square-Enix are waiting to implement it to fit in with the storyline, ensuring it is as balanced as possible and not intrusive to players who have no wish to slay other players. FFXI's game engine is very "polite", with bowing, waving and other emotes coming typically from the Japanese culture, and ensures the game's community is as relaxed as possible. This along with the input translation system now built into the game means a positive community awaits your arrival. Square have definitely taken this project very seriously indeed.
There is so much more to the game which just cannot be worded into a review, but what must be mentioned is who this game is aimed at. If you're looking for a new online game to get stuck into, or have never played an MMORPG before, but you would like to see what all the addiction is about, then look no further than this. It's a game which sucks you in and refuses to let go, a game which you'll wake up to every morning with that fresh "must play" feeling. Importers can either go for the Japanese PS2/PC versions or look for the American PC release, which is the most convenient way to play the game for non Japanese speakers, at least until the PS2 release in March 2004. Those who have absolutely no interest in online gaming or simply do not have time for them are best advised to steer clear as the game requires a great deal of time investment for players to be truly rewarded. Be warned, this game is not good for your health as traversing the lands of Vana-Diel will keep you burning the midnight oil for months. It would be a shame however, to miss out on what is Square's most groundbreaking Final Fantasy game since FF7.
Text by: Ramtin Mahinpourian