Following their merge with Enix, Squaresoft’s position as a company seemed to be in a rebound. Financial disasters with their millennial project, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within were beginning to die off, and by 2001 the launch of Final Fantasy X seemed to show a recovery for the series; by 2002, international sales of Final Fantasy X and the triumph of the newly released Kingdom Hearts lifted Square Enix out of decline and into economic success once more. On the 16th of May, the company would enter the world of online gaming with the release of Final Fantasy XI: the first title in the series to take place with a community of players working together, emulating the Final Fantasy experience with parties of their own characters. At its height, the game spanned three consoles, support for four different languages, and achieved the award of Square Enix’s most successful Final Fantasy title. With novels, countless fan-made and official merchandise, and even festivals across continents, Final Fantasy Online resulted in a world its creators only hoped could be attained. Today, the game remains one of the most popular of the series, retaining relevance in a market always seeking flashiness and superficiality while preserving its fundamentals and traditions.
The world Final Fantasy XI takes place in is called Vana’diel, a continent recovering from the wounds of a brutal conflict. A war twenty years prior between the Five Enlightened Races of Altana and the Beastmen, whom in their religious context are conjured to perpetuate endless war, resulted in an uneasy truce being formed between the Enlightened’s regional rivals over their historic conflicts. The entry of the player on to the stage comes at a point where these nations uncover rumblings of the Shadow Lord’s resurrection: dubbed by the nation’s NPCs as the “Age of Adventurers.” The great leader of the hordes who brought near-devastation to the peoples of the continents seems awoken from slumber, ready to usher in further strife to the battered realm. The player’s objectives are to complete their nation’s personal tasks and eventually confront the demons of the north again, in the final battle between themselves and the resurrected Shadow Lord.
The player selects from one of the three main starting cities, and selects one of the five races to start their adventure: the former two races reside in the Republic of Bastok, followed by the Kingdom of San’doria, with the latter two races of the Federation of Windurst. Per Final Fantasy tradition, they are given a choice to select one of the six classical jobs of Warrior, Thief, Monk, White Mage, Red Mage, and Black Mage; eventually, the player will obtain a secondary, or “sub” job which supports the abilities of their chosen class. The player can also unlock advanced jobs, iconic to the Final Fantasy series: Paladin, Dark Knight, Beastmaster, Bard, Ranger, and Summoner. They will scour each corner of the land in their quest to become the greatest of their kind.
Each race has an affinity for one of these jobs; however, this proves superfluous enough to prevent them playing a particular job. They will congregate to the center of the map in their mission for the starting nation to the neutral Grand Duchy of Jenuo, which assisted in forming the Allied Forces of Altana during the Crystal War. Stomaching multiple dungeons across the world in pursuit of both the people of these nations, and their own, ambitions, whether to obtain loot, national objectives, or even their job’s iconic “Artifact Armor.”
To emulate the experience of the Final Fantasy franchise, the first portion of the game could be performed individually. The player inevitably gather the courage to either form or enter parties, as to properly receive experience points and reach the top level, thereby complete the story of the game. Parties of six gathered to challenge enemies on the world map and in dungeons, leading players haphazardly through dark caverns and into the hearts of enemy fortresses. While movement is inevitably constricted to walking at first, eventually the player will find themselves on ferries, airships, warping between archaeological sites and military outposts, and even obtaining their own Chocobo License, if not a Chocobo of their color choice.
The economy of the game is entirely player-based, which leaves interconnectivity a personal responsibility as much as a social one. In “Digital Virtual Consumption,” Dr. Mike Molesworth of the University of Southampton described this phenomena in FFXI as an example of collective power overpowering the ability of a individual profit, through the usage of “Linkshells”: the game’s equivalent of a guild. Because of the market economy, slight upsets could trigger catastrophic market disasters. The relationship individual players held with the marketplace furthermore demanded they respect the economy for the sake of preserving stability, which cemented the notion that players form social communities to prevent themselves from becoming enemies of the marketplace as well as gameplay. Participation in the market economy reflected, as a result, a need to adhere to a sophisticated system to prevent destroying the server entirely. These players stuck together to ensure their power through either the loot or time they invested into the system, emulating a sort of power structure that would discourage greed through active communal punishments or chastisement.
This affinity for international camaraderie and agitation for inter-player connectivity resulted in a lack of PvP, or “Player versus Player” combat. To compensate, the developers created the “Conquest” system, whereby players competed with one another campaigning for their starting nation on the world map, vying for national influence akin to a grand strategy game. These points were tallied at the end of the week, upon midnight of every Japanese Sundays. Depending on the status of their country in the competition, each player could exchange points for various gear, or even the gear of the lower ranking nations. This rarely put players in direct conflict, as rewards for their actions showed regardless of participation; however, during the age of large server populations contests between various real-world groups pushing their nation-state into control of a region to obtain the needed regional warp for its peoples were common.
These conflicts reflected a greater communication issue which never could be resolved properly: while Final Fantasy XI had an auto-translation function for various keywords, there proved no proper way to communicate between experienced veteran players from Japan and different nationalities of players, usually congregating behind the English language. While these communities were always willing to help one another, this most often caused rivalries for campsites and dungeons, made further awkward by a completely foreign keyboard. Due to the veterancy gap, most international players easily obtained answers from a plethora of sources, whether Japanese or English, at a moment’s notice.
Many people opted out of Final Fantasy XI regardless of their loyalty to the franchise due to the countless MMOs available at the time. The user interface was considered complicated, leveling proved gratuitously long and arduous; the need to coordinate between continents challenged age-groups and schedules across the planet. Some found the menus to be confusing, while others could not understand how to leave the walls of the starting cities. The method of combat were considered outdated, turning players off when more engaging alternatives allowed them to press buttons for each successive attack instead of use the game’s complex and vast macro books. The lack of competitive situations for players beyond the considerably mediocre methods of Conquest drew attention to other games quickly, as real-life players enjoyed engaging experiences with themselves versus strange entanglements with foreigners they’d not engaged with beyond a strange connection to the Final Fantasy franchise. Ultimately, this caused the game to receive mixed reviews altogether.
The game also required the player to utilize a system known as PlayOnline: the client which Square Enix hoped would be the platform for all their online gaming in the future. This proved to be a failure, as the service were limited to FFXI and a port of FFIX’s minigame Tetra Master. The cumbersome task of two logins made it frustrating to players to understand how to get through the client. Additionally, the instruction manual which explained how to set up your PlayOnline Content ID proved difficult to follow, and made it unappealing to figure out navigation through the unnecessarily cumbersome system in order to pay or read the tidbits of information written by developers about the game’s story or updates. The PlayOnline system, since the origin of the game, showed an uninsightful decision. Other than the catchy music and limited profile editor, there weren’t many useful purposes to the PlayOnline system. The guidebook proved relatively useless, giving more information on logging in and they payment system, scrapping in-game information. This often left players confused about the story of the game itself, and what to do once logging in to the game.
Upon its release, many players found it frustrating to deal with the language gap as much as relieving to have the assistance of a well-trained population assisting them with resources, advice, and even strategies. Irregardless, the pluralism of the community resulted in an awesome experience for each player who braved the barriers to become a great adventurer. One could form communities with nearly anyone at any time in its heyday, and always found assistance in their times of difficulty. This made the challenge easy to overcome, even though the game itself proved an unforgiving experience for the unwilling.
The immersion of FFXI made the experience pleasurable while entering a completely different engagement with the Final Fantasy universe. The map designs and levels are impressive, leaving one with ample opportunities to love getting lost, assuming they don’t die along the way. The soundtrack proved another highlight of the game, and the constant need to remain a part of the social community prevented players from being isolated and stranded for their stay in Vana’diel. The ambitions of the game were met with mixed results always, but irregardless it made the player a part of a bizarre new world in the ever-evolving story of the world they chose to subscribe.
Overall, I’d give the game a 7/10. Beyond personal preference for it, I still consider it a remarkable experience and a fun play. At this point, there’s enough accessibility to get someone into it quite easily and allow them to complete the story mode akin to a traditional Final Fantasy title. As someone who began their adventure when it first hit the PS2, a lot has changed since then: the FFXI of 2018 is remarkably easier than that of 2004, and ultimately less intimidating. But no matter what, the enjoyment one gets out of the game remains the same. Only the adventures they embark on change.