An avalanche of changes or more of the same? A firsthand review by an importer who has been playing FFXI since its release last summer.
Since last summer the worlds (and servers) of Final Fantasy XI have been expanding at a constant rate. As more players signed up, more quests, ranks, magic, abilities, items, locations and simply more to do was systematically added into the game. With every addition there were tweaks and changes: the input methods, the gameplay rules, the graphics.
Like previous updates, Vision of Zilart was not just an expansion disk release. It was a month of downloadable patches easing players and servers into a world which has more than doubled in size. In fact, the easing, those tweaks continue today long after the expansion set itself was released.
I was amazed at how Square-Enix handled things then and now, this being their first, ambitious MMORPG. Players on PC and PS2 can play with or without the expansion, smoothly. When bugs or flaws were found, they were fixed within the week, day or even hour. Localization has also been kept up to date for this whole year, keeping the game ready for an english release any time.
However, it's increasingly obvious that the expansion is mainly for one audience: the higher level players. The main attraction of the expansion was the set of new advanced jobs: Summoner, Ninja, Dragoon and Samurai. Most of the older jobs are simply irreplaceable and too logical not to have in a party, while the newer ones have yet to find their true purpose as a party member. Until this is ironed out by more or enhanced abilities, most of the new jobs will stay feeling cosmetic or used as subjobs.
I'm going to elaborate on the Summoner job because it's something which I believe will always be extremely different from other jobs. Anyone can open the Summoner job (which gives Carbuncle), but having the power of summon beasts other than Carbuncle is crucial. Only someone who played FFXI to its fullest, who has done nearly everything there is to do and knows a group of people who have done the same can achieve becoming a true summoner who gains the use of those summoned beasts. As of now, becoming a great Summoner who has finished all trials is considered the ultimate accomplishment outside of doing the Zilart specific missions.
I could describe all the new areas but words will never do them justice. Experiencing them in different weather or times of day reminded me of how beautiful the game can be. Forests, jungles, temples, dungeons and deserts have huge expanses waiting to be explored. Just about every new place has a story and purpose behind it, plus some sort of element which makes it surreal, like something out of a fairytale.
All this talk about the world and gameplay made me forget the story. The storyline on all levels also continues with the expansion. Quests, missions and events now have huge plot twists which too have yet to be continued in further game updates.
Aside from country specific missions there are now 'Zilart Missions'. These are huge tasks specific to revealing the overall world storyline and crises. As of now, with a level 65 cap they cannot easily (much less possibly) be cleared.
Now for the complaints, the kind only a high-end player with eyes on the goal for reaching the top would have.
When the first level 50 characters showed up last year, Square didn't quite expect this, nor were they ready for it. They had a neat little dedication made on their website to those players but at the same time hid their true intentions: to give the next bunch of people pushing their games to the limit a living hell. With the announcement of their first level 50 characters, they said that the EXP (experience) rules and EXP gain would be changed. To this day, the task of leveling up is extremely slow and hard to come by for anyone past level 50. Leveling up isn't something one can do alone, nor can anyone level up without buying the proper spells and gear to go along with it (making gil is a separate task from leveling). In my case I need to fight just about 10000 monsters each taking time to get to the hunt spot, fished out, battled then have rest time. Time time time, Square-Enix knows and depends on it because that time is money.
It's a typical MMORPG developer habit for making things as horrible as possible for high level players. As much as those players gain a few more freedoms by becoming a higher level, they are always going to be punished for trying. The required EXP is exponentially larger, the death penalty on EXP (10%) is too.
Those new locations sound interesting but the inability to safely travel or get maps for most of them is frustrating. Many important maps are gotten by 'Treasure Coffers' of which keys are hard to get, and opening results in a sure death (or you can be a thief and attempt picking the lock). To add insult to injury, nearly all maps now have unmarked locations which are sometimes huger than the map itself and need traversing often.
Many quests and missions are now taking hours or days in REAL TIME to complete and reap miniscule rewards. The list goes on as changes to rules are being made by the month or week, all furthering the existing confusion.
My other complaint is on the reused textures, models and repeated monsters. Sure, this is rampant in every MMORPG but the reviewers must always hope and criticize. To satisfy us, clever (and I do mean clever) Square-Enix apparently wrote a story to explain all those similarly rendered 'creamy white' textured locations and buildings. I won't explain it here because its a 'spoiler', and since 1999 talking about spoilers freely is considered a very bad thing. It causes even 30 year old gamers to morph into schoolboys screaming "OWW! MOM, HE HIT ME!" instead of going "Bollocks, I shouldn't have read that. Even though it's on a subject I don't want to know too much about, the title is clearly seen and I consciously clicked on the link."
Along with the complaint about seeing too much of the same, I was hoping more character customization would be allowed after expansion. Simply adding more hair color options to the existing character models could have temporarily alleviated this problem, because right now the game is a clone fest. Some character models are rarely or never used, while others come in droves.
This probably sounds like a cut and dry review, but honestly it's the players that make the game. I'm not talking about the server-contained economy, I mean the playing experience. Nobody can play this game alone, one must make friends, meet new people and somehow do their best working together, all the time.
Earlier today, a member of my Linkshell sent me a link to a sweet and nostalgic flash movie made by an anonymous player who met a 'shiro taru' (White Mage TaruTaru). It's the typical story of friends who started playing the game together last year. They became a set party and always would level up together. They travelled to new places, saw new things, worked hard to support each other in finishing quests and did all they could to put their money together and make a Linkshell for keeping in touch.
The white mage taru got tired of leveling up so fast and was behind the others, so one day she said, "Please find another white mage to take my place.". At the same time, everyone in the group, one by one, separated then slowly drifted away from each another. They would each try to level faster and become stronger, but not together. Before they knew it, a year passed and everyone was on different Linkshells.
Then Vision of Zilart was released.
The warrior of the original group was out exploring in the middle of nowhere, and he saw the white mage taru (to be exact, they met at the Lute Gate Crystal which is in the desert). The white mage happened to be wearing their old Linkshell from long ago, but was alone. They then decided to reunite everyone just one more time.
My linkshell member pointed out that this movie was made to remind us of what FFXI is about. It's not about leveling and aquiring things. The gameplay is rooted in exploring and adventuring together, to create something that is a truly fun and rewarding personal experience that you can look back on when your time in the game is over. The surprising thing is that over the months there have been so many flash movies like this. I have never seen an MMORPG move people in such a positive way before.
This is exactly why I started playing, and exactly why I think this by far has been the best Final Fantasy game in the whole series. Players outside of Japan have a whole lot to look forward to. As for me, I can't wait to see where Square-Enix takes us next with FFXI; however I pray to the Goddess Altana that I don't loose anymore sleep than I already did with this game. Or do I?
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Title: Final Fantasy XI - Vision of Zilart
Platform: Playstation 2
FFXI: Vision of Zilart