Saturday, September 8, 2018

Final Fantasy XI in 2018

In another stop on my whirlwind tour of older MMOs, since late April I've been primarily playing Final Fantasy XI. I am a huge fan of the mainline console games from FF IV at least up through FF X (XII I have mixed feelings about, and XIII I nearly hated). FFXI has always been something of a lost game to me both in the sense of the Final Fantasy game I never got to try, but also a once popular MMO I've never set foot in.

This is my main character Greely, right after logging in near a travel point.  He is a level 99 summoner, 99 black mage, and has leveled thief, red mage and white mage to 50 for use as support jobs.  The game is far past it's population peak, but the Asura server is still as crowded as any I've ever been on in a MMO. For a really old game that's till 100% sub-based, the population and community around FFXI are really impressive.
The main reason I never tried it during its prime was the fact that it had a reputation as a game that is very difficult to make progress in solo. I am very nearly a 100% solo player unless I'm hanging out with a fixed group of RL friends, so that put it right off my radar. However, in recent years two factors have made the game much better for solo players. First off, the level cap is now 99 and the great majority of the story content is tuned for level 75 characters. That means that a high level character can steamroll boss fights you used to need a full party or even a raid for, and most of the quests becomes more of a puzzle to solve than a mechanical challenge. Further, the game added "trusts" a few years ago. These are powerful NPCs that you can summon to help you in most content. At first you will only be able to summon one. However, very quickly you will gain the ability to summon three, and then later on up to five. These NPCs make any content that is close to your level trivially easy, at least in the sense that you won't get killed in a fight.

Greely with a full complement of five trusts out (a tank, a healer, and three DPSers).  Within minutes of starting the game you'll have five or six trusts to pick from, and this character is up to something like 40 or 50.  If  you can make it to 86 (!) trusts, a quest-line opens up that you can run through to make them considerably stronger.  
The game has a lot to recommend it. It's absurdly deep, and has a screaming ton of content. The story lines on offer are also just as good as rumor has it. These are some of the best written stories you will find in a MMO or RPG in general. The crazy thing is that the hundreds of quests aren't just a random collection of stories; everything weaves together into one cohesive whole. Quests that seem like one-offs unconnected to anything when you first start playing turn out to reveal backstory about NPCs and settings that you will be visiting again and again. For example, the first time I encountered the NPC Zeid I had no idea who he was save one of the trusts I could summon. Four months later I can recount decades of his history across three different story lines. He's one of the most interesting characters I've encountered in any game online or off. And he is far from alone. FFXI is an extremely rich fantasy setting.
For a game designed to run on the Playstation 2 (a system with a whopping 32  megs / 0.032 gigs of RAM), FFXI looks pretty amazing. I also quite like the visual design of the game.   The first time I encounter a new monster, I often take time to stop and stare.   
It's also a clunky game, even by MMO standards. Getting into it at all is an absurd challenge. To start with, the registration process is painful. You will have to make at least two entirely separate accounts to get going, each with a full registration page and e-mail verification.  If you mess up like I did, and to this day I'm still not sure what I did wrong, you might need to make three or four. Once you get that sorted, installation takes longer than anything I've experienced since the 56K era. Even after I got past those giant humps, I couldn't get the game to run without using a third party application as a shell for the client. Finally, assuming you have the patience to spend close to a day just getting started, the game is almost completely unplayable without out-of-game player guides.

Another character I started in Windhurst so I could follow Aysha's new player guide.  That really opened up the game for me, it was invaluable the first few weeks I was playing. After following it for an evening I was familiar enough with the basics to start off Greely in Bastok.  Since you can see every story and play every class on one character, I've since put almost all of my time into him.  Unlocking the level cap for a character is also a long and involved process. It took me well over a month of playtime on Greely.  This is not a game that encourages alts.
When you log in, the game barely gives you any hints at all about where to go and what to do. However, FFXI isn't a contentless sandbox where there's nothing much to do but make your own fun. Far from it, the game has more scripted content than almost anything I've ever played. It's just that getting to any of that content is incredibly unintuitive, and varies wildly depending on what you want to do. Getting started on a quest chain can vary from opening a menu and digging through a list of options, to talking to a random NPC out of the many that inhabit every city and village (no exclamation points here), to clicking on a random pixel deep in a multi-level dungeon. You are not likely to find most quests on your own unless you walk around talking to every NPC and clicking on every single object or random spot that you can select.

Riding a crab around in the Bhaflau Thickets.  The game is pretty generous with mounts, I think I have around a dozen.  There is also a deep Chocobo breeding mini-game (of course there is!), but very few players mess with it these days since you get so many fast mounts for free.  
Further, once you start a quest, the game itself will not give you the first clue how to advance it. Generally you need to go and do something random that never would have occurred to you in 100 years. "Buy this specific vegetable from one of the two vendors in game that have them and give them to a NPC hiding behind a rock deep in an enchanted forest for a cut scene" would be fairly typical. It makes a pure puzzle game like Myst Online look positively straightforward. Fortunately, there is an incredibly devoted community that has documented the game in exhaustive detail, and I absolutely applaud their efforts.  Were it not for those guides, I wouldn't have lasted a week.

My mog garden, one of the numerous systems I've barely explored.  You can go there once a day to get free stuff to sell by harvesting crops and pulling up fishing nets.  I assume there is lots of other stuff you can do there, but it's taken me months just to level two classes to 99 and see 1/4 of the games major story lines.
For me FF XI has become a cautionary tale of "be careful what you wish for." After stints in EQ and DAoC, the thought of a game with truly deep content for soloists sounded appealing. Indeed, at first it was quite refreshing. However, after working my way through two of the game's major story arcs (Rhapsodies  of Vana'diel and Wings of the Goddess), I'm finding that I need a break. Once you are strong enough to actually see most of the content (hitting level 99 and leveling a support job to 49 are pretty much prerequisites), the basic game play arc is as follows: (1) read a guide out-of-game about how to do the quest you are on, (2) do something completely random from finding and killing a boss that takes an hour to get to, to shopping for musical instruments, to spending days memorizing a maze so that you can run through 20 check points in the correct order in less than five minutes, (3) watch a cut scene that advances the plot and starts the next quest, (4) repeat. My patience with the random tasks of step two was pretty high at first because it was so different from anything else I've played. But lately my response to many quest steps has been "You want me to do what? How does this make sense? Wow, that sounds like a pain in the butt."

The game is absurdly deep. Even after four months I feel like I've barely scratched the surface.  For example this thing is right outside one of the entrances to my in game apartment, and I haven't got the first clue what it's for. Heck, I only recently figured out how to time travel . . .
I'm sure at some point in the future I'll want to see the rest of the game. The story lines are up there with any of the main line Final Fantasy games, and mechanically it's one of the deepest MMOs I've ever set foot in. The housing system alone could keep you occupied for months.  It's also a bit of gaming history I've always been curios about, and I'm glad I finally got to experience it. But for now, my spare time endeavors are moving on to something a bit less arcane and a little easier to make progress in.