This is a review I have been dreading to write.  Not because Final Fantasy XI is a bad game, but because it is so huge and so full of great content that I never feel like I’ve played enough to do it justice.


The Final Fantasy series has been around for a long time and is probably the most recognized console series ever made.  A staple in the RPG genre, Final Fantasy has only ever been a single player epic experience…until now.  Skeptics were all around after Square Enix announced that they would be entering the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) market with Final Fantasy XI.  Some thought of this as high treason against the perfect, time-tested formula of single player storytelling and drama.  The MMORPG genre was being slammed with titles at the time, and most of them were just a glorified chat room without any real substance or staying power (or FUN!).  In fact, the MMORPG market is still being saturated with games hoping to get a million subscribers to fill “The Man’s” coffers.  So the question remains, is Final Fantasy XI one of the few MMORPGs that can hold its own in this jam- packed genre?

The Final Fantasy series has always seemed to push the envelope with stunning visuals and superb animation.  Final Fantasy XI is no exception from this tradition.  The very first thing I noticed about the graphics was the extreme attention to detail in animation.  In the full motion video sequences, character hair waves and bounces around with movement, just as you would see in real life.  It was so good that I was almost convinced that it was real.  This attention to detail is extended into the actual gameplay graphics.  Hair and clothing move realistically, and character animation is smooth and stunningly realistic.  The animation detail is also apparent in the movement of monsters and foes!   Some of them dazed me enough that I sat there watching them walk around and breathe (such as the crawlers in Windurst).  Some of the really tough monsters and bosses really give you a feeling of awe and look POWERFUL.  You really feel like you’ve accomplished something when you bring one of them down.


In addition to all this superb animation is an intricate attention to detail.  Every nook and cranny of a character (or monster) model feels whole, continuous and painstakingly detailed.  Almost every piece of armor or clothing changes the look of your character and each weapon has its own look.  You won’t find any sort of clipping and everything in the game feels very complete and polished.


Environments are just as detailed as the characters and monsters.  They are large, lush and full of life.  Rivers, trees, rocks, sand and the like all have a very realistic feel.  Buildings are sized correctly, castles have are very majestic and you never get lost in an area because “it all looks the same.”  Weather effects are another great visual.  Rain and wind storms are very cool and creepy.  The immersion level you are brought to when all this is put together is amazing.


Battle effects are also very good, although not as good as battle effects from other final fantasy games.  This is to be expected as the flow of battle is much different than in the single player titles of the series.  Particle effects are neat, and the special moves are especially fun to watch. I was very impressed by the electricity effects that envelop your character when they are powering up, or “boosting.”  Also notable are  the “heat wave” and “sound wave” effects.  Some spells and combat moves cause the air around your character to bend light just like you’d see on a hot day, only much more dramatically. 


This isn’t to say that the graphics don’t have their problems.  The first issue is the claustrophobic feel of the interface.  The chat box, status displays and menus are all crammed onto the screen at the same time because the PS2 is only capable of low resolutions. These all take up quite a bit of viewing space and also make it difficult to read some of the text onscreen.  I may be overly sensitive to this because I played the PC version of the game first, which allows for much higher resolutions.  The game does have one saving grace however, in that you can push a button to completely remove all chat screens and status displays while playing.


The only other problem I saw with the graphics was the frame rate chasm the game fell into when a slew of other player characters were on the screen at the same time.  This usually only happened in cities around auction houses and hardly ever occurred in the field while in the midst of battle.

Music has always been a strong point for the FF series, and FF XI follows suit nicely.  The music follows the established series  style that many will love and others may find too familiar.  Combat moves are enhanced by the whooshes and whistling of fists and blades.  A hard hit really sounds like it hurts the recipient.  Weather sound effects are very immersive.  The crackle of electrical storms makes for a creepy environment.  Rain and wind storms sound just as they would in real life. 


The only thing missing here is voice.  There are absolutely no voice-overs to speak of here (no pun intended).  To some this could be a good thing, but for me, reading all that text gets old and some emotion behind those words would be a welcome addition.

Final Fantasy XI has controls similar to previous games in the series.  Most of the game’s choices are menu driven, and movement is handled by the analog stick.  With the addition of other player interaction however comes a ton of complexity and plenty of added control.  MMORPGs include a lot of chat and keyboard commands.  FF XI handles this in a couple of different ways.  The first is the easiest solution of the two, use a USB keyboard.  Final Fantasy XI supports any USB (PC style) keyboard out there.  In fact you can even skip using the Dual-Shock Controller all together and play the entire game using the keyboard. 


The second method is to use a combination of macros and quick chat commands provided in the game.  Final Fantasy XI includes a macro feature that allows the player to program in a list of commands and assign them to a button.  This is extremely handy when in the heat of battle or if the player doesn’t have a keyboard.  There is also a list of quick chat commands in a quick menu that the player can use to chat with those around them.  Some examples of quick chats are “Lets Group” or “Want to Trade?”  A large number of quick chats are available in the chat list.  The real neat thing about the chat list is the fact that it is a great translator.  Since FFXI was released in Japan as well as the United states, quite a few players only speak Japanese.  If you use the quick chat list, the game translates the chat for you if you are speaking to someone that only speaks Japanese. 


There were a couple of issues I had with the controls, both of which dealt with the use of the keyboard.  The first issue I had was a real annoyance when I was chatting with other players.  For some reason the de-bounce rate for the PS2 is set too high, so when I typed in the chat window some characters would be repeated quite a few times.  Not a critical control issue, but very annoying to me and other players.  I couldn’t find a setting to change this and could probably be easily fixed with a patch.  The other issue I had with the keyboard was the cryptic and non-intuitive layout of the controls of the keys.  The controls could have been reassigned but instead of doing all that work I just used the Dual-Shock for everything except chat and programming macros.

Final Fantasy XI has tons of things to do, a huge environment, multiplayer interaction, room for expansion and plenty of fun.  There’s so much to tell you about I’m just going to cover the basic aspects of the game and let you learn the details on your own.  That’s another part of the fun of Final Fantasy XI, learning about every single thing you can do in the game.


Because the game is so big and is always adding new content, it comes with a hard drive.  Installation of the hard drive is very straightforward, easy to do and only takes 5 or 10 minutes.  Once all this is done, the installation of the actual game takes a long time, around a couple of hours.  When you first log on to the game you’ll have to wait an hour or two more while the latest updates are downloaded.  After this, loading the game is a piece of cake and takes about as long as any other PS2 game. 


FFXI is a subscription based service.  In order to keep playing the game online from month to month you need to pay a monthly fee .  The first month is free, but after that the fee is around $15 a month to play one character and an additional $1or so a month for each additional character you create.  The process is explained in detail when logging in for the first time, and I had no problems getting things to work right away.


After installation and the yucky billing process are done, the excitement begins as you begin to create your very first character.  There are a total of five playable races each allowing male and female characters (with two exceptions).  There are quite a few different face and hairstyle combinations, so you won’t be seeing too many other characters in game that look like yours.  Each race has its benefits and detriments; I’ll leave those for you to learn on your own.


After you’ve chosen a race you choose what job you’d like your character to have.  Initially the available jobs are: Warrior, Monk, White Mage, Black Mage, Red Mage and Thief.  Each class has its strengths and weakness.  Later on you will be able to do quests that open up new job classes and that allow your character to have two jobs at once.  Also, you are not limited to the job you select in the character creation process.  You can change jobs anytime during the game so you’ll really never have to erase your character to find out what other jobs are like.


Once you’ve chosen how your character will look, their race and class, you choose what city your character starts in.  Each city has a unique feel and specializes in certain crafts or skills.  For example, the TaruTaru are native to Windurst, a more magically inclined area, where Galkans are native to Bastok, a rocky mountainous area filled with mines and smiths.  Even though a race may be native to a certain area you can start any race in any of the three starting areas.


Okay so you’ve made your character…now what? Well there’s plenty to do in town like fulfill quests, get missions, buy and sell at the auction house with other players, craft items, change jobs, talk to citizens, the list goes on.  If you’re lucky and there happens to be a holiday celebration going on, you might see the townspeople running around in costumes with special quests for you to perform.  For example, near Halloween there would be townsfolk in skeleton and ghost costumes running all over town and specific quests were available around town with great rewards.  It’s not called “Halloween” in the game, but it is a festival that has many similarities and always happens right around the last week of October (in real time).


The crafting system is elaborate.  Over 8 different crafting skills are each filled with stuff to make, and all with room for substantial skill improvement.  Crafting can be a great way to make Gil (money) or to outfit you and your friend’s characters.  You can’t make something out of nothing, right?  Some activities like mining, logging and fishing are neatly integrated into the crafting system to provide your character with materials for crafting.
The battle system is much different than what the normal Final Fantasy player is used to.  Battles are fought in real time and are menu driven, but you don’t select “ATTACK” like in other FF games.  Instead, your character attacks on their own and the damage, attack speed, defense are all dependant on your character’s class and stats.  You basically select a foe, select the attack menu option, and watch your character duke it out.  Don’t worry, there’s still quite a bit of interaction.  If you want to cast spells or use special moves you do so by selecting that menu option while in the heat of battle and it will instantly be performed.  Before you engage, there’s an option to “Check” your opponent to give you a relative idea of how tough they are so you don’t rush in and get creamed.  After defeating an enemy you gain an amount of experience based on what level they are versus what level your character is. Your character may also get items from defeated enemies that you can then sell at the auction house or use for your benefit. 


Things get really fun and interesting when you have gotten to the point to where you want to group up with other players to form a party.  Actually, if you want to level up with any kind of celerity, you’ll have to find a party.  As you level up, the creatures get tougher and tougher.  It gets to be very difficult to win a one-on-one battle against a creature that is near or at your level as you progress.  Some classes are better at holding their own than others, but eventually you will have to party up with others if you want to keep working up the ladder.  With a group of people, you are a powerful fighting force, especially with the right combination of jobs.  You will be able to take on MUCH tougher opponents and reap great experience and item awards.  With the addition of experience chains and skill chains and just trying to keep each other alive, fighting in a party can be a very rewarding experience.  I will say that not everyone playing has excellent social skills.  There were a couple of times where I partied up with a couple of exploitative and obnoxious punks, but you shouldn’t let players like that tarnish your opinion of the game or its community at large.  I just blew them off and put them on my ignore list.


One of the things that really set Final Fantasy XI apart from other MMORPGs is the overlying plot.  The quest and mission system intertwined with the story make the game a very personal experience.  This coupled with the unique job system make strides ahead of the MMORPG competition.  On the other hand, I was not completely happy about the fact that you are pretty much forced to play in a group at higher levels.  There were times where I just wanted to log on and play solo.  At higher levels this is very difficult to do and survive.  I was also annoyed by a few of the quests.  Some of them require you to just go around and talk to different people around town.  Unfortunately you aren’t told which people to talk to.  So you have to spend a ton of time just talking to every person you see.  Luckily there are only a few quests like this and they aren’t required to progress in the game.  If you do want to do these quests I heartily recommend getting the strategy guide.


There’s so much more I could tell you about, but just learning about it is part of the experience.  You’ll learn most of what you need from other players, but I also found that the strategy guide (Brady Games) was not only extremely helpful but an entertaining read.  It definitely helps you with how to set up macros, learning the commands, knowing your role in a party, how to solo as your character class, getting you acquainted with some of the starting quests, weapons, items, crafting…the list goes on.  The guide is an invaluable source of information and I highly recommend it.


The only thing I haven’t touched on is the question of player vs. player.  Initially the game had no implementation in the battle system for player vs. player, but they have just added a competition, called Ballista, that allows PvP team competition for money.  I wasn’t able to try it myself before writing the review but I heard from some of my FFXI buddies that it was a lot of fun.


Right now there is a level cap of 75, a total of 15 jobs and over 80 areas to explore.  They’ve already added one expansion pack (which is included with the game) and are planning more.  This means even more areas, jobs, quests, more of everything.  Each area is very large and very detailed.  I’ve played quite a few MMORPGs and none of them execute nearly as well or provide such a fulfilling experience as Final Fantasy XI.

Unfortunately the game costs $99 which includes the game and the hard drive.  If you don’t already have the network adapter you’ll be shelling out another $40.   The hard drive that comes with the game is much more useful than for just playing FFXI as you’ll never have to buy another memory card again.  As far as just FFXI goes, it is by far the best MMORPG I’ve played, and I’ve played my fair share.  A game like this isn’t for the weekend warrior though!  I have a full time job and it is taking me weeks to gain levels.  It took me 3 weeks just to get to level 12 and it gets slower as you go higher.  It can be a little frustrating because other people you meet online (that don’t have a “real life”) will be constantly playing day and night and will most likely surpass you.  You’ll never run out of things to do in this game as they will adding content for a long time to come. 

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