In April of 2009, Square Enix released a significant–and large–content update for Final Fantasy XI. The FFXI dev team and One PR invited RPGFan for a virtual tour to experience the new content update, and we gladly obliged. This new update differed from all previous content updates in that some of the content would have to be purchased separately if people wanted to experience an optional expansion. That expansion is A Crystalline Prophecy (review here), one of the three planned mini-expansions for release in 2009.
But the April update added a whole lot more than A Crystalline Prophecy. The Wings of the Goddess plot continues to unfold (how is this not over yet?), two jobs received significant spells and abilities, new Notorious Monsters (NMs) and rewards were added, and most importantly, a whole new type of equipment has appeared on the scene. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you "customized equipment."
Okay, so the concept is nothing new to gamers. Being able to add specific statistics of your own liking to a "carte blanche" piece of armor is almost expected of many RPGs, particularly Western MMORPGs. Square Enix is just now dabbling into this option for Final Fantasy XI. Choices are limited, and you are generally not given a choice; instead, the bonuses are random. But let me lay out for you what I mean.
There's plenty of gear in the game with interesting stats that bring a lot of variety to your avatar's abilities and strengths. And if you craft, you know that you can "+1" most gear, but that's been the limit to enhanced gear for the most part. Now, with this content update, a whole pile of gear has been "updated" with the possibility of customization. The customized stats are written in yellow text on the description of the item. In many cases, customized stats can be changed by fighting special NMs that cost a certain amount of points/tokens to pop (different levels of gear can be customized using different types of NMs). You trade the gear that you want customized to the spot where you popped the NM after its death, and the gear will have a new, randomly-assigned statistic. As fans compile what stats can apply to what gear, it won't be long before people can find optimal enhancements to shoot for with each piece of customized gear.
One special type of gear exists that allows you to choose your customized enhancements. If you're willing to buy A Crystalline Prophecy, that is. When you finish the new expansion (including a very difficult final boss fight), you can pick up one of three different pieces of body armor. Each one has fixed stats that apply to one of three generic job paradigms (fighter/rogue/mage), and then you get to add any two customized enhancements from a very large list. Whatever you make, as good as it is, probably won't top your current favorite body piece if you're an endgame player. But if you have multiple jobs, you may be able to create a customized piece of equipment that serves multiple purposes.
With nearly every content update, Square Enix makes changes to certain jobs. Sometimes it's a "nerf" (making the job weaker), and sometimes it makes a job stronger. Fortunately, it's all good things in this update. And if you're a Red Mage or a White Mage, there's plenty of good stuff in store.
White Mages receive four new spells, two complementary job abilities, and a handful of adjustments. The new spells are all group-oriented. One spell, "Auspice," grants the effect of "Subtle Blow" to the party (reduces TP gain on the enemy), and whenever a party member misses, they receive an accuracy bonus for the next attack. "Esuna" and "Sacrifice" are two spells that work hand-in-hand. Esuna is a powerful spell that can remove a status effect from all party members (the status effect must be one that could be removed by other spells, such as "Erase" or the "-na" spells). However, the White Mage casting Esuna must have that same effect to clear it from the rest of the party. If the full party has a status effect that the White Mage doesn't, the White Mage can cast "Sacrifice" to remove the effect from one party member and put it on himself, which then makes "Esuna" a viable solution. As a career White Mage, I had time to use these spells on my own, as well as in the Media Tour. And there's no question that Auspice, as well as the Esuna/Sacrifice combo, are some of the most useful additions they've yet given White Mage (though "Repose," the light-based sleep spell, was another big gain for the job). However, because these spells are cast on the White Mage with an area of effect range for other party members, it requires the White Mage to become slightly more "front-line," which is just fine with me, for the following reasons...
The new White Mage abilities, "Afflatus Misery" and "Afflatus Solace" are two job abilities that remain on the White Mage for a long period of time after usage, and they each provide a variety of effects and attributes while active. One augments your character based on how much HP you heal by using Cure spells, and the other augments your character based on damage you take. Each of the four new spells interacts with these job abilities in various ways. For example, one of the Afflatus abilities grants a bonus to Auspice: all party members who get Auspice also get a short-time "en-light" bonus (which you cannot get from any other spell, and is generally only found as an attribute on special equipment). And there's the new spell "Cura," which heals HP to all party members based on how much damage the White Mage has recently taken. In other words, if your party gets hit with an Area of Effect attack, and everyone gets hurt (including the White Mage), the White Mage can recover a fair portion of the damage lost to all party members with a low-MP-cost spell.
Other White Mage adjustments include a significant boost in magic attack power to the spell "Holy" (the strongest light-based offensive magic in the game), and a reduction in MP cost to the higher-tier "Raise" spells. This White Mage is very, very happy with Square Enix for these updates.
Red Mages got a whole new set of spells: the long-awaited tier two "en-" spells. These spells add elemental magic damage to physical attacks (like Mystic Knights from previous FF games, or the Vivi/Steiner combo in FFIX). The tier two spells do significantly more damage than the tier one spells, and they also increase their damage output with each subsequent attack. Add to that the effect of the new job ability "Composure," which increases the duration of an enhancement spell, with a small recast delay penalty to counterbalance, and a Red Mage who wants to add elemental damage to their physical attacks is in business. Unfortunately, it seems that players are still far from convinced that Red Mage is an effective "front-line job," and are already demanding more from Square Enix so that Red Mage can fight enemies head-on in contexts other than soloing.
I already touched on the added NM systems. They exist for a variety of reasons, including experience and gil bonuses, but their primary purpose thus far seems to be customized equipment. Accessing these NMs comes from usage of either Allied Notes (collected by defeating enemies in the Wings of the Goddess expansion zones) or by participating in Fields of Valor events. It seems that these token-based NM pop systems are becoming more and more popular after the initial success of the Zeni NM system from last year.
This time around, the Wings of the Goddess plot expands not through the main missions, but through the three nations' quest-based plots. Square Enix has been alternating for each content update between these two plot lines. And, technically, we may as well call it four plot lines. To progress in the main series missions, players must continue to press on in at least one of the nation-based quests, but they are free to complete all three and reap the benefits. Outside of the tangible benefits, one thing players can certainly enjoy are the deeply-woven plots and impressively long cut scenes. During the Media Tour, I witnessed a cut scene for a battle at Fort Karugo-Narugo (part of the Windurst quests), and I think its length is only outmatched by the end of Chains of Promathia. Although lengthy, the scene was still very entertaining as well as informative.
I won't touch on A Crystalline Prophecy in-depth here (despite the article's title) because we only briefly touched on it during the Media Tour. Again, refer to our review of the expansion for more information.
During the Media Tour, I did attempt to get some questions answered. I asked about Moblin Maze Mongers, introduced at the end of 2008. I personally hadn't invested much time into the new event, but I wanted to know what critical reaction Square Enix had received from fans. So far, they say, it remains positive. I also asked about Summoners: where is the new avatar that has been promised over and over? We had hoped to see this with the April update, yet it didn't happen. Square Enix did, however, address one of the complaints Mr. Vreeland brought up during the '08 FanFest, the fact that Summoners lose MP even when a Blood Pact ability failed to be used. Finally, I asked about Absolute Virtue. And the answer is no. No one's beaten him, and they're still not giving any hints. The unbeatable creature that drops a glorious treasure trove of gear remains a mystery, one that players no longer care to attempt solving because of all the convoluted history and heartache that has come along with this particular monstrosity.
We at RPGFan would like to thank Square Enix and One PR for giving us the opportunity to learn even more about Final Fantasy XI through the Media Tour. Since they have recently reached a new record of 2 million characters (across over 500,000 active accounts), it seems this MMORPG is still performing quite strongly. We'll continue to witness, and report, how the game progresses in the coming months and years.