It has been three months since Square released its first online RPG on May 16th. While the public beta testing phase went by without any major problems, various issues, both large and small, continued to surface over the days and weeks following Final Fantasy XI's release. Due to shortages in the supply of PlayStation 2 broadband units, only about 120,000 copies of the game have been sold in Japan to date.
As there is nothing new to report on the game's visuals, let's proceed straight to the music: Following the tradition of Final Fantasy X, three composers were assigned to score Final Fantasy XI: Nobuo Uematsu, Naoshi Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka. The score wasn’t as experimental as Final Fantasy X’s but is nonetheless equally inspiring. The soundtrack contains a wide range of melodies, from gloomy anthems to light-hearted, up-beat themes. Even though the OST featured only 51 tracks on two discs, about half the number of tracks from the series' previous four installments, Square has crafted another wonderful piece of game music.
Regarding gameplay, Final Fantasy XI offers much more than just battling solo or with friends to gain levels. Before we proceed to the various other activities, there is one new tidbit about the game's battle system that deserves attention: TP, or Tactical Points. These points are consumed as the player uses his weapon's skills; if your weapon's TP percentage reaches 0% those skills are inaccessible. Luckily, the game allows you to store up to 300% of a weapon's TP, so you won't run out of TP after each battle. Another stat-involving feature is meals. Meals such as seaweed salad or meat can be purchased at inns and restaurants or obtained by defeating enemies. Meals enhance one of your character's attributes, but at the same time decrease another. Provided the right skill is at your disposal, you can also cook the food, which will enable a second, hidden effect (for instance increased poison resistance) when the food is consumed.
In the world of Vana'diel, crystals not only play an important role in the story; they are also the key to a far more practical aspect of the game: item creation. The gems of the eight elements (fire, water, earth, wind, ice, thunder, light, darkness) will allow characters to learn skills such as alchemy, sewing or metal carving, which are required for item synthesis. An alchemist, for example, is capable of purifying various medicines and chemicals as well as merging them into a new item like an elixir.
The world of Vana’diel is host to familiar creatures of both good and ill repute. Despite being online, this is still a Final Fantasy game and hence there simply have to be Chocobos. Everyone's favorite yellow bird is back and waiting for adventurous riders. Before you can hop on however, you have to obtain a riding license. After passing this first hurdle, you are free to go on adventures with your very own Chocobo. Following Final Fantasy IX’s mini-game, the Chocobos of Final Fantasy XI will dig for treasure after feeding them their beloved Gysal Greens. Spending some Gil on those treats could be a good investment, as your yellow friend might dig up valuable treasure for you. Another not-so-dear friend has also found its way into the online world of Final Fantasy XI, the Shadow Dragon; wicked and evil as ever, he is waiting for brave warriors to face his wrath. Even the hated Marlboro will return to haunt gamers who wished they had picked up a year’s supply of softs, antidotes, and eye-drops before leaving town.
Since Vana'diel is enormous, Square has been kind enough to offer you more means of transportation than just the back of a poor Chocobo. For a small fee you can board a ship or airship, which will take you to your destination in no time. After all the traveling and fighting, players who wish to shift their attention to a more peaceful and relaxing activity can go fishing. But even the casual fisherman should take caution, for not only harmless fish will be attracted to your bait; there may be monsters waiting to spoil your new leisure activity. Should you be lucky enough to snag a fish you can later trade your catch for items.
Last but not least, Square offers an online newspaper dubbed the Vana'diel Tribune as well as a Manga Guide via the Final Fantasy XI website. The newspaper is for players who are interested in the history and recent events of Vana’diel, while the comic seeks to teach the basic elements of gameplay step-by-step. Square has promised constant updates for Final Fantasy XI and since the release three months ago, the company has delivered frequent updates ranging from simple bug fixes to the addition of tougher bosses.
Sadly the fate of the North American version of Final Fantasy XI is, as of yet, unknown. While Sony provided a demo of the game at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, visitors were presented with the Japanese version of the game without any localization. While Square’s president, Yoichi Wada, stated his intention to bring the game stateside at least twice in interviews with Japanese publications, no details are available about a possible release of the game on this side of the Pacific. A major issue in this context could be SCEA's apparent reluctance to release the PS2's hard drive in North America. Considering that the Japanese version requires the HDD to store game data, patches, upgrades as well as the PlayOnline browser, it is questionable how the game could possibly function without the storage device. While February 2003 was mentioned as a possible release date for the American version, the technical issues highlighted along with the lack of an official announcement by Square EA LLC, make the future of the US version of Final Fantasy XI very unclear.
While the Final Fantasy series has always been the subject of heated discussion, its upcoming eleventh installment has managed to easily surpass the first ten games when it comes to pre-release controversy. At the same time however, the curiosity about the game has been on the rise, since its announcement at the infamous Yokohama Millennium Conference in January 2000. First of all, Final Fantasy XI is an online-only RPG, meaning you have to log on to the internet in order to play; an offline mode like in Phantasy Star Online is not available. Furthermore, FFXI will only be playable through Square's PlayOnline platform. The registration for the service itself is free, however using game content such as Final Fantasy XI will cost you a monthly fee of about $10 USD. In order to be able to play the game on your PlayStation 2, you will be required to purchase a hard disk drive, an ethernet controller, and needless to say, the game itself. After discussing all the technical prerequisites let's finally proceed to the actual game.
Visually, Final Fantasy XI looks impressive. The character models are very detailed, and the same can be said about the vast areas and dungeons. While a comparison with an offline game like Final Fantasy X isn't very accurate, the successor in no way looks shaby against the PS2's best looking game so far. This is particularly remarkable, since up to 18 (playable) characters can be on-screen during a battle, while Final Fantasy X only allowed three party members to take part in the action at the same time.
Sadly, so far there isn't much known about the game's aural aspects. While Nobuo Uematsu is back as composer, it is unknown whether he has received support from colleagues such as Junya Nakano or Masashi Hamauzu, both of who were responsible for scoring the last Final Fantasy game along with the master himself. Also, Square hasn't announced a vocalist to perform the game's theme song, as they did in the previous installments. Nonetheless, it should be highly interesting to see how Final Fantasy XI's music will sound, after Final Fantasy X boasted an experimental score.
If Final Fantasy X's battle system was a radical departure from the good old ATB system of the series' previous incarnations, then Final Fantasy XI might be called a quantum leap. This shouldn't come as a surprise, since after all we are talking about an online RPG here. There are no predetermined characters, like in an offline RPG. Instead, each player can create his or her own character. First you choose your character's sex, then his race, followed up his job. Five races and six different jobs are selectable. Following Final Fantasy tradition, you can choose between warrior, monk, black mage, white mage, red mage or thief, each possessing distinctive skills, for instance “steal? As previously mentioned, it is possible for up to 18 characters to take part in one battle, or to be more precise 3 times 6. Battling in FFXI is done in parties of up to 6 characters. If you still feel that a certain enemy is too strong for your party of six, you can form an alliance with two other parties. Thus, the maximum number of 18 characters per battle.
The feature that is likely to receive the most applause, though is Square's departure from the infamous and pesky random encounters. After ten installments, finally the times of enemies popping out of nowhere are over. Players can freely explore Vana Dir, FFXI's huge world and if they feel the urge to fight, simply approach a monster in sight. Once in battle, characters are set on auto-attack mode, meaning they keep attacking the enemy until they the battle ends or the player manually inputs any command. While not onscreen at first, the good old Final Fantasy battle menu will appear upon request and offer its user the well-known commands: attack, magic, special and item. On the top right side of the screen, the names and stats of all party members are displayed. It is possible to communicate with either all of them or any individual member by inputting chat-like commands a la "shout", "say" or "tell". So far, Square is planning to implement two interface languages, Japanese and English.
Generally a good story is at the center of every great RPG, yet telling a great story au-pair to the ones of Xenosaga or Chrono Cross in an online RPG is close to impossible. FFXI lacks the predetermined characters of its offline counterparts and instead features hundreds of thousands of customized characters. Final Fantasy mastermind Hironobu Sakaguchi promised that Square is nonetheless aiming to weave a compelling story. Taking place in the world of Vana Dir, a key element of Final Fantasy XI's story should be well-known to fans of old-style Final Fantasy games, the crystal. The world of Vana Dir has been peaceful for years, but recently the evil forces are on the rise again, threatening FFXI's world and its five races; the Humes, living in the Republic of Bastok, the Tarutaru and Mithra of the Windurst Federation, the Elvaans of San D'oria and the Galka, who live in Bastok alongside the Humes.Under the rule of the Humes, Bastok has become Vana Dir's center of technological and industrial progress. The Windurst Federation, which is mainly inhabited by the smaller Tarutarus, on the other hand, is a center of magic. Living in a small corner of the Federation's territory, the Mithra have chosen to live alongside nature and refuse to use any kind of technical or magical devices, only their skills. The Elvaans are proud and strong warriors, but have always been haunted by their arrogance. Recently, there are no clashes between rival groups in the Kingdom of San D'oria, but nobody knows how long the current coalition between royal knights and monk warriors will last.
Apart from those three territories, players can explore Ronafaure Forest, Gustaberg and Sarutabaruta. Located next to San D'oria is the mysterious Ronafaure Forest. To the north of Windust Federation, the wide plains of Sarutabaruta with their unique fauna and flora are waiting to be explored. Gustaberg on the contrary is an unfertile area, surrounding the Republic of Bastok. Regardless of its inhospitable character, the region is of great interest to the humes, due to the minerals that can be found beneath the surface.
While Final Fantasy XI will most likely be the first game in the series since Final Fantasy V not to boast sales figures of two million or more sold copies (in Japan), it will not only be a major step for Square, but also online gaming on consoles as a whole. Considering the small installed hardware base of the Dreamcast, the first online RPG to grace a console, Sega's Phantasy Star Online was a huge success. Final Fantasy XI should be able to increase the interest in online RPGs even more. Despite the reluctance of gamers to purchase add-ons for consoles, such as a hard disk and ethernet controller, the game will open a new chapter for the PS2, Square, and online gaming. At least the gameplay aspects of the latest installment of the Final Fantasy series look solid enough to provide a lot of fun for everyone willing to give it a try.
The Japanese version is scheduled to be released alongside the PlayOnline launch in April. No specific release date for the US version has been given so far, but Final Fantasy XI is expected to be available here by the end of the year at the latest.
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