"The Abyssea trilogy brings a new and refreshing focus on gameplay and convenience in an MMO that seemed lost in tradition."
It all began with a stone, or so the legend says...
It's hard to believe eight years has passed since my first foray into Vana'diel and almost as long since our review of the North American release. Even though the MMORPG landscape has changed dramatically since that time, Final Fantasy XI has managed to endure against all odds, including its own successor. While the world mourned for Final Fantasy XIV, Vana'diel was quietly having a renaissance of surprising magnitude.
Earlier this summer, Square Enix released a compilation of truly epic proportions for fans as well as newcomers to their original MMORPG. The Final Fantasy XI Ultimate Collection: Abyssea Edition contains the original game in addition to its four major expansions and all nine mini-expansions via digital distribution on PC for a paltry $19.99. For a game that's essentially a decade old, who cares right? In truth, the real jewel in this tiara is in the name: Abyssea. For the sake of brevity, I'll be covering the namesake content of this collection, which includes Visions, Scars and Heroes of Abyssea. Those who've read my work before realize that brevity from me is a small novella, and to cover all aspects of a near decade old MMORPG with 12 content expansions would result in my head exploding and approximately 16,000 pages of text from yours truly. Moving on.
In ages past, a sentient jewel, enormous and beautiful, banished the darkness.
Once upon a time, the realm of Vana'diel and all her creations were amazing to behold due to the cutting edge technology behind the scenes. Surprisingly, the visuals have held up over time. Players won't have any issues crossing into the uncanny valley in FFXI, though the artistic design flows seamlessly through the game world. Character and monster animation still remains superb so many years from inception. You won't find any fancy post-processing since the game was originally designed for the PlayStation 2 and then ported via emulation, but PC players were graced with the ability to run the game in HD resolutions legitimately shortly after this collection was released. Sadly, the game still lacks a true windowed mode but community-developed software remedies that problem. Abyssea doesn't bring any new graphics to the world itself; they are simply nine of the pre-existing world areas that have been given an ambient lighting face-lift and some cartography alterations. Abyssea does introduce several new species of monsters heretofore never seen on Vana'diel with some old favorites in new skins in the most spectacular sizes.
Its many-colored light filled the world with life and brought forth mighty gods.
So what exactly is Abyssea? Simply put, three small pieces that bring a fragmented picture into crystal clarity. Abyssea is a world that was created parallel to Vana'diel that was introduced with the last trio of mini-expansions and turned what we knew about FFXI on its ear. Here's how...
Over the years, FFXI grew to be more of a time-sink than a productive gaming endeavor. Players would take months to reach the level cap of 75 and remain there for years on end being spoon-fed content that required even more time investment. In an MMO culture post-World of Warcraft, this was truly the kiss of death for any thriving persistent world. Over time, more people left Vana'diel searching for greener pastures. Server populations dropped, and several worlds were merged to keep a moderate census. It was well known that after the fourth expansion "Wings of the Goddess," Square Enix would be releasing content in bite-sized mini-expansions via download to satisfy their customers. The first two collections were met with mild enthusiasm but were more storyline-oriented with no significant re-playability. Then came Abyssea.
The Abyssea content expansion shatters the venerable level cap of 75, ushering in a new horizon that promises to stretch all the way to 99 (currently 95). The tedium of months of grinding levels was banished in an instant. Players can fly from the Abyssea entry requirement of level 30 to 95 in a matter of days. Completionists can reach cap on all 20 of the game's jobs in a matter of weeks.
Once upon a time, players would have to spend countless hours camping notorious monsters for high quality equipment. Abyssea gives players access to high-powered, loot-stuffed beasties any time they want if they have the requisite spawn items. All players have to do is search the auction house or kill the requisite mobs for a moderate drop rate on spawn items. Higher tier NMs require specific key items from underling NMs, but are all but guaranteed with the proper techniques.
A long time ago, players subsided on situational gear that filled inventories to bursting with class specific equipment that didn't make much sense. Abyssea introduces class-specific armor that fits almost every accepted playstyle and adds an upgrade system to boot so that the casual and the hardcore players have goals they can achieve without destroying homes and wrecking marriages. The situational gear options are also expanded for the min-max crowd.
In a distant age, players spent years planning and paying for their ultimate relic/mythic weapons. Abyssea introduces Empyrean weapons that are on-par if not greater than their predecessors and can be obtained in a fraction of the time, but still require teamwork and strategy.
Many moons past, a quest in Vana'diel rewarded you with a smile, and a coupon for barely enough money for a stick of butter. In Abyssea, your quests reward you with useful key items, ensorcelled equipment, or just tons of experience and currency.
By now you must think that Abyssea is either some kind of candy-filled wonderland where every day is sunshine and every monster is a loot-piņata, or I'm stoned out of my mind. I assure you, it's just fatigue, though it's not too far from the truth... the candy-filled part. Abyssea combines the above caveats with a gameplay system that mixes the addictive collectability of Pokémon with the strategic takedowns of Monster Hunter rolled up in a Final Fantasy veneer polished to a fine luster. Gamers suffering from OCD may want to look elsewhere because this will mean the end of your social life.
Bathed in that light, the world entered an age of bliss...
Now that I've peaked your interest, let's look at the specifics. As an alternate dimension, Abyssea can only be experienced in a time-limited fashion. Players are given traverser stones at the beginning of this journey worth 30 minutes of playtime within the realm of Abyssea. These stones can be stored at an NPC, who automatically generates and stores them at a rate of one stone every 20 earth hours.
Whoa! Hold the phone! Just 30 minutes of time a day!? You're crazy!
Relax... Like any RPG, you have to start out a peon before you can become a legend. Through the accrual of key items called Abyssites you can decrease the cooldown time from 20 hours to 8 hours, as well as increase each stone's worth to upwards of 48 minutes. Likewise, players may find treasure chests from enemies that contain precious time extensions in their forays into Abyssea. Not only does this add a sense of urgency to your adventuring, but it helps maintain bite-sized nuggets of playtime for those with busier schedules. It is important to note that no matter how many stones you have stored on the NPC, you may only allot 120 minutes of playtime in Abyssea via these items. There is no limit to how much time can be obtained via time extension chests, but be warned: logging out of the game while in Abyssea continues your countdown as if you never left. Depleting all your allotted time restricts you from re-entering for an hour. Thankfully, exiting Abyssea saves any time not exceeding your two hour starting limit.
While in Abyssea, players accrue "lights" from fallen enemies. The color of each light is based on how an enemy is dispatched: by sword, spell, or technique. The color of each light corresponds to certain benefits or bonuses that directly affect gameplay. This can influence how frequently treasure chests drop, their contents (including time extensions), how quickly experience points are gained as well as Cruor, Abyssea's own currency. Players can check which lights and their intensity in addition to their remaining Abyssea time by using the rest command. Opening treasure chests usually involves games of chance, but for a small sum of Cruor you can purchase a key that opens them without the mini-game. Cruor is an important resource as it not only allows the purchase of these keys, but it also pays for services such as teleportation, starting equipment, and even the base form for several pieces of Empyrean Armor.
As Abyssea is a high-level battlefield, players must master the Atma and Weakness Trigger systems to reach their full potentials. Through the course of the Abyssea expansion storyline missions, players obtain Lunar Abyssites that allow the use of Atma. Atma are crystallized forms of a monster's soul that can bestow power upon those who obtain them. How significant are they? At their most powerful, some Atma can make you immune to death and cast many of the most time consuming spells instantly. They can bestow health and mana regeneration many magnitudes faster than previously possible. They can even increase your damage potential five-fold. This synergy can be performed at the appropriate NPC upon entering any Abyssea zone for a small Cruor fee.
Atma can be obtained in two ways – synthetically, or ripped from the soul of the beast itself. Synthetic Atma is derived based on your character's experiences. In some ways, this is like an achievement system in itself. Players who bested some of the most legendary notorious monsters in Vana'diel or completed challenges or expansions in their entirety are given these token Atma as reward for their deeds. Pure Atma are obtained from NMs in Abyssea, but only if their corresponding weaknesses are triggered. Once an Atma is earned, it is stored as a permanent key item and can be equipped whenever needed at the corresponding NPC. Currently there are over 100 Atma available. Since players can only equip three Atma at any given time, players must be judicious in their use, but the flexibility is limitless. Abyssites are gained in a similar fashion, but also from quests. These key items bestow certain permanent buffs or bonuses on players, such as decreased experience loss upon death or the ability to hold more traverser stones on your character.
In addition to Atma, Abyssea NMs may be coerced to drop fantastic pieces of equipment and weapons, though no treasures are as sought after as the items required to upgrade Empyrean artifacts. Players begin collecting their basic Empyrean Armor (lovingly dubbed Artifact Armor 3 or AF3) via Cruor and Dominion Notes purchase as well as from rare golden chests. Through the "Trial of the Magians" upgrade system, players can collect Seals to upgrade this equipment to its +1 or awakened state. This bestows the majority of the relevant statistics to the equipment. Players may then choose to continue this path and collect the relevant Cards, Stones and Jewels to upgrade the Empyrean Armor to its ultimate or +2 state. This increases all relevant statistics and adds a major independent bonus if the entire set is upgraded.
The Empyrean Weapons are Abyssea's answer to the age-old Relic and Mythic weapons that drove players insane with their difficulty and time commitment. Basically, Empyrean Weapons are the final three stages of the 14-step Trial of the Magian weapon upgrade system if you follow the Abyssea path. The great aspect of this system is that anyone can start for no cost, at any time. The Empyrean weapon's first stage offers only a unique look and a significant damage statistic. The second stage grants a unique and devastating weapon skill, stat modifiers, and Aftermath effect. The third stage grants a major boost to damage as well as stats. The items to complete each of these three stages are indigenous to the innards of Abyssea's finest boss monsters, should you trigger the appropriate weakness.
The Weakness Trigger system is what ties all of this monster hunting together. Each monster has three color-coded weaknesses that correspond with physical weapon skills, elemental magic, and elemental weapon skills. Triggering the appropriate weakness inflicts certain status ailments on the monster and influences which kinds of items are rewarded. Spoils can include Empyrean upgrade items, rare equipment, Atma, Abyssites, and HNM triggers. The trick is that these weaknesses are completely random every time a notorious monster is spawned, even if the same NM is spawned sequentially. While there are certain rules that govern which specific spells and abilities are likely to trigger these weaknesses, only a special Abyssite gained near the end of the Abyssea storyline gives you major hints to these vulnerabilities. Weaknesses exploited once in combat will all but assure the victor their spoils, but if any weaknesses are used repeatedly, the potential reward is extinguished. This system enhances gameplay by making fights more tactical and complex. Players have to tailor their teams and their tactics based on what rewards they are pursuing.
The synergy of these systems revitalizes what was once a tepid combat routine. Players not only have a tremendous degree of customization via Atma, but they also now have the flexibility of cherry picking their NM encounters as well as their loot without much wasted time. The gear progression via Trial of the Magians is added incentive to what is already an enjoyable endeavor.
The ancient seal will be broken, awakening nightmares of ages past.
So we've touched on monster hunting, and the tools and tricks of the trade, but is that all there is to Abyssea? It wouldn't be a Final Fantasy is there wasn't some storyline bouncing around would it? To be sure, Abyssea is more of a combat-oriented experience. Even the handful of storyline missions have you running off to slay a High Notorious Monster at the end of every Abyssea zone. There is a sizeable collection of NPC quests to be found in each of the nine Abyssea areas that further flesh out the story of this doomed alternate dimension, introducing you to old friends made new again. In reality, Abyssea in itself is the direct storyline sequel to the divisive Chains of Promathia expansion. There's not quite as many lengthy cutscenes, but the story itself is quite good given the bite-sized portions of the tale.
Through the howling of the beasts, the song rings clear.
There wouldn't be an Abyssea without the score to carry the weight of this oppressive new world. Naoshi Mizuta's overworld themes and battle music are a breath of fresh air after so many years of listening to the same tracks, though they pale in comparison to the score of the final confrontation. While not quite as memorable as some of Uematsu's iconic tracks, there is a sense of gravitas in Mizuta's "Shinryu" with its drums and horns that sends shivers down your spine.
The world shudders as she is thrust into chaos and despair.
The Abyssea collection brings many new elements to FFXI and changes the entire gameplay dynamic, but fails to modernize how players interact with this new world. Purists will find that the controls and GUI haven't changed since release almost a decade ago. Players still have to wrangle with an unwieldy text-based command and chat system. After all this time, there remains no intuitive party search feature or the ability to move elements of your UI. Players must still rely on an archaic macro system for combat functionality or brave a daunting collection of menus to activate abilities. The crafting system remains piecemeal with no UI or recipe database. On the bright side, the game still controls beautifully with a controller – a feat that no other MMORPG has yet to master, but the mouse and keyboard control still leaves much to be desired.
And so the legend ends...
Without question, this latest FFXI Ultimate Collection brings together the entirety of the Vana'diel experience for an unmatched price point. The Abyssea trilogy brings a new and refreshing focus on gameplay and convenience in an MMO that seemed lost in tradition. FFXI veterans will be so blown away by the changes to the old realm that they'll hardly recognize the game. There's a mountain's worth of new content to warrant a lengthy walk down nostalgia's road. For newcomers, however, there's little incentive to brave this path. The graphics, UI, and control remain almost entirely unchanged over the last eight years. Many of the mainstays of modern MMORPGs simply aren't present in FFXI and probably never will be. The realm of Vana'diel is one of the most storied and vast persistent worlds in the genre, but tapping that potential is a daunting task for the uninitiated. So much so that the newcomer community is nearly non-existent. The bonus item that comes with the collection (the Destrier Beret) is a dream come true for new players, but is too little, too late for storied adventurers. Those with the patience to brave the archaic control scheme and methodical gameplay will undoubtedly find themselves transfixed in a legend that has spanned nearly a decade.
While the context of this review is generally very positive, the score reflects how significant some of these drawbacks are in a market flooded with modern persistent worlds. Veteran FFXI players will have to counterbalance the score with their own tolerance of these shortcomings.