|Platform:||PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360|
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The second of three planned "Abyssea" $10 add-ons, Scars of Abyssea was released alongside a level cap adjustment from 80 to 85 in September of this year. The game continues a quick evolution to keep players interested. But unlike Vision of Abyssea, which brought major improvements, we are now beginning to see some chinks in the armor of the "new way to play."
But before I recount from first- and second-hand experience what went wrong this time around, let's take a quick survey of what content was added with Scars and what improvements were made.
Scars of Abyssea adds three new Abyssea zones: Attohwa Chasm (originally from Chains of Promathia), Misareaux Coast (also Chains of Promathia), and Vunkerl Inlet (from Wings of the Goddess). The difficulties of traversing all three of these zones are left intact, with one special exception: climbing the "Parrodamo Tor" plateau in Attohwa Chasm has become immensely easier by reducing the number of permanent "miasma" spots and offering a viable starting point from the south end. Also, the number of confluxes per zone has increased from 8 to 9 (with a special "conflux 00" added: we'll discuss those areas in further detail soon). The same tiered NM structure exists for hardcore players, complete with ridiculously powerful Atma to obtain. There are also plenty of new Abyssites to collect.
Though story is not emphasized in the Abyssea series, the quests added in each zone (about 8 per zone) show more attention to detail on the part of the developers than what existed in the older zones. Though there are plenty of fetch quests, including repeated fetch quests with a potential reward of AF3 seals (more on that later), there are some quests with significant plot points that help flesh out the details of what's going on in this strange new dimension. For example, we learn that the NPCs inhabiting Attohwa Chasm are primarily survivors of an airship crash. Quests involve searching for survivors, scavenging the wreckage for new stuff, and even re-uniting a family (with linkpearls) between Attohwa and the other Scars zones. In Vunkerl, there's a quest line that involves studying the contamination of water, with consequences for the NPCs "residing" (or rather, surviving) in the zone.
The main quest of each zone is still to kill a "big boss" (not the highest in the tiered structure, but one of the higher ones). If you can kill 5 of 6 between Scars and Vision both, you will be able to meet up with some key NPCs in the "real" Vana'diel, and who they are and what they're up to might just surprise you. Complaints that there is simply no plot to Abyssea don't ring true in my mind. Yes, relative to the cutscene-heavy expansions of the past, it's not a lot, but the setting matters and I think they put a better effort into the setting and NPCs with this set of zones.
Regardless of the story, for most players, the most important additions in the release of the Scars zones were 3 of the 5 main "Empyrean Armor" pieces. Head pieces were obtained by spending cruor (the currency of Abyssea), leg pieces were obtained by spending resistance credits (a new currency earned in a Scars-specific activity), and the feet pieces? Well, they're a pain in the neck. They drop at what feels like a rate of less than 1% (but is probably closer to about 5%) on the "gold pyxis" chests from enemies. Different feet pieces drop in different zones, so it's become common for full alliances doing experience points grinding to also have individual search comments set for which foot piece they want.
Note, also, that "accessory" pieces exist for the Empyrean set (referred to by fans simply as "AF3," as they are job-specific and are the third of such rare/ex job specific armor sets in the game), and that some of them actually existed in the Vision set. The Body and Hands pieces are found in the Heroes of Abyssea expansion (which was released earlier this month).
While gaining new high-level gear for each job sounds great on the surface, the method of upgrading them to the point where they're relatively useful is a pain in the rear. For each particular piece of armor, they come in a base form with stat bonuses that rival most level 40 to 50 gear. To get them to a point that they're useful, each piece requires 8 seals that are job- and part-specific. So, for summoners, they will want "Caller's Seal: Feet" to upgrade AF3 feet to a +1 status. The change from base to +1 is the most significant the armor can undergo, with stats rivaling and sometimes one-upping the best gear available for those jobs. However, obtaining these seals is a real bear. Each seal can be obtained in one of two ways. First, one can do repeatable quests and hope for the seal to be given as a reward. Each repeatable quest that gives away seals will have one of four job-specific seals it gives away, at a rate of 20-40% depending on the quest. However, which job's seal you receive isn't always even. I've talked to individuals who are after, say, a seal for Beastmaster but will get 10 or more Warrior seals before ever seeing a seal for the job they want. The end result? Repeating fetch quests turns out to be more boring than grinding in exp parties. What's worse is the sacrifice you have to make if you're committed to doing these quests. If the quest can only be repeated after leaving the zone and coming back, that is frustrating enough. But considering that your time in Abyssea is limited (see the Traverser Stone explanation in my VoA review), you're blowing a ton just to upgrade one piece of armor to +1. Again, the seals are not just job-specific, but piece-specific. All the head seals are in Attohwa; the leg seals are in Misareaux; the feet seals are in Vunkerl. Finally, the quests that aren't draining your time will certainly drain your wallet. Some of the repeated quests require turning in some item, so they sell in bulk stacks on the Auction House for a premium. In my case, upgrading the White Mage Empyrean head armor to +1 will likely cost me over 2 million gil in Amoeban Pseudopods. These items drop from amoebas, an enemy that is frustrating to fight and is thus not an ideal enemy to fight for those lengthy exp grinds with an alliance; anyone fighting these enemies is doing so for the highly-prized drop. Similar enemies with similar drops exist in all three Scars zones, and almost every job has one piece that will require the hit to the wallet.
And if you don't go the quest route, your only other option is to fight Notorious Monsters (NMs). The NM route is great if the NM you're fighting can be handled solo or "low-man" (up to 6 people). It's even better if said NM is a "pop" NM whose pop item is sold for a low price in high quantities on the Auction House. But if your seal drops from time-based NMs, you're probably better off going the quest route. NMs are especially useful because they can drop up to two seals (sometimes two of the same seal), as well as valuable gear. Plus, they're a great way to skill up. However, because some NMs are just unreasonably difficult or require a specialty strategy with a special party setup to consistently defeat in a reasonable time frame, going the NM route for seals isn't always an option for players.
Here comes the really cute part: the AF3 set can be upgraded to +2 status. The change here isn't as significant, though it is certainly helpful if you're going after the entire set and are seeking the "set bonus" (which appears on the +2 gear). To attain these highly-coveted upgrades, you'll need 6 (yes, SIX) of some very rare and very particular item that drops off of the higher-tiered NMs. You know, those ones that require multiple key-item drops from previous NMs to even have a chance at fighting. I know very few people, personally, that have any AF3+2 gear, though if you spend some time checking people in Port Jeuno, you're bound to find some people sporting the +2 love on all 3 available AF3 pieces from the Scars zone only a few months after release.
In case anyone's wondering, with 10 full days (that's 240 hours) logged from the time of Scars of Abyssea released to present, I have yet to upgrade any one piece of AF3 to +1 status. I have about 4 seals for each of the Summoner pieces, and 2 or 3 seals for each White Mage piece. It's not a high priority for me: I've been spending more time collecting Abyssites, Atmas, and completing the quests in each zone. There's certainly plenty to do in Abyssea these days.
One thing not worth doing in these zones, however, is the new Resistance battles system called "Bastion" (they're going to run out of terms for these battle events eventually!). Zone-entry NPCs for each of the Scars areas explain to you that the Martellos, which they claim to be a "necessity" for survival (although many parties do without them), are more stable in the Vision areas than the Scars areas. In the Scars areas, the monsters have found their weakness, a central Pulse Martello, and thus intend to attack it. Your job as a player is to help defend them. Doing so results in short bursts of combat, like a mini-Campaign Battle, lasting anywhere from 10 seconds to 3 minutes. The enemies, mostly mechanical in nature (the stuff of Salvage, now re-skinned), swarm the area while NPCs whose voices span the entire zone let everyone know, many times, that a fight is about to occur. You go, you throw everything you've got at a couple of enemies, and if you're lucky, you might fend them all off in time. Whether it's a "win" or a "lose," however, you earn Resistance Credits. Again, these credits are necessary to pick up the base piece of AF3 leg armor. You can also use the credits for some decent temporary items that are much better than the ones you can get with Cruor at the zone entry. Still, this new activity was all but abandoned about 2 weeks after the game's release. Everyone raised enough credits to buy all the leg pieces they wanted and then ditched the venture entirely, and with good reason. There's not much incentive to stay, not to mention far better and far more interesting things to do. I declare the whole concept a failure, and the only way players will return to it is if it's a necessary task for more desired gear (even then, players will only go to the activity begrudgingly).
The "main course" of each Abyssea zone, Vision of Scars, is the tiered NM hunt. Most people will do this with a Linkshell, and it is a most rewarding venture. Abyssite and Atma key items are extremely worth having; their bonuses are fantastic, and those without an LS can still pick up 12 different "Synthetic Atmas" new to Scars of Abyssea, based on completion of previous plot arcs. For example, finishing the Windurst Nation path earns you "Atma of the Heavens," which gives a 5 mp/tic refresh and some magic attack bonuses in Abyssea zones. I love fighting these NMs, and there are some very unique NMs in the Scars zones. Not unique in design: almost all of them are palette swaps of previous NMs (the new one is the "Iron Giant" style NM, and it's an absolute beast). The interesting part is the behavior they take on. They'll have skewed enmity patterns, or unique strengths and weaknesses, that lead them to new strategies and styles of fighting. Also, having something challenging to use your STR+50 atma on is reward in and of itself.
However, all is not well in Scars of Abyssea. Recently, I fought an NM that drops a prized Atma (players will recognize the name: "Atma of the Razed Ruin"). This Iron Giant NM has a special technique wherein it will launch its head off of its body. The body will collapse, and remain untargettable, until the head is defeated. The animation is pretty neat: the head shoots off into the sky and then lands somewhere nearby. You beat the head, then it returns, and you continue where you left off. In theory, it's great. But you know what's not great? When the enemy shoots off its head, and then the head never appears nearby, and seconds later the collapsed body despawns and you're left with nothing. This very thing happened to my Linkshell when we were fighting it (the body had 5% health remaining too, and we'd activated the red "!!" to increase odds of an Atma drop). We'd read that this "despawn glitch" has been a known issue since late September, and Square Enix has done *nothing* to fix it (note: this was allegedly addressed in the December content update, but efficacy of the fix cannot be proven overnight). They are pushing the limits of their programming, which is nice, until they do nothing to stabilize it. This is, sadly, one of a number of glitchy examples within Scars of Abyssea zones. I like new content as much as anyone, but 1) more QA testing up front and 2) quicker response time to known issues, are necessary if S-E wants to hold on to their diminishing player base. Seriously, just collecting the prerequisite items and people to fight an NM like the one I described will take hours. And then you get screwed over with no recourse but to call a GM, who will refer you to the PlayOnline helpdesk who will then ignore you? That's a load of bull. If I have a chip on my shoulder, I ask you dear reader: can you really blame me?
There's hope that Abyssea will "conclude" with some awesome stuff and remain a key part of the FFXI playing experience for months, perhaps years, to come. But that won't happen if the quality level remains where they left it after publishing Scars of Abyssea. Hopefully, Heroes will step up to the plate, and some much-needed rebalancing and reprogramming will occur.