Square Enix surprised the gaming industry with the announcement and subsequent release of Final Fantasy XI. The Final Fantasy series has been through various evolutionary processes throughout the years, but its core remained the same: it was a console RPG. That legacy ended with the release of XI, a massive-multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG). Though Final Fantasy XII will return to the series’ single-player roots, the gaming community in FFXI is still very much alive and kicking. Square Enix continues their support of this addicting online title with the release of Chains of Promathia, the second major add-on to the title and the first to be released separately stateside.
One of the major points Square Enix sought to make with Final Fantasy XI: Online was the emphasis on plot. Considering the nature of the MMORPG, this was a lofty claim and also somewhat confusing. How exactly did they plan on emphasizing plot when the structure of such a title revolves around the creation and experiences of a player-made character? The answer, in Square’s eyes, was plot-intensive quests and missions not only for the character’s specific nation of choice, but for lesser situations such as armor acquisition and “fame” (your character’s fame in specific nations opens new opportunities for items, quests, and the like.) Rather than making these sequences simplistic and straightforward, Square Enix implemented intricate cinemas and detailed character interchanges in order to personalize the gaming experience. On the whole, this is the best attempt at a personalized, plot-driven MMORPG, but it falls short in several respects, and Chains of Promathia is no different.
Much like FFXI and its Rise of the Zilart expansion (included in the US release), Chains of Promathia is mission-based, and gamers must complete certain objectives in order to unlock much of what it has to offer. Upon installation, gamers are greeted with a different title screen music and the ability to travel to several new areas without the need to complete any missions. These zones, such as Bibiki Bay, offer little more than more eye candy and camping spots for experience point parties of certain levels. After traveling these areas for hours upon end, I was somewhat disappointed; though the new locales were graphically impressive, there was little of consequence to do. And at this early stage of release, amassing a party to gain experience points in one of these zones proves difficult, since all members must have the expansion installed.
The real meat of Chains of Promathia begins with the Promyvion missions. To begin the sequence of events in order to complete these missions, gamers must witness several cut-scenes in the bustling city of Jeuno. These enigmatic sequences introduce gamers to FFXI’s new sub-plot: the existence of a dark god with plans to unleash even greater ruin on the world of Vana’diel. Sadly, these cut-scenes are rather brief and much too enigmatic to be interesting; rather, they point gamers to the crystal crags (locations scattered across the world) which are to be investigated. Through these crags gamers can access Promyvion. There are four locations at specific crags: Dem, Mea, Holla, and Vazhl. In order to access the bulk of the new landscapes and the newest “city” Tavnazia, gamers must traverse and beat the first three Promyvions. These areas are capped at level 30 and require alliances of gamers to complete. Upon inspecting the shattered crystals at each crag, gamers are transported to an area seemingly outside the normal world of Vana’diel; each Promyvion takes place in what seems to be an abstract-influenced world filled with colorless apparitions and dead, dream-like environments. Each Promyvion is three levels of battle followed by a boss battle. An alliance of 12 of 18 players is the best way to pummel through the three levels, but only a single party may fight the boss at one time. One of my original complaints about Promyvion was their difficulty; Square recently addressed this and adjusted a great deal of variables.
The problem lies in organization and execution. Much like some of the later quests in FFXI, the Promyvion missions require groups of people with varying jobs and it can be quite difficult to organize one. Depending on the efficiency of the members, a single Promyvion run can take anywhere from a little over an hour to four hours. The three levels are repetitive, and the bland, colorless environments do little to entertain the senses. After quite a few trips through the various Promyvions, I viewed them as nothing more than a chore; there was little entertainment to be found. Additionally, I found that it was almost a necessity to bring quite a few characters with the Ranger job in order to make a successful run. In fact, quite a few of my Linkshell members made it a point to level up their Ranger specifically for the Promyvion runs. The one positive to this system is that these missions are much more accessible to gamers; whereas the Zilart missions basically require a high level character (L60+, which can take almost 1000 hours to acquire) in order to access them.
Upon completion of these three tedious missions, gamers are greeted with a few more cut-scenes which do little to unravel any mystery or shed any more light on this mysterious Promathia. After that, players can enter Tavnazia, a secluded island, and access several other areas to continue Promathia’s plot. Though these new areas proved to be more interesting than those readily accessible upon installation of Chains of Promathia, I was disappointed in the Tavnazian Safehold itself. Perhaps I was expecting more, but it functions similarly to the small towns of Rabao, Norg, or Selbina; there is little to explore in the town itself, since it’s about the same size as the towns I mentioned (and yes, they’re small). Another issue, though something that cannot be directly attributed to the game, is the sheer lack of players entering these new areas. At any given time, there were less than four people in Tavnazia when I was exploring. Thankfully, with the difficulty of the missions being adjusted, more and more people are gaining access. After this, gamers can continue the Promathia missions, each progressing in difficulty. The early plot sequences, though not explained, are continually built upon: gamers are finally introduced to what seems to be the new evil that threatens the balance of Vana’diel in the form of a tangible enemy. Most of the Promathia missions have level caps, and there are quite a few “Burning Circle” battles – which are essentially boss battles set in a sealed arena, limited to a single party of six players. Though I was pleased that the plot expands greatly after the initial Chapter 2 missions, I still feel that Square Enix has made the “Burning Circle” battles far too difficult for the average player. Having enjoyed FFXI since its original US release, I was astounded at the difficulty of each progressive boss battle – the difficulty of which eclipsed anything I’d experienced before in the game. Since the plot is still less than thrilling (after all, it is a MMORPG), I don’t know how Square Enix justifies punishing paying gamers with such intense (and sometimes cheap) difficulty. The reward simply isn’t worth it.
Graphically, I must say I was impressed. FFXI has always been an attractive title, but some of the new areas in Chains of Promathia were eye-dropping not only in locale design, but texture quality as well. Even the cold, stony walls of the Tavnazian Safehold consisted of the most detailed textures I’d seen on rocks in the entire game. The sky alone in Lufaise Meadows is cause enough to stop and gawk; the grassy knolls are teeming with animation and vibrant color. Several of the new enemy designs (though there are few, another slight disappointment) also boast crisper textures than the usual fare. Sadly, the graphics were much more impressive than the music; though I recognize the difficulty in composing appropriate aural accompaniment for a MMORPG, none of the pieces in Promathia struck me as even mildly interesting or memorable. In fact, several were downright annoying, including the new battle theme for Promathia areas.
Along with the new areas, Square Enix released some new equipment and items in the patch that went live days before Promathia’s release. The most accessible new inclusions are the mage and melee equipment specifically geared towards Promyvion (L29-30 armor.) However, days after the patch went live, my server was flooded with character donning the new armor, including myself. One of my original gripes was the lack of variety in character models and armor (especially for lower level characters.) Sadly, two new sets of armor do little to sate this issue. Higher levels are greeted with a plethora of options, and though there were some new additions for them as well, more still could be done.
It’s tough to completely analyze Chains of Promathia. On one hand I think it’s a much more welcoming expansion than Zilart in terms of plot and missions; Promyvion is much more accessible than almost anything Zilart has to offer. However, Promathia’s plot sequences thus far are much too enigmatic to be of interest, and the Promyvion missions prove to be little more than boring chores that are incredibly difficult to organize. The payoff also seems minute: a handful of new areas where few gamers seem to tread. The bottom line is that hardcore FFXI gamers will purchase the expansion regardless; in fact, I personally know a large amount of people who have the expansion installed and haven’t even bothered to access the first plot sequence! However, my advice for the discretionary gamer is to purchase Chains of Promathia only if they’ve blasted through most of FFXI by leveling a job to a rather high level. If you haven’t, you still haven’t even experienced the Zilart expansion missions to their fullest extent, and that may hamper your enjoyment of Promathia.