Before beginning the review proper, I need to caution the reader with two notes: one relevant to Square Enix, and one relevant to me, your humble reviewer. If you don’t care about issues of bias or, say, the timeliness of this review, skip the next two paragraphs.
Relevant to Square Enix, the fact is that even if the “Aht Urhgan” package was released in stores in April of 2006, the “Aht Urhgan” experience slowly evolved through bi-monthly content updates, as has been the standard since the MMO’s inception. In the update on August 27, 2007, players were able to reach the conclusion of the main “Treasures of Aht Urhgan” story arc: in other words, you could “beat” the game. We withheld our judgment on the expansion until we could give a fair grade to the story, along with many other aspects of the game. For example, most of the new combat-based events were only added in the last six months. So if our review seems late, it is only as late as Square Enix is in releasing a full expansion to fans.
Relevant to me, I am here to admit that this is my first and only MMORPG. I actually started the game in February 2006 so that I could prepare to write a thorough review for the upcoming expansion. I didn’t expect it to be a serious time commitment, but my love of all things Final Fantasy, along with a personal calling to higher critique (i.e. – I can’t write a review having only experienced 1% of the game) led me to explore Vana’diel on a regular basis for the last 18 months. It’s been a wild ride, but I can safely say that I’m ready to present to you, the reader, a decent portrait of what Square Enix has done with their star MMORPG since the release of this, the third expansion.
Bigger is better
Final Fantasy XI and its two expansions all took place on the main continent of Vana’diel and its surrounding islands. As far as most players knew, this was it. This was the world. Advanced players, particularly those who finished the story-based missions to Chains of Promathia (the 2nd expansion), knew of a realm in the far east that had yet to be revealed to players. So we knew that “this wasn’t it.”
Aht Urhgan was an entirely new place for gamers to explore. Instead of just branching off of the current areas, adding dungeons within the continents, the FFXI development team added an entirely new map, located east of the “old” world map. The map has water on the west side, and land to the east side. Unidentified stretches of land, yet to be explored, take up the east part of this new map. In the center, there are two prominent features: an island, and a peninsula. Aht Urhgan’s imperial capital, “Al Zahbi,” rests within the peninsula. The island to the north houses a small town, “Nashmau,” as well as some swamps, caves, and pirates.
The additional world brought with it many new “beastman” races; creatures with humanoid capabilities, including verbal communication and the power to organize properly. The three main groups of beastmen in Aht Urhgan are the trolls, the mamool ja, and the “undead swarm” (controlled by lamiae). Other beastmen races found in this exotic new world include the poroggo (crazy mage-centric frogs), the Qiqirn (the Aht Urhgan equivalent to goblins, due to their guarded friendliness), and the imps (what was once the first enemy of Final Fantasy is now a very advanced creature). While the latter two races aren’t an organized force, the previous three most definitely are. They have territory all their own, and most importantly, they have a vendetta against the Empire of Aht Urhgan. They want that nation to fall, and fall hard.
As the world of Vana’diel broadens, so too do the options for players who want to try new jobs. Three jobs were added to this expansion, in fact. The first is an offbeat but staple class in the Final Fantasy series: Blue Mage. The Blue Mage is the most versatile of all the mages (even more than the Red Mage, who is known to wield swords and partake in melee combat from time to time). The Blue Mage learns abilities by encountering enemies, seeing the enemy use an ability, and then conquering that foe and learning it himself. To date, the Blue Mage can learn exactly 100 different spells/abilities. However, the Blue Mage can only “equip” a certain number of spells and abilities at a time. They do not have access to all 100 at any given time. However, these various spells and abilities also have innate statistics, “traits,” if you will, that shape the Blue Mage. So each player can choose whether their Blue Mage will focus on offensive magic, support, or direct melee combat.
The other two jobs in the line-up were big surprises, and definitely a stretch for traditional FF series fans. The Corsair, a pirate and a gambler all in one, came on the scene to provide two things for fellow players. First, and foremost, were the “phantom rolls.” With the roll of the dice, the Corsair could provide enhancements (“buffs” in the gamers’ colloquial) with the degree of the effect dependent on the number rolled. Generally, higher is better, though 11 is the highest number allowed (hitting 12 or higher with re-rolls creates a “bust” effect, negating any positive attributes and forcing the Corsair to wait a certain length of time before trying again). The Corsair’s second attraction was its focus on ranged weaponry, particularly guns; in the past, there had been no job that specialized in this weapon, but the Corsair was a master. Corsairs could do damage and put various enfeebling effects (“debuffs”) on enemies, all with the pull of a trigger.
Finally, the underappreciated Puppetmaster. Many players bemoaned Square Enix’s decision to create yet another pet-based job. But, unlike the Beastmaster, Summoner, or Dragoon, the Puppetmaster would be able to customize his little friend, the Automaton, with mechanical parts. You build your friend from scratch, and determine its traits and abilities with the things you choose. Of course, these parts have to be purchased, so there was a large expense to the job as well. Though Puppetmasters usually leave the fighting to their puppets, they could join the battle as well, favoring hand-to-hand combat (a trait shared by only one other job, the Monk).
What’s it like, on the other side?
So the FFXI development team throws a completely new continent at the doorstep of 500,000 players. The exciting thing is that it has a culture and a life all its own. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Technically, Square Enix did what they do best: borrow heavily from real cultures and past myths to create a new and interesting world that feels believable yet still fantastic.
The “near east” of Vana’diel includes all the things that, geographically, would make sense with what we know about earth. The culture and landscape is like that of Moorish southern Spain, Northern Africa, and the rest of the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Greek, Arab, Italian, African, all of these cultures collide in Aht Urhgan to create a beautiful metropolitan world that you can accept as one rooted in reality but grown over into a marvelous fantasy. And though the cultures are mostly Mediterranean, particularly in clothing, design, and naming convention, the driving mythology behind the plot of this game comes from our friends, the Vikings. Yes, Nordic legend takes the star seat in Aht Urhgan. You’ll be hearing all about the events of Ragnarok, Odin and the Einherjar, and all sorts of other Icelandic treats. It seems the FFXI development team took a cue from Valkyrie Profile in developing the culture of Aht Urhgan.
Introductory events, quests, and cut scenes allow the players to learn some key facts about the world of Aht Urhgan. First, there is the importance of each of the new jobs. The Blue Mages of Aht Urhgan are also the elite guard of the empire, and they call themselves “The Immortals.” Though Immortals spend most of their time assisting mercenaries and fighting off beastmen, their real rivals are the Corsairs. Hundreds of years ago, the Aht Urhgan empire brought the kingdom of Ephramad to its knees. Since that time, the remnants of that kingdom have put together an underground rebellion, and they are the Corsairs. As for Puppetmasters? A key character in the story of Aht Urhgan, a young lady named Aphmau, controls two puppets (Mnejing and Ovjang). Those who take the time to complete the story-based missions of Aht Urhgan will get to know Aphmau very well, and the role of the puppetmaster becomes surprisingly important to this expansion’s plot.
The “to-do” list
From the get-go in April 2006, plenty of new events were offered for players. Along with gaining access to new jobs and having access to dozens of various NPC-based quests, two larger events were created specifically for the world of Aht Urhgan. The first was “besieged.” This event pitted the entire populace of Aht Urhgan (including all players, who are considered “mercenaries” in this foreign land) against the collective beastmen around the countryside. The beastmen are after a special treasure, the “Astral Candescence,” an object that is more than mere trophy: it grants a small boost of power to the nation that wields it. In any given “besieged” event, only one of the three beastmen nations could attack, but the force with which they attacked varied based on how much power they built up over time. When they feel that it’s time to charge, everyone in Aht Urhgan is notified to rally at the gates of Al Zahbi and be ready to strike! Should our heroes fall, the loss of the Astral Candescence means many bad things for the players who traverse Aht Urhgan. Also, some key citizens of Al Zahbi can be kidnapped from besieged, and it is up to the players to rescue these citizens before they can be used again (we’re talking about shopkeepers, teleporters, and other important NPCs). The “besieged” event was initially a hard sell for Square Enix, since it only offered small rewards and the massive lag from having hundreds of players in one zone made it near impossible to carry on a regular fight with any given enemy. These issues have been addressed over the last 18 months, and now players get more substantial rewards, and the addition of the “temporary item” set (lots of absurdly-enhancing potions) allows players to win the fight with far less numbers than what was needed in the past. Personal observation shows that a besieged event against a high-level beastmen nation, that would previously require 600 players, can now be done adequately with 200, though more than that will likely show up for the experience points.
The second event added from the start was “assault.” It’s basically the opposite of besieged, though its rewards are far more appealing. A group of 3 to 6 players would sign up for assault missions at a counter, and then go do as they’re told. Five assault areas were created, with a sixth, containing its own set of rules and rewards, added later. Some people loathed the level caps from the Chains of Promathia missions, but others (mostly those lacking level 75 jobs) appreciated them. So, assaults could be carried out with voluntary level caps of 50 or 60. Square Enix did this to appease as many people as they could, but today, it’s generally an unspoken rule among players that assaults are done uncapped.
Assault missions were short, simple, objective-based missions. You have 30 minutes to do whatever it is that’s asked of you. Sometimes it involves clearing a dungeon of enemies, other times it will require rescuing a civilian by breaking down a door. One mission has you opening treasure chests, with all but one (the one you want, of course) being “mimic” enemies. There are also some ever-dreaded escort missions thrown into the mix. These missions became very appealing to the average player. Above-standard gear could be purchased with “Assault points” in each area, and ranking up as a mercenary could only be done by completing assault missions. This provided a different system than the “nation” ranks, which had story-based missions as the basis for rank-ups. In Aht Urhgan, the story-centric missions would provide their own challenges and rewards.
Months after the initial release, a third event was added, and boy was it big. “Salvage” was the name of the game. This 100-minute battlefield left up to 18 players naked and weakened, and asked them to slowly regain what was rightfully theirs by fighting a mass of frightful monsters and individually attain items for individual stats. Along the way, however, lucky players could also pick up one of three pieces of gear (levels 15, 25, and 35). When put together, these pieces of gear would create an exceptional piece of level 75 gear. Five different sets were created for different groupings of jobs: Marduk, Usukane, Skadi, Ares, and Morrigan. At present, these pieces of gear are some of the most highly sought-after items in the game, but they require much work. Access to Salvage requires completion of the first 15 story-based missions (most of which are simple dialogue cut scenes and fetch quests, though there are a few fights as well). Then, players would have to shell out some assault points each time they wanted to gain access to any of the four regions of Salvage.
Salvage took place in the “Alzadaal Undersea Ruins,” part of the new area “Nyzul Isle” which was added in late 2006. The dungeon itself held some significance to the plot, though only observant gamers would realize what it was they were walking through.
In recent months, a new battlefield-style event was added. “Einherjar” allowed players to attain the high-level “abjuration” gear, both old and new, by conquering a horde of monsters in one room over a 30 minute span of time. Each room contains a bunch of relatively weak monsters, and one super-ridiculous “boss” monster. Like the “Dynamis” event before it, groups of 6 to 36 could enter a chamber in an attempt to either win or simply farm decent gear. The goal in Einherjar was to work your way through the nine chambers to reach the tenth and final chamber, where players would be pitted against, you guessed it, Odin. As of the time I’m writing this review, there have only been a few reports of groups reaching and final chamber and coming through with a victory. In other words, it’s the biggest challenge to date for end-game players.
These four battlefield-based events are the staple of gameplay in the Aht Urhgan expansion. But there were plenty of “distractions” thrown at players along the way as well. Since the inception of Aht Urhgan, both Chocobo Raising and Chocobo Racing have been added. I won’t go into the details of what all is involved in raising your own Chocobo, but the point is that FFXI finally let characters have their own mounts. And, yes, if you breed properly you can get black chocobos and other colorful versions, though none of them fly (chalk up another point for WoW). Chocobo racing was added quite recently, and it exists primarily for the purpose of gambling. However, elite chocobo breeders can submit their own chocobo to the races for additional rewards.
In the near future, Square Enix will also be adding the much-hyped but yet-to-be-released area “The Pit.” The new event to be added in the Pit is called “Pankration,” and it’s essentially the same thing Michael Vick got arrested for: pitting animals against one another. The concept is remarkably similar to Pokémon, but it will be nonetheless a fitting addition to the events that can take place in Aht Urhgan.
What’s the story, morning glory?
The nations of Vana’diel’s primary content (Windurst, Bastok, San d’Oria, and Jeuno) are both intrigued and concerned by the Empire of Aht Urhgan, who have recently opened up lines of trade and communication. The empire has constantly been at war with the nations of the Far East, and they are also constantly fighting off beastmen. Such an aggressive force is, perhaps, something to be feared. As a member of one of these nations, you go as both a representative of your home country and as a mercenary for the Empire to explore this strange new place. You are quickly hired by Naja Salaheem, head of “Salaheem’s Sentinels,” to do the bidding of the empire, and indeed, of the empress herself, Nashmeira II.
The early story-based missions introduce you, the player, to some important NPCs. Many key members of the three nations come to Aht Urhgan in disguise to observe, and you will help them along the way. You also meet a very interesting and likeable Yagudo named Gessho, who fights by your side as a fellow mercenary. You are sent to see if there is any credence to the rumors of undead pirates, perhaps from the days of the Ephramadian kingdom, roaming the seas of the north on the “Black Coffin.” When the rumors turn out to be (at least partially) true, the plot thickens as you are asked to keep watch on a man named Luzaf. Things get even more complicated when Aphmau, the court puppetmaster, runs off and gets tied up in the whole affair. Word of a 2nd Ragnarok, a battle between Odin and Alexander that would destroy the continent, is striking fear in the hearts of concerned citizens. Who is to blame for the growing darkness inside and outside the empire, and whose side are you on?
Like the two expansions before it, Treasures of Aht Urhgan’s linear plot is a significant piece of the pie, offering something that most other MMOs lack. However, executing the storyline in a way that is useful to the players has always been a challenge. Last go-around, there were many players that felt distanced by the challenge of “Chains of Promathia” and its many battles. In contrast, the Aht Urhgan story-based missions have less than ten fights total, and only the last two are even reasonably challenging. Though the dialogue was nearly flawless, particularly the humorous jokes that only a long-time FFXI player would get, many players missed this because they were too busy mashing the button to skip the dialogue and get back to the action. However, if you’re anything like me, you’ll appreciate this simple yet rich plot, complete with an excellent cast of characters and an attractive setting. The ending, also, is as exciting as the previous expansion, so if you want a sense of completion and satisfaction, know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Put your nose to the grindstone
With everything the new expansion has to offer, what is it that most players are doing with their time? While they do find time to indulge in some of the fun new stuff, most people are still just hackin’ away, trying to level their characters, earn merit points, and maybe pick up some money and gear along the way. It’s this part of the game that many players get heated about, and many have demanded change. In the most recent update (August 2007), big changes were made. Two-handed weapons got a massive boost in damage and accuracy, and pet-based jobs (particularly Beastmaster and Puppetmaster) received some added bonuses as well. In turn, all of the dual-wielders (particularly Ninjas) feel that they have been degraded in value as a result (in gamers’ colloquial, they’ve been “gimped” or “nerfed”).
Whatever the case, all 18 jobs are busy leveling their characters, anywhere from 50 to 75, in the new areas available in the Aht Urhgan expansion pack. Whether it be the sheep and imps of Caedarva Mire, or the colibri of Bhaflau Thickets, or perhaps a manaburn against the slimes in Halvung, the point is that everyone is fairly content at this point to level and merit in the new areas. Old camps, such as Bibiki Bay and all of the “sky” zones, have been abandoned by merit parties in favor of more efficient end-game experience point-earning. And so it is that many players will spend at least half of their time in-game earning points, slowly but surely, killing hundreds of the same enemy. It’s much more tedious than World of Warcraft, or so they say. But, the FFXI development team has always said that they’ve never cared to compare themselves to or compete with Blizzard’s mammoth MMO.
Square Enix has also (finally) put their foot down on the RMT (real money/merchandise traders) economy. From the release of the Aht Urhgan expansion (April 2006) to the present, the inflation of in-game currency (gil) has become a non-issue. If anything, what we’ve seen is massive deflation. This is reflected by the standard going-price of gil for those who choose to buy gil (which, for the record, goes against the agreement players make with Square Enix each time they sign on the game). In April of 2006, one million gil could be purchased for $10, even $8. Now, that same amount of gil costs somewhere between $45 and $50. I think it’s safe to say that all players agree that this is a good thing, and Square Enix has done a good job policing their players in this regard. Items are affordable again, and people are happy about it.
Paint me a picture, sing me a song
As usual, Square Enix sets the standard in aesthetics. The visuals, in particular, are top notch. The new areas all look beautiful, and the new “artifact” gear for Blue Mage, Puppetmaster, and Corsair are very fitting. The only way things could get any better would be if Square Enix discontinued PlayStation 2 compatibility and improved the game across the board for next-gen usage. We at RPGFan doubt this would ever happen, but others are hoping for exactly that, so that graphics, particularly animation and frame rate, can improve.
Naoshi Mizuta’s score for “Treasures of Aht Urhgan” felt weak compared to previous attempts, but in my opinion this had more to do with quantity than quality. The music for Al Zahbi and the primary outlying areas (the woodlands, the thickets, the mire, the caves) were all great. The new standard battle music was also good. And as a special treat, the last boss battle theme really hit me as something special. But the songs get really old, really fast.
Onward and upward
Square Enix wrapped up Treasures of Aht Urhgan just in time for their upcoming fourth expansion, Wings of the Goddess. What shall I say about Aht Urhgan? Was it a success? Did it make the world of Vana’diel more enjoyable, or did it kill the game for the veterans? My personal opinion is that this expansion was a much-needed breath of fresh air for the MMORPG. However, for Square Enix to continue to keep the game interesting, they will need to pull out a trump card, or else gamers could move on to bigger or better things.
As for this reviewer, I’m stickin’ around for the long haul. I enjoyed Treasures of Aht Urhgan a good deal, though I personally enjoyed the previous expansion (and its missions in particular) even more. For those of you still playing, or for those of you with a renewed interest in the game, let my grade for this expansion (an 83%) serve as a guide: it’s good, but it’s not great. You may be better off joining the masses (what is it, 10 million now?) over in World of Warcraft, but the faithful few (500,000 was the last number I heard) will still be kickin’ it oldschool in Vana’diel.