In 2009, the FFXI team threw three mini-expansions at players. For $10 each, these three add-on scenarios focused on plot and were generally regarded as a letdown. Only the last of the three had a worthwhile plot; no surprise, since it featured the beloved Tarutaru NPC Shantotto.
And while we wait with bated breath for an actual end to the Wings of the Goddess expansion (released in 2007), Square Enix decided to attempt another trio of add-ons. This time, however, the stakes were real. The population was waning, the game had reached its limits, and Square Enix was about to compete with itself thanks to the introduction of FFXIV. Something would have to give.
That “something” was the level cap. And the mode for all future progress in FFXI would become, de facto, the world of Abyssea.
Abyssea takes place in an alternate timeline. Followers of the MMO acknowledge that the primary conflict in the Wings of the Goddess expansion is between two versions of history. In one history, the humans prevail and the Shadow Lord falls. You may be thinking “oh, so the other history is where the beastman hordes win, right?” Wrong. The other history is one where no one wins, everything falls into ruin, and life is little more than a struggle for survival in open fields against hideous monsters. Abyssea is a terrible place to live.
But, if you’re an endgame player with aspirations of higher levels and better gear, vacationing in Abyssea is like grabbing a piece of heaven.
It’s clear the story-centered, mission-based add-ons weren’t what FFXI players needed. With Abyssea, everything is overhauled. Rules are broken, new ideas are put in place, and generally everything works out such that more can be accomplished in less time. At least, that’s what things were shaping up to be with Vision of Abyssea (hint: things get better and worse for players after the release of Scars).
So, concurrent with Vision of Abyssea’s release was a level-cap increase from 75 to 80. This is the first increase in level cap since 2003, and it happened as the first in a series of cap increases (with eventual plans to cap out at 99). Recognizing that the need for exp grinding would be exponentially greater, Vision of Abyssea was perhaps first and foremost designed as a great place to grind out levels very quickly. It’s a quick fix to be sure. Without the Abyssea expansion installed, a player might struggle for a week or more to earn the 200,000+ exp required to move up those five levels. In Abyssea, you could pull off the same feat in a single massive 6-hour grind with 17 equally-eager players.
The Vision of Abyssea content incorporated three new-old zones. They re-skinned La Theine Plateau, Konschtat Highlands, and Tahrongi Canyon with a blood-red sky, tons of horrific monsters, and zero trace of the ancient crags that housed the crystals. Is this a suggestion that, in the world of Abyssea, the crystals have shattered?
Upon first entering Abyssea, the player is greeted by an NPC who acknowledges the link between alternate realities and requests that you help take down some of the largest, most ruthless monsters in that zone. One might point to the task of defeating these particular Notorious Monsters as the “goal” of completion for Abyssea, but others exist as well: collecting all Abyssites/Atma, completing all quests, defeating every NM at least once … or perhaps, doing the impossible and fully upgrading the new “Empyrean Weapon” classes.
Spending time in Abyssea requires the use of “Traverser Stones,” offered by an NPC in the main town of Jeuno. This NPC stocks the stones for you, and you begin to collect them at a rate of one every 20 hours from the moment you purchase and install Vision of Abyssea. The player can hold up to three stones at a time, with each stone accounting for 30 minutes in an Abyssea zone.
There are boatloads of rewarding activities in Abyssea. The new zones quickly became an important new hub for grinding out experiencing points and earning merits at a rapid rate. The “law of diminishing returns” is turned on its head here. The exp “chains” of the past are now augmented. As long as you keep fighting the same enemy type and accumulate the correct “lights,” the amount of exp earned increases exponentially.
What are these “lights,” you ask? They were a mystery to all at first, but S-E quickly amended that by telling players flat-out what it all meant. There are seven “lights,” something like an aura, that affect players in Abyssea: Azure, Ruby, Pearlescent, Amber, Golden, Silver, and Ebon. The first four lights can be obtained primarily by how the “killshot” is executed upon an enemy. Magic damage gives Azure, a standard melee attack gives Pearlescent, a Weapon Skill gives Ruby, and an Elemental Weapon Skill gives Amber. The other three lights can only be found in Ruby (red) chests, which randomly spawn after defeating enemies, at a greater frequency depending on how many Ruby lights have been obtained.
Each light has its own effect and building the lights in a certain order is crucial. For example, the Azure lights create more powerful blue chests, while Pearlescent lights increase the frequency of all chest appearances. Most commonly an exp party will try to “max” these two lights first. Why? Once blue chests are at max potential, they occasionally give an item that increases the time allowed in Abyssea for that run by 10 minutes. This effect extends not just to a 6-person party, but rather to an entire 18-person alliance. Keep those Time Extensions coming, and once you’ve built up a ton of time, go after the Ruby and Amber lights and see what happens!
Do the math for yourself: previously a party of up to six players could kill some stupid pink bird in one of the Aht Urhgan zones for approximately 200 exp each (given a good exp chain) at the rate of one kill per minute. Now, a group of 18 can kill one of any number of enemies in the Abyssea zones at a rate of one kill every 30 seconds with a final “capped” exp level (with gold light maxed) of 600 exp per kill. Plus the bonus of blue chests dropping 1250 exp per pop (max), and should you choose to kill NMs, they also give great exp rewards. Life just got a whole lot easier for FFXI players, where the number one complaint was how hard it was to quickly grind out those levels.
Were there flaws before Abyssea? Yes. Do the flaws still exist? Sure. But they are so few in number compared to past expansions implemented, it really is insane. It’s like the big-wigs of FFXI’s dev team moved on to FFXIV, and the remaining team said “now how can we make something really exciting for the hardcore player?” and then executed it with near perfection. For an 8-year-old MMO, it’s really impressive, and the game is without question more fun and rewarding than ever before.
I’ll quickly note that while the graphics continue to show their age and the plot is nothing to get excited about (again, the story is little more than background here), there’s one key addition in the realm of audio. Naoshi Mizuta composed two pieces of music for Vision of Abyssea. One is a battle theme and it’s decent. But the standard “exploration” music is excellent. Seriously, it’s one of the best “overworld” themes I’ve heard in an MMO in a long time. It’s subtle, but it fits the mood perfectly. I’ve heard a lot of players in-game saying positive things about it as well.
At this point, I’ve cleared many of the objectives of the three zones for Vision of Abyssea. Yet I go back for more, to help players who are new to the area, to collect rare equipment, and to discover things I hadn’t noticed before. Because S-E has seen fit to bend and break rules, NMs can now do things they never could before. One NM in Tahrongi, for example, has the ability to automatically reset all Job Ability timers. That means players have to find new, creative ways to get around it. With all the Abyssea-specific augments available through the collection of Abyssites and Atmas, they’ll stand a chance; but you have to play smart, and you have to play in a way that is different, in terms of strategy and party setup, than the traditional “HNMs” of the past.
While I can assure those with dormant FFXI accounts that the last three add-ons were no reason to reactivate your account, this new set might just be. We’ll continue to roll out judgment with the release of Scars and Heroes (the other two “Abyssea” add-ons), but for now, let’s just say Square Enix is desperate to hold onto its playerbase, and they’re doing all the right things to keep us intrigued!