The Final Fantasy MMORPGs: Roads Less Traveled

My overall conflicted experience with Final Fantasy XIV still didn’t stop my jaw from dropping the first time I saw a dust storm settle over the sky of Ul’dah at night.

But for better or worse, Ul’dah and its dust storms are something that many gamers will never see. Unfortunately, not many saw its distant cousin Bastok either. The roads to the cities of Bastok and Ul’dah, to the games of Final Fantasy XI and XIV, are one and the same. They’re all roads less traveled in a world covered by interstate. Still, I like to believe that the scenic route is worth taking time to time–if you aren’t afraid of getting lost.

And I mean really lost–nearly everything in both games works differently from what you would think, creating what can be at times a frustrating of experience. However, if you know Final Fantasy’s history as an MMORPG, this may not be a new revelation.

When Final Fantasy XI came to North America in late 2003, I almost missed the chance to take part in it. Reviewers were coming in with unfavorable verdicts and I had just broke free from Asheron’s Call. Although I played other Final Fantasy titles, the series’ departure into the massively multiplayer online genre was one I was convinced I wouldn’t miss.

Of course, I ended up playing it. A friend goaded me into getting it the first week of launch. While my experience with Final Fantasy XI was mixed as a whole, I enjoyed my time spent in Vana’diel. I only played it to beginning of the endgame, but I had fun even if I never tried out its expansions and gave up on the overarching storyline after I got my airship pass. Problematically, Final Fantasy XI had no staying power when it came to actually keeping me playing, even if the memories and experiences I took from it have lasted much longer.

On FFXI’s North American release, I started out in the world as a Hume Warrior, struggled with my friend who was a White Mage through the initial thirty levels, then finally became a Paladin when additional jobs opened up. I spent hours camping Leaping Lizzy for her boots, enjoyed riding Chocobos, and got lost in the maze-like city of Windurst more times than I can remember. But with the good came the bad–as one of the first NA players on my server at launch, I found myself facing extreme isolation, long queues for groups at normal playing hours, and a lot of lag.

The isolation I felt was the most polarizing experience I’ve ever encountered in any game, especially in an MMORPG where being surrounded by people is the game’s raison d’être. To this day, I’ve never felt that same sense of loneliness while playing a multiplayer game–or at least, I hadn’t, until playing Final Fantasy XIV last week. While there were tons of players on my server, because I leveled pretty quickly within the first month, very few of them were local. Due to a regional release in Japan over a year before the release in the rest of the world, most of FFXI’s population were already Japanese players. Because they had been playing for such a long time, they had several high level classes already, and were leveling up their third or fourth class. I met the Japanese players as soon as I hit the Konschtat Highlands at level ten, as partying with others started to become mandatory, and they flavored the majority of my experience.

An unavoidable sense of segregation–of us and them, specifically–lingered throughout my stay in Final Fantasy XI, even if we were all on the same side. Because of those release patterns, the very early months of FFXI made us new players look and feel like intruders. In a way, we were. We were trespassing on an already flourishing game community–outsiders looking in and trying to find their place, something which would take time to do.

However, make no mistake: the Japanese players were a friendly group if you got past the cultural and language barriers. They were full of advice and help–always eager lend a hand of they had the time. They were also very generous, down to a fault. I remember very early on, one of them told me that my gear wasn’t up to par for the late teens. I was taking too much damage in a group I’d joined and she noticed. After the party we returned to the city and she took the time to explain through fragmented sentences what items I should get. Shamefully, I told her that I didn’t have the resources since I was a newer player but that I appreciated her advice. Instead of criticizing me for buying lower quality items or mocking me, the Mithra emoted me to wait then walked over to the auction house. When she returned, she gave me an entire new set of Bone Armor worth hundreds of thousands back in that day. It lasted me for over ten levels.

But as inviting as the individuals could be, Final Fantasy XI’s community wasn’t inviting itself. Between the translator and the emotes as our only form of communication besides catchphrases in each other’s language, I never found a way to repay the Mithra.

Another exchange went down in a similar way only a month or so later. I ended up getting on a ventrilo server with some Japanese players for a level forty Burning Circle Notorious Monster (BCNM) encounter. The channel was a rapid exchange of Japanese, I had no idea what they were saying, and the encounter itself was really hard to tank. Occasionally, a tiny Tarutaru who was fluent in both languages acted as a translator, telling me in English to use my two hour cooldown when Dvorovoi cast Flood and shouting when to gain aggro on what. I replied using the translator, a simple [Yes] or [No]. When the encounter was over and we won, myself undoubtedly carried by both instructions and orders from the more experienced players, they let me have everything. One of them even paid me gil for my services to the group. All of them bowed. They offered me a linkpearl to their linkshell, Final Fantasy’s form of guilds, but I rarely wore it because I couldn’t understand anything they were saying to each other. We never really talked again after that.

Like I said, Final Fantasy XI was always uninviting–even when the Japanese players were so inviting themselves.

Of course, it wasn’t always so lonely and things weren’t that bad. I met some great NA players around my level who leveled up quickly like I did and we banded together for a lot of adventures. But they were still few and far between. If the JP groups were full as they often were and if my tested pool of friends weren’t available, I would wait for hours for the holy grail: a group of good players in need of a tank. But it rarely came. Most North American players were still learning the ropes as I neared level seventy-five. Furthermore, many weren’t group players and never got used to the group dynamic FFXI required to exist. It was commonplace to not have a needed class–Red Mages and Bards were classes that didn’t seem to exist–and face ill-prepared people who didn’t have sub-jobs, didn’t have any gear, and carried no consumables. They oftey played the game like it was a single player title, rushing in and getting the entire party killed, thanks to their nonexistent concept of aggro and inability to think of the group as a whole.

Still, it was somewhat understandable. The learning curve was high in FFXI and many people took their time to adjust to it. The game was also really unforgiving at its core, which in turn was alienating to some. In a Catch-22, the game made grouping mandatory and then punished players by costing them experience points if they died. Of course, many of the newer groups were nothing but death traps. A couple hours in them and it would be easy to be a lower level than you started, completely defeating the purpose of grouping. But like I said, in Final Fantasy XI, solo-play was not possible for most classes past level ten so such pain was unavoidable.

In Final Fantasy XIV, however, that isn’t the case. For the first time, playing alone is completely viable. In fact, a lot of things that weren’t possible before are now. FFXIV is very much cut from the same cloth as FFXI, only with improvements–or what Square-Enix perceived as improvements.

The most notable change for me in Final Fantasy XIV is that everything’s renamed. There’s a sense of freedom in this. It’s a Final Fantasy game that doesn’t remind you every step of the way that it is, and that’s commendable. The renames start from the races where Humes have become Hyurs and so on. It continues into the classes. There are no longer White, Red, Black, and Blue Mages–there’s just a Conjurer which borrows heavily from all. While it might just look superficial, it actually does speak to much depth. Classes can borrow from others, becoming hybrids, and the possibilities are endless. There’s no longer restrictions on roles. If you ran with a Paladin that had White Mage as its sub-job in Final Fantasy XI, you could be a Gladiator with some Conjurer skills mixed with an Archer’s skills as well to pull the same weight.

The problem, though, is that this system is very vague. It’s hard to tell what combination to use and there is no definitive guide. It’s sort of a guessing game–everything in the game is.

Even when to start is sort of a guessing game, and that’s a big shame. The starting zones tell completely different stories. I first started out in Gridania, FFXIV’s version of FFXI’s Windurst. It’s a forest city, covered in trees and green–the very definition of fantasy wrapped into a zone. But it wasn’t until I ended up rerolling a different character in Ul’dah, a commercial city surrounded by sand, that I found a home and a story I was interested in.

But it wasn’t enough to keep me playing the game. My steam started to run out in the opening levels and it didn’t get much better as I progressed. The opening storyline of FFXIV’s Ul’dah was good–its writing was very decent, surprisingly so, but the process in which it was presented was convoluted (similar to Final Fantasy XIII’s suffered ills). Although everything in FFXI had been confusing, in FFXIV it was somehow worse. The story’s directions were misleading and it took me a while to finish the opening chapter of Ul’dah due to a lack of clarity. What I did see, though, was incredible emergent storytelling; a father died, I fought as a gladiator, and I walked through a brothel of Miqo’te in the span of minutes. I would argue that there is no other MMORPG series is telling a story like the Final Fantasy series is. But I would also argue that as much potential as FFXIV’s storyline has, it ends too soon and is disjointed–as I went to continue the story, it was put on pause rather abruptly. I later learned it wouldn’t continue for over fifteen levels later, which would take days that I did not have to uncover. It was disappointing to see such potential then see it fall away.

Honestly, though, it didn’t matter anyway–I didn’t really want to unravel the mysteries Eorzea largely because of the controls. After a few days in the world, they only got worse as my character gained more abilities with each level. Although Square-Enix changed race names, locales, and classes, for some reason they didn’t change Final Fantasy XIV’s controls. This is probably their biggest mistake, and it may be one of pride. But FFXI’s controls were always clunky and horrible, mostly thanks to its base as a console game for the Playstation 2. Somehow, FFXIV’s are even worse although it was released on the PC first; an inexcusable oversight as the game isn’t a retroactive port. A lot of the game is just walking through the city or desert–lost, awkwardly trying to target NPCs, and engage in battles. New abilities are forced to be equipped into off and main-hands, neither of which make too much sense. After all, how do you equip a spell to a hand? And what hand should it be in?

Sadly, the controls aren’t the only illogical choices that Square-Enix made in development. In Final Fantasy XIV, monsters conn green then one shot you anyway. The chatbox has a character limit that makes Twitter look verbose and a lot of the game takes place in seemingly endless menus that bury the interface to the point of unplayability. For some reason, crafting has also been turned into its own class, to much detriment to the game–while it’s interesting that one could theoretically play as an armorsmith throughout the entirety of the game, no one would probably want to. The crafting systems themselves make no sense, recipes aren’t widely available, and selling your wares to make bank is another hoop to jump through. Absurdly, the auction house from the previous game is gone, and players must vendor their wares in bazaar fashion which is, well, bizarre. The economy, as new game release economies are wont to do, changes rapidly without reason and in result the bazaars are always either too expensive or too cheap. Although enemies drop items and you can craft anything you could imagine, it’s hard to know what price any of it is really worth without an easy way to check.

The most annoying problem, though, are that guildleves–FFXIV’s form of quests–are too easy, whether with a group or solo. They consist of killing a mob once or twice, then collecting absurd amounts of experience points. In fact, by being able to be completed solo, guildleves took out the magic that was the heart of the previous game. Although it was frustrating to interact in FFXI, especially due to language barriers, it led to every single experience and memory I had. Virtually nothing in Final Fantasy XI was about grinding alone. For some reason, everything in Final Fantasy XIV is. Worse, other players are there, but you never interact with them beyond a shout for an item in a town. You see dozens of people at a quest hub, crafting and resting, and no one is talking to each other. No one is communicating.

Somehow, Final Fantasy XIV’s community suffers worse than Final Fantasy XI’s did. It’s a prettier world, but it’s without half the heart that the original had.

My leveling partner felt the same as I. Not only were the controls awful and the community lukewarm to him, he experienced unplayable lag. His ping was always in the thousands even though he was in the same region as I was. He couldn’t see anyone spawned, he couldn’t attack an enemy before I had killed it. At first, I mocked him for it because it was funny to see him warp around the map, but then on the fourth day of playing, I experienced a moment where I couldn’t even release after I had died in a starting zone. A quick search led me to the fact that, as with Final Fantasy XI, every server was in Japan.

Thirty minutes later, I spawned back across the map when my corpse finally resurrected without half of my items.

Ten minutes later, I uninstalled the game. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I’m not naive. I know that every MMORPG goes through rough patches on launch and that Final Fantasy XIV is no different. I’m not going to tell you not to try it, despite my increasingly negative thoughts on the game itself. In fact, I would suggest to try it if you have the money and desire a completely different trip than World of Warcraft can offer. It is worth seeing, after all.

But, maybe–just maybe–I might suggest you try Final Fantasy XI instead. For now, it’s more polished and more in-depth. Maybe Final Fantasy XIV will get there someday, but currently, it’s quite far away from what its history foretold.

This is perhaps is the hardest pill to swallow of Final Fantasy XIV’s existence. It’s not there yet, but it’s still closer than most games get and that’s almost worse than being so far. Square-Enix has made something here that has elements which no MMORPG has. They’ve created an alive world–an innovative game where few things are stale and the story is actually worth experiencing. They just made it hard to get at. Somehow, despite my frustrations and misgivings, they’ve made a game I want to love.

It’s just not a game that’s very fun to play. Then again, that much can be said about most Final Fantasy titles as of late. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected too much.

Editor’s note: All the pictures here are screenshots I took, there’s no FFXI ones simply because I wanted to showcase how truly beautiful FFXIV is. Also, wouldn’t it be great if this game were for the Xbox 360 Kinect?