Final Fantasy XI
Years ago, my brother and I constantly played co-op games. Sonic 2, Pocky & Rocky, Kirby Super Star: If a game had a way for both of us to join in together, we snapped it up. My leaving for college kind of killed our ability to do that, though; the PS2 had only just been released, so unless you liked playing Phantasy Star Online over dial-up on the Dreamcast you were out of luck. Shortly after arriving at the university, I began to hear talk of a PS2 online-enabled version of the Final Fantasy series, one surprisingly being presented as a sequel -- Final Fantasy XI. The game was released in Japan in May of 2002, shortly before the end of my freshman year, but there was nary a release date in sight for the U.S. version. That didn’t come for another year and a half, and even then it was PC-exclusive. Yet I was determined to have that packed-in hard disk drive for my PS2, so I waited even longer (March 2004) for it to finally make it way to America. The cost of entry was ridiculous for a college kid making six bucks an hour: Add to the $200 PS2 system a $100 Final Fantasy XI with HDD and the requisite $40 PS2 Network Adapter. Even as someone who already owned a PS2, I was eating a lot of peanut butter sandwiches for the next couple of months.
The initial setup for the PS2 version of the game was pretty daunting. The hard drive, openly exposed just like in a real PC, snapped directly into the network adapter, which then had to be installed into the rather large expansion drive on the back of the system. The game (and its first expansion, Rise of the Zilart) came pre-installed on the drive, but that was far from the end of the ordeal. Final Fantasy XI introduced me firsthand to the wonderful world of automatic update patches. Though fairly painless these days, those initial patches took on average a minimum of an hour at a time and were beset by frequent disconnects for those foolish enough to attempt to download them at the time of the patch’s release. Frustrations like this encouraged to me to stick primarily to console games for my fix; having to wait so long just to begin the game was infuriating.
Before dragging my little brother into all of this I decided to test the waters a bit. I created a Hume -- i.e., human—Warrior and named him Kurow, after a random combatant in the Capcom fighting game Project Justice. I went with the Hume because the other races were just a bit too odd for me to be putting in hundreds of hours with: Cat girls (Mithra), dog men (Galka), and cuddly-wuddly little Ewoks (Tarutaru). Oh, and the Elvaan, but I was never particularly fond of the stereotypical snobbish elves. I choose the industrial city of Bastok as my homeland for the race-specific bonus item, and was immediately blown away by the scale of the game compared to what I was used to at the time. Not only was the city huge, but there were dozens of people wandering around concurrently. All of that didn’t matter, though. I just wanted to kill something! It probably took close to an hour of acclimating myself to the controls and the environment before I had half a clue what I was doing. Even then, I had to ask a random player where to even go to get out of town.
The area outside of Bastok, North Gustaberg, was quite possibly one of the bleakest areas I’ve ever encountered so early in a game. Almost like a desert, Gustaberg is dotted with a few sickly trees jutting out of the jagged rocks and mountains that surround the town. My warrior was itching for a fight, so the desolation didn’t bother me so much. What was underwhelming was the meager selection of opponents directly outside of Bastok: Worms and hornets. Granted, the worms were about four feet long and the hornets as big around as my head, but still. At level 1, every battle was neck-and-neck, and I came dangerously close to dying at one point, saved only by a random White Mage that healed me as they passed by. After gaining a half-dozen or so levels, it was pretty obvious that in order to go any further with the game I would be required to become more social and team up with some other players. I grouped together with two other Warriors and a Monk, and we made a beeline for the nearest dungeon area, the Palborough Mines, home of the turtle-men Quadavs. Why we went without any sort of healer is beyond me at this point, but those were some tense times slowly moving forward through the endless waves of turtle warriors in our path. Eventually we came across a room full of Funguar, a weird hybrid of a mushroom and a grasshopper. Much to our despair, these monsters weren’t like the others: They linked together and fought as a group if you disturbed one of their kin. Back in those days, the monsters didn’t despawn when you died, so if there happened to be any other low-level players exploring at the time they more than likely met their ends at the hands and claws and tentacles of the same horde we’d created.
Eventually I grew tired of that scene, so one day I up and decided to make my way to the Elvaan city of San d’Oria for a change of pace. Though I was around level 11, the world at large was still a pretty dangerous place. Gustaberg was fine, because I’d had ample time to explore it, but anything beyond that was a total shot in the dark for me. It was nearly impossible to make any decent money back in those days (gil only dropped from beastmen, and even then was a paltry sum) and maps for any of the areas beyond Gustaberg would run a minimum of 1,000 gil from the map vendors. I made it to San d’Oria with little incident, though, and later to Windurst as well. At the time, it often took well over an hour to reach the next town on foot, which was initially interesting and became much less so when I found myself with the need to move around to meet up with people for experience-gaining parties.
Still, by this point, I felt confident enough in the game to invite my little brother to join me. Player allocation to the different servers was random back in those days, but for a small in-game fee you could get a world pass to guarantee that your friends would end up in the same place as you. My brother choose to play as a Tarutaru from Windurst, naming himself Laharl after the then-obscure Disgaea anti-hero. This was what I’d been looking for all along by joining up with the game—a way to keep in touch with my brother and play together without needing to drive a couple hours across the state. Finally, I had someone I knew to play with regularly, without feeling like I had to schedule my life around them to make progress with the game. Or so I thought.
Final Fantasy XI was built around a very aggravating set of rules as far as experience-points parties are concerned. Making any progress toward leveling your character requires a full group of six players, including a tank and a healer, all within three levels of your own. Imagine my surprise when I came home from classes one afternoon to see that my brother’s Black Mage is suddenly five levels higher than my own Warrior. I finally had to bite the bullet and become more social with random strangers from the game’s general populace. I joined a linkshell -- what would be called a guild in other MMOs -- and made quite a bit of progress both in leveling and in completing some of the mission storylines thanks to a handful of really dedicated individuals. I was surprised at how much of the Final Fantasy style had seeped over from the other games into the way the story was presented. Rather just just being a gigantic wall of text, the story unfolds via a combination of text and cutscenes, complete with the requisite dramatic pans and tense musical scores. This was the reason to keep playing Final Fantasy XI in the long run for me, and it even motivated me to level up some additional jobs like Ninja and Samurai just in the hopes of having a better chance of being invited along for the exposition. Eventually though, a combination of general internet drama and a switch in focus from game progress to loot farming made me part ways with that particular group of people. This was right after my graduation from college and my move back home, and it seemed an ideal time to take a break from the game all together. The frustration involved in playing had simply grown too great for me to bother to deal anymore.
Yet after getting settled into a new career and buying a house, I decided to come back to the game. I had never actually bothered to close my account with Square-Enix’s PlayOnline service, so it was easy to get back into the swing of things. Somehow I managed to max out my original Warrior job to level 75 through teaming up with a lot of random groups, but the game was still feeling about as played-out as it had before my break. It was the release of the Wings of the Goddess expansion pack that changed all this. I traded in my axe and subligar for a knife and a dancing lesson and took up the new job of Dancer. To do this it would mean a whole new grind, so I decided to feel out Talking Time for members for a new linkshell. (Coincidentally, I originally found Talking Time, in a roundabout way, by reading James Mielke’s Final Fantasy XI articles on 1UP.com. This lead to Parish’s blog, which in turn led to this site. But I digress.)
There was pretty good interest in a pickup group at this point, mostly due to the fact that you could get the PC version of the game for a paltry $3, not to mention the fairly new Xbox 360 port. Playing the game with fresh perspectives really brought back the enjoyment I thought lost forever to the world. Without any preconceived notions of the best and only places to fight monsters, we went to some particularly offbeat camps and explored the world thoroughly. Eventually we lost a few of our members, but by this time Square-Enix had patched in a basic level-sync feature to allow anyone to party with someone below their level, even going so far to scale down their equipment. By pure luck we picked up another Talking Time user playing a Bard and eventually made it to level 75 a second time around. All of this happened just weeks prior to one of our members leaving for basic training in the Air Force, so we spent our last few weeks time rushing to finish the Bastok missions and completing a rather oddball quest.
Our final quest was very much in line with what I love about Final Fantasy XI’s exposition. While the quest has absolutely no bearing on the world around it and offered a generally underwhelming reward that required you to trek well outside of town, it has tremendous heart. It was the story of a young Tarutaru who had volunteered to do research on some local Poroggo (frog-mage) said to have the ability to transform those it enchants into a frog. When the Tarutaru ventured to perform his duties, his girlfriend was inadvertently turned into a frog herself, and it fell to our party to save her. This, naturally, resulted in our team’s burliest badass being turned into a rather large amphibian for a good portion of the battle with the head Poroggo. The average person has very little chance to ever see these frogs, much less get turned into one themselves, so it was unforgettable being able to experience something so unique with a group I’d forged a close bond with over two years’ time.
Final Fantasy XI is still going strong today, and what’s left of my Talking Tyrant linkshell is still meeting weekly as of these writings. While the game’s still far from perfect, in my five years spent in its world I’ve seen it transform from something ridiculously archaic to a fairly decent MMO. While I’m excited for Final Fantasy XIV in the coming year, I have a feeling its going to be tough to top some of my memories with this game.