With the tenth anniversary of Final Fantasy XI’s Japanese launch having just passed, I thought it would be nice to finally sit down and do an all-encompassing blog post about the thing – what some people would call a “postmortem.”
I’ve written about the game plenty in the past – on a game site (now gone), an FFXI blog (now gone), and a piece for 1UP (now defunct; it’s an FFXIV wish list), but have never really sat down and laid the damn thing to rest properly. And after giving the game hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours spread across nearly a decade of my life, I figure it deserves it.Vana’diel (5623×2104)
Welcome to PlayOnline
I started with the English beta of Final Fantasy XI in the summer of 2003 while living on my best friend’s couch. He was the one in the beta; I merely played the hell out of it while he worked a day job at a warehouse. Then he’d come home in the evening and play the beta while I played WarioWare or scanned maps. I played it because it was something to do, and as a lazy college student whose only source of income was writing about video games, I had a lot of free time once I had fulfilled my quota of stories for the day.
In my mind FFXI is heavily associated with summer, my favorite season. Stretching out on my friend’s couch in shorts as summer air filled the room through the balcony’s screen door was a daily habit, and one of the last times in my life I can remember enjoying a truly lazy summer without a single care.
The game itself was baffling. Compared to Final Fantasy X, trying to understand everything about XI was like launching the space shuttle. The manual covered the very basics, but there were many things left unexplained — some of them intentionally. How am I supposed to discover crafting recipes? Why aren’t Accuracy and Evasion stats listed in my status? Even after its release and a thorough dissection by the community there were things that the developers would never confirm or deny, like the formula behind the Rabbit Charm drop rate. As far as I can tell, this rare item ordinarily has a 1.4% chance of dropping from the Notorious Monster Jaggedy-Eared Jack, but the actual drop rate seemed to be far lower than even that, until an interview with the developers hinted that the charm won’t drop at all if one is posted at the auction house at the time the monster is killed. I still don’t even know if that’s how it works. The game is full of hidden requirements and conditions like this that I have always found fascinating to read about on forums and in wikis as fans postulate and collate data. It is impossible to play a game this intentionally obfuscated without these resources, most of which weren’t around during the beta (at least in English).
The unsavory elements
Though I no longer play the game, there was something intriguing about Vana’diel that kept me coming back time after time, with hiatuses lasting anywhere from a month to a year.
It wasn’t the players. I’ve griped at length about the average MMO gamer (rather, the dysfunctional personality types that emerge when one combines certain breeds of gamer with anonymity) and been sent to gaol by a GM for a late night /shout rant on the subject in the middle of Whitegate’s plaza. There are plenty of thoughtful, courteous, genial players out there, but they never seem to show up quite as often as the catty misanthrope, the bossy backseat power-leveler, or the arrogant NIN (whose death knell is always a sheepish variant on “lol”).
It wasn’t the endgame content. In fact, as Abyssea wore on, I found myself returning more often to lower level jobs and crafting. Once I hit the level cap at 90 (I ducked out before it was raised to 99), I focused almost entirely on support jobs and Notorious Monster camping. I never actually fought a single god battle in “Sky,” the shorthand nickname given to the floating continent of Tu’Lia (though I often enjoyed going up there for skilling up, farming light crystals, or just to enjoy the view), or its counterpart “Sea” (otherwise known as The Celestial Capital Al’Taieu) but had four pieces of relic armor from Dynamis (a sort of “shadow world” battlefield in which up to 64 players slay waves of monsters for job-specific relic armor and weapons) and a modest collection of powerful melee gear.
(An interesting note about endgame content: Certain superbosses gained notoriety because the “correct” means of defeating them as planned by the developers went undiscovered for a length of time. One unfortunate Linkshell spent 18 hours trying to defeat Pandemonium Warden, an Aht Urhgan boss with a staggering 20 different forms. When this showed up on Yahoo News, Square Enix put a time limit on the boss. Once time became a factor, players stopped trying to chip away at it over time and started collaborating to figure out what the trick was. And a year earlier, when it seemed that there was no way to defeat the infamous Sea god Absolute Virtue, Square Enix released a video (in four languages) of the development team doing just that, spurring the community to analyze the team’s every move. It turns out that the boss’s most powerful abilities can be “locked out” if a player uses the same 2-hour ability (so named because players can only use these powerful abilities once every two Earth hours) within three seconds of the boss using one. There is nothing in-game (that I’m aware of) to hint about any of these strategies. And while I never fought either of them, I found that entire flow of events to be very compelling as it unfolded.)
I can’t quit! I have rare stuff!
I never quite found a good Linkshell for tackling those endgame bosses, but did spend a lot of time trying to get relic armor from Dynamis. For years, my goal was a Saotome Kabuto+1, a Samurai-specific helmet that offered a whopping +12 Accuracy bonus. I had amassed all the necessary materials needed to upgrade a regular Saotome Kabuto, but never obtained the helmet itself. Even as the game was continuously upgraded and better helmets became available, I insisted that the SK+1 would be worth it, that as a Samurai I should have a distinctive piece of headgear instead of the gaudy Optical Hat (which was the style at the time), and that melees are so crippled by the game’s unreasonable emphasis on physical accuracy that it’d be silly not to wear one. Those materials are still sitting in my Mog House.
Dynamis itself was fun, but the time commitment (I was waking up at 5:00am Japan time every Monday to do Dynamis with a group in the UK for two hours before I had to go to work) and the terrible drop rates (combined with the rarity of actually doing a Dynamis that even offers the damn helmet in the first place) eventually drove me out.
I went through a similar crisis of rationalization shortly after camping the Notorious Monster Argus for a Peacock Amulet; here was a coveted piece of equipment carrying a substantial Accuracy+10 bonus, supplanted shortly thereafter by a readily available item called the Chivalrous Chain (Accuracy+5, STR+3), which I refused to use. On the surface, my rationale was based on the amulet’s superior Accuracy bonus (which is ridiculous given how precious STR is to melees, and a high-level Samurai especially), though in hindsight I’m positive that my mind was erecting a safeguard to prevent me from going insane after having camped Argus for months upon months towards the end of my college career in 2006.
This was but one curse of the game, to drive me after a rare piece of equipment to the exclusion of all fun or enjoyment. And sometimes even obtaining the thing wasn’t enough, and if it was a ring or belt or another piece of equipment not reflected on your character model? Somebody had better /check me and validate all the time I wasted camping this elusive giant beetle! I went out and bought a router just so I could play over vacation at my parents’ house so please recognize the Bushinomimi I finally won after losing the Ark Angels fight three times in a row!
At home in Vana’diel
Equipment snobs, Auction House price gouging, overcamped monsters; these are the things I do not miss about the game. But there was a wholeness about the game’s world that kept me coming back, a powerful and intangible connection to the environments that I felt in passing glimpses each time I played. These feelings could be attributed to an ordinary appreciation for a sunny day (La Theine Plateau), awe of colossal trees in a tranquil forest (The Sanctuary of Zi’Tah), excitement and fear of the unknown (Castle Zvahl Baileys), or even Stockholm syndrome (Valkurm Dunes). Some people have that “Hyrule field” moment when the sheer vastness of an environment stimulates their urge to run and explore and cover every inch of the incredible sprawl before them, and FFXI gave me that feeling every time I played.
Some of this effect was catalyzed by the music, the majority of which was scored by Naoshi Mizuta. His track A New Horizon (piano), written for the areas comprising the Tavnazian Archipelago, is an encapsulation of the peace, wonder, and fear that the player might feel (I certainly did) as they explore this new area; The Sanctuary of Zi’Tah (piano) feels like it was written to be punctuated with the player’s footsteps on the forest floor as they navigate the overgrowth; and the syncopating bells and tones of Ululations from Beyond feel appropriately foreboding as the player creeps carefully around the marshlands and caverns of Aht Urhgan, ever wary of the “truesight” imps that see through any attempt at concealment.
Something to remember
Though I’ve quit the game (for good? I dunno, I’ve said that every time), there’s an element of Vana’diel that I wish I could wrench from my computer and throw on my wall, or display on a shelf, or something. I consider myself to be less obsessive and withdrawn than the maladjusted escapist who wrestles with the notion that he cannot live on a fantasy jungle planet with blue cat people. I like to think that this is less to do with escapism and more an expression of wonder and appreciation for a well-crafted world (or at the very least a fond farewell after having dropped so much time and money into it). And because I do not have the tools or ability to create a 1:300 scale Windurst Walls, I have instead scanned the A4 CD cases that house the FFXI OST Premium Box released in 2006 and made them available on this very blog.
Unfortunately, this set does not include the Wings of the Goddess expansion from 2007, but these are still gorgeous, hi-res scans of Yoshitaka Amano’s art for the original Final Fantasy XI and the first three expansions: Rise of the Zilart, Chains of Promathia, and Treasures of Aht Urhgan. Beneath the thumbnails below you can download the full sized images as well as smaller versions perfect for your desktop (in the case of the two landscapes, anyway! Sorry about the text and spine creases, though). In reality, the world map painting actually consists of two more humongous panes (see the top of this post), but only the center two panes of the map (shown below) were included in the OST box set.
The six full-sized scans are all contained in this zip (314.4MB) for easy downloadin’.
[Note: Due to their size (I guess?), the two full-sized landscapes were automatically renamed to .bin when uploaded to Minus. If you download them individually, just delete the .bin extension at the end. The versions in the zip are unaffected.]
Final Fantasy XI
1920×1321 | Full (9966 × 6859, 83.6MB)
Rise of the Zilart
1920×1277 | Full (9897 × 6584, 74MB)
Chains of Promathia A
1330×1920 | Full (4852 × 7002, 41.8MB)
Chains of Promathia B
1395×1920 | Full (4936 × 6794, 37.6MB)
Treasures of Aht Urhgan A
1373×1920 | Full (4950 × 6922, 42.4MB)
Treasures of Aht Urhgan B
1363×1920 | Full (4914 × 6920, 37.5MB)