Over the past 15 years, SquareSoft has steadily built a solid and beloved franchise out of their Final Fantasy series. The series is arguably one of the most influential in the history of gaming, due to remarkable innovations that are followed religiously by almost every other game in the RPG genre. And now SquareSoft, fresh off the release of their hit PS2 title, Final Fantasy X, is about to change the way we look at console RPGs yet again. Final Fantasy XI, due to launch this spring in Japan, will be the first installment of the series to go online. More than that however, the game plans to meld the best of both worlds, combining the near unlimited customization found in most online PC RPGs, while at the same time retaining most of what has made the console series so popular.
Welcome to Vana'diel, the setting for this next epic adventure in the Final Fantasy saga. Vana'diel is a land where high technology and magic live side by side. Somewhat similar in philosophy, if not in style, to the world of Final Fantasy VIII, the game world also takes queues from other previous installments, such as the central core of the world based around 'the crystal', found in most of the earlier games. The story starts off roughly 20 years after the great war to protect the crystal from the forces of evil. Since that time, the world has remained untouched by iniquity, but a dark force is once again encroaching upon the land. Not much is known at this time about the nature or origin of the main antagonist in the game.
As with all other Massive Multiplayer Online RPGs (MMORPGs), Final Fantasy XI will be based around a world set in real time. Any player online will be able to interact with any other player in real time, in every part of the gaming world. Obviously, dozens of dedicated servers will be required for the game, so expect each server to contain a slightly different version of Vana'diel. Since there will be some noticeable differences in the gaming world that exist between different servers, it stands to reason that Square will assign players a dedicated server for the length of their game, however this has not been finalized at this time. Also, while Square has done away with its monthly fee for Play Online service, the bigger games, like Final Fantasy XI will still require a monthly fee.
The world of Vana'diel is vast indeed. There are several different communities living under unique governments, and players will be allowed to choose to which faction they pledge allegiance. Certain areas are known for their industrial might, such as the Republic of Bastok, while others were revived, after the wars, into a renaissance like community of magical research and development. Not only can you choose to join one colony or another, you can set out on quests to gain control of idle land spread throughout the world, thereby increasing the dominance of your government. This is accomplished by conquering the monsters that dwell in those unclaimed areas and gaining 'conquest points' to achieve control of the land. These types of conquests are not required however, for those who wish to stay more focused on the main quests in the game.
Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi has made it clear from early on in this games development that Final Fantasy XI would be a truly unique installment in this critically acclaimed franchise. Unlike any of its predecessors, Final Fantasy XI gives players choices they never had, like the ability to choose their hero. Instead of being based around a prefabricated main character, players will be able to choose the race, gender, and physical appearance of their characters. Players can choose between such races as Humes, Elvaan, Tarutaru, Mitrha, and Galka. Humes most closely resemble a human like race, while the others each have their own unique traits and appearances. However, certain races are somewhat limited in their options when it comes to customization. Galka, for instance, are a gender neutral race that procreates through an as yet unexplained form of reincarnation, while the Mithra are a race of feline-esque hunters made up almost entirely of women. There will be few Mithra men in the game, and almost none of them will be seen outside their home territory, so only female Mithras are available for selection. Due to limitations like there, certain races will not be as easy to customize as a more human like race, such as Humes or Elvaan.
Also, each different race of beings not only looks different, they also have different innate abilities. Galkas are huge ogre like beings with great might, while the Tarutaru have delved into magic research to great depths. Of course Humes, being the most humanlike of all races, are the most versatile and can easily accommodate almost any roll. However, just because each race is different, it does not mean they are limited to certain skills. The job system returns to Final Fantasy in this game, allowing each character to be assigned a certain job, or classification of talent. There are the usual classes, such as white mages, thieves, warriors, etc. There are several different job classes available, but not all of them have been revealed at this time. What is known is that different classes will be able to learn different job specific abilities. For instance, Black Mages can learn abilities like "Pool of Magic" which would allow them to cast magic without consuming magic points. However, you can change a characters job status at any time during the game, allowing you to acquire different abilities from different job classes. Therefore, a Warrior could in theory learn the "Pool of Magic" ability, provided he used that job class to acquire the skill. Basically, while each character type has their own innate abilities, they are simply a statistical trait that can be overcome if desired. There is nothing stopping players from creating Galkas with strong magical abilities or Tarutaru with immense strength.
Expect the gameplay in Final Fantasy XI to be somewhat different as well. Instead of the usual 3 member party (four in FF IX), you can now have up to 6 members in your party at any time. On top of that, you can collaborate with other parties, a maximum of two more, to create a total party of 18 characters. This looks to come in quite handy, as it will greatly assist you in your battles. You can also call for help in battle if you find yourself on the brink of death, and receive assistance from other nearby parties. If playing with a group of people instead of by yourself, the team can assign one character to be the party leader, who will make the decisions on who joins the party in battle, divvy up the spoils won, etc.
The battle system in Final Fantasy XI will be remarkably different from previous games in the series, as it is being modeled after some of the more successful MMORPGs for the PC. Instead of the current, traditional system of showing damage stats in green and white numbers over characters' head, all battle stats will be stored in a window in the bottom left hand of the screen. Battles will take place in a command-based manner, with most of the combat executed automatically once the fight has begun, however players can also use menu windows to activate certain actions like using an item or special attack. Another rather notable difference in the series is the addition of visible enemies on the world map, and no more random battles to worry about. While seeing an enemy in front of you will make it much easier to avoid battle if desired, certain monsters and enemies will take the initiative and attack if you are seen. Some however will leave you be unless provoked.
While it is obvious that much of the game, including the possible appearance, or lack thereof, of some of the franchise mainstays like over the top summons and unique side quests, it is clear that Final Fantasy XI is going to be vastly different from its predecessors in many ways. Hopefully SquareSoft will be successful in maintaining the core of what has made the series so popular- a good plot mixed with quality presentation. No official release date has been announced for North America at this time, but look for the game to hit store shelves in Japan this spring.
2/19/2002 Ryan Hartmann