Online RPGs, such as Ultima Online, Anarchy Online, and EverQuest, have become quite popular among PC gamers in North America, Asia, and Europe. Japanese game companies are also jumping on the boat, releasing their own set of online RPGs, an example being Sonic Team's Phantasy Star Online. Square, the popular developer of consumer RPGs, is not going to miss out on the party either. Its first massive multiplayer online RPG (which also happens to be the 11th installment of the ever-popular series), Final Fantasy XI, will be making its way later this spring to Japan on both the PlayStation 2 and PC. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy series, along with producer Tanaka Hiromichi and director Koichi Ishii, are the minds behind the game's development. Rest assured, important elements of the series will be kept intact--the core team is composed of Final Fantasy veterans whose tours of service dates back to the first installment.
Like every online RPG, the game starts out with character generation. You can choose from several different types of races: Humes, which are equivalent to humans and are the most balanced race; Elvaan, which are equivalent to elves and are usually dark and tall and skilled in close-ranged combat; and Tarutaru, which are a hobbitlike race, short and small, and skilled in the use of magic. You can choose your gender when playing any of the aforementioned races, but with the following two, you aren't given a choice. Mithra are a feline race of skilled hunters that live peacefully alongside the Tarutaru. Since most of the male Mithras remain within their own land, you'll usually see only female Mithras. Therefore, players can choose only to be a female Mithra in the game. Galka, on the other hand, are a strong and tough ogre-sized race. Their method of creating offspring involves the process of reincarnation, so the Galkas do not have a gender. After choosing your race and sex, players can then customize their physical appearance in the areas of height, weight, facial features, hair color, and other various aspects.
You will then move on to choosing your character's job (or class, as it's called in other RPGs). Some of you may recognize the job system, which was first introduced in Final Fantasy V and was later incorporated into Final Fantasy Tactics. Final Fantasy XI will make use of this system as well. You can choose from several different jobs, such as warrior, monk, thief, white magician, black magician, red magician, and many others. You will be able to learn abilities specifically for that job when your character has earned experience points and gained a level. For example, the warrior can use the ability called "mighty strike," which lets the character score more critical hits during battles. A black magician, on the other hand, can use "pool of magic," which lets you cast spells without consuming magic points. You can also change your character's job during the game, which lets you acquire abilities from different jobs. While each race has its own affinities, it doesn't mean that a Tarutaru is better at being a white magician or that an Elvaan is a more suitable warrior. Rather, there are simply slight differences in each race's initial stats, so you can still choose to become an Elvaan white magician or a Tarutaru warrior.
Final Fantasy XI takes place in the world of Vana'diel, where swords, sorcery, and technology coexist. More than 20 years ago, as the story goes, the people waged war against the forces of evil to protect the powers of the world's crystal. The land has remained peaceful until recently, as presence of evil has returned to the land of Vana'diel once again. The world, like in many PC online RPGs, will be persistent, meaning that hundreds of players will be able to interact with one another throughout all of the game's areas. But with different servers prepared for the game, more than one Vana'diel will exist, so players will actually exist in parallel versions of the same world. It is not yet known whether players will be assigned a server or be allowed to choose one.
There are several factions in the world of Vana'diel. Regardless of your race, you can choose which faction to represent. The Republic of Bastok is the establishment of the Humes and is an industrial city known for its production of gold-welded materials and Mithril mining. Galkas reside in the southern part of Bastok, where their labor power is high in demand. The Federation of Windurst, the land of the Tarutarus, is governed by a council consisting of several scholarly figures. The city of Windurst itself was revived after the war with the help of Mithras and has become an institution for the research and development of magic. The Kingdom of San d'oria is the home of Elvaans and has been ruled by the Doragiyu family for generations. Peace and order in the city is maintained by both the Royal Chevaliers and Temple Chevaliers.
So now, the question of why you need to belong to a faction arises. Well, Square plans to implement what is called the "conquest." In the world of Vana'diel, there will be several areas of unoccupied land--such as Gustaberg, Sarutabaruta, and Ronfaure--located around the main cities of the different factions. As players of the same faction fight and win battles against monsters within these areas, your faction will gain conquest points. These points are tallied on a regular basis, and the faction that has the highest score in that area will "occupy" the land, making it one of its own territories. Though details are scarce, factions will earn rewards as they expand their territory. Keep in mind, though, that if you lose battles in these areas, your faction can lose the territory to a rival group in the next tally. But what if you don't care about the conquest? Fret not--players can choose to focus on quests and offers by talking to nonplayer characters in towns and cities.
Though you can play the game alone, you will miss out on the experience if you don't play with others, whether they're friends or complete strangers. In situations like fighting tough monsters or unlocking puzzles in dungeons, you will frequently need a helping hand. In Final Fantasy XI, up to six players can form a party. Party leaders are decided on amongst the players, and they'll be responsible for letting other players join their party and for the distribution of items gained after battle. You can also form an alliance with two other parties, so it's possible to be working together as one big group that consists of up to 18 different players. Even if players belong to different factions, there are no restrictions to forming a party or alliance. Most online RPG players form their own group--which usually has its own Web site or chat rooms--called clan or guild, and the same practice will most likely be seen among players of Final Fantasy XI.
The battle system in Final Fantasy XI will be a departure from systems in previous games in the series. Unlike other Final Fantasy games, in which you have random encounters with enemies, Final Fantasy XI will now include enemies that are visible on the field map. Also, the numbers that used to appear over characters to indicate damage taken or health gained are gone--they have been replaced with a window, on the lower part of the screen, that displays all the game's statistical information. The game will now also implement a command-based real-time combat system similar to EverQuest's and Baldur's Gate's. To engage in battle, you first choose an enemy visible on the field map and select the "fight" command. Some of the enemies may initiate the battles if they see you, while others are quite harmless unless attacked. While the battle is conducted automatically, you can interrupt it at any time and call forth a pop-up window that lets you select commands like "magic" or "item." Casting spells now takes a certain amount of time, so there is a possibility that they can be interrupted by an attack. If you or your party are having difficulty fighting a tough enemy, a command that enables you to call for someone else's assistance during battle is also available.
Although the game package will be sold in stores, players must register on the company's PlayOnline network service to be able to log on. The hard disk drive for the PS2 is also required to play the game. And since you must log on to the network, there will be no offline quests available. A monthly fee, which has not yet been announced, will also be charged. Though the company highly recommends running the game on a high Internet speed connection (via the Ethernet adaptor on the HDD unit), it can still be played through an analog modem if you have a third-party unit.
Though we've talked about the various features of Final Fantasy XI, there are still a lot of questions that fans might ask. What about Chocobos? Will I get to fly an airship? Can I summon aeons like in Bahamut and Shiva? We hope to answer some of these questions as we receive further details from Square. The beta test for the PS2 version is currently underway in Japan, and a PC beta is expected to follow. Final Fantasy XI will be available for both the PlayStation2 and the PC sometime during the spring in Japan.