Final Fantasy XI Preview

The long-running console RPG series is going online for the PC and the PlayStation 2.

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One of the most popular role-playing game series on video game consoles is the Final Fantasy series from Japanese developer Square Enix (formerly Squaresoft)--a series famous for complex storylines, spiky-haired heroes with impossibly huge swords, shadowy wizards who wear robes and hats that are so oversized that only their eyes are visible under the brims of their caps, and transportation by way of large, chicken-like chocobo birds. Square Enix has made the bold move of making the next game in the series an online role-playing game in the vein of EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot for both the PC and the PlayStation 2--a game in which you create a single character and explore a huge persistent world with other players. The PC version of the game is currently in a beta testing stage, and we were fortunate enough to have a chance to try it out for ourselves.

The long-lived console RPG series is going online, and coming to the PC and PlayStation 2.
The long-lived console RPG series is going online, and coming to the PC and PlayStation 2.

In the PC version of the game, you'll play as one of five fantasy races in the colorful realm of Vana'diel. These include the well-rounded humes (humans, essentially), the tall and slender elvaan, the hulking galka, the feline mithra, and the diminutive, dog-nosed tarutaru. At the beginning of the game, you'll choose your race and your profession from a list of basic character classes, which include Final Fantasy standbys such as fighter, monk, white mage, and black mage, though you'll be able to follow different professions later on in your career and in so doing, you'll be able to advance to a more-advanced profession, similar to the job system in Final Fantasy Tactics for the PlayStation and the advanced fifth-level classes from Dark Age of Camelot.

We took a brief tour of Vana'diel with a powerful character equipped with several levels in both the fighter and monk classes. All classes will have specific skills that can be used in and out of battle that can be recalled from a sub-menu or set to hotkeys. Fighters have the powerful "berserk" ability in battle, as well as the "taunt" ability, which, much like the EverQuest warrior's ability, draw an enemy monster's attention away from the more-frail members of your party squarely onto yourself.

Each character class will have its own role in battle.
Each character class will have its own role in battle.

The starting point of the tour was on the continent of San d'Oria, the realm of the elvaan and one of three nations on which you can start your adventuring career (the other two being Bastok, the home of the galka, and Windurst, home of the tarutaru). Starting from La Theine Plateau, we ventured along the outskirts of a wilderness town into the wild. Much of Final Fantasy XI's outdoor areas are picturesque--the game's grassy fields and dark forests look colorful but subdued, though as you might expect from a Japanese role-playing game, its characters are highly stylized and detailed. So are the monsters, including a fearsome giant sheep (yes, sheep) that's been known to haunt the plateau. Fighting it was a simple matter--as a fighter, we simply toggled on the game's auto-attack option while targeting the monster, though other character classes have various other abilities and magic spells. For instance, thieves have a damaging sneak attack, white mages can heal and protect their comrades, and both basic and advanced classes can attain powerful support abilities that can increase your strength and damage output, make you turn invisible, and even mask your scent to hostile monsters.

This Fantasy Isn't Final Just Yet

Though Final Fantasy XI for the PC is still in beta, the game in its current state already has a tremendous amount of content in terms of various areas to explore and monsters to fight, which shouldn't be a surprise, considering that the PlayStation 2 game was released at retail in Japan some months ago. Final Fantasy XI's bestiary includes many of the bizarre fantasy creatures you may have come to expect from the series, including the puffy white moogles that can be found in towns and chocobos, the large, chicken-like birds that can be used as mounts for quick transport, provided your character is at least level 20 and can complete a specific quest, and that you have enough gil (the game's currency) in your pockets. You can earn money in a variety of ways, though the most common is by killing and looting monsters--and if you happen to be adventuring in a group, any items that dead monsters leave behind are automatically divvied up among your comrades by casting lots.

Chocobo: the only way to travel.
Chocobo: the only way to travel.

We traveled quickly through the realm of Vana'diel with the help of the "Teleport-Holla" spell, a very high-level white mage spell that can be used to instantly travel between four major teleport areas. (We were also informed that Square Enix plans to add an additional two teleport points in the upcoming Final Fantasy XI expansion pack, The Rise of Zilart.) However, travel by chocobo tended to be much more scenic, especially through the dangerous Jugner Forest, a densely-wooded area populated by ambient wildlife and hostile monsters. It wasn't an especially nice day in Jugner; in fact, it was raining rather heavily through a thunderstorm; Final Fantasy XI will have ambient weather effects that will have no real effect on gameplay, but can help add atmosphere.

On our way to the climactic final encounter of the tour, we stopped by a town on the edge of Battalia Downs, a civilized region and the site of an ancient battleground. Many of Final Fantasy XI's new areas, including your starting area, will be introduced to you in a non-interactive cutscene that shows your surroundings with camera flyby. You'll also be shown such brief cutscenes when accepting quests from various non-player characters who will give you directions to you goal, as well as marking your objective on your in-game map. These maps mark points of interest in both the wild and in towns, where you can sell off your loot; buy weapons, armor, potions, and other equipment; and also find new quests.

The game will feature dark forests, grasslands, caverns, and other environments.
The game will feature dark forests, grasslands, caverns, and other environments.

Our last stop on the tour was Yughott Grotto, a dungeon hidden away inside a network of caverns crawling with powerful monsters. Many dungeons will end in a climactic confrontation that you'll jump to using a magic portal that will restrict you from using (and abusing) it if your character is already too powerful and too advanced to find this final battle challenging. We watched as a brief, non-interactive cutscene played just before the fight and showed two careless soldiers summon a powerful dragon, only to abandon it and leave it to our party to dispatch. Once again we were thrust into battle, though this fight was much tougher than the battle against the giant sheep, and considerably longer. Over the course of battles, your characters will accumulate tactical points (or "TP") which will be indicated in a status bar that gradually fills itself up. Once your character's TP, and your comrades' TP, are full, you and your party members will be able to use specific skills together in sequence, in true console-RPG fashion. With good timing and a little luck (assuming there's no lag on your server in battle), you and your comrades will be able to trigger powerful "skillchains"--combinations of special attacks that can have devastating effects. At the end of the battle, we watched a final cutscene with another character who bore a suspicious resemblance to Final Fantasy X's Rikku character--she explained to us that this summoning was just the beginning of an onslaught of evil monsters that our characters would have to face in the times ahead.

Final Fantasy XI seems to be coming along well enough, and its unusual art style and console-based game mechanics should hopefully help set it apart within the increasingly competitive online RPG market for the PC. The game is scheduled for US release later this year on the PC, and early next year on the PlayStation 2.

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