Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI has grown into maturity since it was first released several years ago in Japan. By the time the game made it to the States for the PC last year and for the PlayStation 2 earlier this year, it was already stable, home to a large population of players, and filled with tons of content to explore, spread across its vast (though sometimes empty-seeming) world of Vana'diel. Though Final Fantasy XI has its own distinct look and some unique game mechanics, the game clearly follows in the footsteps of predecessors like EverQuest--and not just in terms of the game itself. Like other online RPGs, Final Fantasy XI has now spawned a couple of retail expansion packs. The first, Rise of the Zilart, actually comes bundled with the US versions of the game, and most notably adds some intriguing new character classes (or "jobs") to the mix. The second, Chains of Promathia, is Final Fantasy XI's first retail expansion sold separately outside of Japan, but it's designed exclusively for Final Fantasy XI's most dedicated players, and probably should have been a downloadable update for those players.
Chains of Promathia does nothing to fundamentally change or improve Final Fantasy XI, but is instead focused on appealing to those already devoted to the game--and not just to the core combat elements, either. Like most online RPGs, Final Fantasy XI encourages its players to spend much of their time banding together and taking on the game's various monsters. Fighting hundreds of monsters back-to-back is definitely a grind, but gaining experience levels in the game--though a slow process--can be pretty satisfying, thanks to the open-ended job system. Since characters may freely change jobs (say, from a warrior to a thief), and may eventually pick a support job to bolster their main set of abilities, it's possible to build a strong and uniquely specialized character in Final Fantasy XI. The Rise of the Zilart expansion augmented this key aspect by adding some compelling new job options, including Final Fantasy favorites like the dragoon and the ninja.
By contrast, Chains of Promathia is purely a content upgrade--there are new areas to explore, new items to find, new monsters to fight, and new missions and quests to undertake. This content is suitable only for highly experienced players and will be far out of everyone else's reach. Unless you're at least level 30, you'll be prohibited from accessing the expansion's new content. Most Chains of Promathia players agree, though, that you need to be at least level 50 to begin to cope with the challenges here. So, in short, if you don't already have this expansion pack, it's probably not for you. That's because, if you don't already have this expansion pack, either you're not a hardcore-enough Final Fantasy XI player to cut it, or you're not a Final Fantasy XI player in the first place.
For what it's worth, those who are capable of venturing into Chains of Promathia's new areas will find at least some of them to be a noticeable depature from what they've seen so far in Final Fantasy XI. Subterranean areas like Pso'Xja and the Phomiuna Aqueducts add more dungeon-style environments to the game's predominantly sprawling overworld. In a nod to The NeverEnding Story, other areas are affected by a malevolent force called the Emptiness, which seems to be eating away at the land and is host to some bizarre alien creatures. As mentioned, questing is a heavy focus of Chains of Promathia, so those dedicated players who primarily enjoy Final Fantasy XI's combat may find that the expansion's content isn't really for them. These quests involve some new characters and expand upon the game's surprisingly rich backstory, but again, unless you're enthralled by the history and future of Vana'diel, this material isn't going to draw you in. As for Promathia's new enemies, some of them look pretty impressive, but others (namely, the goblinlike moblins) are clearly based on existing foes in the game. On the plus side, the expansion adds some new music tracks to the mix, and they are just as noteworthy as the rest of Final Fantasy XI's music.
As if Chains of Promathia needed any more barriers to entry, installation of this expansion pack is a laborious and time-consuming process that rivals the egregiously lengthy setup time needed for Final Fantasy XI itself. After a prolonged installation to hard disk, there's an obligatory checking of all the data files, as well as a hefty patch that needs downloading. All told, it'll be a good couple of hours between the time you open the game's box and the time you're actually able to start playing Final Fantasy XI again. This begs the question of why this expansion pack's content couldn't have just been downloaded. Such a narrowly focused expansion, which really does nothing to address the fact that Final Fantasy XI is an "old boys club" that repels new players, has little reason to be on store shelves.
Final Fantasy XI has stood the test of time and become internationally successful. It's a very time-consuming game that's certainly not for everyone, but many of those who've played it can attest to its addictive quality. It's great that Square Enix has supported Final Fantasy XI with regular updates, including seasonal in-game events, as well as with expansion packs. However, one of the goals of retail expansion packs such as Chains of Promathia ought to be to help introduce new or more-casual players to what makes Final Fantasy XI a great game, but Chains of Promathia doesn't even attempt this.