Confession: I’ve been clean of FFXI for a couple months now--and it feels great. I patched up my relationship with my girlfriend, brought my grades back up to finally get my college counselor off my back, and I might have even gone for a brisk walk outside once or twice. Fully understanding the addictive properties of online gaming, I looked forward to this review with justifiable anxiety.
I logged in and found that, to my dismay, the world of Vana’diel was as breathtaking as ever. The immediately familiar soundtrack by famed composer Nobuo Uematsu hailed my triumphant return. The extensive menu system, while clunky on a keyboard, is instantly user-friendly on a console gamepad. It was time to reintroduce myself, or, more appropriately, to unleash my avatar “Chuupa”, an adorable taru black mage with an unmendable Sauron complex. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Of the three starting city-states, the Republic of Windurst calls to the taru and to magic-users especially. I was randomly placed on the Asura server, one of 31 possible, and was granted an opening movie full of panning city-view camera shots and strolling non-player characters (NPCs). My first order of business would be to complain about the musical score; each city has an aptly themed soundtrack, but Windurst has the fruitiest concoction I’ve heard this side of Elton John.
Undaunted, I send Chuupa, my unholy sorcerer of seething dark magics, into a full sprint toward the city gates. If I can find them. The designers are unafraid of making you run vast distances between primary mission points, and getting a license to ride chocobos is a good 20 levels away. I take two very wrong turns before reaching a gate and running headlong towards a well-armored taru with the War Warlock initials “W.W.” behind his name. He casts a Signet spell that allows me to participate in Windurst’s subsidized conquest of other territories. That’s patriotic and everything, but my leveling motivations are much more self-interested. I rush the gate and wait a moment in darkness while the next map is loading.
Outside, the Sarutabaruta grasslands spread out between valley ridges. A hume (human), elvaan (elf), and mithra (feline folk) are knelt down together, healing near the gate. Their armor is unimpressive, indicative of their low level, but my cutesy taru pajamas are a dead giveaway of my own newbie status.
I target the first unassuming and innocent creature I see: a savannah rarab. This kangaroo rabbit-looking creature appears safe enough, so I attack. From a safe distance, Chuupa begins his whirling spell semantics and stones begin to pummel the rabbit up from the ground. While the spell effects are visually impressive the rabbit appears only mildly amused. The ‘active turn-based’ combat begins and the once unassuming and innocent rarab is now very pissed and hopping towards my indestructible Chuupa. My black mage’s rise to nefarious greatness begins here.
I’ve equipped my staff just in time to catch the bullwhip effect of the rarab’s tail attack. I swing my staff sideways in an attempt to linedrive this bastard past third base and shortstop. Swing and a miss. The rarab thwacks me again with a critical hit and the screen blurs for a moment. I fail to connect any of my pitiful swings, I’m soundly beat into the ground. Soon the rarab hops over my dead body sprawled facedown in the savannah grass. I make mental note of this.
Like any MMORPG, there is an unforgiving time investment demanded and a steep learning curve to master. A good handful of your first gaming hours will be spent in the rodent hunting business, but after that it becomes infinitely more engaging. Although there is no tutorial worth mentioning, you’ll be entering an online arena with an experienced roster of (for the most part) helpful players. After two years of balancing and steady improvement, this product lands in American PS2 owners’ hands with unprecedented maturity. Fan of the series or not, FFXI is still one of the finest MMORPGs out there. And if you run across the path of the infamous Chuupa, be very afraid.
Summary: Two years after its initial debut in Japan, few can compete with the storyline depth and graphic beauty this title delivers. Although some feel that something may be lost in translation, Square Enix has remained as faithful as possible in bringing a traditional RPG into the (ironically confining) world of open-ended online gaming.
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