When Final Fantasy XI was released for PlayStation 2 in 2002, it was part of the first wave of massive online experiences for consoles. Alongside games like Phantasy Star Online, it helped bring the MMO experience to the living room and pushed the Final Fantasy series to explore new frontiers. While the PS2 and Xbox 360 versions were shuttered in 2016, the PC version is still going, 17 years later. Last night, I logged in for the first time as a new player to find a clumsy but engaging world full of kind and enthusiastic players.
In order to play Final Fantasy XI, you need to sign up for PlayOnline, an online gaming service created by Square (now Square Enix) in 2000. For a while, it was one of the go-to launch applications for accessing online games, particularly in Japan; it also hosted Everquest II and the short-lived online mode for Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII. And you’ve still got to use it today, I found when I loaded up the PC version of Final Fantasy XI last night.
After downloading all of the necessary files, I booted up PlayOnline and was greeted by the sort of early 2000s internet home screen you’d see in a series like .hack. PlayOnline is a bubbly little thing, its menus home to jazzy music and other ambient tones. When I signed up, I even received a unique email account that I could access through the application. After navigating its menus and accessing Final Fantasy XI, I endured a six-hour patching process and then finally logged in.
What I found seemed hostile by modern standards. Final Fantasy XI exists in a sort of stasis lock where all of its old-school sensibilities make it incredibly hard to get started. When an NPC initially directed me to a quest giver, they laid out strict directions as if I was talking to someone on a real-life city street. Beyond that, there was little guidance. I had chosen the baroque-looking city of San d’Oria as my home, and the game dropped me there and left me to my own devices.
There were no quest markers or any form of guidance. A tutorial existed, but it was buried deep within menus and I only later found out about it when another player walked me through some basics. Final Fantasy XI doesn’t exactly get too many first-time players anymore. It’s a game of old-school veterans, and it is designed to facilitate their gameplay habits. If, like me, you are nearly 20 years late to the party, you’ll find that Final Fantasy XI doesn’t particularly care about making the onboarding process smooth.
While this apathy can initially be frustrating, it also leaves the player with an overwhelming sense of freedom. Unlike the series’ other MMO Final Fantasy XIV, I didn’t need to run around unlocking basic services. And where games like Star Wars: the Old Republic limit newbies to a starting zone whose story needs to be completed, I was completely free to choose a direction, walk wherever I wanted, and chat with NPCs in the hopes of stumbling upon adventures and quests. There’s a purity to that experience that guides players to create their own goals. I settled for leaving the city and beating up wildlife in order to level up and increase my skills.
Final Fantasy XI’s combat experience is remarkably passive compared to those of modern MMOs. Whereas most current games have you cycling through a collection of abilities with a variety of effects and cooldown lengths, much of Final Fantasy XI is automated. You pick a target, select the attack option, and watch as your character begins to duke it out with whatever orc or wild rabbit you’ve set your sights on. As you defeat enemies, you gain experience that raises statistics like health and strength, and you also gain individual points for special traits like hand-to-hand combat or dodge. Punch more and you’ll get better at punching. As that skill increases, you’ll gain access to skills that you can use in combat.
It’s somewhat opaque, and means that a lot of the experience is spent watching things play out instead of actively participating in moment-to-moment combat decisions. The result is a process that’s oddly meditative. You wander from area to area, size up enemies, and maybe occasionally select an ability to use. As you explore, maybe you’ll find a quest-giving character or sometimes run into another player. But the raw experience is something more solitary, at least at early levels.
To compensate for this isolation, I streamed my initial hours on Twitch, and found myself interacting with a chat that held many fond memories of their time spent in Final Fantasy XI. This was a formative MMO for many people, either as a point of contact with the genre or a long-lasting adventure. My misadventures—running as a goblin chased me through a zone, getting lost in the winding San d’Orian streets—were amusing echoes of other players’ experiences. I was bumbling but in good company, and my stream managed to attract some in-game help.
To my surprise, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a diminutive thief who found me in the wild. Without so much as an introduction, they offered to trade with me, and I opened the menu. They offered me 500,000 gil, a significant amount of money for a newbie like me. After a few hours of beating up monsters, I only had around 30 gil. It was confusing. Was there simply some small, dapper philanthropist wandering the game world and tossing money at newbies? As it turned out, they’d stumbled upon my livestream and decided to track me down to lend a helping hand. It speaks to the kindness of Final Fantasy XI’s community. This is a game that resists easy learning, but some established players who suffered through the early game are eager to help dimwitted adventurers like myself.
My subsequent education at the hands of this tiny master player revealed that Final Fantasy XI is largely a single-player game with occasional personal interactions—that is,until you reach the massive endgame hunts against notorious monsters. In the years since its release, quality-of-life improvements have shifted Final Fantasy XI into a game that’s remarkably friendly to lonesome adventurers if you can penetrate its initial layer of obfuscation.
Much of this rests in the “Trust” system that was added to the game in 2013. It allows players to assemble a party of NPC allies to help them progress through the massive amount of content that’s accumulated over the years. Quest givers and limited-time events grant players access to allies of all classes and utility. After some help from my gentleman-thief benefactor, I was able to summon beefy paladins, stalwart samurai, and healing mages to assist me in my dungeon crawling.
Playing Final Fantasy XI today is a crash course in both old-school sensibilities and adaptation. The unrestricted freedom to explore wherever you might wander, without much of a guiding hand, captures an older and more romantic notion of digital worlds. Final Fantasy XI is less a theme park and more a national park, a loose connection of distinct landmarks connected by wandering trails and surrounded by barely-tamed wilderness. But as the player base shifted to a hardcore collection of stubborn holdouts and long-term veterans and left newbies without easy entry, it became necessary to provide tools that empower solitary journeying.
After getting over this initial hump, I’m left with a massive world at my fingertips. Between kind players, enthusiastic friends eager to join me, and my collection of NPC Trust companions, I have nearly 20 years of rich storylines and areas to experience at whatever pace I want. I had expected to find an abandoned world, limping along thanks to die-hard players. Instead, there’s an entire chapter of Final Fantasy history for me to explore now even though I missed it back in the day.