Game Design Spotlight #3: Final Fantasy XI's Uncompromising Combat Has One Of The Most Interesting Learning Curves In MMOs
A game that'll literally maul you until you finally use your head.
Welcome to the third installment of Game Design Spotlight, a weekly piece where I examine the design elements of various parts of an MMO, such as player-friendly systems and controversial time-gated features. Last week, we went down memory lane to discuss why Grizzly Hills is so beloved by the World of Warcraft community, and today, we're focusing on Square Enix's first foray into the MMORPG genre: Final Fantasy XI.
The combat system in Final Fantasy XI before the trust feature was added was a main highlight of the title, seeing as many players tackled most of the game together in parties out of necessity. Slowly gaining levels at dedicated camps in dangerous zones is the name of the game, but understanding the learning curve that comes with it is another part of the journey. Anyone not taking note of the systems in place and seeking veteran help from online sources will get mauled within Final Fantasy XI's opening hours.
That's what makes the uncompromising combat system in the game interesting, though. So often are players in MMOs led by the nose through obvious UI indicators, given funds to buy suitable equipment, and not consistently challenged to think wisely about enemy encounters, especially with today's titles. Final Fantasy XI doesn't give away the obvious or hold the hands of newbies, throwing them head-first into combat and other areas of the game to learn through doing.
A Different Time
To understand the finer points of the combat system, we have to go back to Final Fantasy XI's launch. The game was originally published and developed by Squaresoft and eventually Square Enix, releasing in 2002 for Japan on PlayStation 2 and PC and later globally. Alongside being the first game of its kind from Square, Final Fantasy XI also was the first MMORPG to offer cross-platform play between PS2 and PC. It became widely successful due to its feats as a cross-console title and was the most financially accomplished game in the entire series until Final Fantasy XIV showed up.
One selling point of Final Fantasy XI is obviously the combat, which adopted the ATB system from previous mainline games but took most inspiration from Final Fantasy XII. There's an assortment of jobs, skills, and even a macro feature to make initiating abilities or player actions quicker when clicking through menus is a hassle. It carried all the elements of a standard Final Fantasy but, in execution, became a crunchy, punishing, yet oddly progressive and rewarding combat system.
Newbies Got It Rough
After creating a character and choosing a starter city, Final Fantasy XI spits you out on the streets. You're broke, squishy (regardless of the job you picked), and likely have no idea how to open the in-game menu. You're off to a great start here, soon sent out into the wilds of Vana’diel for glory and country. Your first order of business? Kill an orc outside the city and steal their ax (really simple, honestly), but you'll realize after getting bopped to death that your power fantasy in a new foreign world is all a hoax.
You've skipped a step here. You've got to learn the tools of the trade, which means reading player-ran wikis to make sense of just about anything in Final Fantasy XI. The first learning curve of the game is knowing you can't do that whole "I'm gonna learn as I go" thing. Guides, whether focused on new players or veterans seeking advice on a particular level range, are immensely significant to your enjoyment of the game.
Thankfully, a lot of the advice focuses on combat and leveling. See, there's a bar option called "Check" in-game that lets you size up an enemy, giving you an idea of how strong they are on a scale of "Easy Prey" to "Impossible to Gauge." While it doesn't give away their level, players will generally want to fight "Easy Prey" or the next step up, "Decent Challenge," to avoid getting curb stomped.
Making things worse is the type of monster you battle. I told you at the outset of the game that an orc will kick your teeth in, but they are not the only mob to look out for. Some enemies can sling poison and cast a magical DoT (damage over time) debuff on you and beefy monsters with high defense outlast you over the battle because you have little health. "Check" is extremely important, but knowing if you can duke it out with a specific troublesome beast is another learning curve some got the hang of through constant deaths.
Another imminent learning curve is using TP, MP, and class battle skills proactively through back-to-back slow-paced combat sequences. Final Fantasy XI has its standard affair of classes, such as Warrior and White Mage, unlocking signature class skills through leveling.
These classes have ideal weapons they should use and magic only they can wield. Where things get complicated is how a weapon type - like a sword - must be leveled through combat to unlock devasting weapon skills. The same leveling process applies to magic but only strengthens your spells.
Early in, you have no flashy moves and barely two coins to put together to buy magic (yes, really) for yourself. Here, the grindier elements of Final Fantasy XI rear its head, but taking the time to beef up your arsenal of skills will definitely boost your longevity in the long run. Incidentally, most of the hard lessons are between levels 1-10. Throughout those levels, the game teaches the player not to overshoot - meaning pulling away mobs from aggressive ones, resting in safe spots, and not straying far from the city. The best part is that these can all be accomplished easily by...
Using Your Head
The classic version of Final Fantasy XI worked best with players who never minded falling into the methodical loop of gaining experience and becoming stronger. One enemy at a time, all players would have to build their way to power brick by brick.
The combat system was like a deliberate tango - albeit slower - but intensely heightens your anxiety when you and the enemy reach 5% health, and one miss could be the end for one of you. This cycle of jumping into risky fights teaches players to slow down and make wise decisions because everything is a process...even in a fictional world.
Well, that concludes another week of Game Design Spotlight! For those curious, the retail Final Fantasy XI is a different game from where it started, and there are classic servers like Eden hoping to preserve its earlier years. If you ever played Final Fantasy XI, what are your thoughts on the combat system? Also, leave any games or features you'd like me to cover for next week's story in the comments if you have any suggestions!
About the Author
Anthony Jones is a gaming journalist and late 90s kid in love with retro games and the evolution of modern gaming. He started at Mega Visions as a news reporter covering the latest announcements, rumors, and fan-made projects. FFXIV has his heart in the MMORPGs scene, but he's always excited to analyze and lose hours to ambitious and ambiguous MMOs that gamers follow.
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