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Not so Final Fantasy – ‘FFXI’ and the Series’ First Foray into MMO Territory

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Not so Final Fantasy is a tri-weekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.

On 31 March 2016, almost fourteen years after the game first released in Japan, Final Fantasy XI’s PS2 and Xbox 360 servers were shut down for good.

Fortunately for those who still maintain an interest in this venerable old MMO, it remains playable on PC to this day; receiving regular patches to keep the game running smoothly for its loyal fanbase. And yet, despite XI’s impressive longevity, I must confess, I’ve never actually played it.

Not because I didn’t want to, mind. Though initially sceptical about Square’s decision to abandon the series’ single player roots – temporarily, of course – the more I learned about the game, the more excited I became. Until, that is, I discovered it required a monthly subscription. Admittedly, I could have covered the cost using the earnings from my weekly paper route, but that would have left me short on money for Pokémon cards and sweets. Similarly, I could have sought help from the bank of Mum and Dad, but I couldn’t, in good conscience, expect my parents to fork out each and every month for this one title alone. Upon this realization, my visions of conquering the vast, picturesque landscapes of Vana’diel slowly faded.

What’s the point of this article, then, if I’ve no first-hand experiences on which to reminisce? Well, obviously this won’t be a normal retrospective. Instead, using my knowledge of the wider series and the treasure trove of Final Fantasy XI-specific information available on the net, my aim is to consider how and why Square Enix’s first foray into the MMO genre achieved the level of success it did and, more importantly, to show some love to a game that perhaps doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

Possibly the biggest hurdle it had to overcome at the time was proving to long-time series aficionados, myself included, that, despite the drastic change in direction, XI was still very much a Final Fantasy game. And it really is. Flush with numerous features and series tropes even casual fans couldn’t fail to recognize, XI displays a commendable reverence for the past.

First and foremost, as with all good Final Fantasy titles, it’s anchored by a strong central narrative. With the peoples of the world facing extinction at the hands of a seemingly irresistible force – in this case represented by a pantheon of capricious deities rather than a maniacal court jester or a time-manipulating sorceress from the future – it falls to the player and his/her band of fellow adventurers to neutralize this divine threat and return peace to the world. Along the way, the player encounters a familiar cast of colorful NPCs, evocative locations, colossal fauna, and yes, even the odd magically-infused crystal; accompanied by another sumptuous soundtrack arranged by legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu.

Pretty much par for the course in terms of setup, easing the player into this strange new world with the tenderness of a mother. Nevertheless, being a shared-world environment, I can only imagine playing through this welcomingly familiar narrative feels slightly different from other Final Fantasy games. At the end of the day, each individual player’s centrality to the events of the story is entirely subjective. So, while they may be integral to the plot from their own perspective, as far as the other inhabitants of Vana’diel are concerned, they’re just another potential ally. The Yuffie to their Cloud. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a jarring or inferior experience.

Yes, seeing countless other adventurers undertaking the same quests in the same physical world might diminish the importance of any given individual’s endeavours, in the same way that multiple pairs of Hobbits taking multiple evil rings to multiple active volcanos to destroy multiple dark lords would make the efforts of any given Frodo and Sam feel somewhat less crucial. But with a selection of available starting points to choose from and the freedom to complete quests in any order the player desires, one person’s journey through Vana’diel is likely to be vastly different from that of another. While the sheer variety of custom avatars – a mechanic which was itself a significant departure from the pre-fabricated heroes of the past – adds to the sense that each adventure is, in actuality, unique.

Gameplay-wise, there’s a similar mixture of the old, tried and tested Final Fantasy formula and more traditional MMO elements.

Sitting alongside a bestiary of intimidating monsters, multi-phase super-bosses, an extensive job system that operates much like Final Fantasy’s IV and XII, a map that gradually opens up as the player delves deeper into the story, and an arsenal of over-sized weapons, is a unique blend of real-time and turn-based combat. A fundamental seed change in design that, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say, was revolutionary for the series, heavily influencing its mechanical development in years to come.

Instantly noticeable is XI’s decision to eschew the random encounters of the past. No longer would players be brought to a screeching halt as the screen devolved in a haze of swirling color to a self-contained battle screen, wherein they’d be confronted by the snarling maw of their latest foe. Instead, monsters within close proximity to the player could be seen ambling around the world minding their own business, letting the player choose who to fight and when. Whilst I, personally, still prefer the tension of not knowing when I’ll be forced into a confrontation, the appeal of this type of approach is immediately apparent. I know only too well the dread of starting yet another battle trapped in the depths of a sprawling dungeon 20 minutes from the nearest save point with a severely depleted party.

In terms of the actual combat mechanics, however, XI operated at a similar pace to previous titles in the series. Though a more real-time-orientated player system meant that enemies were no longer forced to wait patiently for their turn as a highly orchestrated dance played out on screen, absorbing blows with casual indifference while the ATB gauge filled, it certainly wasn’t a frantic, arm-exhausting exercise in button-mashing either. As with all classic Final Fantasy games, the player selected their attacks from a comprehensive menu of commands, combining different abilities to manipulate the flow of the battle. A far cry from the slick, hectic confrontations of FFXV, XI sat somewhere in between the two extremes of pure real-time and calculated turn-based combat, broadening its appeal without sacrificing the tactical nuance the series is known for.

All the same, at its heart, Final Fantasy XI is still very much an MMO, and, as such, places a heavy emphasis on cooperative play.

Assembling a well-balanced squad of up to six players is essential to completing a quest or bringing down a particularly challenging foe in FFXI. Each member has to bring something different to the table, their chosen class complementing the rest of the party ensuring that they’re capable of dealing with a broad range of enemies and scenarios. Naturally, the most effective groups will be comprised of friends who know each other and their individual play styles, however, with an in-built translation tool helping players communicate with fellow adventurers from around the world using a set of stock phrases, match-making was a perfectly viable alternative for those who struggled to fill the remaining five slots from their friends list alone. There was a third option, specifically aimed at those who prefer to fly solo or, translation tool aside, are uncomfortable playing with complete strangers: the charmingly named ‘Adventuring Fellows’ – a group of AI-controlled companions who can be called upon to provide aid during battle. But, for serious players, a squad of human players was a must.

Cooperation aside, of arguably greater importance to the game’s success as an MMORPG was the fact that it never ceased to evolve over the course of its decade-and-a-half life-span. Outside of the usual updates and bug fixes, five fully-fledged ‘expansions’ and six smaller ‘add-ons’ (the latest of which arrived as recently as 2015), have been introduced since 2002, providing countless hours of additional story content and a multitude of exciting new quests to complete. The relative lack of PvP options and the lengthy EXP grind were never fully fixed during these updates, unfortunately, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of some, while the graphics are jarringly outdated by today’s standards. But, thanks to this steady flow of new content and Square’s relentless attempts to improve, XI retained a core of players who were always ready and willing to return for the latest raft of goodies.

Whatever way you look at it, Final Fantasy XI marks a turning point for the series. Not just because it was the first Final Fantasy MMO, but because of the influence it’s had on traditional single-player entries like XII, the XIII trilogy, and XV more recently. While the success and lasting appeal of XI was surely the single biggest determining factor in Square Enix’s decision to return to the MMO genre with FFXIV.

Yet, strangely, despite precipitating this wholesale shift in the series very DNA, the key to XI’s success appears to lie not in its differences from, but in its reverence for the past. XI’s creators might have seriously worried its mainline status prior to launch, but for producer Hiromichi Tanaka, it remains the most ‘Final Fantasy’ title of them all. And, while that’s a debatable statement when viewed through the lens of the wider series, with an undeniable air of familiarity pervading the entire game, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from, and why so many loved and continue to love it.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

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This Heart’s on Fire: ‘Death Stranding’ and Heartman

‘Death Stranding’ has no shortage of your standard Kojima weirdos but one that almost no one is talking about is the eccentric Heartman.

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Death Stranding Heartman

*This article contains spoilers up to and including Chapter 8 of Death Stranding*

Over the course of Hideo Kojima’s wildly ambitious Death Stranding there are a whole cavalcade of intriguing and intoxicating characters for players to meet and acquaint themselves with. From the guy with the weird goalie mask to the lady with the magical umbrella, there is no shortage here of your standard Kojima weirdos but one that almost no one is talking about is Heartman.

Portrayed by writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, best known for Drive, Heartman brings the game to a dead halt when you finally meet him face to face in chapter 8 but the reprieve comes as a welcome comfort to the player. Having just crossed a treacherous mountain range and survived a second trip to Clifford Unger’s war-torn beach, most players will welcome a little down time, and Heartman is there to provide it.

Death Stranding
It’s immediately clear that Heartman’s home is something special from the moment Sam walks through the door. Lit with a ring of holographic fire, the foyer of the mansion is immediately welcoming in the hostile environment of the snowy mountains. However, it also has a sort of clinical detachment to it. This is by design, as reality for Heartman is merely a distraction — downtime to be filled.

Yes, Heartman comes with the tragic backstory players will no doubt be expecting but, like most of them in Death Stranding, his is a real treat. Delivered partly through voiceover and partly through flashback, Heartman reveals how he lost his family to a terrorist attack while in the hospital for a heart operation. When he flatlined during the operation, though, he was able to find them on the beach before being whisked away back to reality.

Obsessed with finding them again and joining them, Heartman now spends his life in 24 minute intervals: 21 minutes of life, 3 minutes of death. Every 21 minutes Heartman journeys to the beach by flatlining himself with a personal AED, only to be resurrected 3 minutes later. During those 3 minutes though, where time is altered by the elastic effect of the Death Stranding, he seeks out his family and makes observations on how the beaches and the after life work.

Death Stranding
Bizarre as all of this is, it makes Heartman a truly fascinating character. Since his life is mainly confined to 21 minutes at a time, he has collected hundreds of books, movies, and albums which can be experienced during that tiny window of time. His study is brimming with them, stacked on the ceiling high bookshelves that surround his work area. Also in the study are eerie recreations of frozen corpses, old family photos, and a host of other curiosities, each of which will earn the player likes from Heartman for noticing them.

Of course, this is the most interesting part of the meeting. As Heartman continues to explain his theories, a counter occasionally appears in the bottom corner of the screen, showing how long Heartman has before he will flatline again. When the moment of truth finally comes, he lays himself down on a chaise lounge, turns over a golden hourglass and dies before your eyes. As the Funeral March begins playing from an old record player, Sam must keep himself busy for 3 minutes while he waits for Heartman to return to the land of the living. It’s a truly brilliant moment, as a counter appears in the bottom corner again, and the player must simply take in Heartman’s eccentric home from a first person perspective for 3 minutes uninterrupted.

What would be boring as sin under the wrong direction becomes a welcome moment for the player to just sit and absorb this strange, yet comforting, place. Then, after three minutes have elapsed, Heartman reawakens and picks up from where he left off as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. He even breaks the 4th wall as he continues to talk, swatting away the timer when it appears on screen again and adding likes to your counter in real time.


There’s really nothing like the meeting with Heartman in all of Death Stranding — but then, there’s nothing like Death Stranding really in the realm of gaming either. With its long periods of walking between haunted destinations and its deliberately cryptic mythology, the game is like a series of tone poems and intellectual treatises mashed together into a post-apocalyptic courier sim.

Heartman then, with his heart-shaped lake and pink-lit study, is just one more piece of Kojima’s mad puzzle here but what a piece he is. Who would have thought the most normal looking member of Death Stranding‘s bewildering cast would end up also being one of its most interesting? Certainly not this writer. Still, Heartman and his eerie, purgatorial existence make for one of the nicest surprises in the game.

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Five Best New Pokémon Designs from ‘Pokémon Sword and Shield’

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Much like Pokémon Sun and Moon before, Pokémon Sword and Shield is an adventure full of fascinating surprises. Some of those many surprises across the Galar region are the new pokémon you will come up against. While many of the designs in the eighth generation were a sorry sight to behold, here are five that should stand the test of time as welcome additions to the ever-growing franchise.

Flapple

When I first encountered an Applin, there was a stark realization across my mind that Pokémon had ran out of ideas. Here I was, with my then Sobble, about to fight an apple with eyes. It was about as baffling as the ice cream cone back in Black and White, which looked as if it was designed by a child. But for not the first time, I was wrong, and instead of becoming three apples or a pear, Applin actually has a fantastic evolutionary journey.

Throw a sweet apple at Applin, and it’ll evolve into a Appletun, which is an interesting evolution in its own right. But when you throw a tart apple in its direction, it evolves into something so much better, with the result becoming the Flapple we see above. A tiny dragon using the broken apple it burst out of to flap around in the air is a creative concept to say the least, and certainly helped to change my early judgement on the apple core pokémon.

Sirfetch’d

Farfetch’d has been an unfortunate pokémon ever since its illustrious debut on Pokémon Red and Blue. A weak pokémon that was rare by virtue of being delicious, Farfetch’d has been a pokédex filler ever since. Luckily, in the Galar region, the Farfetch’d are a little more feisty, with a new typing to match.

With a little patience and a shovel of goof fortune, you can evolve your Galarian form Farfetch’d into Sirfetch’d if you manage to deal three critical hits in one battle. The odds are increased if you catch a Farfetch’d holding a leek, and then further increased at level 55 when your Farfetch’d learns leaf blade. For what it’s worth, the hard work does pay off. Sirfetch’d is a fantastic design and suits the theme of Pokémon Sword and Shield honorably. The evolution that Farfetch’d always needed has been worth the two decade wait.

Galarian Corsola

For all the demonic ghost pokédex entries and back stories, the Galarian form Corsola hits most close to home. While the change is largely a new colour and a sad face, the reasoning can be a little more tragic.

There are no secrets about the destruction of the coral reefs across the world due to climate change. It only takes a change of a degree in temperature for the coral to expel the algae that gives them their unique colouring and become the bleached white. While the coral isn’t dead immediately, if left in that state, it does eventually starve to death. Hence Galarian form Corsola represents more than the sum of its parts, and its a clever message Game Freak has left in Pokémon Sword and Shield about the destruction of our ocean ecosystems.

Grapploct

Ever since Hawlucha, I have a bias towards Mexican wrestling pokémon. They’re fantastic. Clobbopus and Grapploct are no exception, and the only reason I’ve chosen Grapploct over Clobbopus is because of way Grapploct swam like a hungry Olympic swimmer to announce my destruction.

While its base stats are actually average, the confidence it showed to pursue me on my journey across the sea certainly left a stain. The design of Grapploct itself is so consistent with fighting type pokémon that it’s one of the least lazy designs in Pokémon Sword and Shield, and for all the prayers to Arceus, there are some hopelessly lazy designs in this generation.

Corviknight

This is going to be huge statement that might rile up a number of pokémon fans, but for me, Corviknight is the best designed bird pokémon. The whole concept fits the brief, from the armour on its head, to its seamless fit into the inspiration behind the region.

It’s no secret that the Galar region was inspired by England, from the train system to the architecture, there are pieces of Ol’ Blighty everywhere in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Some of those influences are seen in the pokémon themselves, and none express that more than Corviknight. The raven has a lot of folklore behind it, particularly its presence in the Tower of London. It is said that if the ravens were to leave the tower, then the destruction of England is imminent. As such, not only does Corviknight look like a formidable bird pokémon, it actually has a clever reason behind its design.

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‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still as Difficult, Demanding and Amazing to This Day

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later

Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!

What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.

What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.

But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.

It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

Donkey Kong Country

Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!

– Ricky D

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