Square is heading into the online world with Final Fantasy XI...and with it, back to Nintendo.
Square's Final Fantasy series has always been about straightforward, linear storytelling. Except for a throwaway "two-player" option in one or two of the games, the series has never ventured into the multiplayer realm.
All that is changing with Final Fantasy XI. It is set to be the first multiplayer, online game from Square, and one of the first massively multiplayer console games period. (Depends on your definition...Sega's Phantasy Star Online supports thousands of players on each server, but the actual gameplay is done in groups of up to four. Square has not yet revealed whether FFXI will use a similar game design or something more akin to Sony's Everquest.) For the first time, millions of Final Fantasy fans around the world will be able to interact and explore FFXI's world and story cooperatively...and perhaps competitively.
Even just several months out from the game's Japanese release (barring delays), we still know very little about this landmark game in the series. It will definitely feature realistic, beautiful graphics. The few videos that exist focus on broad landscapes like deserts and plains, and on bizarre creatures. Whether players can play as such creatures or just confront them remains to be seen.
Not much has been said about the battle system, but you can expect the token magic spells and both melee and ranged weapons. There is a decent possibility that combat will be handled in real-time, which would also be a major first for this franchise. Sega side-stepped many technical issues of multiplayer combat by using real-time in PSO rather than turn-based affairs, but they also got some criticism that the decision turned PSO into more a button-smasher than an RPG. You can bet that if Square takes FFXI down the real-time path, they'll do it a lot differently than Sega did.
One of the biggest questions surrounding this game is how the story will be handled. Square is known for lavish, complex plots in their FF series; converting that experience to an online format presents many possibilities and many problems. Will there be an overall plot that each player discovers and progresses through individually? Will FFIX's world be built upon a premise and then sculpted by the users after that? It's very hard to tell at this point, but Square's handling of this aspect could very well make or break Final Fantasy XI.
Hironobu Sakaguchi has made it no secret that he intends to release FFXI on multiple platforms, and he has actually mentioned GameCube specifically. At this time, the game has still only been officially confirmed for PlayStation 2 and PC. Don't let that fool you though; Square intends for FFXI to be available on all major platforms, because they want a very large userbase to be able to interact regardless of hardware restrictions. The biggest hurdle in bringing Final Fantasy back to Nintendo systems is probably NCL's own Hiroshi Yamauchi, who has consistently denied any arrangements with Square and is known to harbor resentment for the massive third-party's PlayStation exodus with Final Fantasy VII. Some people think Yamauchi is merely playing hardball, locking out Square until they agree to develop GameCube-exclusive titles as well. In the end, money talks, and Square has lots of that. They also have a huge fanbase even among Nintendo's hardcore following that very much wants to see these gaming giants kiss and make up. Only time will tell...until then, we're listing FFXI as a rumored title for GameCube, but a strong one.