Thursday, December 18, 2008

First impressions: Ragnarok Online DS

Originally written for Gamer Blag. 
(Author's Note: Considering that I played the game's Japanese release and I didn't want to force myself to "read" moonspeak by squinting at the text for long periods of time in the hopes of understanding it, I may have missed some options that would have improved my gaming experience.)

Finally managed to get my hands on Ragnarok Online DS, the miniature version of Gravity’s surprisingly resilient MMO. Despite my enthusiasm towards the concept of finally getting an RO experience (more or less) in the pocket, an hour or so of playtesting the game left me feeling a bit... "meh". Not too awesome, but not too crappy. 

Graphics: At first glance, the whole game looks like it's been ripped out from the original PC version of Ragnarok Online. Now, this is good: imagine being able to walk through the familiar Pronteran fields with the same trees, the same pathways and waters, and the same plop-plopping Porings, all in the compact handheld console that is your DS. Fields and dungeons are broken down into small parts so the player can go through the environments piecemeal with minimal lagging between areas and/or slowdown. 

Judging from the first dungeon I played through (DS exclusive; I'm not sure if I came across an underground dungeon solely populated with Porings and the Culvert theme playing in the background), expect some areas to be sparsely decorated. No pillars, no trees, no rocks; just you, the floor, and the poor Poring. Now, if you're a nitpicker you'd certainly go anal-retentive at the sore lack of background elements.

But what really gets to me is how the sprites look crappy when you zoom out your view. Surprisingly, the GungHo Works managed to make the zoom in/out function available in the DS incarnation, but it pretty much gives a mediocre result. The 3D background and textures still looks more or less the same, whether zoomed in or out, but the sprites become horribly pixellated when you crank up the zoom out view. And when I say pixellated, I say disfigured beyond recognition.

All things considered, liking Ragnarok Online DS' graphics its just a matter of nostalgia versus quality.

Interface/Controls: GungHo Works, the new console gaming arm of Japanese MMO publisher GungHo Entertainment, certainly made an effort to mimic the user interface of the game, at least to a certain level. They implemented the shortcut bar (or however you call it), where players can opt to hotkey skills and/or items for use during battles. Like the later version of the shortcut bar in the original RO, you can configure and swap between three bars with just a nudge of the stylus.

Now, here is where things go a bit wrong: it seems that in order for you to use skills, you have to tap the icon of your chosen skill in the shortcut bar, then immediately perform the needed motion to activate the skill (check related screens here). I see this as redundant - the developers could have opted a more streamlined control scheme akin to The World Ends With You, where players can just perform stylus motions anytime they like without having to push any buttons or tap any icons. I can see myself getting flustered at the game if ever I'll encounter a higher-level mob, tapping icons and doing random stylus motions, and maybe break the touchscreen in frustration. 

That said, the in-game controls of Ragnarok Online DS are mostly stylus-based, and the DS buttons are only used as shortcuts to the following windows:
Y - equip
B - stats
X - items
A - menu
R - notepad
The Notepad function is a cute addition to the game - I'm not sure if it's main use is to let players scribble important notes for quests, but I used it as a nifty drawing tablet. Seriously, though, its a convenient touch and most RPGs should make use of a similar function (like Phantom Hourglass and Phantasy Star). Hey, that's what the touchscreen and stylus is for.


Gameplay: I haven't gotten that far into the game to give pertinent impressions about its gameplay, but suffice it to say that it has a decent combat system similar to Soma Bringer. You control your newbie character, while your party member (you get a Shaman at the first part of the game) is controlled by AI. 

Since I couldn't make heads or tails of the moonspeak menu, I'm also not so sure if you can assign certain actions or behavior patterns on your teammates. It would be nice if you can order your partner, who has less that 1/4 HP, to defend himself or to concentrate on healing the party. That would really be a big plus towards the game.

Like the original Ragnarok Online, you can assign stat points to attributes such as Str, Int, Vit, etc. Sadly the stat attributes are labelled in kanji, so I couldn't tell which is which :/ I don't think I'll be able to play the game if my stats are stunted, so I think I'll just have to keep an eye out for FAQs for reference before I play again from scratch.

Sounds: Not surprisingly, Ragnarok Online DS makes use of the same soundtrack found in the original PC version. However, the background music is midi-fied, meaning that instead of the awesome SoundTEMP-produced orchestra and guitars you'll hear mostly techno bleeps and bops trying hard to emulate the original music, but they do a great job anyway. Except to hear the usual plop-plopping of Porings, and other sound clips that can't be mistaken for anything else but Ragnarok Online.

Miscallaneous but still important: Here's what really disappointed me about the game: I was duped by one of the game's cutscenes into thinking that I could walk around Prontera, showing clips and scenes of familiar Pronteran streets and landmarks, such as the fountain. After the cutscene, however, it turns out that I couldn't traverse the Pronteran alleyways (and maybe find a scamming vendor or two). To go to shops, inns, or go out of the city, all I have to do is talk to Ms. Pavianne, who would warp me to my chosen location.

What also ticked me off are the extremely long cutscenes. Sure, they're needed to build the game's story and all, but having to go through five full minutes of watching the characters talk, bump, or hit each other is nothing but tedious. Even more so when I'm allowed to do a short piece of actual game time after a lengthy cutscene, only to launch into another borefest again. I'm starting to think that Ragnarok Online DS is actually a parody of Metal Gear Solid 4, only without the Kojima touch. At least you can opt to skip cutscenes in his game.

Overall Impression: As I said before, it's not great, but not bad either. Yes, it looks like I'm weaseling out in this review, but let me reiterate that I'm playing a Japanese version of the game; there's a chance that I'll actually like Ragnarok Online if I can actually understand the menu, etc.

Pros: Good job in retaining the look, feel, and sound of the original game; character customization is enabled to some extent (naming, equipment, stat assignment...not so sure about being able to play as other classes, though. All the screenshots I've seen is the main character wearing a knight sprite); small things such as the inclusion of zoom in/out function as well as the notepad.

Cons: Crappy sprites on zoom-out, redundant battle controls, extremely long cutscenes, not being able to explore cities like the original Ragnarok Online.