"Let the buff guy go in and take the damage while you back him up with healing spells to keep him from dying. If he should die, you can always revive him with the appropriate item. Unfortunately, your buddies won't return the favor. Even if you buy them healing items and hand them over, those friends of yours will just stare blankly at your ghost should you happen to perish in battle."
All those times you played MMORPGs with your friends, do you recall thinking to yourself how cool the game would be if those other people weren't involved and you could go it alone? Remember thinking it would be sweet to receive e-mails from a computer rather than your best online pal? Neither do I. But apparently, Bandai decided to honor the request gamers never made, and now we get to experience the first MSORPG (massive single-player offline role-playing game). Not only that, but we get to buy four games before we can experience the whole thing! If this sounds like an awful experience, it's because the above description focuses merely on the negative aspects of this game. But there are positives. And surprisingly, this game is every bit as fun as those late night gaming sessions of Phantasy Star Online. No friends required.
When you first bring home the game, you'll open it and find the first disc you see is actually a DVD. It's not a game, but rather an anime feature that lasts around 45 minutes. In the movie, a girl and her boyfriend play a game known as ''The World.'' It's her first time playing, and the next thing she knows, she's awoken in a hospital. Her boyfriend isn't so fortunate and remains in a coma. She beats herself up over the whole experience, until a mysterious stranger with former ties to the company that produced the game comes and offers to help her find what caused the unfortunate incident. Together they investigate. When the disc ends, the story has just really begun. Much like the way the game will will end. There are four parts to the series, the remaining three of which are planned for release later this year at $50 a pop. But I'm getting ahead of myself. When you first begin playing, none of that is likely to be on your mind.
From the start of the game, you'll log onto The World. The setup is that your friend Orca has invited you to play. You're new to the experience, much like the girl in the DVD, and Orca is willing to show you around. He's a level 50 character, buff as can be, and he's going to guide you through a simple low-level area so you can build your levels and get the hang of things. As you explore the first dungeon with him, however, you witness a strange girl go flying through one of the corridors. A strange monster is following her. Orca is confused that so powerful a monster would be in this beginner area, but he continues to serve as the dutiful guide and you reach the treasure at the dungeon's end, then turn around and start back (as Orca neglected to bring an item to warp you back to the beginning of the area). Along the way, you run into that monster. Orca advises you to stand back, as this is a truly powerful foe. Powerful indeed. It lifts Orca into the air as if crucifying him, and the data is drained out of his character. Next, it sets its sights on you. A glitch prevents you from suffering the same fate as your friend, and you leave the game to discover Orca has fallen into a coma in the real world.
The story in the game unfolds in front of your eyes. Bits about what's happening outside of the game are narrated by your character. None of it looks particularly impressive, but this isn't a game about visuals. The plot really is intriguing, and it will grow moreso as you advance. There's some sort of conspiracy going on, your characters begin to suspect as stranger and stranger events occur. Areas are locked off suddenly. Glitches are reported on the message boards, but then those messages--sometimes ones you posted--mysteriously are deleted. There's a good sense of mystery throughout the game, heightened by appearances of other characters. You learn that Orca is something of a celebrity in this world. And someone doesn't like you poking about to see what happened.
The way this game's developer presents the story is masterful at times, flawed at others. Generally, you learn more in e-mails between trips into new dungeons, or from posts on the message boards. Occasionally, you'll meet a new character and watch a brief dialogue where a new clue emerges. Unfortunately, another technique used far too frequently is to see a post on a message board mentioning a dungeon. You go there, find a character, they say a line or two of information, then disappear. Only half the time do you really feel like you're working to unravel a mystery. The rest of the time, it's like you're a baby sitting in a highchair, waiting for the next spoonful.
Fortunately, you're not the only one with good intentions trying to discover what else there is to the story. You'll meet friends 'online,' characters like BlackRose, Mai, Natsume, Piros, and so forth. Each of these characters has a unique personality and history. You'll learn more about them mostly through casual e-mails. Mistral, for example, likes to bake apple pies. Each friend is presented as a real person with a real life, and there are times when you'll want to take Piros into a dungeon, perhaps, but he is nowhere to be found online. There are other times when a specific friend wants you to venture to a certain dungeon alone. For the most part, these excursions are believable. At times, though, they're annoying. Why do your friends always insist on going to the most currently dangerous area available at the moment? Because the plot requires it.
Still, the developer gets points for originality. I can't recall the last game where so unique a plot unfolded through simulated e-mails. It would have been nice if there were more depth to the e-mail program. You get a message, read it, and often can respond in one of two ways. The answers you can give are always quite inane and seldom match what you might really say to those messages. Still, there are obvious technical reasons the developers didn't give you that ability. What's here isn't all that bad.
More successful than the e-mails you can receive are the message board topics. These follow a threaded format and are well-executed. There are somewhere around 20 million users enjoying ''The World'' according to news clips, but surprisingly few see fit to actually post. About half of them just include inane drivel. The others say where they saw a weird monster or ask where a vanished friend has gone. It's here you will also find challenges to play tag with the goblin kings (each time you do so, you get a piece of golbin armor you can assemble for a cool special ability), descriptions of how to use your weapons and magic, and information about the grunty.
Ah, the grunty. Sounds like the witch from Banjo-Kazooie, but it's not. A grunty is a creature in this world that resides on the second server. It's a little bit like a pig mixed with a cow. When you find a baby in the stable, you can feed it special food and depending on what you give it, the creature will mature into one of several types of adults. The adults then will have items available that you can purchase. If you've done well, this is the way to find some extremely rare items. Choosing the appropriate food, then, is extremely important. And having the right food is, as well. You can find that food in the game's numerous dungeons and fields.
The dungeons and fields make up the bulk of the game, as you might imagine. When first you enter an area, you're placed in its field. This is the overworld. You are in a wide plain where you can run about facing enemies. Fruit grows on the surface, generally, and the field where you are battling determines what type of fruit grows there. Apples are in forests, for example, and pumpkins are in deserts. Cherries are in the wintry areas. A field often also contains a special spring. Throw an item into that spring and it will often be returned to you in a more powerful form, so long as what you threw in wasn't all that powerful in the first place. Also, of course, there is the entrance to the area dungeon.
A dungeon in this game truly feels like the typical MMORPG offering. The map is very similar to one from Phantasy Star Online, a vast area with linked rooms that become visible as you explore them. No dungeons are really randomly generated. They just feel as if they are. Rooms are expansive with only little interactivity in each one. Treasure chests litter the path, and breakable objects that may or may not contain collectable goodies. Opening a treasure chest can be a risk, too, if it's the wrong color. There are trap chests which must first be disarmed before they can safely be utilized. Romping through dungeons at first can be tedious, but slowly it grows on you. Monster encounters are actually fun and, blessedly, once a monster is dead it remains dead until you exit and re-enter that area. That means if you have to backtrack because your main character died, you aren't forced into more encounters while returning to the surface.
And you will die. Numerous times. Your team is comprised of up to three individuals, yourself included. You're only in control of Kite, your character (who can be renamed if you so desire). He's a good enough character, with decent mobility and speed and a fair selection of weapons and armor he can equip. But he is a little weak against the big bruisers you might encounter around that next bend. So working with your teammates becomes essential. Let the buff guy go in and take the damage while you back him up with healing spells to keep him from dying. If he should die, you can always revive him with the appropriate item. Unfortunately, your buddies won't return the favor. Even if you buy them healing items and hand them over, those friends of yours will just stare blankly at your ghost should you happen to perish in battle. Most frustrating. It's the only flaw in what otherwise is a battle system that really does make you feel as if you are playing with friends. They congratulate each other when new levels are attained, too. A nice touch.
Another nice touch is the trading system and the gift system. Suppose you have the rod that the wavemaster in your group could use. You can either trade it for whatever she has that you want, or you can just give it to her as a gift. Generally, giving an item as a gift is simpler, since your friend is unlikely to have anything worth owning. Give her that powerful new weapon and she'll thank you and equip it. Her affection for you will also grow. Even if a character is not in your party, there's still the potential for a trade. Characters stand around in town and they're always up for a way to get some of your best items in exchange for a mediocre item they may have that you want. Also, an ax might mean nothing to one character but the world to another. So looking at a character's class is helpful, just as it should be.
Since the developer spent so much time working on the details, it would be nice to think everything works smoothly. Alas, it does not. Some of the problems with the game seem rather obvious, and it's painful to experience them when so many other issues were so carefully resolved.
The first of these problems is the camera. Admittedly, it only crops up occasionally. More often than not, you'll find it annoying in town, where there are fortunately no enemies to worry about. The streets of towns--especially the first one--are quite narrow. So as you rotate around your character with the 'L1' or 'R1' button, it can sometimes snag on buildings and you can loose perspective. Sure, you can also use the right analog stick to scroll around to the side, but this stick also zooms you in and out. The camera will often bounce crazily about if you try that. Sometimes this happens in dungeons as well. You might be facing an enemy and it steps to the side. Suddenly you can't see it. While the monster is attacking, you sweep the camera around to get a better view, just in time to see yourself going down. Like I said, though, this isn't terribly common on the battlefield. I can't recall ever dying in battle strictly because of the camera.
This is because the developers thankfully decided that if you need to access the item menu, the game will wait for you. Suppose Kite is in the middle of a fight with a giant butterfly (a more intimidating opponent than you might suppose). He's taking heavy damage and you see your life gauge dropping toward the '0' point. Quickly press the appropriate button, select the appropriate item, and your health is refilled. You can do this numerous times in rapid succession to heal your pals, so long as your stock of items supports it.
Speaking of items, they're another problem. You can only carry up to 40 unique items into the battlefield, though you can carry numerous copies of any one of those (up to 99). This sounds like an extremely generous number at first, but then you find you really need a set of scrolls for just about every element. And you need healing items, and wires to disarm traps, and ocarinas to exit the dungeon, and so forth. You quickly realize you don't have much room at all for any new treasures you may find. Giving extras to your inept computer-controlled friends along the way is little better than tossing them into the virtual trash; you'll unlikely see them again unless you're willing to trade. And though you can store items back in town, this does become a bit of a hassle. As such, the items system is more a nuisance than the neutral experience it could have (and should have) been.
Graphics are also working against this title. While the two main towns featured in this game look quite nice with a good amount of detail such as reflections in the water and crumbling boardwalks, fields and dungeons leave much to be desired. Most fields are extremely hazy and you can't see clearly beyond the battle at hand. There's an extreme depth of color variety, which means this looks nowhere near as nice as Phantasy Star Online. This seems acceptable given the number of areas, until you realize a lot of area graphics are reused numerous times. The lack of variety really hurts. And dungeons themselves are a mixed bag. There's occasional splendor to a cave (most noteably the item room), but for every room with mediocre to impressive architecture, there are ten endless corridors that look like first-gen Nintendo 64 titles. Characters are animated more impressively, but there aren't all that many you'll see in the game so this is hardly an accomplishment. The only real plus visually is the variety of enemies, most of which are detailed and good fun to look at. Considering this is a DVD format title, one has to wonder what occupies all that space. There isn't even all that much FMV, aside from a clip when you perform a special move.
At least sound fares slightly better. While none of the music is terribly memorable, there's a good variety. Characters often have theme songs that stand out and really do a good job of representing individuality. And a lot of the sense of eeriness in a dungeon is accomplished by careful instrumental selections. As you progress through the game, you can acquire copies of these tunes to play on your virtual desktop.
There are voices in the game, too, and these are definitely a mixed bag. Each character has only a few things to say outside of events, and these expressions grow annoying quickly. They ask you to heal them almost all the time, they sound irritated when you're about to offer them items as gifts, and so forth. It's enough to make you change your mind about that charitable donation you were intending. Oddly enough, the highlight in the voice department isn't the sometimes stumbling dialogue various voice actors deliver, but the cheerful and often cheesy shouts that come from various food items you are collecting for your grunty back in Root Town.
Another of the game's flaws is the data drain. At first, it seems a truly exciting feature. You go into battle and wear down an enemy until it is almost dead. Then it is susceptible to a data drain. Do this and the enemy is turned into a weak opponent and you may obtain an item, hopefully a data core. Then the enemy is defeated and you gain piddle for experience, instead of the regular points that would have come if you had defeated it in its original form. For the most part, the data drain is best saved for boss battles, or you'll never build up good experience. There's also the fact that if you use it too often in a given area, it starts to malfunction. This can be annoying at times, fatal at others. For example, you can sometimes mess up so bad that all your party members lose control and wipe each other out. Game over. No experience gained, no items. That can be truly frustrating. This is compounded by the fact that you do need data cores at some points to progress further into the game. Whenever you need to hack a gate, you need those data cores.
And just what is a gate? It's your entrance into a field. Each server has one town and one gate. You can use that gate to switch to the other server (once it becomes available) or to skip off to a new area. At a gate, the area to which you go can be chosen randomly, or you can enter keywords from a word list gleaned from message boards or e-mails, or you can compose a string of words of your own. To compose a string of words, you choose a word from each column. These words determine the type of field, the elemental affinity of monsters, and so forth. You can find good areas to raise your levels in this fashion. However, there are times when an area is protected, and the story demands you go there. What then? It's time to hack a gate.
Hacking a gate sounds really cool, and in one way it is. You have to use data cores to set rings onto a four-sided post. The problem is that in a standard battle, you can get only an A, B, or C core. Most gates require one of a higher letter such as N, O, or P to unlock. The only way to get these is to fight a boss in a specific dungeon. In this way, the game controls your progression. While it's easy to see why this was necessary, it does rob the player of some of the artificial sense of freedom that should have existed in a game of this type.
Even with this flaw, though, the game does maintain some freedom, which is what ultimately makes it succeed. You are always free to visit areas that don't contribute to the storyline. Each new area has some treasure you can obtain. And there may be tough monsters that help you build up your levels for the next required dungeon (there's a lot of level building in this game, but fortunately a tougher dungeon is always available if you're brave enough, so intelligent use of the gate can help you and your 'friends' gain strength quickly). Oddly enough, even going into dungeons with no real reward can be fun with your favorite simulated friends.
This sense of fun defies all odds. I never would have thought it, but these encounters with computer-generated pals can sometimes be even more enjoyable than the real thing. On that regard, the developer has succeeded. What this all rolls together to mean is that when you've spent the 25 or so hours it takes to accomplish everything possible in this game, you'll not only be glad you've played it, but you'll also find yourself looking forward to the release of the sequel. I know I am.
Staff review by Jason Venter (February 17, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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