Monday, 24 April 2017

It's A Magical World : Twin Saga

Twin Saga continues to impress. In fact it's getting better. The feverish hysteria of the opening few levels has given way to a much steadier, more measured pace and most of the dubious sexual politics and Benny Hill innuendos have vanished, hopefully never to return.

Instead what we have is a simple, linear plot with few digressions, played out against a series of stunning, vibrant, saturated landscapes that feel both familiar and alien all at once. The characters are drawn in broad strokes but they have personality and, coming back to a new session, I have no trouble remembering who is who, something I certainly couldn't say about every MMO.

The horns and the dress came in the mail. I paid cash for the furniture.

I'm concentrating on following the narrative but I'm aware that all around me lie other possibilities even though, unlike most free to play games, Twin Saga does very little to push them in front of your face. There are log-in rewards and daily quests but you could easily miss them altogether, which would be a shame since the rewards are worthwhile - devil horns, inventory expanders, new outfits...

There are "hidden" quests that you might believe are hidden only in the way your four year-old thinks you can't see him when he can't see you. Any NPC or object with a green exclamation mark rather than a yellow one starts a "hidden" quest.

The name is misleading rather than plain wrong. What's really hidden in these quests isn't how to get them but what to do once you do. The auto-path feature doesn't work for them and they require "problem solving skills" as the wiki puts it. They are, in other words, what we used to call "quests".


Then there are the "Astral Adventures" that pop up all over the open world. Signaled by a hard-to-miss glowing cube followed by a breadcrumb trail of gigantic question marks, these aren't even slightly other-worldly - or particularly adventurous for that matter. I suspect irony.

Astral Adventures are short stories that focus on the quotidian lives of inhabitants of this landscape through which you're always rushing on your own oh-so-important journey. When you take one on, you, the adventurer, become the observer. There's a lot of following to see what happens next and generally very little "action".

"Hand-crafted artisanal matches". Roll that one around your tongue for a while.

At various points you're asked to make a life-choice on behalf of the protagonist and the cat is revealed to be either alive or dead. Next time you encounter the same Astral Adventure you can choose differently and watch the possibilities shift. Heavy stuff.

The third in this triptych of idiosyncratic opportunities comes in the form of  "Conversations". Rein in your excitement! The name of this activity is unarguably accurate as far as it goes but don't go running away with the idea it's you who'll be conversing with anyone.

What you can't see is that off-camera Selena's Entourage are chanting "Kill! Kill! Kill!" I'm getting Manson Family vibes.

No, your role in these conversations is entirely that of auditor. Oh, let's not be coy! You're being invited to eavesdrop on conversations that are entirely none of your beeswax. Well, who could resist?

When you see a gaggle of NPCs standing around with little ellipsis-filled speech bubbles over their heads, take it as an invitation to earwig. Sidle in close and pretend to be studying your map or fixing  your shield-straps and you'll overhear something to your advantage.

Not, you understand, that anyone's talking about you. These people don't even know you exist. They have their own concerns and they don't mind airing them among friends, of which you pointedly are not one.
I think we can all guess where this conversation is going.

Everything in life is a learning experience, though, or it is if you make it one. By the simple act of listening to gossip you can gain loyalty points. Loyalty to what? Beats me. Who cares? You get a title for every conversation you overhear and that's what matters!

Twin Saga is about nothing if it's not about the titles. The last time I saw honorifics handed out so freely was in LotRO, where tripping over a pebble gets you the suffix "Pebble Tripper" (not really, I don't think, although I haven't checked. Maybe it does. Wouldn't surprise me in the slightest).

I haven't counted how many titles there are altogether but I know there are dozens, scores of them. What's more, unlike other MMOs where a title is merely something people call you, in Twin Saga prefixes and suffixes come with stat boosts attached. Run around with "Casual Gamer" after your name, a title I was very excited to receive, and your Attack stat goes up eight points. Earning the right to call yourself "Popular" gets you +16 haste.

Back in the Terracottage there are more subsystems to understand. Your Senshis live there when they're not out acting as your unpaid mercenaries in the field and they have a whole set of quests of their own. They get blue exclamation points and they like to reward you for keeping their loved ones entertained while you hold them hostage as well as for using the facilities in their prison. Okay, that's not exactly how they put it but try telling that to the judge after their families stage an intervention. Stockholm syndrome is not a defense in law, that's all I'm saying.

You know that thing where you put the wrong seed packet on the row marker?
It was through talking to one of my Senshi's, Fina, that I ended up planting cotton, flax and various root vegetables in my greenhouse. It's another interesting entertainment opportunity. For a few silver you can buy seeds from one of the vendors, who's inexplicably made the life-choice to travel with you inside a giant tortoise.

These seeds you plant in convenient molehills. Then you wait for them to grow, which takes anything from a few minutes to a few hours of real time. There are a whole bunch of factors you can affect which supposedly genetically modify your crop. I'm kind of surprised this game's legal in the EU.

I don't yet understand how much of this works. It reminds me of the plant growth systems in Black Desert Online and it took me a while to get to grips with those so I expect I'll need to do some reading and maybe watch some YouTube tutorials. So far I'm just letting the things grow as they will then handing them off to Fina so she'll like me even more than she already does. I'll know she lubs me when she raises my stats.

Here's a great UI trick I've not seen before:
if you scroll the view with the mouse wheel,
your character pops out of the frame.
Simple but very effective.
You'd think that might be the game's Reputation system but no, it has one of those elsewhere. It's actually called "Reputation" and it lets you buy things from special vendors. Giving gifts to your Senshi doesn't appear to have a name unless maybe it's called Gifting. I think I need a lie down now.

As has often been observed, part of the attraction of new MMORPGs is the mental stimulus that comes from learning new systems and mechanics. That almost certainly accounts for some of the really quite strong interest I appear to have developed for playing Twin Saga. The fact that it's gorgeous to look at and extremely elegantly designed doesn't hurt, either.

When it comes to what you might call the traditional gameplay - hitting things until they fall over so they give you loot - there's really not a lot to say. My character is in the low 40s and I believe she has died just once. That was in the first story dungeon, when I naively allowed her to auto-path from the entrance to the final boss, where she ended up fighting both him and every single mob in the instance, all of which had followed along behind her in one titanic train. Not doing that again.

"Difficulty", such as it is, seems to ramp up along with the levels only by dint of an annoying mechanic I think of as the "add two" formula. We started off with each quest asking us to kill four foozles. Then it was six. Then eight. At level 42 the per-quest foozle tariff is fourteen. I dread to think what it will be by the time we hit the level cap at 65.

This guy's a Boss that comes over to your side when you beat him. Oh, sorry, PLOT SPOILER!!

Another way the game slows down the pace as it progresses is in the frequency and length of its cut-scenes. There didn't seem to be all that many of these to begin with but now we seem to be fast approaching Square Enix levels of exposition.

Fortunately, quality is keeping pace with quantity. I find myself actively looking forward to every new cut scene then sitting back and enjoying them as they come. There's quite a bit of voice acting, all of it in Japanese. I find it quite endearing and oddly immersive. It's very much like watching a subtitled movie, only in reverse: instead of thirty seconds of dialog crushed into a five-word subtitle, here you sometimes get two lines of text to represent what sounds like a single barked syllable.
Might just as well have called the game Sister Issues and had done with it.

The central narrative itself continues to hold my attention. It has one of those "we're getting the old team back together" skeletons that Hollywood and I find both endlessly appealing and it's refreshingly free of the usual convoluted backstory. The regular boss fights that punctuate the general questing are slick, spectacular and readily winnable. It all makes for a very solid core.

So far, so good, then. Whether I'll still be playing Twin Saga in a week's time or blogging about it a month from now I have no idea, but I'm enjoying it a lot. Can't really ask for more from a game than that.

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