Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Next Fest : MMORPG Edition

As I was saying only yesterday, my selection from the current Steam Next Fest bucket of demos includes a couple of mmorpgs. Until then, I'd never heard of either of them and nothing I read in the descriptions led me to believe I'd missed all that much.

Of the pair, the one I felt looked marginally more interesting was Grace Online, "a 3D fantasy MMORPG featuring an immersive experience that allows the players to forge their own paths through exploration and discovery". A bit vague but might be worth a look...

Outside of the demo, the game is currently in semi-closed testing, with access being available on request "when the developer is ready for more participants". Early Access is imminent, scheduled for next month. The EA phase, described quite pragmatically, even off-puttingly, on the Steam Store page, is estimated to last a year or two, although "...given that it's a one person team this time is subject to change". When people talk about soloing mmos, that's not usually what they mean, is it?

Still, respect for trying. And the screenshots make the game look not unattractive. I was curious to find out how it might play. 

I still am. I can't get it to run.

It downloaded without problems and it fires up when I hit play but every time I get to Server Select, I get this:

I checked my antivirus wasn't blocking it. It wasn't. I googled. Nothing. I joined the game's Discord to see if anyone was complaining there. 

At first I couldn't find any mention of anyone else having issues getting into the game. On the contrary, there were plenty of ongoing discussions suggesting people were indeed playing. 

Eventually I came across the following exchange:

It seems the demo is just too popular for its own good. Nice problem to have, although since the OP talks about "getting continuous "cannot connect" " and I've had the same message half a dozen times over two days, I'm not wholly convinced that the "29 minutes" overload is the whole story.

I'll try again at what might be a less congested time, maybe tomorrow morning. Perhaps I'll get lucky. If not, there's always Early Access in March.

Since I couldn't try a demo I wasn't sure I wanted to try anyway, I decided to double down and try one I was pretty sure I didn't. In for a penny...

 Ethyrial: Echoes of Yore describes itself as "a hardcore, old-school MMORPG for players not afraid of challenge, risk, and adventure." I guess one out of three will have to do. I do like an adventure.

I realize there's a demographic for whom the words "hardcore" and "old-school" sound a dog whistle but for me they ring an alarm bell. The phrase "too old for all that" comes to mind, along with "got more sense" and "life's too short". When you factor in come-ons like "Teamwork is a must", "Death is not an inconvenience" and "High risk gameplay" they might just as wel have put up a big sign saying "Not for Bhagpuss".

It's just a demo, though, I can put up with a little hardcore, ffa, full loot ganking in the name of getting a post out, surely? I mean, it's all about the stories, right?

So I logged in. Smooth as butter. No problems at all. Then I made a character. Ditto. Well, if you don't count what the character I made looks like.

Character creation is slick, detailed and entertaining. The design is solid, the illustration rich and bold, the writing lucid. The whole things oozes professionalism. Given the strength of the ancillary elements  the character models themselves come as quite a shock. They seem almost nominal, placeholders, perhaps, for finished artwork to come later.

I spent a while reading through the numerous classes and specializations, a somewhat fatuous enterprise seeing there was literally no possibility of my ever needing to specialize during the demo the demo. I'm not saying it's not possible. I have no idea whether it is or not. I'm just saying it was never going to be possible for me, especially given all the other demos I have to get through before Monday.

All the classes looked interesting but in the end I plumped for the Fighter because fighters are generally the easiest to start with in any game. Why make things harder than they have to be? I mean, it's not like the game won't do that for me, is it?

Except that's not what happened. Very much the opposite, in fact. I had a jolly good time playing Ethyrial for nearly two hours, until I had to drag myself away to take Beryl for her evening walk. By then, I'd learned two things: 1) No-one ganks you in the Tutorial or the starting city and 2) That old mmorpg magic still just works, somehow.

The first thing to say about Ethyrial is the graphics are W.E.I.R.D. Seriously, they are very, very strange. The whole thing takes place in a kind of top-down, over the shoulder 3D that I found utterly disorientating at first but surprisingly comfortable later. 

The buildings all do that cutaway thing, where you can see inside them from the outside. Every mob and NPC has a massive nameplate like a signboard. Conversations type themselves out word by word in what looks like a cross between a speech bubble and a printed flyer. If an NPC walks away while you're talking to them, as several did, the speech bubble slides along at a slant and changes perspective, almost as if its actually supposed to be a physical presence in the world. Also you have to either type in your side of the conversation or trigger keywords, which is truly old school, but that's another topic altogether.

It's hard to see much detail, using the default settings but I did eventually figure out how rotate the camera and zoom in and out. Neither option uses what I would consider traditional controls. You have to right-click the hotbars rather than left-click, too, which is back-assward to my way of thinking. And I had to invert the camera controls to get them to feel comfortable. 

When you can eventually move and see properly, the aesthetic is convincing, within the parameters of the graphics, which are otherwise not the most sophistiated or up-to-date you're going to find. It certainly doesn't help that the entire Tutorial takes place both at night and in heavy rain. Since the clock never moved, I assume this is a narrative choice not just my unfortunate timing. When I finally made it to the world proper and the clock began to tick again, it was still night and it was still raining but at least the sun did come up eventually.

The storyline, what very little I saw of it, and especially the quests, definitely qualify as "old school". No-one asked me to kill ten rats, although I killed several on my own recognizance, but I had to carry  things from one townsperson to another, rescue pets for children and turn ore into metal bars, just as I've done countless times before.

And it was fun. That's the oddest thing about it. 

I got jumped by ruffians in an alleyway, killed them, got complimented by the Guard and deputized to go kill the dead men's boss, just as would surely happen in real life, if real life was a fever dream. I got chased into a house by poisonous spiders and bitten to death and the last thing I saw as I was dying was the spiders turning on the houseowner, who'd been standing in his living room, minding his own business. I climbed a ladder into an attic and took an old man's leather pants and put them on, with his blessing. I found a cluster of mushrooms growing on a wall and picked them all, then ate them, and it  didn't kill me but made me feel much better.

Just normal, old school stuff like that, all wrapped up with some moderately witty, always grammatically correct dialog. I played for a couple of hours but I could have gone all night. Or at least I could if it wasn't for the nagging feeling I'd done it all before. 

And of course, I have. That's the problem. Even leaving aside the post-Tutorial, post-demo room-hogging elephant that is ffa, full-loot PvP, why would I want to do it again? I wouldn't. At least, I don't think I would.

For anyone that does still hanker after the old days, though, the level of quality present here bodes well. I've played a few of these things and most of them don't have this amount of heft. Didn't run into any bugs, either. Well, unless you count the spiders.

On the other hand, few modern games have such awkward graphics, controls and movement. Yes, I got used to all of it quickly enough but a moment's consideration could hardly fail to bring up unfortunate comparisons with just about any other modern mmorpg you care to name. A potent cocktail of novelty and familiarity carried me through but I fear it wouldn't carry me far.

That said, Ethyrial is definitely now on my radar. I'd say that means the demo did its job.

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