A little less than a week ago, The Fiance drew my attention to Ragnarok Online 2. Since I played Ragnarok Online back in my high school days on the EuphRO server, there was a momentary prickle of nostalgia-based interest, but that was quickly snuffed out by my desire to get my death knight to level 90.
“It’s free to play,” he pointed out. With how amazingly my last experience with a free-to-play MMO went, this was not convincing me of anything.
“If you hit level 30 by June 1st, you get a special Founder title.”
Despite how much fun I used to have with my friends crawling through 2D dungeons in the original Ragnarok, I honestly expected to play the sequel for about ten minutes before saying “meh” and going back to World of Warcraft. We never got farther than level 10 in the first game, mostly because the terrible localization made understanding what the Hell we were supposed to be doing at any given time too hardcore of an adventure for a bunch of 15-year-olds. I figured it’d be more of the same, endless grinding, right click to attack Porings until you vomit out of your eyeballs, blah blah blah.
Then I actually fired up the game, and my semi-long absence from blogging or doing much of anything has been because Ragnarok Online 2 is freaking amazing. Or at least mostly amazing.
Ragnarok Online 2 launched their English-language version just on May 1st of this year, so it’s still pretty fresh out of beta, and with any MMO you’re likely to experience a few hiccups with the servers at the beginning. I can’t speak as to server stability for the standalone client, since I chose to nab mine through Steam, but the first couple of days were riddled with connectivity issues that seemed to be exclusive to communication between Steam and the account service, Warp Portal. The Ragnarok team, however, was quick to address these problems and has offered a couple of small freebie items from their cash shop to players to make up for the interruption, a move that’s especially awesome on their parts since players aren’t losing paid time from server outages. From what I’ve seen of their community-facing team, I’m impressed. I am slightly confused, though, as to why they’ve chosen to take the servers offline for regularly scheduled maintenance on Tuesday evenings, typically starting at 8pm and coming back up at midnight PST. Blizzard also runs on Pacific time but handles server maintenance starting in the wee hours of the morning, when fewer players are likely to be on. It just seems like a poor choice to me to shut players out during what could still be considered “peak” play hours.
(Admittedly, I keep referring to them as “servers” when there’s really only one server, Odin, broken down into 20 different channels which players can zone in and out of as long as they’re out of combat and not in a dungeon. This comes in handy when trying to find a pick-up group for a dungeon or “elite” mob — I tend to do my regular questing in low-population channels so that I don’t have to worry about tons of competition for kills, but switch into the highest population channel to set up my personal shop and find groups.)
After the Scarlet Blade debaucle, it was really nice to go through a character creation process where the female characters were actually clothed, especially compared to what they typically end up wearing in fantasy games. The worst I saw was a midriff top and short shorts that my character switches to when she’s crafting as a blacksmith, but since the game relies on an anime art style anyway, it didn’t seem out of place. I’ve seen more offensive costuming in Sailor Moon.
The whole game is insanely cute. Even the “dusky” areas use a fairly bright color palette, and the monsters all look like something the children of Sanrio executives would draw on their school notebooks after snorting Pixie Stix. I think the handpainted environment textures might actually be better quality than the ones used in World of Warcraft — the ones in RO2 seem to lack the distortion and pixelation that can sometimes occur in WoW. The music was also a pleasant surprise; it can tend towards “generic RPG” at some points, but there’s a few parts of the score that feature gorgeous vocalizations. I haven’t turned off the background music since I started playing it. And how cool is it that you can actually select your character’s voice? For a free-to-play MMO, they’ve definitely poured a lot of love and effort into the graphics and sound.
But therein lies the catch, right? The game costs nothing to download, and there’s no monthly fee, so the cash shop must be full of game-breaking armor and weaponry that means “gg” if you can’t afford or don’t want to spend the money on it. Except that’s not the case at all. The Kafra Item Shop is full of vanity items like appearance-only costumes and mounts, with a couple of consumable boost items that are nice, but won’t wreck your game experience if you choose not to buy them. The broken English descriptions, however, mean that making a purchase requires some very careful reading. Occasionally you’ll find what appears to be two entries for the same item, but closer examination reveals that one is a 30-day item and the other is permanent. One very useful item I’ve noticed is a Card Album, which will store all of the equippable stat boost cards you find during your travels without taking up precious inventory space, but it costs $5 and only lasts for 30 days — still cheaper than paying for a monthly subscription, but I feel like the value for the non-permanent items isn’t really at that cost level.
Now, as far as the English is concerned…
The localization for RO2 is, to put it delicately, pretty bad, although a recent patch has introduced several fixes for the most noticeable mistakes, such as the now-ubiquitously quoted announcement of “Congraturations!”. Many of the quest descriptions are useless when trying to figure out exactly where you’re supposed to go and what you’re supposed to do. There’s a couple of quests that, on acceptance, drop a funny mallet into your bags that apparently you’re supposed to equip and use when killing the specified mobs… but the quest text doesn’t explain that part. The mallet itself also does very little damage on its own and makes your typical attacks completely unusable, meaning you’re stuck auto-attacking and hoping that the mob’s health reaches 0 before yours does, which is occasionally impossible without relying on health potions in the meantime (side note: using a health potion turns off your auto-attack, something I didn’t notice right away the first time I got stomped into the ground). When the terrible translations and missing information aren’t upsetting gameplay, they’re torpedoing the fairly decent lore that the Ragnarok series is based upon. Character conversations that should advance the storyline in the player’s mind are instead stilted, confusing messes of generic statements that could be so much better with a few rewrites. Coupled with the typical Korean game mechanics of “grind your face off,” it can make for a very dull experience at times.
There’s also the matter of certain NPC and city names not being kept consistent between the original Eastern release and its English-language counterpart. Sometimes it’s just a letter or two apart, but several other times the names have been completely different, and only by making educated guesses and using the map to check for turn-ins can you guarantee that you’ll end up in the right place. Some cultural differences have also not been accounted for — one of the first quests you’ll receive is to retrieve “wet crib sheets” for a fallen knight. I’ve never heard anyone use the term “crib sheet” in this country to describe anything except what babies sleep on, but apparently it can also refer to schoolwork or notes on a certain subject. Before I figured that out, however, I spent a couple of hours thinking that the knight got his ass kicked so hard that he wet the bed and that the game was calling him a baby for it.
A really neat feature I’ve managed to get addicted to is the way that RO2 handles titles and achievements, utilizing a system called “Khara”:
Unlike most games, where titles are strictly for vanity and/or RP purposes, here there’s actually a method to the madness. Each title, which can be earned by completing Khara missions, offers different stat boosts to give your characters an extra edge. In addition to receiving titles, most Khara missions also reward players with Khara points that can be used to unlock special missions, chunks of job or character XP, and money. Some require reaching a certain level either with your crafting profession or your character themselves, while others ask you to consume a certain number of potions or kill specific mobs. Accepting quests will sometimes unlock access to more Khara missions, as will leveling regularly. They are inexplicably divided into “Episodes,” which correspond with absolutely nothing in the game itself, and with so many available missions figuring out what’s open for completion at the time can sometimes be a daunting task. I’d rather see them separated into tabs by zone or mission type. There’s also mild annoyance when a Khara mission opens up that requires you to backtrack and kill 80 of a certain mob that you had to kill anyway earlier on in the same quest chain — some streamlining is needed here to reduce aggravation.
Some of these Khara missions can only be completed in dungeons, which in this game cause me to grind my teeth simply because completing them and the regular storyline quests for each one require multiple runs. Rather than asking you to kill a boss just once, the game forces you to run each dungeon at least twice for completion, and given the generic nature of each boss encounter, that can be mind-numbing. Every boss I’ve encountered thus far requires the same strategy: don’t stand in shit, and kill the adds that the boss spawns. Recent dungeons in World of Warcraft have been at the butt of plenty of “don’t stand in fire” jokes when it comes to their strategies, but RO2 takes monotony to a whole new level with their encounters. Waiting until max level (at this moment, 50) and coming back to wipe out lower-level dungeons isn’t a possibility, either, due to the damage output and defense levels of bosses being out of balance with the strength and fortitude gained by players. I don’t feel more powerful when I level in RO2. Stat gains are incremental at best, and as in the case of Vitality, worthless at their absolute worst. Each point spent in Vitality only gains 6 HP, meaning that in order to make a real difference in your character’s health pool, you’d have to sacrifice placing points in any other stat, which just doesn’t work. These mysterious “points” are only granted each time a player levels up, with the number rewarded and the number required for +1 to a stat increasing over time, meaning that opportunities to beef yourself up are limited to begin with. Crafting the best possible gear for yourself and augmenting your stats with the appropriate title and equippable cards are absolutely necessary in order to offset the lackluster baseline improvements.
With allocatable stat points also comes the chance to learn new skills, which rely entirely on the old talent tree model that World of Warcraft used to offer before switching to their weird Everquest 2 trees. Localization again becomes a problem, with awkward and unhelpful skill descriptions that are enough to boggle the mind. I sometimes feel like I’d be better off just downloading the Korean-language client and using Google Translate to try and comprehend exactly what I’m reading. For example, the Warrior ability, Bowling Bash:
Upon first reading the tooltip, it sounds to me that this ability works like a single-target Heroic Leap, when in fact it’s just another melee-range sword attack. I wasted a skill point to find this out, and the only way to reset skill trees that I’ve been able to find so far requires making a cash purchase from the Kafra Item Shop, otherwise I’m stuck deleting the character and starting over from scratch.
At level 25, characters can change to one of two specialized classes that differ based on which class you chose to start the game with. It reminds me of the Job system in Final Fantasy Tactics (although in RO2, “job” refers to “crafting profession”). The problem is that there’s very few viable builds out there, and I’m not talking just for endgame — pick the wrong option, and you’re going to have a tough time just leveling by yourself. My character started out as a Swordsman and transitioned into the Warrior class, which I assumed was the DPS build versus the Knight tank build, only to find that I’d gimped myself in a very big way by making this choice. Instead of there being clearly defined roles for each specialization, it seems like there’s an Awesome Specialization and a Crap Specialization, and that’s about it. I’ve verified this not only with my own playthrough, but also by talking to several more serious players in the game itself and reading through forum posts. If your’e a WoW player and have ever tweeted Ghostcrawler with complaints about nerfs or insisting that your class needs a buff, come play RO2 for a few days. You’ll be sending the man fruit baskets by the end.
Take whatever strength and survivability you can, though, because the respawn time for mobs is literally a matter of seconds. Unlike World of Warcraft, which gives you a few seconds’ grace to run away from a mob that’s just popped on top of you before grabbing aggro, you’re fair game the second its model phases into the area. Rather than mowing through pockets of mobs as you would in other games, it’s much safer to find one of the specific type of mob you need that’s far away from larger pockets and just spawn-camp the everliving crap out of it. If you play a class without ranged abilities, such as Swordsman, you’re relegated to body pulls, which get dicey considering that mobs do enough damage versus your own damage output that using a health potion every 10 seconds is very nearly a requirement, and you’ll be stopping to regain health with regeneration foods every three to four kills in some places. By the time you finish killing one mob, you’ve barely got enough time to loot it and run away to avoid aggroing a new spawn. For this reason, questing can be a slow and nerve-wracking process. The respawn rate doesn’t appear to be linked to how many players are in the area, since I’ve been the only one around on a low-population channel and still experienced the same near-instantaneous speed, unless it’s taking into account the number of players across all channels in that area rather than limiting itself to the active one. It could also be the simple fact that most Asian MMOs tend to be more difficult than their Western counterparts; fans of that style of gameplay are undoubtedly pleased, but for the rest of us, it’d be nice to turn the dial down a bit from “holy shit” to “happy medium.”
In place of hearthstones for quick escapes to your home point, the Kafra Service NPCs located in most major quest hubs will allow you to select that city as your “Save Point,” accessible every few minutes using a consumable Butterfly Wing, an item which they also will cheerfully sell to you for a nominal fee. These same NPCs also offer personal bank storage which can be expanded with a real-money purchase from the Kafra Item Shop. Transportation via flight point seems oddly expensive when compared to the rate at which Zeny (the RO2 version of gold) is earned, but upon further reflection, the ratio is no worse than World of Warcraft was back in the day of mounts at level 40. Speaking of mounts, they’re available for purchase in the main city of Prontera at level 15 for 10 Zeny, which if my calculations are correct is equivalent to 100g in other games — rather than there being 100 rupees to 1 Zeny, it’s actually 1,000 rupees. No special riding training is required, but there’s only one mount available, so without spending actual cash, there’s not much in the way of choice. There’s also some sort of Food Bag sold by the mount vendor with a tooltip that claims it may make your mount faster, but I have yet to figure out how to use it to this end.
By this point, it probably sounds like Ragnarok Online 2 isn’t that great after all, but I can assure you that despite its flaws, the game has a lot of promise. Just fixing up the localization errors and smoothing out some of the translations would make a huge difference in polish. I commented to The Fiance that I wish they’d hire me, or Hell, even let me volunteer to sit down with all of the quest text, titles, and NPC names and bring them up to snuff, and I absolutely mean it — I see that much potential in the game. I’d love to write a mod that fixes these problems, but I’m not sure that the built-in anti-hacking program would appreciate it enough to not permanently ban my account. Thus far, I’ve been seeing daily updates and hotfixes to the game, meaning that their English-language team obviously has a great deal of dedication to and enthusiasm for their product, a feeling that’s definitely contagious after just a couple levels of play. I stuck around for my Founder title, and to be honest, I don’t want to quit playing there like I expected I would. It may not be a contender for World of Warcraft (at least not in the Western market), but it’s still enjoyable enough that I’m excited to keep playing on my Swordsman, and even to try out the other classes.
Especially if you’re a gamer on a budget, RO2 is well worth the download. I’ve yet to experience another free MMO as well-crafted and fun to play as this, and I have serious questions as to if I ever will again.