Sunday, November 28, 2021

Ragnarok Origin (Android) and Cowboy Beebop (Netflix)

As you may have guessed from my entire series on location based games, I have started to become somewhat enamored with modern portable games.  Both my phone and my Switch console have started to get a lot of use.  I especially like the switch because it instantly coverts to proper a video game console just by docking it in a little stand that sits behind my television.  It's like having a PS4 that you can take to bed with you.  

This week I have had a couple surprises, a game and a new television series both of which completely defied my initial impressions of them. 

Ragnarok Origin

Ragnarok Origin has been getting advertised to me a lot when I play other games on my Android phone.  Curious what a real MMO would play like on it, I decided to fire the game up.  While there are certainly the bones of a good game there, it is also currently an extremely frustrating experience.  

A screen shot from Ragnarok Origin, an Android MMO released at the beginning of November.

First the good.  The graphics are charming, if perhaps too cutesy.  The gameplay also works amazingly well on a tiny phone screen.  Combat in particular strikes exactly the right balance of being stripped down enough to work well with only a few buttons, but still deep enough to be entertaining.  You need to pick a loadout of up to five active abilities from everything you have access to, which makes for some fun strategic choices.  However even using a screen area the size of a few postage stamps, it's still very easy to select the abilities you want to use. 

I find the graphics overall charming, if a bit too cutesy.  The aesthetic seems aimed squarely at tweens and tweens-at-heart.  You can see the hotkeys used for combat in the lower right hand corner.  Basically five hotbar abilities, a button to target the nearest mob, and an attack button.  The controls work surprisingly well in a fight, giving enough options to be interesting but not so many that it's a struggle on a tiny screen.  Movement is a bit clunkier, and rotating the camera so you can see where you are going even worse (it's best not to do so at all if you can get away with it).

However, once you get over the surprise of a full featured MMO that looks good and plays well on your phone, the game starts to completely fall apart.  Having played MMOs since EQ in 1999, I consider myself a veteran of the genre.  However, I still find the game incredibly confusing.  The entire first hour of play is a tutorial taking you through what seems like a hundred systems, each of which you will only start to vaguely understand before being whisked off to learn about the next one.  By the time you get through it all, you are guaranteed to have forgotten half of what you were just introduced to.  There are simply too many advancement systems crammed into RO, and none of them are explained very well. 

The game is also confusing, and wants you to spend money more than any other android game I have tried.  I am not sure what half of the icons in the upper right do.  However almost all of them lead to a different way to spend money.  For example, one of them leads to a limited time "gift" that you have to pay $4.99 for.  That is literally all it does. What the butterfly wings are used for, how I got them or how I will get more when I used them up I have no idea whatsoever.

You often find yourself staring at a screen full of stats to allocate points to, and little guidance on where the best place to put them, or a lot of skills to pick from that are hard to evaluate until you try and use them.  You can of course just have the game make all the choices for you, but at that point it feels like the game is playing itself.  There is also gear to be leveled up.  Not only does it quickly become very expensive to do so, there is always the chance that an item you are trying to upgrade will break and become completely useless.  The more powerful the item you are trying to upgrade the greater the risk of this happening, and of course there are ways to get around all of this in the cash shop.  For some activities it's also not all that optional.  Rumor has it that to be competitive in PvP spending hundreds of dollars to upgrade your gear is pretty much mandatory.  The game is also quite eager to charge you real cash for respecs if the confusing series of advancement systems leads you to screw anything up.

The advancement systems are surprisingly deep, but also extremely poorly explained.  Most of the time it's better to let the game allocate points for you than to try and make sense of things yourself.  The game tells you what a point in each stat literally does for you, but does not really give you enough information to decide if that is something you should care about are not.  It's a problem many MMOs suffer from, but RO takes it to a new extreme.  The idea seems to be to all but ensure you will bone up your character and need to pay money for a respec at some point.

Finally, the moment to moment gameplay is often really frustrating.  The entire first hour of play is one of the most convoluted and boring tutorials I have ever weathered through.  Once you get through that to the "real game" things barely improve.  While the controls are competent, they aren't up to some of what the game wants you to do with them. Some quests are difficult simply because it is hard to precisely control a character moving around in three dimensions on your phone.  For example, one quest had me tailing an NPC, and I lost them because they went around a corner and I couldn't rotate the camera into the right position to allow me to continue to follow them in time.  To be fair, the game does make it clear which missions require precise controls and which can be cleared using autorun.  However, some of the latter missions are atrocious.  For example, the last quest I did before I stopped playing was called "Fountain Dance Party."  The entire quest was to let your character navigate to a random spot near a fountain, and then dance there for 15 solid minutes of real time while a timer slowly creeped down.  Not showing off dance moves from a list or anything like that.  Just run to a spot, hit the dance button, and watch your wiggle and clap for 15 full minutes.  

Even really basic choices leave me scratching my head.  Should I switch to knight as soon as it's available?  How do I unlock the other part of that class tree?  Probably by paying some money.  If I did, would it be worth it?  I have absolutely no idea.  Online communities like the Reddit board for the game mainly consist of players complaining about how egregious the P2W mechanics are, and so have been of little help.

It's all a shame because as I said there are the bones of a solid game in RO.  For example, some of the early quests are extremely entertaining.  Once quest conveyed a funny story by having me briefly play as various NPCs with delusions of grandeur.  Content like that sticks out because it's so much better than most of what is on offer.  By and large the game is overly convoluted, poorly explained, has pretty tepid moment-to-moment gameplay, and has more obvious pay-to-win elements than just about anything I have tried. Do not recommend!  

Cowboy Bebop (Netflix)

Now on the the pleasant surprise.  Cowboy Bebop is a classic anime from the late 90s, and Netflix recently released a live action series inspired by it. Based on the abysmal  live action remakes of Fullmetal Alchemist, and the Last Airbender years before that, my expectations for this show were rock bottom.  Reviews also don't give you a lot of hope, with critics nearly hating it and the user ratings hovering at 53% on Rotten Tomatoes.  However, I am seven episodes in now and really enjoying it.

The show starts off weak, the first episode especially I would describe as only "ok."  The fight choreography, which is unfortunately used in the show's trailer, is not very exciting.  I would compare it to Iron Fist, the bafflingly bad member of Netflix's Marvel line up.  However, the Bebop was obviously filmed in the order that episodes appear in, since the quality of everything from the characterization to the fight scenes improve quickly.  By the third episode, I was thoroughly entertained. 

I think the low review scores are from viewers expecting a one-to-one remake of the anime.  It is absolutely not that.  It's more of a new show that draws heavily on the anime.  When I watch the the live-action show, I often don't feel like I am watching the same characters from the anime at all.  For instance, Spike in the show and Spike in the anime have similar visual designs, but very different personas.  The new show also has an overarching story that seems to have been invented largely out of thin air and tacked on. Any given episode spends more time on that story through-line than the entire anime did in every episode combined.  That's one of the reasons the run times went from 22 minutes to 40.  The new show takes major story beats, the overall setting, and some aspects of the character designs from the anime, but goes off in completely new directions with most of the details.  

However, I don't think of those differences as flaws, I think of them as features. Why would I want to watch the anime again in a different medium? The anime is damn near perfect for what it is trying to do.  Simply spiffing it up with modern visual effects would not improve it in the slightest.  If I want to watch the anime, that is exactly what I will do. What I will not do is watch the new show and then get upset that it's not the anime.

I think of the anime vs the new show on about the same level that I think of Marvel comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yeah it's the same setting, ostensibly the same characters, and even many of the same story beats. However, expecting the newer interpretations to be exactly the same as the originals is not the right way to approach them, and is not a realistic expectation in two such disparate mediums.  Much like Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy vs. the animated series from the 90s in the land of DC, each interpretation of the characters and setting has strengths and weaknesses.  If you take the new Bebop on its own terms, I would say it's at least as good as the original.