R2Games specializes in browser-based free-to-play MMO games and the company has successfully published Crystal Saga and Wartune and has a large fanbase. The latest, Eternal Saga, just entered public beta and I’ve spent some time playing it. Fans of R2Games are not going to be particularly surprised by it as it kind of just does more of the same thing as the rest of their games, but it does have some interesting new mechanics that make it noteworthy beyond its novelty.
Eternal Saga takes place in a fantasy world that is being invaded by demons. The game starts with your hero waking up a few days after mysteriously falling from the sky. One of the first NPCs you talk to will identify you as the prophesied hero who can save the world from demonkind. Many other NPCs along the way will point out how special you are. It’s standard fare for a video game plot, but I think it’s a pretty funny choice for an MMO. Yeah, I’m special. Just like the thousands of other prophesied heroes running around.
Before you fall from the sky, you can choose to play a male or female hero. Several completed quests later, you’ll get to choose your hero’s class: Mage, Warrior, or Hunter. You don’t get to choose how your face looks — all heroes of the same gender and class look identical. That said, the gear you equip will change your avatar’s appearance, so there’s still plenty of room to customize your appearance.
Completing quests along the main plot line is the best way to earn experience. It’s probably how you’ll want to play at first, considering you’ll need to reach a certain level before you can really do anything else. Completing quests is bizarrely easy. An automatic pathing system lets you click a button for your character to automatically run to the next quest location. Once you’re in the right place, you complete your task (usually talking to an NPC, collecting an item, or killing some monsters) and then tell your character to automatically run to the next place so you can turn your completed quest in and pick up a new one.
In fact, there are a lot of mechanics in this game that can be automated, so you can avoid the tedium of clichéd game mechanics. I appreciate the effort to reduce the boring parts of MMORPGs (like walking across the world to get to your quest location) but the game is so automated that my input is rarely needed. On the occasion the game does need me, it’s usually just to do something boring like hitting a button to accept the next quest. The end result is boring sequences of watching your character play the game for you interspersed with moments where you read some dialogue, hit OK, and then return to automation. It seems to me that removing the boring parts entirely would be a better solution than turning them into an even more mindless affair, but R2Games clearly knows what they’re doing because somehow I was still hooked, somehow there are tons of people playing their games, and somehow they are making a profit to continually fund new games.
The main quest arc is astoundingly linear. Not just because every player is going to follow a nearly identical path but because every quest location leads right to the next one. There’s no crossing multiple maps to get to your target and no need to backtrack. Each successive target is just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Okay, soulless NPC #17, I will go talk to unmemorable NPC #18, who happens to be just one screen-width away. Sure, #18, I’ll slay those Moon Priests for you, they’re only right in front of you.
Monsters are pretty boring and hardly intimidating. They just stand around in large groups of the same monster. They don’t attack unless you attack them. They don’t move unless you hit them from beyond their range. As soon as one dies, a replacement spawns in its place. You can literally kill an infinite stream of monsters by clicking the exact same spot over and over again. It’s alright though, the quests are seemingly aware that combat is boring too because they only ask you to take out a handful of monsters before heading back to an NPC.
Did I cover that talking to an NPC pretty much consists of clicking on them and then clicking once more to end the conversation? There aren’t dialogue choices. There aren’t branches on the main quest path. Each NPC serves only to send you to the next one. As I touched on earlier, the NPCs feel completely soulless, unrelatable, and unmemorable. Some NPCs will want to talk to you several times in a row. I get that some NPCs will need more text to tell their part of the story, but instead of just using a simple “Next” button, the game handles this by having the NPC give you a quest to talk to them again. In a single chain of conversations with the same NPC, you may pick up two or three quests that you complete immediately after receiving. This doesn’t make the game bad, it’s just a weird way to handle longer dialogue. The main quest is very repetitive, with variety interrupting only on rare occasions. Talk to NPC, auto-move to next target, collect a plant, auto-move, talk to NPC, auto-move, kill X baddies, auto-move, talk to NPC. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
I was excited at the first moment an NPC invited me to tackle a dungeon. I was sent to a private instance (as far as I could tell) and it was loaded with baddies. Then a pop-up showed up and offered to clear the dungeon for me. Of course it did. At its invitation, I pressed the ‘Z’ key and proceeded to watch my hero move and attack his way through the dungeon. The AI was excellent, using every ability at its disposal as soon as it cooled down and automatically quaffing health potions to stay alive. I switched to a different tab to take some notes, all the while hearing the sounds of battle to inform me that my hero was still working on clearing the dungeon.
Just to pound this point into the ground a little more, anytime you leave your character alone for about a minute, they’ll start meditating. While they’re meditating, they gradually gain experience. You can meditate for up to a week straight, gaining experience for just sitting there (the developers must have concluded that players who were gone for 8 days probably weren’t coming back anytime soon). On top of that, the game, like Tynon, has a deeply customizable AFK system that lets you choose exactly what your character will automatically do while you’re AFK. This includes the ability to cast skills, buy food for your pet, use potions, accept party invites, fight monsters (and even target specific ones), and loot monsters (and even pick up only specific types of loot). It’s absurdly complex for a tool that lets you play the game without actually playing the game (by comparison, most MMORPGs frown on players fully automating play, many will even ban you if they catch you doing it).
After all that, I think I really do understand the appeal. You are constantly rewarded with new sights, more experience, more loot, more power. The feeling of progress is satisfying even when you’re barely doing anything to deserve that progress. It’s the same basic principle that drives the wild success of games like Farmville. You level wildly fast… a couple hours of completing quests and you’ll be pushing level 40. Hell, I’m pretty sure I was level 7 before engaging in combat at all. Are the NPCs so enlightening that their words alone make me more powerful? Nah, it’s probably all that exercise I’m getting by walking from one to the next.
To Eternal Saga’s credit, it is deeper than Farmville (but then, what isn’t?). There is one major element of the game that you can’t automate — the management of your character. There is actually a lot of depth here, although I’m not sure how much that depth matters when the gameplay is so shallow. There is a large collection of systems that let you modify your gear, pets, and mounts. Gear can be enchanted, refined, and tempered. Gems can be synthesized and placed in the sockets of your equipment. Pets can be trained, fused, and morphed. You can feed all kinds of items to your mounts to level them up. You can spend certain stones to cultivate your elemental power with 8 different elements, each level of cultivation boosting some of your stats and taking real time to level up. You can join a guild to work toward guild quests and earn guild skills. There are about 20 different daily events that range from boss fights and PVP to minigames like fishing and gem gathering. I realize these mean almost nothing without explaining them (what’s the difference between enchanting, refining, and tempering?), but suffice it to say there’s lots to do and almost all of it is unlocked by level 40.
Of the above list, I think the pets system is most worthy of being highlighted. You can get monster sidekicks that are sort of like semi-permanent party members (you can summon one at a time). They will follow you everywhere and attack any monster you engage in battle. They gain experience and level up from combat. Pets also have two other progress bars that can only be raised by using special items to train them. All of these things serve to increase your pets’ stats and make them more powerful in combat. Certain pets can evolve and will take on increasingly fierce-looking forms every 20 levels. You can find scrolls in the game that add new skills to your pet skills library, which can be used to equip your pets with the skills of your choice. Finally, a cool fusion system lets you combine two pets into one. Fusion isn’t just about consuming one pet to make the other one better — the resultant pet will be a take on the best features of each “parent” pet, possibly yielding results you could only get by mixing two different pets together.
Before closing out the review, I do want to call out the impressive art and sound design. The music is quite good so it shouldn’t be terribly annoying if you have the tab running in the background (you can turn off the music if it does). The backgrounds and dialogue portraits are beautifully illustrated. The backgrounds have nice details and make great use of subtle animations. The character portraits range from pretty to downright gorgeous; nearly all of them have exceptional coloring. The actual overworld artwork for player characters, NPCs, and monsters is just okay and the animations are kind of choppy, but I totally forgive this because of how well the game runs. There were moments when there were over 50 animated characters running around my screen beneath the extremely busy HUD (as most MMORPGs tend to have) and my little Chromebook didn’t hiccup once. Between the servers, code, and assets, this game has been so masterfully optimized that everything loads fast and runs smoothly but still looks and sounds good.
So, the game is pretty mindless, but it’s got some satisfying hooks. The story is clichéd, but not awful (and the English translation is actually quite good). You’ll be pelted with constant rewards, from the loot and daily login rewards to special events and easy leveling… but it feels good and makes you want to continue. I personally worry about playing a game that sucks me in but lacks gameplay that’s actually fun. The game is clearly designed to be addictive and drive in-game purchases (which is, incidentally, how R2Games makes their money). The game is entirely playable without paying a cent, though spending real money can grant you cool items or VIP privileges (which include the ability to instantly teleport to your next quest target). I can’t personally recommend this game with how much it plays itself, but it would probably be a great fit for those of you looking for a time killer that uses a bit more brainpower than those Facebook games. R2Games has a good fanbase and I’m always surprised at how busy their servers are. Eternal Saga has a lot of content that you can suck a lot of gameplay out of, but in the end, it’s all really shallow.