Review: Ragnarok DS

Ragnarok DS is what you could consider the portable version of the MMO Ragnarok Online, of which, I can confess I am not very familiar with.  However, I think that may be one of the reasons this baby brother was released for the DS: to introduce potential new players into the Ragnarok universe.

The game is basically a dungeon-crawling action RPG, and follows the story of Ales, a young man whose dream is to be an adventurer and eventually start his own guild.  He immediately finds an amnesiac young girl named Sierra, who he agrees to bring along with him on his adventures.  Naturally, as the story progresses, more people join his party in the constant search for adventure: pretty typical RPG-faire here.

Although some buttons are mapped (i.e. You can use the D-pad to move your character and the face buttons to pull up menus), youll find yourself using the stylus almost exclusively, since the button integration isnt complete.  For example, you cant press a button to continue in dialogue or go back in a menu, which can be a bit annoying.  So expect a very Zelda DS experience here, control-wise.

Dragging your stylus will move your character around, and tapping on a monster will initiate his attack.  Unless you change the settings, your character will keep attacking that enemy until its defeated.  You also have access to a shortcut bar at the top of the touch screen, where you can set frequently used skills and items for easy access.  To use a skill, you must click on it and then perform the action indicated on the top screen, like drawing a swift line through an enemy or a circle through a group of them.  You also have limited control of your party members.  You can set their tactics, such as telling them to act freely, or commanding them to heal, and you can click on their picture in the taskbar to direct them to attack a particular enemy.  However, you cant directly tell them what skills or spells to use, which is a little frustrating at times.

Exploration is interesting.  Towns remind me a bit of Suikoden Tierkreis in which you are presented with a menu (shops, save, etc.), but when you pick an option (i.e. Tavern), you can walk around and interact with people in that location.  Towns are the only place you can make a permanent save (with two save slots available), although you can make a temporary save any time.  The biggest gripe I had with this system is with no quick travel (more on that later), you may find your quests dragging out for long periods of time, and if you choose to do a temporary save (so you dont risk losing all your progress), the game will automatically return you to the title screen instead of asking if you want to continue.  Its not a big deal, but it is irksome.

The game does have an interesting dual-leveling system.  You have your base level, or what you would be most familiar with in every RPG, and then you have your job level.  Each time your base level goes up, youre given points you can use to improve your characters attributes, such as dexterity, luck, intelligence, etc.  The higher that attribute is the more points it will take to increase it, giving a bit of strategy in how you distribute your points.  When your job level goes up, youre given skill points to spend on learning and improving skills based on what job you are.

Everyone starts the game as a novice job class with two basic skills, but once your job level reaches 10, you can go to the job guild and apply for a more advanced job, such as a swordsman.  Each job has its own equipment and skills, and whenever you change jobs you must start over: all your equipment is removed (but not lost), and your job level goes back to zero.  You also must start from scratch with your new skills.  As you level up, you can also try for an even higher level job (such as a knight), which has its own requirements and skills, but which will enable you to use equipment you otherwise could not.  In some ways, this is the most interesting aspect of the game, as there are even higher secret jobs you can acquire if your character becomes powerful enough.

Although there is a story and plenty of (very. slow. moving.) dialogue, the heart of the game is fetch quest dungeon crawling.  Generally, you are told to find some random object, you go on your trek, fight your way through to the very end of a dungeon, kill the boss monster, collect the item, and then trudge all the way back.  Thats right. Theres no quick travel, even after you complete a dungeon.  Its a little ironic, considering you use warp gates (instead of doors) for everything, yet you cant just warp to places (i.e. from a town) that youve already visited.  It also means you will have to go through the dungeon to the exit every time, plus passing through all the forest or whatnot you had to travel through to get there in the first place.  Even though dungeons arent very big (no more than a few floors or sections), this gets old pretty fast, as it is completely unnecessary. This is made worse by the fact that there is usually only one laborious path from point A to point B, which would be fine one or two times, but certainly not more than that. Add to the fact that you must find the map for the area whenever you enter a new locale (think the original Zelda dungeons), and it all can get old pretty fast. Later in the game, youre able to purchase some items that give you limited quick travel abilities, but the fact that this is done so late and doesnt solve all the repetition is still disappointing.

Dont get me wrong, Ragnarok can be fun at times, but overall, I found the frustration usually outweighed any levity.  For example, you can only take on one tavern quest at a time, and I found it could take many hours of battling the same monsters before you ever got them to drop what you needed for your quest.  Also, quests are only partially recorded in your menu.  Let me explain Only the main quests and tavern quests will be listed, but often details wont be, and some sub-quests of the main quests will not be included at all.  This often means you have to trek back to whomever it was that gave you the quest to find out the details (i.e., what items did they want you to collect for them again?), which is completely poor design.

Muliplayer. For a game thats based off of an MMO, you would expect the multiplayer experience to be a high priority to be developed well, but this doesnt seem to be the case.  For instance, you cant jump into multiplayer directly from the main menu the way you can in most DS RPGs that offer it.  Instead, you have to travel the long distance through the game world until you get to the Mirage Tower, a tower filled with various floors and enemies that you can tackle as either a single player or with others in multiplayer.  The game never tells you this at any point.  It isnt mentioned in the otherwise very thorough manual, either.  So its very possible someone could play through the game and never even realize that multiplayer exists, or at least never figure out how to access it.  This is the first flaw.  The second is that you can only play with others in this tower.  Thats it.  You would expect that you could have friends join you once you finish the main story to help you fulfill the thousands of side quests available (which make up most of the gameplay), but youd be wrong.  Although I dabbled in the multiplayer for the sake of this review, I think in general you would find the tower more fulfilling as a single player experience.

Basically, once you arrive at the tower you have the option to make a save and customize your characters look along with a few messages you can trigger with the face buttons.  Then you can enter the tower as either a single player, or choose multiplayer.  The game will then ask if you want to do this locally or over WiFi, and if you choose WiFi, then you have the option of entering (or choosing, if you already registered them) your friends.  Otherwise, it will randomly search for Allys (yes, thats how its spelled in the game) to join you.  You have no customization in this at all, which is a little disappointing, as you could very easily end up with a rather unbalanced party.

The first few times I tried to get matched up, my allies decided to jump right into the very top of the tower, as they were obviously more experienced than me.  Luckily for me (or my character, perhaps), my connection got broken almost immediately as we arrived in the tower, and I was sent back to the matchmaking screen.  When I finally was able to enter the tower (on floor 1), I had only one other ally with me.  This was fine for these early floors, but I could see this system being problematic for higher levels.

Basically the tower is just a series of rooms per floor that (thankfully) are pre-mapped.  You must defeat a certain number of monsters per floor to either A) make the warp appear that will take you to the next level or B) make the special monster appear that you must defeat to make that warp appear.  Just do this over and over and there you have the tower.  After you pass a certain number of floors (i.e., five), you will fight a boss monster.  Then you will go to a screen that lets you and your allies bid on various items, such as weapons, potions, and cards.  You can pass or bid, although I found the system a bit confusing.  After the time limit passes, you win whatever items you had the highest bid on.  Then you have the option to continue in the tower or end your session.

I would imagine that playing locally with friends might have some potential for fun, but as it stands, I feel like the multiplayer was a tacked-on experience and doesnt really add much to the game as a whole.

I was hopeful that the game simply got off to a slow/poor start, but even once you successfully open your own guild, the gameplay remains basically the same: flawed, repetitive, and with a low challenge level. However, if you like dungeon-crawling action-RPGs, you may want to give this one a try anyway. It can have a very Diabolo-esque feel to it at times (you will be picking up a lot of loot, which you much decide to keep or sell to maintain your limited inventory).  The card system (which I havent mentioned) allows you to customize certain weapons and gear to improve their stats (think of them as the runes or gems you might have experienced in other RPGs), which does add a bit of strategy.  Once you finish the story, which is pretty short by RPG standards, about 20 hours, with only about 10 of that being actual content and the rest filler, you have hours and hours of gameplay if you choose to complete all the side quests available or take on the tower (either alone or in multiplayer). Still, there are better DS RPGs on the market, so you may be better off spending your money elsewhere.  Or, if youre really interested, you may want to try the more robust MMO experience that Raganarok Online offers on the PC.

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