Over a century ago, Rudyard Kipling opened one of his most famous works with the following line:
"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"
As we sit here at the commencement of the 21st century, with all our technology, methods of communication, and devices that have made the world smaller, it seems that Kipling's phrase is still dead on. Eastern and Western culture are still extraordinarily diverse, and even though both have had some influence on their counterparts, each is still largely alien to the other.
Language is most often chosen as the culprit responsible for the barrier between the societies, but even a common tongue would not eradicate the differences between East and West. Perhaps the cultures have normalized some in the years since Kipling penned his ballad, but separation is still quite clear, even spreading to gaming.
Given the long history of Western civilization and the ancient traditions of the East, it would be foolish to think that a new medium would be able to overcome the diversities, but one would think that starting fresh would put all participants at roughly the same point, regardless of background. The MMORPG, for example, is a new phenomenon that has seen tremendous popularity on both sides of the world, but as popular as one type of game has been in the West, another type of game has been popular in the East. Not that there has been no crossover success, mind you, but it seems that certain games are much more popular in the Pacific Rim than in the Heartland, and vice versa.
The reason for such a lengthy lead-in is to preface the opinion of this Western reviewer on an Eastern game. The origin of the game is Korea, the developer is Gravity Interactive, and the title is Ragnarok Online.
From Comics to Computers
Ragnarok Online (RO) is a persistent world based on the manga works of Myung-Jin Lee. The game has seen huge popularity in its native Korea as well as other neighboring countries such as Japan and the Philippines. Last year the international server went live, spreading RO's presence to the United States. Gravity has advertised aggressively and many Westerners have come to play on the international server.
Ragnarok Online is a MMORPG by any definition, but those familiar with the EverQuest/Ultima Online/Dark Age of Camelot paradigm that has proved so popular in the US and Europe may find themselves in unfamiliar territory. RO is more about combat and speed than detail. This is evident in the character generation phase. The new player is limited strictly to altering stats and choosing hairstyle when building an avatar. Sex is chosen upon account creation. If a new player is a female and she lists her sex as F when she registers, her account will be limited strictly to female avatars. The same goes for men. The logic behind this seems fuzzy. Gravity's website says, "Because users play character (sic) based off their gender, community involvement becomes livelier with a willingness to participate," but that is certainly up for debate. In a roleplaying environment, it is common for women to play as male characters and for men to play women. Veteran MMORPGers know that the cute wood elf wiggling her behind through the forest may actually be 6'3", 225 lbs, and in need of a shave. At least restricting the players to one sex keeps them honest, but it limits the roleplaying opportunities of the game.
Neither does one have the opportunity to alter size, body shape, facial features, or other such characteristics. There are a few hairstyles and several colors from which to choose, but the main focus of character creation is the stat points. The six stats are strength, agility, luck, vitality, intelligence and dexterity. They are placed on the vertices of a hexagon with opposing stats on opposite ends of an axis. Raising the number of points in one will lessen the number in its opposite. Strength and intelligence are two stats that situated as such. Maxing out strength means minimal skill in intelligence - good for a Swordsman, but not so good for a Mage.
New players start at the training grounds. This is not unlike many current games that place a new player on a "newbie island" and bid him complete quests and hunt creatures until he is ready to proceed. RO's training starts out with a multiple choice test and it's not easy. A new player must complete a circuit of NPCs, each of which describes a part of the game. While the information is helpful, some of it is obvious to anyone who plays the game for more than a few minutes. It gets a bit tedious reading all the verbiage and one must read closely to get enough information for an 80% passing grade. After the test, the instructor only repeats the grade. He does not mention which questions were missed. Although he apparently gives the same test over and over, it still can be frustrating to have to revisit the instructor NPCs and wade through their spiels to find the answer to the two or three answers that may have been wrong.
After passing the test, the newbie heads out to kill low level monsters. He must attain two levels of advancement before he is allowed to leave for the real world. At the early levels of the game, combat is purely point and click. The player selects a creature and holds down the mouse button until he kills it or it kills him. Holding CTRL while clicking allows for auto attack. Killing creatures is how a player attains experience, of which there are two kinds. There is base experience and there is job experience. Base experience dictates how powerful a player is while job experience points him toward his profession.
It's Not Just a Job, It's an Adventure
At the outset, all players are of the job type Novice. Part of the early game is leveling job experience to the point that a profession may be chosen. At job level 9, a player is allowed to pick his level one occupation, which is selected from six initial choices: Swordsman, Mage, Thief, Merchant, Archer, or Acolyte. It is at this point that the player's avatar changes a bit to match his class and the training of players, up to now the same, diversifies.
Once a job is chosen, combat becomes a bit more than just point and click. Advancement brings new attack styles for melee classes and new spells for magic users. At level 40, each class has another choice of job. These level 2 occupations represent specialized classes and provide the character with a higher level of power and ability. Swordsmen may become Knights or Crusaders. Thieves may become Rogues or Assassins. Similar specializations exist for the other classes. As job experience mounts, so do skills. As regular experience mounts, so do points which may increase stats. A Mage who has reached job level 40 and has put a great deal into strength will be in good position for the role of Wizard or Sage.
Upon changing jobs, a player again has to complete a set of tests. It's more than just deciding to be a Monk. Once the prerequisites for the job have been met, the player must find the trainer for the job he wishes to pursue. That NPC will give him a knowledge test and a physical test, such as slaying a certain number of monsters and returning. This is where the testing makes sense rather than at the beginning. At levels 10 and 40, players are much further invested in their characters and proving themselves is valid. New players tend to learn as they go, so forcing them through a series of Q&As and keeping them in a small killing area for two levels seems extreme. It is bound to turn off more than a few players.
As one progresses, he gains more abilities and must find tougher opponents. There is no good way to know how strong or tough an enemy is. The only way to know is time in the game or visiting a site that has catalogued the bestiary. Also speaking with other players is helpful. The cities are always full of people, but many are merchant characters who are AFK, leaving the avatar to sell goods. Players can open a chat room which appears as a bubble over the character's head. Others may join and talk or, if the player is a merchant, enter and buy goods. Although a good number of player characters may be found, it's hard to gauge how many are actively playing and how many are just sitting idle waiting for others to buy their health potions.
Crafting is a part of the game, but it's not something everyone will experience. Merchants can go on to become blacksmiths, but other classes must depend on them to craft really nice items. Players do have the option to upgrade their equipment, however. Ragnarok Online uses a system of cards that is similar to the socketed weapons in the Diablo games. Higher level items will have a number of empty card slots in them. Monsters will drop cards that have different capabilities depending on what is on the face. The card may be placed in the card slot to augment the item. A card that offers 10% strength may be fitted to a sword and give the bonus to the player wielding the weapon. Also like Diablo, once the card is fitted, it cannot be removed, so caution is advised before inserting a card into a slot.