Arkadia - Rebirth or Simple Rebranding?
City of Steam: Arkadia has gotten off to a dramatic and colorful start since its announcement. There was a lot of excitement built up around the idea of a steampunk MMO based on the pen and paper RPG New Epoch, and the fact that this game was browser based but had aesthetics that stood shoulder-to-shoulder with many standalone client based games raised eyebrows. The launch of the game ended up being something of a letdown, but as Final Fantasy XIV has shown us first impressions don’t have to be last impressions. In a surprising move the developer Mechanist Games reclaimed the English version of the game from their North American publisher and announced they would be revamping and updating the systems based on player feedback then publishing it themselves. In the spirit of the new year, we’ve decided to give the newly updated version a fresh look. Does City of Steam: Arkadia address the concerns we had in our first review? Is this the steampunk MMO of record that fans of the genre have been waiting for? Read on to find out.
During the introductory tutorial portion of the game, there are storybook cut scenes which set up the world and the events leading up to the player’s part in the game. The voice over and animation in these do a really excellent job of conveying a cool, steampunk universe that looks dark, intense and fun to explore. There is, unfortunately, not much exploring to do and the story dries up after the tutorial which is a shame since the lore that is introduced is really interesting.
Once inside of the game, the graphics are nicely designed and impressively rendered. There is not a lot of customization available for the characters once race and class have been chosen, and there is not a ton of variety in the armor and weapon design while playing, but the designs they have are pleasant and fit well in the overall aesthetic of the world.
It’s been said a million times but I think it bears repeating: this game is very impressive for a game running inside of a browser window. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it could go toe-to-toe with the newest and most cutting edge games out there, but there is no denying that it pushes the envelope for what we should expect from browser based games in terms of graphics and sound.
The primary issue covered in our review of the previous incarnation of the game was that the gameplay was bland, standard and repetitive. I never played the initial release of the game, so I’m coming to it with a fresh set of eyes but from what I can tell one of the solutions that Mechanist Games came up with to address the problem in some ways may make it worse.
What is likely to be a controversial system is the auto combat feature. Players have the option to click a small icon in the lower right corner of the screen while in a dungeon, then sit back and watch the game play through the dungeon for you, killing enemies and allowing you to collect all the loot in the end. It seems to work just as well in the “boss run” and “heroic” modes for dungeons as well. On a lark, I tried using it in a 2 vs. 2 PvP match but, although the auto combat icon came up, it didn’t seem to have any effect. Many apologies to my random partner who had to endure my little experiment.
The first time I clicked on the button, not really understanding what it meant, I felt a bit shocked and appalled as a life-long gamer that a developer would include a system that would play the game for me. At that point, there doesn’t seem to be any point to logging in (as a note: the game also includes offline levelling and dungeon completion features as well).
After some time, however, I started to appreciate the feature as a kind of pause function when I was in the middle of completing a dungeon mission. In City of Steam, entering dungeons to complete quests expends a small amount of “energy” which will replenish over time but is, nonetheless, an expendable resource. If I’m in the middle of a dungeon and have to log out, say if my dog urgently needs to go out, I lose the energy I spent to get into the dungeon and have to start it over. Luckily for Fido, with the auto combat system I can flip a switch, escort him to the lawn, come back, and reap my rewards.
Another major upside to this is that there will likely be zero problems with botting in this game, since the bots are built right in and welcome! However, there is one problem that became clear as I kept playing through the game: a game that is designed so that a simple AI can come through with flying colors is going to present little challenge to the crushing awesomeness of nature’s greatest computer, the intellect of the homo sapien. The game just isn’t that difficult, and that makes the repetitiveness covered in our initial review of this game even more apparent.
I applaud the idea, I just think that the drawback of having the game so easy that a computer can beat it is too great a problem to be worth the feature. There was a similar feature in Valve’s Left 4 Dead, but there the enemies were being controlled by a sophisticated AI that would scale the difficulty based on how well or poorly your party was doing. Without that kind of intelligent scaling, the gameplay ends up being lackluster and leaving much to be desired.
The other gameplay feature that stood out to me was the loot gained from killing enemies. Other MMORPGs and Action RPGs have vendor trash or useless items that drop that you take back to vendors at quest hubs to sell for money. City of Steam: Arkadia avoids that loop by making nearly all of the enemies drop cash. While it’s a nice change to the weirdness of having some random wild boar disgorge a sword upon death, it takes a lot of the fun and impact out of the thrill of the random fantastic gear drop that boosts characters stats and makes them look amazing while sitting outside of the bank. Also, why are these cockroaches carrying so much cash?
On the quick hypocritical tip, I want to briefly mention the auto combat system as one of the game’s main innovative features. I’ll stick by the idea that the balance skews way too far to the side of making the game un-challenging, but if they could find a way to even it out but keep the game fun and engaging I think this could be a knockout feature. I can’t tell you how many times it would have saved me time and frustration to be able to step away from the keyboard for a few minutes while killing dungeon trash or to continue even if the healer needs to go AFK for a minute to refill her beer glass.
The other major point of innovation here is what they’ve managed to wring out of browser technology. While the gameplay and some of the technical issues could use a couple more passes, I would not bat an eyelash if you had told me what I was looking at was running in a full fledged standalone client rather than a browser. In terms of graphics and sound, the bar has been set high for browser based games to come. Now that we know the tech is there, hopefully Mechanist or some other up-and-comer will fulfill the promise and bring some systems that breathe life into similarly impressive cosmetics.
Character, armor, enemy and environment designs have a solid look to them that does a nice job of communicating the world they are a part of. The user interface of the game, while taking some of the cues from the game’s aesthetic, ends up going too far and becomes a bit of an overwhelming mess for my taste. As my character levelled up, new systems were introduced at a blinding pace that I could barely keep up with. What started as a sparse, pleasant, manageable UI soon filled up with little buttons urging me to take part in a variety of systems, activities, play time rewards, PvP arenas, paragon dungeons, and on and on and on.
Several of these buttons had twirling lights shimmering around them like a Broadway marquee, and some of those also featured the word “CANCEL” in them in bright green letters. To this day, I cannot figure out why it says CANCEL. If you try to click on the word, say for the 2v2 PvP Arenas, you are jetted off to the activity that you were ostensibly trying to cancel. I don’t know if this is a bug, some intentional attempt to mislead players, or just my own obtuseness but my feeling is that this UI needs less clutter so that the word CANCEL feels like a less appealing target for me to click on.
Over the holidays, while I was getting in most of my play time, there were rampant disconnection issues and I kept getting booted out in the middle of dungeons while I was trying to complete quests. As mentioned before, this results in a loss of energy, which once depleted prevents any further dungeon adventures. I commend Mechanist, because they were very quick to get out in front of the disconnection issues and sent out in game mails with energy boosts to compensate players for the times that they were disconnected while playing. While not getting disconnected during play is preferable, it’s still very nice to see a developer quickly step up to the plate, take ownership of the issue and do what they can to make things right.
A big reason I love MMORPGs is that they effectively create giant, lush worlds that I can dive into and get lost in. Even many guided, themepark MMOs have nooks and crannies where you can stumble on unexpected lore or crafting recipes that create a wonderful sense of discovery and flesh out a world I want to revisit over and over again. Unfortunately, in its current state, City of Steam: Arkadia just doesn’t have that appeal. The hubs feel claustrophobic and the dungeons feel brief. The spaces are too confined to create the feeling of a living, breathing world and what is there is not enough to keep pulling me back in.
The game seems crowded with people in the public areas, but they are mostly training. The “training” feature, which allows for XP gain while the player is away from the keyboard, presents a funny spectacle: while training, player avatars engage in a series of stretches and calisthenics. The end effect is that busy public areas look like Muscle Beach with all these buff warriors flexing and grunting, but it doesn’t welcome interaction since it’s clear those players aren’t present at their computer.
The chat is less lively than the crowds of people in game would suggest, and I found there to be little or no communication in dungeons. That was fine since they didn’t require heavy coordination. One problem with the public chat is that the channel is filled with system generated spam about player accomplishments, seemingly for almost every level, cash shop purchase, or big fishing catch. It’s difficult to have an ongoing conversation when the system messages keep bumping questions and conversations offscreen before they’ve had a chance to be read.
When I think of the word value in relation to City of Steam: Arkadia two points pop into my mind. First, at every opportunity the game is rewarding you for even the most insignificant activity. The moment you log in you get a daily login reward, plus a play time reward for playing zero seconds, the acceptance of which starts the countdown timer for the next play time reward. All of this seems very generous, but after a short while it starts to feel suspiciously like comped hotel rooms and drinks at a casino in Las Vegas. These are not gifts out of kindness or consideration, but gifts designed to make you feel pampered and a little bit obligated to stay and enjoy yourself.
Secondly, the way that the cash flows in this game makes the currency almost meaningless. There is no sense of struggle or accomplishment in a game where the in-game currency, called shillings, seems to flow from every faucet. In my opinion this devalues the cash equivalent currency, called electrum, because a lot of the systems can be advanced using either. Granted, electrum can move things along faster and is the only thing you can use to buy specific items in the cash shop, but somehow the easy flowing nature of shillings provided less incentive for me to spend.
While superficially impressive, City of Steam: Arkadia feels hampered by attempts to provide so much convenience. The world looks gorgeous, but auto routing from mission to mission and a lack of areas to explore make it feel like little more than a push-button story book. The monster designs are menacing and interesting, but a bland combat system that lacks tactical nuance and challenge that can literally be overcome without me being there goes over the threshold of convenience into feeling cheap. It is apparent that Mechanist Games have a product that they deeply believe in and a world that they love creating, but as it stands those systems don’t provide enough compelling entertainment to keep me coming back.