RamenVR has an ambitious project on its hands with Zenith: The Last City. This VR MMORPG has a lot of potential, and I am excited to see where the team goes with development as the various test phases move forward. One of the reasons I am excited, from what I have seen lately, several VR projects in development have been open and willing to try new ideas compared to PC. It feels like developers are getting a chance to play and experiment to see what works in the medium, which is refreshing.
Zenith currently has that experimental feel to it. The basic game loop of picking up quests from the NPCs to kill X enemies is in place, and the basic combat mechanics feel solid. When you accept quests, large banners appear in the sky over the general area where quest objectives are. Outside of these systems, there is a lot of the game that is still incomplete. But I still had a whole lot of fun.
The graphics are stylized. Even in its unoptimized state, enemies were interesting to look at and, at times, rather imposing in VR. The environment itself was sparse but functional. Other players told me that the visuals were better on PCVR, but I was using a Quest 2 and wasn't willing to give up playing wirelessly.
You could tell that there were several placeholders since ranged mobs were throwing pineapples, and dropped loot appeared as bags of chips. There was no grey boxing in the areas that I explored, and while there were a few areas that had issues like a chest stuck in the wall, clipping through an object/wall, or falling through the world in the case of certain bridges, these were few and far between.
Music was pleasant and fit well in the world I was exploring. It also swapped reliably from exploration to combat tracks. Combat sound effects also helped with the JRPG feel. Slashing away with my Blade Master reminded me of playing some of the original Final Fantasy games and the sounds your character made as they leap forward to attack an enemy. Using spells in combat also had that same feel/sound, whether I was dropping an ice AOE as a healer or lightning AOE as DPS.
As mentioned earlier, basic combat was in place, and it felt good. Zenith has two classes currently. The Blade Master is your duel-wielding Tank/DPS and can give players a good workout by moving your controllers to block and swing. I found that figuring out where to block attacks for each type of enemy was a fun element. The hounds in the Amarite Forest took a bit to work out how low my blade needed to be for a successful block. In other situations, I needed to dodge out of the way using the Blade Master dash ability when an attack could not be blocked or was an AOE.
Activating Blade Master abilities involved attaching a target with specific directional slashes one or more times, sometimes while holding a button or trigger. When successful, the ability effect flashed outward, making it feel rather satisfying. Unfortunately, the Blade Master ultimate was not yet in place for this Alpha test.
What I enjoyed the most as a Blade Master was that feeling of satisfaction when I tagged an enemy on the way past with an off-hand attack, before it reached my healer, and having it turn around while still fighting/blocking my initial target with the main hand.
When creating an Essence Mage, the player can choose to specialize as a healer or DPS at character creation. I tried both, and while I liked being able to heal, the amount of DPS you can dish out with the other specialization was a lot of fun. I gleefully ran around tossing fireballs, zapping enemies with my AOE, and panicking when I ran out of mana by firing my two blasters frantically.
Because it is a VR title, the developers have made spellcasting in the game gesture-based. If I want to cast one spell, I hold the appropriate button and quickly raise my hand. The ground target appears, and I can position it over my enemies, then release the button to cast the spell. When I want to cast my secondary spell I can hold the same button, and quickly swing my hand downward, position the AOE, and release. To toss a fireball or ball of ice, I hold my trigger until it forms fully in my hand and then throw it at an enemy. I am ashamed at how often I fumbled this spell and had to watch my carefully formed fireball hit the ground instead of my target.
Movement in Zenith is initially standard fare. You use the right thumbstick to move, holding it down to activate sprint. The left thumbstick will shift your view left/right, but I found it easier just to look around. The left thumbstick would be useful though if playing from a seated position. I did accidentally click the left thumbstick a few times, which dropped your camera in a fixed position as your character continues to run forward. An odd experience the first time. But by clicking again, the camera returns to its original position.
There are two big positives for the movement in Zenith. The first is that as a player, I can climb almost anything. If I want to sit on top of a statue, chances are I can walk over to it, hold down my grip buttons, and start climbing. Want to grab that apple for later when you need the extra health boost? Climb up the tree and grab it. There were areas in the Amarite Forest where I used climbing to sneak by certain enemies that were three levels higher than me. It was nerve-wracking and fun.
Gliding is the second positive. When I managed to climb up to a high point, I lifted my arms and glided my way back down to the ground. It is a great way to get around quickly, and when I got more used to gliding, I could aim myself at a hard-to-reach ledge and then climb the rest of the way to my goal. Very useful for reaching the three statues in the first area.
During this alpha, I had the chance to explore early versions of the Fractured Plains and the Amarite Forest. Both areas already have a distinct feel and flavor just from the atmosphere and enemies. In the Fractured Plains, I also explored the game’s first dungeon. After dealing with the bandits in the first half, I had a rougher time with the Naga. A big thanks to the player who jumped in on the final boss fight to save my sorry hide.
I won’t dive into things that I think didn’t work or need improvement since this is an alpha. At this point, I am looking forward to seeing some enemy pathing implemented, as all the enemies during this alpha spawned in and stood still until you got close or attacked them. Implementation of all the class abilities will be interesting to see as well. I am a little concerned about gliding and how it will ultimately factor into the overall game. Will it allow a player to avoid mechanics/encounters completely?
What made the alpha a great experience though was the other players. Because everyone received credit for helping to take down an enemy, you had folks jumping in regularly to help each other. In some cases, healers would stand back and heal idiots like me who decided to take on targets that were four levels above them.
Watching a raft of players run by at one point, all chatting away to each other, as they tried to crash the server by having everyone in a single area clearing enemies and looting chests was hilarious. The game has that wonderful potential for organic fun, and I hope it can retain it through development into release. If the developers can manage that, I think players will find a long-term home in Zenith, so long as the endgame is also sustainable and fun.
Like many alphas/betas, the developers held a small event at the end, which cycled through each active server. As you would expect it had a few issues with server stability. I missed the first round since our server crashed but did manage to log back on to see a ship crash into the city of Zenith. Players were able to fight off a wave of large bosses. Afterward, everyone climbed to the top of the ship’s wreckage just because.
Overall, Zenith: The Last City first alpha event was a lot of fun. The core game is there. Some mechanics unique to a VR experience made for a more enjoyable experience when compared to a typical PC title. Being able to climb and glide around was especially fun, and the unexpected ways in which they could be used were interesting/engaging. While I do have concerns that gliding could lead to some development challenges, it feels like the game is off to a good start. The Second Alpha was delayed by a month and is now scheduled to start on July 10th.
I reached out to ask Andy Tsen, Co-Founder/CEO of RamenVR, about how the first alpha went from the developer side. “Overall, we had a successful Alpha. We received great feedback from our userbase and generally, people were really happy with how polished the game was for an Alpha. In general, people really like the content grind and the free-form nature of our exploration system. Obviously, given how early in the development process we are in, there are still lots of improvements we'd like to make -- especially on Quest 2, we will be making many improvements to graphical fidelity, in particular, lighting and VFX. Based on the data, we also saw really incredible retention and engagement numbers for a closed alpha, which shows that people want more of Zenith. Of course, we know we have a long way to go, and we still have many core features to show off, but we're super happy with how it went. We hope you had fun playing it as well!”