Elyon, the MMORPG formerly known as Ascent: Infinite Realm, has been out in the West for a month now, and although there isn’t a real level cap, I’ve finally found my way to what can be considered the end game. As I mentioned in my review in progress, the first 30 or 40 levels are more of a tutorial than anything else. After hitting level 40, things have really started to open up. If I had to sum up my experience thus far, I would say that there are many things to like about Elyon. Innovation isn't one of them.
The world of Harth is bright and vibrant, and as soon as you venture beyond the city walls, you are blasted with color from every direction. Just because the world is saturated in color doesn’t automatically mean that it is beautiful, though. We are talking about an MMO built with Unreal Engine 3, after all. Although many wonderful games have used UE3, there are visual limitations due to the age of the platform, the most noticeable being a lack of texture fidelity. You might not notice it at a distance, but textures become blurry and jagged when you are up close to them, even at the highest graphics settings.
Even with the visual limitations, I find Elyon’s steampunk vibe very appealing. The steampunk visuals are a great addition to the generic high fantasy setting, and Krafton doesn’t go overboard by adding pipes and cogs to every inch of every building. There’s also a small splattering of mechanical beasts to complement the wide variety of living (and undead) creatures you’ll encounter.
Solo And Co-op Play
When you are nearing the end of the story is when things start to open up in terms of other content to enjoy - dungeons, dungeons, and more dungeons. Dungeons are broken up into Normal and Transcendent Dungeons. I found the first couple of normal solo dungeons familiar but satisfying. They are your typical run and gun dungeons filled with trash mobs and a mini-boss or two to warm up on as you work your way to the final boss battle. These dungeons are on the short side and can typically be completed in 10 or 15 minutes. Although I wouldn’t have minded if they were a little longer, their rewards are suitable for the difficulty and time they take to complete.
As for the rest of the normal dungeons, let’s call them what they really are - arenas with a boss battle. Regardless of whether it's a solo or co-op dungeon, you literally enter the dungeon, talk to someone, and then drop down into a single room where all of the fighting occurs. These fights are usually made up of two stages. The first part is an endurance test as you take on a few waves of regular enemies. Once you’re through that, it’s on to the final fight, where you’ll take on a boss and any additional enemies he spawns during the fight.
Elyon's solo dungeon bosses are all straightforward. There are some basic dodge sequences but nothing particularly difficult to master. On the co-op side, the boss fights are more engaging. They require some standard group mechanics like huddling up or a targeted player moving away from the rest of the party. There's nothing really new here, and any veterans coming to Elyon will probably have seen all the mechanics at one point or another in other MMOs.
I wish there were fewer of these arena battles and more true dungeon crawls, especially when you consider these single-room battles are nearly identical to the other type of solo dungeons available - Transcendent Dungeons. These are Elyon’s version of an endless dungeon or tower challenge, except they aren’t endless. Or in a tower.
Each of these dungeons is just a series of short corridors and small rooms. The passage contains a few trash mobs, and the room contains either another group of mobs or a boss battle. Each link in the chain has a time limit and failing to kill the boss before the timer runs out ends that run.
There are four Transcendent Dungeons to conquer, with completion of the previous one required for entry to the next. The gimmick here is that each transcendent dungeon comes with a unique environmental effect, and you’ll need a corresponding Tolerance Runestone to mitigate the effect. It’s a weird mechanic in that you can’t risk it and enter the dungeon without the runestone, so it just acts as an entry key.
Again, nothing is exciting about any of the dungeons. The level and gear score requirements are spot-on for the difficulty of the encounters, so once you identify the boss mechanics, there's little chance of failure. In an attempt to extend the playability of each dungeon, each of the normal dungeons has multiple difficulty levels. The higher difficulty levels don't add any new mechanics, so better gear eliminates any additional challenge.
Dungeons really aren’t the only option for solo and co-op play. Each day you get 20 Quest Letters which allow you to replay some of the side quests you have already completed. Most of these are kill quests, but they are a quick way to earn some XP and gold. If you are looking to make more gold than the quest letters provide, you can also buy a treasure map (assuming you have the map fragments to do so) and head out for a quick treasure hunt.
There are also world bosses to conquer, either in small groups or as world events. Both of these activities only take a couple of minutes to complete and will yield you some XP, gold, and possibly a piece of gear. And if you are looking for a more casual group activity, there are other world quests on rotation throughout the day, like a glider race, or I Am Sheep where one player tries to pick out the players hiding as sheep within the rest of the flock.
All in all, even with the limited dungeon runs, there are a couple of hours worth of tasks to complete each day. Throw in the PvP events and the AFK tasks - I’ll be covering both of these next - and there’s plenty to keep the casual to moderate player busy for most of the day.
Player Vs. Player
I am always leery of MMOs with open-world player vs. player combat. More times than not, open-world PvP attracts a sub-group of players that are less concerned about enjoying an MMO than they are about destroying other players’ experiences. You know the type, that band of high-level players that roam the lowest level PvP zone so they can gleefully mow down any other player they come across. Ganking, as it’s called, is the reason many players refuse to give an MMO with even a splash of open-world PvP a try.
For whatever reason, it seems that Elyon has avoided this issue, at least during my playtime. That doesn’t mean I haven’t incurred a random death at the hands of the opposing faction. I have come across a few players in contested areas that have attacked without provocation, but it is the exception, not the rule. Usually, I give a wide berth to any of the Ontari scum I encounter, and we both continue our carebear tasks in peace.
I believe the reason for this reasonably peaceful coexistence is twofold. First, it’s a matter of risk vs. reward. Since the world map is essentially broken into thirds, with the northern and southern zones being a safe haven for the Ontari and Vulpin, respectively, there’s very little need for a non-PvPer to enter into an open conflict zone. Regardless of level, you can find quests and gear up in your faction’s area worry-free. With fewer easy marks to hunt down in conflict zones, gankers aren’t getting enough fuel to stroke their misaligned egos and have moved on to richer pastures.
Those richer pastures are the other reason open-world PvP is kept at a minimum. In Elyon, there is a virtual smorgasbord of player versus player content. Arenas, battlegrounds, realm wars, and clan wars all compete for your attention. All of these offerings play out just like they do in every other MMO.
The real fun of competitive play happens in the Dimensional Portals. These PvPvE battlegrounds provide just enough spice to keep things interesting. They also happen to be a nice way to gather equipment and other resources to fuel the gear grind.
The only drawback to these instances is their limited nature. Daily Portals can only be accessed for one hour per day. Weekly portals, where most of my PvP interactions have happened so far, are limited to 10 hours per week, available in one-hour blocks at specific times throughout each day. This funneling of players into set time periods does help to push everyone into the same area at the same time.
The Cash Shop
One of the players’ most prominent concerns when an Eastern MMO makes its way to the West is how the cash shop will affect play. Although the profitability of free-to-play games would suggest otherwise, Western players claim to have an intense hatred of pay to win items. Because of this, much of the pre-release conversation about Elyon centered around the cash shop.
Krafton and Kakao Games promised to adjust the cash shop offerings to address concerns, and they have honored that promise. Even the VIP subscription's 10% XP bonus, daily Luminus energy recharge, and other benefits provide minimal gains. And although many games try to defend their cash shop offerings by hiding behind the 'you can get it all by playing the game' response, all of the benefits you can get from Elyon's cash shop truly are easy to procure with in-game currencies.
One residual effect of the cash shop changes is how it becomes evident that Elyon was designed with cash shop purchases in mind. Once you work through the initial story quests, all avenues of progression in Elyon are aggressively blocked by limiting access or a strong-handed random number generator.
You are only allotted 20 quest letters to use on repeatable quests per day. Dungeon rewards are limited to four per day. Time spent in Dimensional Portals is limited to one hour for daily portals and ten hours for weekly portals. Transcendent Dungeons can only be completed once per week. PvP rewards are limited to once per day. The list of limitations goes on and on. It doesn't take much imagination to conjure up cash shop items that could quickly alleviate these constraints.
The same goes for gear upgrades. I never have enough rune powder. I'm always afraid to add another enhancement to a piece of breakthrough gear. And I would give my left arm for a guaranteed success when shooting for that ever-elusive success when rolling for a +10 enhancement. Imagine the revenue that could be generated to reduce your chances of crafting failures.
Many MMOs utilize passive hireling or companion quests to acquire goods that you don't want to spend your time physically gathering. You send a hireling out on a quest, and after a few hours, they return with some gold, a potion or two, or maybe a piece of low-level gear. Some MMOs, like Neverwinter, have an elaborate crafting system for your hirelings, and other MMOs will even give you a few pieces of gold or experience points for your troubles.
With Luminus Battles, Elyon takes this system of passive loot generation to the extreme. You can harness the power of your Luminus for up to eight hours each day. During this time, your Luminus continuously battles against monsters from a chosen dungeon. As they fight, each victory (there is no chance for defeat) has a slight chance of generating some loot. Along with a base amount of XP and gold, these rewards can be additional XP orbs, chests of gold, and crafting materials.
Elyon’s Luminus battles may sound like standard hireling quests, but there's a catch. Unlike other MMOs where all of this happens in the background while you are out questing, or even while offline, Luminus Battles are an active task in Elyon. You aren’t just sending your Luminus into battle and sacrificing their passive enhancements while you do other tasks. Your character is still doing the fighting with the Luminus serving as the power source. For all intents and purposes, Luminus battles are a simple auto-combat mini-game.
Other MMOs take an aggressive stance in combating AFK (away from keyboard) players, limiting the amount of time a person can be idle before they are kicked offline to allow another person to access the limited space on a server. With Luminus Battles and crafting (as I mentioned in my review in progress), Elyon actively encourages players to stay logged into their accounts while away from their computers. The last thing I do before I go to work is start my Luminus battle for the day. Whenever I go to dinner or head out to run errands, I have my character start crafting with whatever resources I gathered while questing. Even as I write this review, Elyon is running in the background with my character auto fishing.
As a casual player, I don’t particularly dislike the AFK elements. I never expect to be at the top of the leaderboards, and there’s no doubt that hardcore players will always have a better gear set than I can acquire in the time I have to play. However, Luminus battles and crafting give me the sense that I’m not wasting my time playing Elyon with a limited schedule. No matter how little the XP and gold gains are, I am constantly growing my character as long as I log in to start my AFK duties. Then, when I do have time to log in for extended sessions, I don’t have to spend as much of my precious time gathering because I have that extra cache of resources to spend.
Aaaaaand, it's gone! That line from a South Park episode haunts me as I work to improve my gear in Elyon.
Acquiring the best in slot gear isn't as easy as repeatedly running through a set of dungeons until a specific piece of equipment finally shows up in the final chest. There are still the same gear tiers you’d find in any MMO - common, uncommon, rare, heroic, and legendary, or white, green, blue, purple, and gold if you’re more into colors. And although each tier can potentially be more powerful than the one below it, in the end, that isn’t always the case.
Several factors determine the power and usefulness of gear in Elyon. At its core, the rarity of an item determines your starting point. As you would expect, higher tier gear has higher base stats. Gear can also be enhanced to increase its base stats. The number of times a piece of gear can be enhanced is random, so even identical items will have different stats after the enhancement process is finished. To further complicate the matter, each enhancement attempt isn’t guaranteed success and, depending on the amount of risk you take, a failed attempt has the possibility of reducing the overall enhancement level.
There are other factors to consider when you are enhancing your gear. For example, the number of rune slots an item has is determined by its enhancement level. Furthermore, at a +6 enhancement, a random enchantment is applied to an item (assuming you have activated it at the Enchanter), and at +10, another special effect is added. Blue items that are +7 or higher can also be upgraded to purple. In a similar fashion, +10 purple items can be upgraded to gold.
Then there are the Breakthrough items. Breakthrough equipment adds one more element to the enhancement process. These items have higher base stats than other items of the same tier, making them a perfect candidate for enhancement. The trade-off - and it’s a doozy - is that if an enhancement fails, the item is destroyed. Aaaaaand, it’s gone! I’ll let that sink in for a minute.
None of this is free, either. Each enhancement and upgrade costs gold and other materials. The chances of success plummet the higher the enhancement goes, and thousands of gold and multiple rare resources can be lost with a couple of bad rolls of the dice. If you aren’t willing to accept a bad roll or two, you can also spend more gold and resources to reset the item back to zero and try again, assuming it wasn’t a Breakthrough item of course.
And it’s gone.
It doesn’t stop there. To allow you to fully customize your gear, you can reroll your enchantments in the hopes of getting something more useful. And the whole process wouldn’t be complete without a way to change the color of your rune slots, so there’s a vendor for that as well. I used to think that running a dungeon 15 or 20 times to get a specific piece of gear was bad. Now, I’m not so sure.
In a world full of theme park MMOs, Elyon is more akin to a traveling carnival. Not in the dirty, skeezy sense, but in what Elyon offers and the way it is consumed. Let me elaborate.
When a carnival arrives in town, the first thing people do is walk around the midway. There’s a certain level of comfort as you take in the familiar sights and sounds from carnivals past. In Elyon, that’s the same feeling I had as I worked my way through the tutorial and story quests. Harth is a bright and vibrant place, just like a carnival midway. But just like the aging equipment of a carnival, the Unreal Engine is showing its age. Even on the highest settings, the visuals can’t compete with MMOs built on newer platforms. It’s okay, though, because it looks good enough, and you’re really here for good gameplay, not bright and shiny visuals, right?
Back to the carnival. After that first walk down the midway, you buy some tickets and head out to experience all of the attractions. A quick ride on the Ferris wheel, a ride on some janky roller coaster, and a walk through the House of Mirrors are all on tap. You’ve done all of these rides and attractions multiple times in the past, so there’s really no reason to get back in line to do them again. In Elyon, this is the heart of the end game. You run your four dungeons, spend an hour in the Dimensional Portals, and engage in enough PvP to earn your rewards for the day.
Let’s finish up the carnival analogy. Before you call it a day at the carnival, you know you’ll spend every last dollar in your wallet playing a bunch of games in the hope of winning some giant stuffed animal. I’m sure you can guess where I’m headed here - gear progression. Just like carnival games, Elyon’s loot progression is rigged for you to lose. A single win is worth nothing, and stacking enough consecutive wins in a row to earn the big prize is nearly impossible. Yes, there’s always someone running around with a big pink panda bear to prove that there’s a chance, but the odds of you hitting it big? Not very high.
Just like a visit to the carnival, even though it wasn’t the greatest experience ever, I haven’t ended a day playing Elyon feeling like I had a bad time. The bigger question for me is how long this carnival can last? We’re only a month past launch, and if you aren’t online for the daily reset, finding a group to run dungeons with can be difficult. The same can be said about finding a match for the various types of PvP. The fewer players there are, the harder it will be to turn a profit, so it won’t be long before the financials start to dictate what items go into the cash shop. And when that happens, the player base will shrink even further. So I guess I’ll keep on riding this roller coaster until it breaks down. Aaaaand, it’s gone!