Like techno and goulash, some things are just big in Europe. Residing in that same category of phenomena is Pride of Taern, an MMO that sits proud amongst Bjorn and David "the Hoff" Hasselhoff in the EU territory of "cool."
Aside from my crass stereotyping, this Polish online-'em-up has a lot to recommend, with a few glaring faults. Taern is a game of about 15 years ago, but in its own way utterly endearing to those looking for a different experience from the norm. Its traditional, it ain't pretty, but it sure is fun.
Let's be forthright about this: Taern is an ugly game. It is browser-based, Infinity Engine inspired fare, but it also lacks a certain effort. Menus are sparse and poorly finished, the combat sequences are less animated than a corpse, and your avatar looks like a robot hobbit.
But there is some charm here. As mentioned previously, the developers are quite clearly inspired by the Black Isle/Interplay RPGs of almost two decades ago, and as such their game exudes a certain character reminiscent of games such as Icewind Dale, and PlaneScape Torment.
Scenery is largely painted in, buildings are crafting in the same way you might see in Amn, and aside from the particularly poor character models, veteran roleplayers will find more than of a touch of nostalgia within the confines of Taern. You can't put lipstick on a pig, but you can dress it in MC Hammer pants, a "Frankie Says Relax" T-shirt, and give it a Kid 'n Play fade - passing it off as "retro."
The most endearing quality that Taern possesses, is that it is so different - and yet traditional. Rather than the standard X of Y quests of most MMORPGs, the game places you in the midst of an almost solo RPG plotline. Your town is under attack, your brother is missing, and your mother is being harassed by raiders: which is enough to get the goat of any would-be adventurer.
A few translation issues aside, what this Polish MMO manages to conjure is a charming, quirky, and engrossing plot. It isn't the greatest story ever told, but it manages to be more consuming than most of the genre. The almost single-player nature of the ride makes the "you are the hero of legend" tag, more bearable, and in all the balance between tradition and difference makes for a game that is easy to recommend.
There are also touches of morality, dealt with a more delicate hand than we have come to expect from BioWare. More in the vein of CD Projeckt and their Witcher series, there is no overarching gauge of good or evil, but instead simple choices: do you decide to kill someone who is rude to you? Do you decide to help out a damsel in distress for the deed itself, or instead the glory? This finesse, while it could be read simplistic design, makes the roleplaying experience far more engrossing, and adds to the charm of the overarching narrative.
But what of the rest of Taern? Well, aside from the an inspired storyline, the rest hits and misses in equal measure. Character customization is vast, offering a number of different roles, while also (shock and horror) asking you to role your own character with manual stat points. Such is blasphemy round these parts nowadays.
Classes are surprisingly customizable. The skill points put into attributes sculpt your individual role, and new talents can be learnt by engrossing yourself within the many tiered lists available. It doesn't offer the same types of freedom or design as say Ultima Online, but it hits a half way house between structure and something more akin to D&D.
As for what you do with your character progression - the age old haunt of combat grind rears its head. Interestingly, instead of sticking with the game's isometric view, Taern mutates into something less Baldur's Gate, and more Might & Magic: Heroes.
And this where most people will either love or hate this MMO. The battle system allocates 12 action points, which can be spent in all manner of ranged, melee, and magical ways. Each action, such as shooting with a bow has a dial to which so many points can be allocated improving effectiveness, and also there are number of panels for defence which players must leave points for. It is a fairly simple process, but at times it feels more than a little boring. The animations are poor, the overall design of the battle process is drab, and in all a bit more attention could be lavished upon this aspect.
In all, Taern is utterly surprising in that it doesn't particularly have any one stand out feature, but instead it has a narrative and a general vibe that resonates with a certain type of person. That type of person being a 20-something Black Isle mourner, who sometimes cries for 1997.
While there are certainly other people pottering around the game world, striking up a conversation seems about as elusive as Tom Cruise's sexuality. Grouping is based upon harder quests, but most get round this with a verve for grinding and steely determination. Chat channels sometimes trickle with dialogue, but not often. Play this one on your lonesome or with buddies.
For all of its lacklustre visuals, Taern is a polished and refined game for the most part. Classes seem varied and balanced, there are rarely any bugs, and in all Taern plays how it should. A spot of spit-shine within certain areas such as translation wouldn't go a miss, and maybe a lick of paint over the UI, but in all, you get what you expect from this MMORPG.
It would be unfair to simply relegate Taern into the catacombs of static, uninspired gameplay, because in its own this is an innovative title. Sure, the obvious influences of Baldur's Gate and the Ultima series are prevalent, but in a scene dominated by World of Warcraft-alikes, creating a challenging, narrative driven, old-school RPG is something of a feat in itself. You might not find the kind of "whodathunkit" innovation of The Secret World, but there is something here to admire.
With a long and winding storyline, there is a lot to entertain yourself with in Taern. Couple this with the copious hours of grind, and gear gaining, and you have the formula of the average, time-sapping MMORPG. It perhaps isn't as content-packed as its peers, but its consumes you in an entirely different way.
While just a few years ago, I would have decried F2P as "the dee-vil" now it is quickly becoming a staple of the genre. Taern allows you to enjoy its wonders, for very little. Of course there are caveats, such as premium keys to obtain certain loot, but there are few restrictions and many hours of gameplay to be had. This is the kind of monetisation I like.
Perhaps it's a love of the ugly retro duckling, or just because Taern's developers White Moon have dared to try something different - whatever the case may be, I just like this MMORPG. Its narrative, its traditional vibe, and its naivety, just make it a game you can't help but foster nice feelings towards. It isn't groundbreaking, but it is a good stab at recreating the RPGs of the 90's just on a multiplayer scale.
Someone go tell EA you don't need 100+ teams to achieve fun.