Coming all the way from Taiwan is developer X-Legend and publisher Koramgame's latest addition to the F2P MMORPG market: Spirit Tales. The big-head anime look for its characters has certainly attracted a fair bit of attention but is its gameplay any good? Let's take a close look and find out together.
Aesthetics - 8/10
In terms of eye candy, I must say that Spirit Tales looks really good. The game follows a cartoony design style with plenty of oriental influences (given that the developers are from Taiwan). The colour palette used is subdued and never overly saturated. Environments in the game are well designed, with plenty of foliage and other set pieces (tiny ponds, out-of-reach shrines, discarded treasure chests, etc) that add to the believability of the game world.
The first thing anyone will surely notice about the game is the 'big-head' look that the characters are sporting. Those of you keeping up to date with the toy scene in Japan will definitely notice similarities in design with the rather popular Nendoroid line of figures produced by Good Smile Company. Vocaloid fans should also be delighted to know that the female character creation options contain a hairstyle that is eerily similar to the one found on the Nendoroid Hatsune Miku figure. No Rin, Luka or Black Rock Shooter hairstyles though.
Player characters' faces are all large and expressive, lighting up with clearly visible (and incredibly cute) facial expressions whenever a 'happy' or a 'laugh' emote is used. It's also not everyday that I find myself grinning uncontrollably at the all-too-common 'wave' emote in a MMORPG. Many other games would simply leave their characters poker-faced and use exaggerated body movements (Monster Hunter) or emoticons in speech bubbles (Ragnarok Online) to convey emotions instead.
The GUI is something of a mixed bag, and while it does a decent job, there are a few things I didn't really like about it. Right from the moment I started playing, the blue font colour used for the 'Mutual Aid' chat channel was incredibly difficult to read when paired with the chat window's default background colour. Whether this 'unreadability' was caused in part by my colour blindness or the colour settings of my monitor, I would have really appreciated some options to change the font colours (like in Final Fantasy XI). Fortunately, there are other colour schemes available for chat windows and the blue one helped to make things a lot easier to read.
Skill icons displayed at any one time in the GUI are limited to a pitiful ten slots and there aren't any options to increase the number that are visible. There are up to 4 bars worth of slots available but you'll have to switch between them using hotkeys or the mouse. This isn't really a problem at the earlier levels, but once you start getting more skills and using a variety of potions (and tonics) to keep yourself alive during a fight, the lack of visible slots (and the need to switch between bars) becomes a real inconvenience.
Gameplay - 6/10
Similar to many other F2P MMORPGs out there, Spirit Tales contains the 'standard' list of gameplay features that most would automatically come to expect from the genre as of late. Dueling, PvP Arenas (for level 30 and above), Instance Dungeons, Equipment crafting, Equipment upgrading, Equipment dyeing, Gem slotting, Skill Trees, Re-specs, Pets, Mounts, Clans, Blacklists, Achievements are all here. In addition, we also have the mainstays of the genre: Kill-X-number-of-monsters quests and Get X-number-of-drops quests. These last two fellas, they show up a lotta times I tell ya.
Most of the game is actually solo friendly and the majority of monsters in the earlier zones won't aggro at all. The few that do are indicated clearly with red names and usually don't wander around. Respawn rates are very fast, and players won't find themselves with a lack of targets when sharing quest objectives with others. People wanting to level up alone in this game can definitely do so with no major problems as most quests in the earlier levels give decent experience points & cash rewards upon completion. Those of you wanting a bit more action can always party up and head into the time-space warp zones (accessible by a black hole) where the monsters are a lot tougher and aggro on sight.
At level 10, players will be able to unlock the 'transformation' ability that allows them to 'hulk-out' for a limited amount of time to clobber everything around them with increased strength. It's somewhat similar to the TP system in Final Fantasy XI where you build up a stored charge by using skills against opponents. How long you stay transformed ultimately depends on how much juice you've accumulated.
Crafting in Spirit Tales is very simplified (unlike many other MMORPGs out there) and there are no skill levels or recipe scrolls involved. The feeling I got the crafting in this game was that it's more about being self sufficient than about contributing to the in-game economy. Recipes appear regularly in your crafting list once you hit certain levels and required materials for a certain piece of gear can usually all be obtainable from monsters in the same zone. E.g. If you're planning to craft a level 20 dagger, then the wood and metal you need (aside from the weapon core) will be dropped by the level 15 monsters you're fighting right now. Drop rates are so good though, so it might be a better idea to buy from vendors instead.
Aside from lots and lots of PvE, Spirit Tales also holds regular events everyday for players interested in PvP. The only problem is that the minimum levels of participation are somewhat high (30+ for Twilight Arena, 45+ for Battlefield) so those of you looking for some action with living breathing humans (aside from dueling) are going to have to endure the dreaded GRIND until you ding 30 (at the very least). The number of skills available for each class are, while numerous, not as plentiful as what you might find in Guild Wars, Rift or The Secret World. Players hoping to shoehorn your character into a specific PvP build before you hit 30 may be disappointed at the limited number that are available for use.
Innovation - 7/10
Similar to many other MMORPGs out there, Spirit Tales has a pet system too. Players are able to capture monsters on the field to use as pets. Nothing special there. What's a little different this time around is that the game lets you 'merge' with your pet and use it as a magical aura to boost your stats. Different pets would, as expected, grant different stat bonuses when merged with. In addition, you're also able to have another pet deployed at the same time to assist you in battle.
It's a nice twist on the old formula and actually gives some form of incentive for players to get out there and catch themselves some critters (beyond the 3 quest related ones that are obtained after minimal effort). The in-game item used to capture pets is really expensive though, so those of you looking to get 'em all might need to grind a bit to accumulate some cash first. I've even seen some players running around with instance dungeon boss monsters as their pets. How on Earth they managed to pull that off, I don't know.
In the PVP area, there's also the option for players to take control of a boss and fight against their friends in a many-against one PVP match. That's right: you can beat up your friends as one of the game's bosses. It's a fun little PVP diversion and definitely something new to the genre.
Pets aside, the next magic trick that Spirit Tales tries to pull off is something that's a lot more obvious. The moment players enter the game, they'll definitely notice the distinct curvature of the game environment. Unlike other MMORPGs out there, Spirit Tales' world is not presented on a flat plane but on a spherical surface. It's very similar to the moon levels in the 'Ratchet and Clank' series of Playstation games and makes you feel like you're running across the surface of a really tiny planet.
From a technical standpoint, using the curved game world to minimize draw distance and onscreen objects is something I would consider absolutely brilliant. The savings in the resources used would allow even netbooks to be able to run Spirit Tales. Not once did my PC ever give off the thunderous roar that would accompany a typical gaming session of Tera. From a gaming standpoint though, I'd say this ends up doing the exact opposite of what recent MMORPGs are trying to achieve: give players a bigger virtual playground to stare at and run around in.
The curvature is so pronounced that there's very little of the game world exposed at any one time. For some reason, I was constantly reminded of Peter Molyneux's famous PC game 'Populous' where the viewable playing field was similarly restricted in size. It's hard to put into words, but there was this overwhelming feeling of being 'boxed in' during the time I spent playing Spirit Tales. The severely limited draw distance also didn't do me any favours when I was roving around looking for targets to attack as they were usually rendered out-of-sight by the curve of the game environment.
Polish - 7/10
I'm going to say this right away: Spirit Tales' localization is surprisingly good. Yes there are still a few typos here and there, some grammatical errors as well as inconsistencies with NPC names in the quest text and game world, but as a whole, I was pleasantly surprised at how well most of the dialogue and quest logs were localized. It's not everyday that preconceptions are defied but here is a F2P MMORPG that actually has legible, flowing, sometimes entertaining and very much readable quest text that doesn't stray beyond the borders of the text window.
Also, The game itself was a bug-free experience for me. Frame-rates were consistently high, hanging around 60 fps most of the time but sometimes dipping to 45 fps in crowded areas. I didn't encounter any infamous 'error code 37' incidents or sudden disconnects from the game and everything ran really well on my Nvidia GTX 460 card with all the video options (except anti-aliasing) cranked up to max. There wasn't anything game-breaking during the time I spent playing and I'm sure most of you out there will have an equally smooth experience as I did.
However, despite the above-average localization and smooth game experience, there are still a few rough edges here and there. The message windows on the left, for instance, do not actually display system messages by default when you start a new game. You'll have to go into the message window configuration options to enable them. Imagine my initial confusion when I tried enhancing my armour early in the game and there was no textual response whatsoever as to why that action could not be performed.
The other gripe I have has to do with the game's implementation of Daily Quests. The quest-giver, when talked to, will present players with 2 options:  Accepting the quest,  Teleporting to the one-person boss fight. When I first started playing, I mistakenly chose to teleport to the boss fight without accepting the quest because both options didn't look that different from one another. It was only after using a ton of potions and a transformation to defeat the boss that I found out that the epic battle which just took place (at level 10) was a no-count.
“Ok, no problem, let's go at it again” and I accepted the quest and teleported inside again to find... the boss monster was gone. Of course, that's because I had already defeated it earlier and you only get one fight a day regardless of whether you picked up the quest or not. There was no warning message, there was no alert, there wasn't even a check-and-balance thing to make sure people wouldn't waste that one valuable daily fight by heading in without the quest on your list, be it accidentally or ignorantly. I know, it's a nit-pick on a minor problem, but I still feel this is something worth pointing out. Hopefully, this piece of info will save someone else from the frustration I went through.
Longevity - 6/10
Aside from the mind-numbing grind, Spirit Tales also has plenty of events (PvP and PvE) for players to participate in. Clans can even purchase zone-specific 'Clan Missions' for their members to participate in while PvPers can take part in level 30+ Twilight Arena events or level 45+ Battlefield events that are held regularly. PvP events, as you may have noticed, require that your character is sufficiently high in level. And while these events are held regularly, the frequency with which they are conducted (3 times a day at specific timings for Twilight Arena) may not be enough to please many players.
At the moment, the player community in Spirit Tales is comprised of people from all over the world and there's almost always someone playing at any given time. I'm sure everyone knows that what ultimately makes or breaks an online game doesn't only depend on the amount of content but also on how active the player community is, right? Well, from what I see right now, the player community is pretty active and there is almost always a conversion going on the Mutual Aid channel. Starter zones are, fortunately, well populated as there are always new players joining the game, experienced players leveling alts, or high level ones running back to do some dailies.
For now, Spirit Tales looks like it's doing a decent job of keeping the attention of its players. Maybe that's because the game is barely one month into its launch and Open Beta or maybe it's because the tedium of the grind hasn't settled in most players yet. Either way, things are off to a good start and look like they'll stay that way for a while.
Social - 7/10
Unlike some of the rough responses I'd sometimes get in PvP-centric games like Aion, the assistance I received from the players in this game was helpful and informative. Many of the players also appear to to be anime fans and very much 'in-the-know' about the Hatsune Miku hairstyle in the character creation options. I've seen my fair share of Miku look-a-likes running around with similar names to know. The community in Spirit Tales is also, at the moment, sociable and friendly.
Taking a page from other MMORPGs like Luna Online, Spirit Tales has a sweetheart system that allows players to pair up with someone else. Increased stats, decreased damage, exp boost and instant teleportation to your 'sweetheart' are some of the benefits of using this system. No two-timing though, as you can only have one sweetheart at any one time.
The game tries to encourage social interaction between players with characters of similar levels through the use of the 'Mutual Assistance' chat channel. Players of the same level range are automatically grouped together into this global chat channel, allowing everyone inside to communicate freely with everyone else regardless of their current zones / game channel. Definitely makes finding someone to trade equipment or party up with a lot easier.
Profanity is, as expected, censored in conversations. While this does make Spirit Tales feel like a kid-friendly online game, what with all the really cute character designs, it always pays to keep a close eye on what's happening in the game if you're thinking of letting your kids loose in it. The majority of the community is decent, but there will always be a few bad apples here and there.
Value - 6/10
No matter how you look at it, Spirit Tales is actually just another F2P MMORPG that doesn't stray too far from the standard formula. While there's a fair bit of content, the overwhelming stench of the dreaded grind is still very much present. Crafting, as previously mentioned, is not fleshed out enough in this game and you'll need to be sufficiently high in level before being able to enjoy PvP. Also, those of you hoping to become wandering tourists will be disappointed to learn that there are level requirements for entering the various zones.
Gamers who are attracted to the game by the marketing line of '40 million customizable costume combinations' might want to take note that most of those costumes are item mall purchases and that colour dyes (made popular by Guild Wars) contribute to a significant number of that '40 million'.
Almost everything in Spirit Tales should feel very familiar right away for experienced players from other games. Newcomers to the genre should also have no trouble at all easing in after the initial hour or so. The number of players joining the game right now (most likely attracted by the cute visuals) will definitely keep things active for a while but the real problem is what happens when boredom settles in after they come to the realization that most of the game is just grinding, grinding and more grinding. Level requirements for entry into zones also doesn't help matters any.
Thankfully, most monsters keel over after a few hits if you're well-equipped. The leveling process, while boring, is still easy enough that a party of players can speed through to level 30 (and beyond) relatively quickly where more of the game's content is available. The influx of new players also ensures that there's usually someone to talk to in the Mutual Aid channel.
There's quite a bit to see and experience in Spirit Tales so it's worth your time to at least give it a try. Just be mindful that the game, while cute and pretty, falls short in certain areas and still needs a bit of improvement.