Though it’s been in development since 2002, the current version of Planeshift, Arcane Chrysalis, wasn’t released until late 2009. More than two years later, a lot has changed for the title, but the two principles upon which it’s built remain the same. Firstly, this isn’t a themepark for gamers; rather it’s a playground for roleplayers, and this is ingrained in the title to its core. Secondly, though developers Atomic Blue do guide the creation of game content, the project is ‘open sourced’, meaning people from all over the world can contribute. With that out in the open many of you will already know whether Planeshift holds any allure for you, but if you’re still on the fence read on to see whether this is a sandbox you want to build castles in.
Aesthetics – 5
In terms of character creation, the number of races on offer is admirable. Male and female versions of every species don’t exist, so a fair few avatars rely on placeholders. The real problem comes when you’ve selected a race and start trying to tweak hair style, colour or any other distinguishing features though. Many races don’t have a large number of variable features, if any, which means a lot of characters end up looking exactly the same as each other and NPCs. When you’re trying to immerse yourself in the world, this feels really jarring.
Graphically, things are pleasant but I wouldn’t say they’re worth writing home about; my avatar looked like a character from Tekken 2, complete with square biceps. Animations do the job fine, but there’s little to no variation in combat and movement can be stiff and jerky. It’s also a shame that there’s no facial animation to accompany talking with NPCs, as it really does feel subpar considering all the other MMOs out there at the moment.
The world itself looks nice, though there’s a terrible draw distance. Time passes swiftly in Planeshift and a great job has been done with the lighting. A range of gradients help to suggest shifting periods of the day, but the biggest problem here is the lack of sound. There’s no music, no voiceovers, no ambience; nothing. I said in my Luvinia Online review that repeated sound effects destroy the construction of a world, but I have to say the absence of effects is far worse. Even if your emphasis is on roleplaying and deciding what’s going on around you, I fail to see how an accompanying soundtrack would hurt, especially if options were provided to turn it off. I know it’s open sourced but it makes the experience feel listless, which sucks the enjoyment out of playing.
The overall sense I got from the game aesthetically was that a lot had been created, but little had been polished. Aside from glitches and tears, the bare bones that I got to experience were promising and most roleplayers used to using their imagination won’t struggle too much. But to justify a move away from text games or even real-world dice and paper role-playing, I’d expect more. Maybe it’s just the kind of guy I am, but I either want to make the entire thing up with friends, or have a fully fleshed out world before me. What Planeshift offers falls in the middle; it isn’t a blank slate that stimulates your imagination, and nor is there enough there to sink your teeth into.
Gameplay – 7
While a more apt title for this section would probably be ‘roleplay’, at the end of the day Planeshift does contain quests, crafting, guilds and combat like you’d find in most MMOs. Right from the outset though, it’s apparent you’re being schooled to think about your character more thoroughly. You’re asked to define their birthday, number of siblings, parents (with occupations), religion, childhood (including birth events, activities and home) and finally life events (including some weird ones, like finding out your significant other grew tired of you and sent their twin to date you instead). It all drills home one simple truth: gameplay comes second to roleplay here, without fail.
The structure of the world makes this resonate too. If you’re one of those who have been complaining over breadcrumb trails, quest hubs and the general ease of today’s themepark MMOs then you may find this to your liking. In Planeshift NPCs give no indication about whether they have quests for you. To find out, you have to ask either by selecting speech options or typing your query like in the text-based adventures of old. If they then give you a quest, it doesn’t come with the location of the objective; you have to figure that out alone. At first this was refreshing, but as there’s no map it quickly turned into a nightmare. I got lost outside the main city of Hydlaa about three times and, due to sanctions being placed on anyone asking for out of character help, struggled to find my way back.
The quests are nothing special, though they are angled more towards building narratives. As a result, I encountered an abundance of fetch and carry quests alongside missions that required me to listen to stories. There is combat here and you can craft your own weapons to use, or explore research to unlock the intricacies of magic, but don’t expect deep battles. The crafting itself is very varied and involved so I won’t go into it here, but whether you prefer fishing or blacksmithing, the game has you covered.
The reason I mention those three aspects together is to make it clear why Planeshift has so much to offer the roleplayer. Many would argue why you don’t just roleplay in a title like World of Warcraft; it has a distinct aesthetic but a better infrastructure and a vibrant land. The answer is because you’re shackled into being the hero in those games. Here, becoming a hero is no mean feat. There’s room for blacksmiths, tanners, farmers, scholars and all manner of other professions that never require you to take up arms. It almost feels closer to something like Second Life than an MMO, though consummate sandboxers can still find bits to enjoy.
There’s a wealth of skills you can learn which is great if you enjoy that type of thing, but personally the entire thing felt like a chore. There’s a huge amount of freedom, which I found intimidating, but many will be captivated by. It does seem more like a life simulator than anything else though. Crafting takes place in real time, so dropping ore in the forge requires you to vigilantly keep an eye on it lest it burn to slag and NPCs wander around the city, meaning rogue disconnects are more annoying than ever.
The inclusion of manual typing to talk to NPCs feels like a mistake too; in older games it was there because the text was the game so it was a necessary evil, but now it’s frustrating to be unable to communicate easily. It doesn’t offer the freedom to say what you want; it creates frustration over having to phrase sentences correctly.
Ultimately the gameplay seems to be there simply to enable players to live out their fantasies in the world. While there’s a lot you can do, it really does suffer from a lack of polish. It’s definitely a game that will appeal to the sandbox enthusiast more than those who like themepark MMOs, but in all honesty if you have even the slightest ounce of hostility for roleplaying then do yourself a favour and stay away. You’ll get nothing from the game, and it won’t be improved by you.
Innovation – 7
What Planeshift offers people is essentially Second Life in a fantasy setting, replete with basic MMO features. How well it works is highly debatable, but points are definitely earned for effort. The crafting and magic systems in particular deserve recognition as they’re games in themselves, and completionists will struggle to tear themselves away. Having said this, the game is essentially halfway between text-based adventures and modern MMOs, and there’s a reason that that’s a chasm largely left unpopulated. The fact it’s open sourced also earns it some slack from stronger criticism, and it’s pretty cool to see such a large project come together this way.
Polish – 3
Before I detail my myriad technical problems with the game, I need to explain how wonderful the support staff are. As well as having contact forms on the website, GMs are present in the game world and very active. Within my first 10 minutes one confronted me for calling my character “MMORPG dotcom” and insisted it be changed to “Morrpe Dommoc” as this was more fantastical and thus less likely to ruin the immersion of others. I’ve asked Bill to change the site URL as a sign of solidarity, but he’s being stubborn. Despite this, there are solid support staff on hand as well as an extensive number of guides on the website to help you understand what’s expected of you, and how to solve most issues.
This is NOT intentional.
But there are problems. My God, there are problems. My number one recurring experience in the game was crashing to desktop when I entered new areas, with this happening seven times in an hour at one stage. Alongside that I struggled with missing graphics, getting caught on uneven scenery and a speech UI that failed to update. All of these issues and more hit me within my first hour. Now I know it’s open sourced, but this version has been going since 2009. My advice is that they stop worrying about adding new areas and zones and instead polish and consolidate. Everything seems to have been made, chucked in the game, and then forgotten about as the developers move onto their next task. This isn’t a project, tech demo or even a roleplaying tool; it’s supposedly a game. The fact that parts are almost unplayable then is pretty appalling, regardless of how strong in-game support may be.
Longevity – 5
How much enjoyment you get from Planeshift and for how long will vary hugely depending on your interests. While there’s a vast world to explore and even the option to contribute to it if you’d like, if roleplaying isn’t for you then you’re going to struggle to stay interested. As all in-game interaction must be from your character’s perspective (see the Social section) then it’s going to be a very lonely journey if you’re not into it. Seeing as that will arguably destroy the multiplayer part of the game for some, the mechanics alone aren’t really strong enough to hook anyone. If you’re a roleplayer and can create your own fun, this seems like a great framework in which to do so. If you’re into progression, loot and dynamic combat then this is not the game you’re looking for.
Social – 4.5
The only social interaction allowed in the game is roleplaying; breaking character when talking to others will lead to some pretty hefty sanctions. This is the crux of the game; if you don’t mind this then come and join in, but if you do then just accept there’s no way round it and look elsewhere. While guilds are available my problem with the focus of the game is that in other MMOs you can choose to roleplay or not. In Planeshift if you don’t like it, you’re out. Whilst I believe all people should be free to play the games they love their way without dealing with griefers, it’s upsetting that a game with decent sandbox potential is being kept away from those who could enjoy it.
Value – 8
Everything about the game is free, from download to playtime and there’s no premium content on offer. What stops this getting full marks here is the fact that the project is so buggy. Some people may claim that penalising anything free is ridiculous but if you’re handed a vomit flavoured lollipop gratis, let’s see if you wolf it down.
As I round up this review, I’m wishing more than ever that we didn’t have to give scores, or that I could give two. The fact of the matter is for a niche section of the MMO community this game could rock your world. It provides a great and expansive framework in which to build and develop your characters, with a rich lore to boot. But I’m not just writing for them, I’m writing for fans of MMOs as a whole.
The vast majority of you guys won’t take to Planeshift through no fault of its own; it just doesn’t cater for you. If you can’t wrap your head around roleplaying then look elsewhere. But whatever your preference, the lack of polish in the game really holds it back. It’s not helped by how it combines elements from the era of text adventures with modern MMOs, and falls short of capturing the magic of either. I suspect it will have strong niche appeal for a certain group of roleplayers and sandbox fans, but the vast majority will be left like me; bored, lost and longing for a good old fashioned dungeon master.