The free-to-play market on the Vita is the slimmest of all, but the good news for Vita owners with shallow pockets is that more games are on the way, starting with GameArts' and GungHo Online Entertainment's Picotto Knights. We had a chance to take the side-scrolling action role-playing game for a spin at the Tokyo Game Show, and though superficially it looks like a cutesy take on Castle Crashers' formula, its rewarding multiplayer components and a generous approach to the free-to-play model should strike a chord with budget-conscious fans of RPGs and beat-'em-ups.
Character development is the driving force behind Picotto Knights. You start the game by choosing your Cocoroid, one of the miniscule heroes fighting off the Dark Army. There is a good selection of base Cocoroids, and you can ground their skill sets in one of five classes. However, since every class can equip any of the eight available weapon sets, a typical mage can forgo the traditional staff in place of a bow or sword. Though you have class-specific abilities, Picotto Knights is melee heavy to the point that your weapon choice has as much of an impact on the gameplay as your chosen class does on your skill tree.
Controlling your Cocoroid in battle is straightforward: movement is controlled with the analog stick, X is mapped to jump, square performs a light attack, triangle commands a heavy strike, and circle blocks incoming attacks. Using the L and R triggers toggles different commands for the face buttons, represented on either side of the screen.
The range of potential customizations, from a visual and statistical standpoint, expands rapidly once you start collecting loot and purchasing new equipment. Much like in Diablo, the actions in-game are enjoyable in their own right, but are nowhere near as compelling as discovering new equipment or a healthy stash of gold. Even the Cocoroids support the hoarding of loot, regularly extolling the virtues of treasure during battle cries.
You may assume that for a player with enough real-world money, collecting treasure is optional in a free-to-play game, but that's only partially correct in Picotto Knights. While you can't purchase new equipment outright, you can purchase keys to access chests that have a better chance of containing rarer-than-normal loot. The other option is to purchase tickets that can be used to acquire items within the in-game store. Rather than going for the traditional pay-for-power model, GameArts has found a way to maintain the game's influence on your character's items and abilities without ruining it for people adhering to the free-to-play mindset.
The stamina meter plays another important role in the monetization of Picotto Knights. With each level or stage that you complete, your character loses a single bar from the stamina meter. A typical level consists of sections filled with hordes of enemies, punctuated by a boss fight at the very end. The amount of experience earned in battle is tied to your stamina meter, diminishing your earning potential as it depletes. It's possible to recharge stamina using potions purchased with real-world money, but it also auto-fills when you aren't actively playing, resetting completely each day. Thankfully, even if your meter runs out, you can still play Picotto Knights to your heart's content; you'll just earn minimal experience for your efforts.
Even when playing solo, there are always four Cocoroids on the battlefield, whether they are friends, your friends' ghosts, or randomly selected combatants. The best part about the inclusion of your friends' ghosts is that the experience and loot they earn is carried over to their Cocoroid the next time they connect to the PlayStation Network.
For a free-to-play game, Picotto Knights is surprisingly inviting to the cheap among us, allowing you to play endlessly without completely neutering the experience. It's got the chops to fulfill the multiplayer desires of the Vita-owning masses, and since everyone can jump in for free, it's poised to become one of those games that everyone with a Vita plays at one time or another. Of course, it helps that it's actually fun, undeniably charming, and potentially addicting. Picotto Knights is available now in Japan and will appear in the PlayStation Store in North America sometime in early 2013.