To role-playing purists, the term "video game RPG" is a bit of a misnomer. The original pencil-and-paper RPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons, encouraged players to build their characters' stats, amass riches and magical weapons, and explore all the possibilities of the open-ended environment they presented. Playing an RPG in video game form still lets you assume the role of a character and build up his or her strengths as a fighter, but in terms of movement and behavior, you're constrained to the clearly defined path the developer has laid out for you. Completing your next objective and advancing the plot is a matter of going from A to B, and if you talk to anyone along the way, your character will spout out exactly what he or she is scripted to say. Video game RPGs are fun, sure, but their inherent lack of freedom runs contrary to the true spirit of role-playing.
For those purists out there, those who want to assume their sword-wielding identity and run free across the land, the massively multiplayer online RPG is the answer. Nothing beats the endless possibility and downright randomness of interacting with other real, live people. Nearly every MMORPG on the market right now makes use of the Tolkien-esque fantasy milieu, which is to be expected given the tabletop roots of the genre. Fortunately, fans of console-style RPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy who are yearning for some online variety now have an alternative in Gravity Corp.'s Ragnarok Online. Based on the manga-style comic by artist Myoung-Jin Lee, the Korean developer's new game takes the MMORPG concept and imbues it with elements of console RPG gameplay and a refreshingly Asian aesthetic.
The original Ragnarok comic takes place in Midgard, a land based loosely on Norse mythology. All manner of classic mythological beings make an appearance, such as Fenris the wolf god and the mischievous Loki. Midgard is otherwise peopled by the typical assortment of RPG characters--fighters, thieves, and mages, among others. It's from this pool of mortal beings that the population of Ragnarok Online is derived. With character designs and other art by Myoung-Jin Lee, the game is full of player-controlled characters of all types going about their business--questing, monster slaying, bartering--in a fully realized and persistent world.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ragnarok Online, aside from its living, breathing gameworld and its unique cultural influences, is that the game is at this moment free to download and play. Gravity has been putting the game through the beta-testing wringer, and it's rightly decided that it can best do this by making the game freely available to its intended audience and letting thousands of gamers pound away. Of course, once the game is finished, it will go to retail and assume a pay-for-play structure, but for now, anyone is invited to take part in the game. By the time you read this, Gravity should be nearly finished upgrading the English servers and relocating them from Korea to the United States, making for smoother gameplay and a larger population.
Making a Name in Midgard
Jumping into the world of Ragnarok Online is as simple as heading to Gravity's site for the game, creating a user account, and downloading the rather sizable client software. Once installed, fire up the game, log in, and you're presented with three empty character slots that will, of course, house the characters you're about to create. These three characters don't form a party, as you might expect. Rather, they exist independently of each other in the gameworld and can only be played one at a time.
After you come up with a name for a character and pick from a wide assortment of hairstyles, you're shown a hexagonal control with which you can set the starting attributes of your character. Each point represents a standard RPG-style stat--vitality, agility, dexterity, luck, intelligence, and strength. Moving a corner of the hexagon toward one stat detracts an equal amount from the stat directly opposite it. Of course, you're only given a limited number of stat points to draw from, so once you've distributed them to your taste, you can confirm your character's creation and begin the game.
Once you've made your first character in Ragnarok Online, the game randomly deposits you in its training area or right in the middle of one of its six towns. In the training grounds, you proceed into a small building that will be identifiable by the incredible horde of people crowded inside. Once you make your way to the host, you'll receive some zeny (the game's currency) and relevant tutorial information to get you started. Strangely, the training grounds are not the default starting location for all new characters. The first three characters created by the author were all made to bypass the grounds and simply start off in town. A fourth character, however, did start in the training area. If you're new to Ragnarok Online, it might be worth your while to make new characters until you're sent to the tutorial area.
For characters who spawn in one of Midgard's towns, the real game begins immediately. Ragnarok Online plays very similarly to Diablo in that you simply click where you want to walk, click on other characters to interact with them, and click on enemies to attack them. In short, click on everything of interest. You'll find that Midgard is a busy world, with people rushing back and forth around you, merchants selling their wares on street corners, and a general sense of activity everywhere. All new characters begin with a simple knife and clothing equipped and are, of course, very weak compared with experienced players. The first order of business, then, is to head outside the town and get to killing some monsters to earn money and improve your character's stats.
Combat in Ragnarok Online is about like you might expect--again, it's very Diablo-esque. Roaming around the plains outside town, you'll notice scores of other players attacking non-player monsters, and the easiest thing to do is find a relatively uncrowded area of the field and simply make like the natives. The most basic monster is the poring, which closely resembles Dragon Quest's famous slime. Set about killing porings, and you'll eventually gain the experience necessary to raise your levels. Your base level determines your hit points and lets you raise the six basic stats, while your job level determines which new character classes you can change to. There are plenty of other monsters in the field besides porings, of course, and as you grow stronger you'll be able to take them all on.
A Cavalcade of Character Classes
Unlike in many RPGs, monsters in Ragnarok Online don't drop money for you to pocket when you kill them. Rather, they drop all manner of items that you can gather up, take back to town, and sell for zeny. Of course, you can then buy an assortment of new weapons, armor, and healing items to improve your character's chances against the hordes of enemies outside town.
The most important part of improving your character in Ragnarok Online is in the game's class system. When you start the game, your character is classified as a novice, and you'll have command of no great special powers. Once you reach a job level of nine, however, you'll be able to visit the guild of your choice and take up a new job. The six classes currently in the game are swordsman, archer, thief, magician, merchant, and acolyte, and each one has appropriate attributes and special abilities. The swordsman isn't very quick, but he can handle heavier weapons than the other classes, and his special abilities revolve around attacking. The magician is a weak physical fighter, but he can master a variety of spells with varying effects. The archer is a much faster fighter than the swordsman, and he can attack with ranged weapons. Weaker classes like the thief and merchant rely on special skills like stealing money and selling or mixing items, respectively. Finally, the acolyte has a bevy of spiritual abilities.
Once you've turned your character into a powerhouse, what do you do with him or her? Midgard has a variety of nefarious locations to visit, such as the sewer of the capital city Prontera and the dungeons located throughout the fields between towns. You can form a party with other players and adventure together to fight powerful monsters and obtain rare items. As in any MMORPG, the ultimate objective is simply to make your character's presence felt in the world, and you do that by continuing to improve him or her and interacting with other players.
What's in the future for Ragnarok Online? Since the game is still in the beta stage, quite a bit. Gravity is planning to add new character classes as the game progresses--so far, knight, assassin, and berserker have been mentioned. These new classes will only be available to players who reach a very high job level, however (perhaps around level 50). In addition, new quests with focused objectives will be added for players to undertake, although the specifics haven't been unveiled just yet. Finally, Gravity tells us it plans to enhance the social, political, and economic aspects of the game, but we'll have to wait a bit to see exactly how these new features will be fleshed out.
Ragnarok Online is free right now, but what about when the game goes final? Currently, the game is playable in Korean, Japanese, and English, and Gravity says that the distributor for the game in each of the three territories will determine the pricing structure once the game is on sale. Two possible models under consideration in the Korean market, for example, include a monthly flat rate or a by-the-hour billing system. Since the flat rate is standard in the MMORPG market in America, it's a safe bet that Ragnarok Online will use it over here. Gravity plans to reveal lots of new information about Ragnarok Online at E3 in May, so keep an eye on GameSpot for full coverage of this promising new online RPG.