Massively multiplayer online role-playing games seem to be having something of a renaissance of late. Recent excellent games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars have brought new levels of refinement and polish, in addition to inventive systems, to the genre that both draw in new audiences and keep existing addicts happy. The problem with RYL: Path of the Emperor is that it represents a throwback in the current market, offering mostly lackluster visuals, a staid player-versus-environment game, and a standard sort of guild-versus-guild, player-versus-player system. The Diablo-style clickfest combat is a refreshing twist in what is otherwise a wholly average MMO experience.
The world of RYL (that's "Risk Your Life") is one of violent upheaval, driven by the martial machinations of the two main races, the humans of Kartehena and the alien-looking Ak'Kan people of Merkhadia. A history of bloody conflict has the two groups at each other's throats, and though matters are pretty bleak on the whole, a third faction has risen to the fore. Dubbed the God's Pirates, this alliance of human and Ak'Kan forces seeks to spread peace and tolerance throughout the magical lands, known as the Almighty Ground, and its members aren't shy about getting their blades dirty in the name of reconciliation. What storyline there is in the game revolves around these three powers--Kartefants, Merkhadians, and God's Pirates--as they jostle with one another for supremacy. When you first start out, you'll be able to create either a human Kartefant or an Ak'Kan Merkhadian, and your choice will lock you to that one race on that particular server. You can also choose to switch your allegiance to the God's Pirates, if you so desire. The nationality you choose affects which quest lines you can explore in the game, as well as who you'll be targeted by during player-versus-player combat.
The character-creation tool lets you choose from a handful of appearance-customization options, and then it lets you choose an initial class archetype that you can refine later. The usual subjects are all here: fighters, rogues, mages, and acolytes (with their support magic). These broad character classes can be refined once you hit level 10 in the game, at which point you can find a class trainer and start learning your trade. Humans and Ak'Kan each have different classes that serve the same broad roles. For example, humans have warriors to inflict damage and defenders to soak up enemy hits, while the Ak'Kan have attackers and templars, which are roughly equivalent. Humans have enchanters, sorcerers, priests, and clerics, while the Ak'Kan have life, shadow, and rune "officiators." You'll also start off with a small number of points that you can assign to whichever character stats you'd like, a practice you'll repeat each time you gain a level in the game. Each of the various stats has unique benefits for the various classes. For example, strength will increase a warrior's damage, accuracy, evasion, speed, and more, while the same stat on a defender class will boost slightly different abilities.
While the game boasts hundreds of quests, they're split among the various factions, and, in truth, you won't encounter large numbers of them. The intrigues among the nationalities are loosely sketched out by the non-player characters in the game, though you won't get a really strong sense of narrative. What the player-versus-environment game does provide are scores of critters and creatures of steadily climbing strength for you to carve through as you go. You won't have any indication of how strong a monster is, relative to you, until you actually go up and hit it, though the creatures move slowly enough that you can usually run away from them (or right past them) fairly easily. However, most of the time you'll just need to find the strongest foe you can dispatch comfortably and grind patiently away until you've leveled up and can move over a little bit to attack the next-strongest foe. The game supports both a mouse-based (click to move) and a keyboard-based (WASD and mouse-look) system of movement; both movement systems feel sluggish and imprecise, though this weakness fortunately doesn't extend to the combat.
The combat in RYL is all real time, so you press the left mouse button for melee attacks and the right mouse button to trigger any special skills you have hotkeyed. The system is easy to pick up and learn, so in no time you'll be queuing up specials with your keyboard while left-clicking the monster in mad combo sweeps, ready to right-click the instant your chosen special skill is refreshed. Another wrinkle is that no two characters have precisely the same skill set, as each class has innate skills. However, there are a wide variety of books that drop off monsters, which you can use to teach yourself new tricks, so long as you have skill points to learn them and the correct stats to master them. You can also modify your weapons and armor using gems you can loot off monsters. And in the event that you have your heart set on a certain modification, there are usually plenty of other players ready and eager to sell their drops for quick cash. And then when you're all outfitted as you'd like, you can head out and attempt to murder people to gain renown.
RYL's player-versus-player system is based around earning fame, which are points you get from killing other players. In fact, this is such a central focus of Risk Your Life that a PvP tournament will be held to eventually award a cool million dollars to the best player-killer of them all. Of the three servers currently up for the game, two are normal servers, and one is used exclusively for tournament ranking, which has caused the overall population of the original two servers to take something of a dive. At the very least, it's less competition for slaying the local wildlife on those servers, though it can be harder to find a group to take on larger challenges. In PvP, the largest fame bonuses can be earned by guilds, which can construct great fortresses and other resources on the landscape, while gaining the ability to use those structures as spawn points upon death. However, fortresses and such may be attacked. So not only do guilds risk losing enormous fame upon losing their buildings, but also they'll lose the huge amounts of gold used to construct them.
Whether you're grinding out mobs or chasing down player kills, chances are you're not going to look particularly great doing it. The character models themselves are blocky, low-res, and have bad-looking textures and details. The animations aren't very fluid at all. However, the one true high point RYL has are the animations for special skills, which are varied, bright, and impressive, even from a distance. But that's only one aspect of a graphics package that includes missing textures in places, frequent clipping through floors and parts of buildings, and muddy, unfortunate-looking water. All the sweeping vistas and lens flare in the world won't totally distract you from the fact that your character sinks to her knees through unsolid ground in a number of areas. The music in the game roams from cheery fanfares (as you approach town) to low ambient tunes (so bland as to be forgettable) that are both paired with a wealth of primitive-sounding animal noises from creatures that you club to death. Special skills are, again, above the norm, with a nice selection of thunderclaps, sparkly chimes for heals, and a number of other good, solid sound effects that go well with the nice visuals. The game, at the very least, ran smoothly on the systems we tested it on, barring the low resolution.
Risk Your Life: Path of the Emperor offers yet another MMORPG where you steadily level your way through enemies, alone and in groups, and where you participate in player-versus-player battles. Other than a million-dollar tournament, though, it's not really clear what RYL offers that other contemporary massively multiplayer games don't already deliver, and deliver better. If you're the sort of MMO ronin that can't help but wander from game to game hoping for a fresh distraction, the combat system may occupy your glance for a time. But unless you want to participate in monthly installments of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, you're better off skipping this game.