mmo-a-week: week 3: ether saga online

Sorry I was 9 minutes late according to blog clock, but I took my time sifting through and retaking screenshots. It’s still the Wednesday here in California though 😛

So this time around was rough picking a game. After a lot of internal debate, the deciding has been made.

Lunia Chronicles just launched this week and has some good things going for it, but it looks like another goofy footed wrist breaker in the vein of Dragonica and I’m still healing from week 1. But they have SLIME as an unlockable character class… No. I will resist. The lure of bashing heads as a baby slime is strong, but not strong enough. Maybe next month.

Week 3: Ether Saga Online

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No, it had to be a traditional click-to-move Korean style MMO. After all, that’s what I said I’d be playing for this series and I’ve not done one yet. The strongest initial contender was Ether Saga Online in light of their recent parenting award. That’s enough news of interest to give the game a chance.

Other candidates were games I’d seen in banner ads this week… but after a bit of googling to see what gameplay looked like, this music video (to Usher’s “Yeah!”) was the deciding factor this time around. If the characters are that expressive in game, I can’t help but try. Ether Saga it is.

Registration and Download

So let’s get down to it. The front page assaults me with lots of twitchy animations. Seriously? Jpeg compression artifacts in flash? Sigh. That’s just plain lazy. However, underneath the animation, I see what I’m looking for. Big obvious registration/download links.

Let’s start the download before registering this time, just because. Ooh! They have an official torrent. I do believe we have a winner. Total payload will be 1.8gb (they keep getting bigger!). Torrent is started, I’ll check back on it after registration is complete.

Actual registration link was smaller than the art led me to believe. Regardless, I found it. Hmm… Security question. Mandatory name & birthday survey (but at least it’s marked as mandatory). Tooltip next to the personal information survey says that it’s to expedite setting up billing should I choose to give them money, which makes sense, but is a touch annoying.

Click. Click. Registered. And checking back on download.

20 minute ETA? Hehehehe. I love torrents. 16 seeds, 2 peers. Downloading at 1.6Mbps 🙂

Research and Waiting

This won’t be much of a wait it seems, so I need to hurry.

Ok, the official site has an Mediawiki install with a good mix of info. The main site’s guides are pretty standard kmmo portal randomness. I’ll stick with the wiki, the static site is making my brain itch.

Journey to the West references. There’s a good safe theme for a game 🙂 I wonder if they’ll actually reference the stories or just use that as a shortcut to identify the general setting?

Three races with Chinese characters for names. Sigh, my Chinese is so bad. Ren = person, and that’s clearly the character, and the race is generic human. Shenzu… Shen means god (I think) and the race is demigod. Yaoh? No idea there. Looks like they’re animal spirits or something.

Oh my. They have a set of “Nascent” skills chosen by the combination of a character’s birthday and race. They all look like either long cooldown bombs or passives. Regardless, I bet whatever one(s) I wind up with will be useful.

Six classes. Rogue, Ranger, Dragoon. Shaman, Conjurer. Mystic. That’s kind of a nice change. Actual choice. The physical classes look like exactly what you’d expect from their names. Dragoon is a fun choice for the game’s basic tank class. Shamans look like hybrid healer/tanks. Conjurer is the offensive caster, Mystic is the defensive. As funny as it would be to pick Ranger for a third game in a row… I think I’ll have to pass this time.

Torrent finished…

Ok, it doesn’t look like a lot of abilities granted by the class, also evidence that level advancement will be rapid – which will be a nice change. I like regularly scheduled cookies. I think I’ll go with a Shenzu Shaman. They wear heavy armour and wield big mallets 🙂 Looks like their main heal is just a regen buff. That’s actually viable in this format. Normally direct heals with casting times in a kmmo are worthless given the potion economy. I <3 regen. ooOoohOhooh! Everyone gets a pet. Win 🙂 Looks like you can pokemon them and some (like rangers) are better at it than others. Initial glance makes pets look a lot like Megaten‘s system. I liked that. Here’s to hoping it’s similar but better.

And I think I’m done procrastinating. Time to plug this thing in and see what breaks!

Installation and Startup

The installer is not standard. It provided a strange (and potentially broken?) destination folder dropdown that confused me. I’m not sure what it would have done had I just clicked through, so I manually specified a destination path in stead.

After a bit of waiting, I get a more standard full screen installer and a EULA splash page… with some sort of non-necessarily-latin character set font. The taskbar icon’s menu reveals to me that the installer program is probably Chinese.

Ahaha! The first destination folder was actually where to extract the installer files to… I choose to -really- install to the default location, complete with ego folder.

They then ask me if I want to verify the installer… but they do it in a slightly scary way:

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There may have been data lost during transmission. Do you want to verify the data to ensure successful installation?

Umm, yes? Ok, if you feel so strongly about it, I’ll verify… I guess.

The validation process actually ran quickly and the normal install finally started automatically after that. It’s a pretty traditional full-screen installer with stretched bitmaps of concept art from the game in the background.

When installation finally completes, it provides me with another dialog:

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SERIOUSLY? You want me to crc your files AGAIN? As the default option? Wow. What kind of tcp/smoke-signals sort of network do they expect we’re running on?

Also, I kind of thought that patch clients are usually responsible for validating game data at launch. 10 to 1 the patcher runs a full scan once I launch it… and 100 to 1 that there’s a patch to be downloaded that obsoletes all of this data integrity paranoia anyway.

While watching the second checksum pass, it is revealed that they have some files with names in Chinese characters 🙂

Once I actually launch the launcher, it asks me to configure its patcher behavior. It seems you can tell it -not- to automatically patch? Huh. Regardless, I’m clicking everything… and sure enough, there was another patch. And it asked me three times if I wanted to do something about it – despite having just told the thing to patch automatically… AND they have a default option to manually select which patch mirror to download from… and even AFTER I tell it to just get on with things (this is my 7th or 8th dialog at this point), they ask me if I am really really really sure and don’t I really just want to get the patch by hand from the website.

I really wish people would serve freshly patched versions of their clients…

No, I’m using the patcher… and it looks like it is going to take a while. I’m gonna eat lunch and come back to this.

40 minutes later, it is finally done patching, I hope.

Awesome. The torrent I downloaded was version 81 of the game. Patcher updated me to version 162.

Now they give me a System Settings dialog with various graphics options. The game wants to default into 800×600 full screen. No thanks, I’ll see how things look at max res at 1280×800 windowed with everything turned up.

I click the big Game Start button… and it asks me to select a server first. After looking around – and ignoring the flashing Server Status images, I finally notice the unadorned combobox below Game Start where I can select West Coast or East Coast. The servers have names according to the site, but I guess location is good enough. West Coast start now?

First Session

Ok, pretty Chinese music and MotD. After Alganon last week, words fail me with how nice it is to see UI that someone actually took some effort on.

Hmm. The music cut off before I got to character creation and hasn’t kicked up again. A quick test says that my machine’s still making noise, so it’s just the game client. Oh well.

Character creation was smooth standard sort of interface with good responsiveness on changing out models. I have my Shenzu Shaman ready for action, complete with a little pet monkey/cat hybrid thing and a birthday and zodiac sign chosen.

… wow.

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This is unapologetically pretty. I love the background music – even if it is just standard Asian fantasy ambiance so far. Everything is shiny and crisp, with smooth animations and nice (but not amazing) UI components.

People are chatting in some funny language I don’t recognize, but whatever 🙂 Ahh. I think I am guessing Portuguese plus some internet slang/abbreviations. Ahh. Yup. Confirmed and someone asked me if I knew Portuguese. I responded that I knew only Japanese 😛

Apparently my pet is a Baby Maotu Longtail and the click-to-move marker is a cute little pawprint. This is going to be fun.

Everything stops animating when you click out of the window, but music continues. When you click back in the window, it interprets that as an instruction to the client and not a reacquisition of focus… so accidentally walking somewhere is going to happen to me a lot, I can feel it.

I finally decide that it is time to start playing and talk to the glowing quest npc in the middle of the room. Apparently I am the chosen one, descended from on high to the lower plane to save the world and blah blah blah. There is a brief voiceover that sounds Chinese every time I click on some npc’s, and I’m clicking on a lot. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Before I know it, I’ve run laps around this opening region and have dinged my way to level 12 off of “go talk to this guy” sort of quests. One of my tutorial quests was to kill three level 1 flower plants, which I one-shotted by this point…

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They gave me my first Nascent ability. Apparently my birthday qualifies me for Dark Ritual at level 10. 😛 The power itself actually restores 30% of my (or I assume a friendly target’s) mana. I find the irony delicious. These abilities actually have shorter cooldowns than initial research lead me to believe. This one is on a 30s cooldown – but it has a cost in “Vigor”, which is like a very slowly regenerating stamina stat (I also have Mana and some other meter that I haven’t figured out yet). The cost is sufficiently high that I can use the ability on about 4 successive cooldowns but am then pretty much locked out for a few minutes before I can use it again… the irony of which also amuses me.

Finally around level 13, they decide to stop giving me free exp and I look at my quest journal to decide where to go next. Hmm, go to town? Ok. I walk past a wide variety of mobs, none of which are aggressive so far… and can eventually see town. I kill a few things and earn 20-30 exp per kill. I need a few thousand to ding 14. Ahh. Now THIS is the experience I was expecting 🙂

I stop killing and walk in to town to try to turn in the one mission that led me here. The minimap icons are confusing. There is an apparent profusion of quest availability, but some of the guys are moving and the map is just a sea of colorful dots. These guys don’t give out free levels. I talk to several guys who do send me fedex around town a bit, but for relatively zero reward. Mostly, the npc dialogs are confusing – it’s hard to identify which are quests and which are just guys wanting to exposit my ear off.

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Graphically, there are a lot of classic Chinese mythological tropes all over the place. Everything really does feel very 16th century fantasy China.

Eventually, I find quests sufficient to fill my book. Oh look. Directed grinding. Well, it’s better than nothing. I set out to actually kill things. Thinking I’m clever, I stack up on missions to kill the same groups of mobs, but it turns out I only get credit for one quest per kill, even if I have three missions to kill the same guys. Oh well.

Combat is pretty standard, though I don’t have a lot of actions to choose from. They -do- however have macros for automated spell cycles, which should be interesting. The system is a bit confusing and I think the interface could be improved, but it works. You can even set the macro on auto-repeat by slotting a repeat action BEFORE the sequence of abilities you want to cycle. My cycle is pretty simple: spell attack, melee attack.

A lot of the advancement is non-standard. Every 5th level you are given 5 points to spend on your elements. These are affinities for the 5 classic Chinese elements that seem to have a relationship to your spell damage output and resistance as well as random stat modifiers. I started with 3 in all elements and spent my first batch of 5 on increasing everything to 4. From there, I spent as many points in wind as they would let me (they call it Winra or something dumb like that – but not as bad as metal which they call Oora, likewise fire is Pyra, etc…). My remaining points went into earth at the time. Wind seems to be a caster stat and apparently most of my spells are wind based. Earth seems to be the tank stat. Sounds good enough for now.

You don’t learn new abilities from a trainer or when you level up. You purchase them from your skill page with points that you earn directly from kills. The mobs directly adjacent to my newbie spawn point weren’t worth any of these “spirit” points, but once I got any distance away, I started killing things worth 2-3 each. First few ranks of low level abilities cost 30-100 points, so there is a clear incentive for short bursts of grinding to get these points.

After a bit more quest and spirit grinding later, I had every rank of every ability available to my level 14 self. They added a large attack with a 5 second cooldown and a brief heal over time. I updated my main macro to open with the big nuke, cast, cast, cast, hot, repeat. Against mobs of equal or greater level, this kept me topped off until I ran out of mana. A brief spot of meditation later (or tapping my Dark Ritual), I can resume the incessant grind.

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The game also has a transformation mechanic. It seems that many (most? all?) mobs are valid transformation targets. There is a very low chance per kill of a mob dropping a card that teaches you the ability to transform into them. Most of these cards have limited uses – but the transformation itself is of unlimited duration, so 50 charges really do last a long time. One of the flurry of newbie tutorial quests explains all of this and gave me a card, but I wasn’t paying attention at the time. It lets me turn into a frog who is apparently fire element attuned and also counts as a different creature type (my default of course being humanoid).

Just like the 5 elements have the whole paper-rock-scissors relationship with each other, so do creature types. There are apparently 9 of these, and one of the major benefits to transformation is setting yourself up to do 1.5-2x damage to your enemy. Double damage means half the grind time… add 2x exp potions to it… and it might actually become feasible to advance levels.

And as if that wasn’t enough random systems, all players have combat pets. They have the classic hunger money sink built in so you can unsummon your pet if you can’t afford to keep them happily fed. It looks like every mob in the game might be pokemonsters. You can use nets on them once you’ve damaged them, etc… Pets may or may not learn abilities as they advance in levels and they can also be taught abilities via scroll sort of items. Mobs have creature types and elemental affinities so you can use them to focus your damage types considering what you’re farming as well.

Players start with one pet (based on race) and are given an “unidentified” pet during opening quests. There is a tax of sorts to id pets and reveal their stats. I’m not sure entirely what this means because I can use the new pet w/o any apparent disadvantages.

In addition to summoning a pet as normal, you can also “fuse” with them to split damage taken. I think this is one of the game’s primary tanking mechanics – and I would not be surprised if your fused pet variety impacts your damage taken (ie, pick something resistant to the types of damage you’re taking, etc…). I do not think fused pets can use their abilities.

It was a good, long session. I wish the exp rate hadn’t just switched off upon leaving newbieland, but after a bit of struggling, I was able to hit level 15.

I wasn’t able to find time for any other meaningful sessions after the first big one, but doubt that I would have seen much else of interest during them.

Gameplay

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The gameplay is precisely what one would expect from a free-to-play, click-to-move MMO with optional WASD. The grind is long and predictable, with very little one can do to soothe it outside of exp rate potions and the like. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Apart from behavior when tabbing out of the game window and back, things are polished and reliable. You have the control you need to get the job done and are given a surprising array of options. Unlike some of the older offerings in the genre, players really do have a wild variety of choice to impact their growth and abilities. I wouldn’t say that the game is as flexible as say DoMO, but it is absolutely more flexible than something like Ragnarok.

I don’t have very many gripes with the game, but those I do have count for something.

First, the game’s general ui was obviously created with some care… originally. There are a few rough edges and quirks that could use some polishing and would thus make things go smoother. NPC chat dialogs are lacking – it is difficult to identify whether a dialog options is quest-related, is some sort of trade/service selection, or is just world flavour text. This makes finding missions difficult. Likewise, the game has a lot of good help available while playing, and has the obligatory tutorial tooltips that nag you to read relevant system documentation when you encounter it… but there is a lack of consistency that leads me to believe that the system was just tacked on after the fact.

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Second, the combo system is great but clunky. It suffers from that same “almost there” sort of ui issue. As near as I can tell, it is impossible to either name combos or delete an action from a combo once it has been slotted. Your best bet is to delete and try again. There is no feedback for when a combo starts or finishes, and there is certainly no feedback when a combo aborts for one reason or another.

Third, the rate at which complexity is layered on top of complexity serves as a barrier to entry. Spirit and elements for advancement, but not every level and not necessarily when you level. Oh, and spirit is also used as a currency when upgrading equipment – but then again, so is “treasure” which is an upgrade-only sort of currency that you get transparently in the background while doing everything else. Pets must be identified, but can be used w/o identification. Creature types and elemental types of attacks create this wild net of damage multipliers that can either benefit you strongly or kick you in the teeth w/o warning if you don’t understand them. It would be much better to introduces all of these systems one at a time time, but since the initial orgy of level advancement force feeds you all of this information at such a dizzying pace, you’re bound to miss most of it.

Art and Music

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What can I say? I’m a sucker for this kind of art. It is clean and original and anime-inspired. The character costumes and animations are all very well done and the cash shop offerings look like they’d be a lot of fun. In the time it took me to walk to town, I did not encounter one reskinned mob type. Everything was weird and different. Sure there were rat men and killer saplings like you would expect, but I also fought giant animated coins and giant insane mine worker types with bombs in their backpacks and rabbit head hats.

Skill animations are huge, over the top light shows that make it impossible to miss what’s going on 😉

The music is nice and pleasant, and fits the theme perfectly. It’s the kind of music I wish I could find as mp3’s lying around the game data directories – but alas, it’s packed away somewhere 😛

Stability

I didn’t have any problems once the game got up and running. I never got disconnected and never had problems authenticating.

Final Grade

Ether Saga Online is a good, cute game. It is more playable than a lot of the competition, but suffers from a slightly less than perfect localization and overmuch complexity. The grind sets in fast and is disappointingly slow once you get started – even with exp potions on board. For what it is, and in consideration of my expectations, I give the game an 8 out of 10. You could do a lot worse with your free-to-play time.

Pro

  • Web page is actually surprisingly useful once you navigate away from the stock Asian MMO noise.
  • In-game help is informative, with pictures.
  • Client downloaded by a well seeded torrent.
  • All mobs appear to be pokemon, should you care to catch them all.
  • All players are pokemon trainers, so even support types should have guaranteed dps.
  • Good mix of classes and abilities.
  • Pretty. Very pretty.
  • Nice music.
  • Great character emotes and other animations.
  • Theme is well handled and as immersive as you could hope for.
  • There appear to be more than enough quests.
  • Combat macros FTW.
  • Regular cookies in the form of spirit points used to buy skill ranks outside of the normal level advancement framework.
  • All players are shapeshifters, so even boring old fighter types can shift their damage types and resistances around.
Con

  • Paranoid imported installer is confusing and scary and slow and annoying – it took me longer to install than to download.
  • Downloadable client isn’t even vaguely current – it took me longer to patch than it took to install.
  • The level advancement honeymoon is cut to an abrupt end at around 12-13. Level cap is in the 100’s.
  • Learning curve on all of these random systems isn’t very friendly – tutorial experience is really quite poor.
  • Quests are hard to find and you can’t double up on them very effectively.
  • Less than perfect user interface, the rough edges can chafe at times.
  • The whole window can get very cluttered at times with all of the million HUD elements.
  • Screenshots are saved in bmp format, which means I have to re-encode them before uploading here 😛 Also, I couldn’t find any way of toggling the HUD to take prettier pictures.

Afterthoughts

I’m not really sure why Ether Saga was honored alongside Wizard 101 – which I view to be perhaps the ultimate kid friendly MMO. It is a good solid game with a lot of depth and a lot of play time, but there is nothing absolutely mindblowing about it that screams after my wallet. If my toddler were 10 years older, I’d totally be playing Wizard 101 with her, but would probably not give Ether Saga a second thought.

What’s Next?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I’ve got a few closed beta opportunities to choose from right now, so I think I am going to pursue one of those for now. No game is explicitly planned for review next week, but you never know, something might jump out at me and earn a quick once-over.

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