Level Grinding: The Video Game!
What is it with these Monster Hunter-style games? The ones that I’ve played are like pulling teeth through the tutorial phase. It seems it’s de rigeur to start off fighting alone, without any special abilities, companions, or limited attacks. You start off clubbing slimes and rodent creatures the size of a small dog as if you were the most clumsy animal poacher that ever lived.
Thank goodness these games lighten up after a bit. Soon they explain the secondary combat systems’ special abilities and weapon customization. You usually get some chargeable special attack, and eventually they let you take AI companions with you (often shortly before opening up the game to online multiplayer). Ragnarok Odyssey ACE is no exception, and at first I felt like I was beating my head against a wall.
So, to give you the skinny, your job is to kill things. Sometimes your goal is to gather items, but these are invariably dropped by enemies you kill or are in boxes behind a group of enemies you need to kill in order to move to that area. You are sent out as a representative of some kingdom (or something. as I quickly got annoyed by the one-note comedy characters who delivered the exposition) by some mercenaries and knights whose banter makes up the story. They also give you missions, which build towards a giant monster boss at the end of each chapter.
In single player, with your AI companions, ROA is a passable monster-hunting game. Your dim and underpowered companions draw the fire of the often large-to-gigantic enemy, allowing you to focus on individual enemies and their weakpoints, crippling it before you go in for the final kill. It works, and it’s functional. Whether it’s fun or not is a good question, since the repetitive grind of it begins to overload the brain after a while.
ACE does an okay job of keeping things fresh, actually. Weapons are upgradeable with different possible effects, and there isn’t armor so much as clothing with slots for customizable buffs that can be switched out to accommodate different challenges. Add a further layer of customization wherein the game lets you change classes from one job to another. If you get tired of hammering some guy to death, you can change to a bow-user and fill him with arrows. You can change your companions to have different classes along with you as well.
Ragnarok Odyssey’s story is told by characters in the hub telling you how what you did made things safer or revealed new threats. There’s never much of a sense of emotional consequence because of this, since they never seem particularly emotionally affected by anything. It’s certainly not Soul Sacrifice, whose writing was so compelling I spent hours reading the book the game took place in. Here, the story is really not the point in any fashion.
The real point of Ragnarok Odyssey ACE is beating the crap out of a level with some people in the online multiplayer. The difference between single-player and multiplayer is night and day. Your companions in single player are just a bit underpowered; whereas your live companions, as living players, are better equipped, stronger, and generally smarter. Those battles—oh yes, those battles—are awesome.
And honestly, it’s completely badass when you fight some giant boss at the end of a chapter and you tear a chunk out of its armor, only to have a companion stun it so the four of you can all go ballistic on it while it stumbles to the earth. You feel like freaking Gandalf in Lord of the Rings when he kills the Balrog, “I smote his ruin on the mountain-side!” After defeating a boss, you level up and start the next chapter. If you are in the multiplayer section, you don’t get to see the story bits play out, but the story feels like it was drafted from a mid-level PSOne RPG, so you’re not really losing anything.
Ragnarok Odyssey ACE, like other Monster Hunter games before it, distills what is awesome about min-max power-gaming I remember from tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. Hanging out with your buddies and killing awesome enemies and leveling up is badass! So Ragnarok Odyssey ACE is cool, if you want to play that specific game. If you’re looking for a deep, story-based single player experience, this is not it.
ACE has a few issues, though. One is that it looks like an upscaled PS2 game. It’s not terrible-looking, but it does look like every enemy is made out of triangles. I mean, I know it’s necessary to keep video game poly-counts low, but this is kind of ridiculous.
In addition, as cool as the multiplayer is, it suffers from a weird sort of catering to the lowest common denominator when it comes to online play. This looked like it might be particularly true on the Vita (the system I played it on). In an online mission, the game seems to slow to accommodate the player with the biggest latency and connection speed issues. I don’t mean that there’s lag, because instead of having lag, the entire game suffers from slowdown to keep the game fluid for all players.
So imagine, if you will, that you enter a match with three other players, to kill 80 carnivorous ants, and you start the mission and find yourself running fluidly at half-speed the entire time, striking in fluid slow-motion arcs as you attempt to dispatch the enemies as quickly as possible within the time limit. As stated, the more Vita’s connected, the more the game seemed to slow down. Whether or not this was because a Vita owner’s online connections are weaker, or just some issue that ACE has with the Vita itself, I don’t know. I do know that the more of them that were connected, the slower the game played.
Not that you ever ran out of time. The much more powerful player characters make short work of the missions compared to the AIs. However, it did mean at one point that I’m pretty sure the room-owner booted me out for slowing down his game. One reason I think this is Vita-specific is that I’ve played plenty of online fare on my laptop and consoles with no issues (and suspect there would be no problem had I played the game on the PS3). Hopefully, this is an issue that will be patched, as it’s currently horrendous.
On the other hand, if you wanted to grind through levels when you were away from your PS3 on the Vita, you could do so, since the game supports shared saves between systems. Of course, that necessitates buying that dual package, and at that point; except for the hardcore monster hunter-style game fan, the cost just won’t be worth it.
So on the whole, I feel like the game has merit, but it also has a certain shelf-life in play. As addictive as it can be to have those accomplishments of murdering giant critters with friends, it does grow stale eventually, as the same missions are rehashed with slightly different objectives. ACE is a re-release of a prior version of the same game as Ragnarok Odyssey in 2012 (which I did not play), but with an extra 400 missions set in a new story following the end of the old story. Do I really want 400 more missions if they involve the same thing over and over?
And while I enjoyed ACE, it ultimately made me want to set it down and start playing Soul Sacrifice again, which had everything I loved about Ragnarok Odyssey but with amazing writing, atmosphere, a player choice system, and one of the greatest symphonic soundtracksyet. It's an enjoyable, cheap that tastes great, but doesn’t fill the stomach for very long and leaves you longing for more substantial fare.