As someone who has played scores and scores (if not a hundred) free-to-play games, I know how hard it is to convince someone that all of them are not click-to-move grinders, with horrible cutesy graphics and over-the-top 8-bit music playing in the background. There are so many high-quality games out there now, games like Wizard 101, Runescape, Free Realms, DDO, Mabinogi... the list goes on and on.
But one has to admit that the stereotypes exist for a reason, and it is only until recent years that FTP games have begun to take on a level of quality that usually had to be paid for.
Upon first glance, Aika Online from publisher gPotato seems to be of the usual suspects, a grindy game filled with slightly dated graphics and music that demands turning the volume down immediately. But if there's one thing I have learned over the years, it's to give a game some time to grow on you like a new album or new movie. Often times I appreciate a game more as I get over the initial knee-jerk hump, and as I explore the game and it's systems more.
Essentially, Aika Online is a PvP-centric MMO, but also one that has plenty to do with PvE. Upon character creation you will notice that you do not have many choices, and that the graphics are not quite state-of-the-art, but this can be explained by the need to keep the lag minimal in the famed "1000 v 1000" PvP battles, one of the selling points of the game. You can choose a class, and the classes are organized by sex as well (my Rifleman can only be a man, for example) but again this can be seen as a way to help identify players in battle, similar to many MMOs' usage of fantastic looking armor sets to help identify ability on the battlefield.
Also, the look of the game is familiar to me, but might not be so familiar to someone who has not played everything under the sun. A lot of what the game does, and how it plays, is simply a stylistic choice made by the Eastern market. They just prefer the fantastic looking robes and outfits, sharp corners on every piece of armor and androgynous looking male characters. They prefer click-to-move, making that control scheme actually the most popular in the world, being that there are simply more players outside of the US than in. They also pay no mind to the sometimes massive grind in a lot of the FTP market, but I would note that you would be very very hard-pressed to find any North American "AAA" title that boasts an audience that doesn't occasionally bemoan "the grind" in their games as well.
Although the game is in closed beta, it runs great (thanks to lower system and graphics requirements) and is easy enough to navigate. It supports WASD/Arrow key movements (although it is a little jerky) and plays pretty much like a "standard" MMO. You click on something, use abilities to kill it, and get the goods.
Where this game immediately sets itself apart is the "Pran" system -- essentially a pet system that is more involved than normal. At level 7 you undergo a kill-and-gather quest to unlock your little Pran, a creature that you can name and that starts out as a fluttering fairy with certain buffs to help you. I went with water, being that the buff is defensive, and since I would constantly be shooting things, I could use all the defense I could get.
The little thing talks to you, too, and is more like having an NPC party member than a pet. I have just started with mine, but have found Leala (named after my wife) to be a pleasant enough little fairy. Soon enough she will grow, gaining experience alongside me, and will start to resemble a little girl more than a fluttering fairy.
And being that this game is more of a hardcore PvP romp, it is pretty funny to find characters named "Pwnzer" and "KillerBabe" with little girls tagging along behind. You can even dress your Pran up, give them toys to play with and customize them about as much as you can customize your own character. It's charming, really, and gives a strange new twist to this PvP environment.
There are three major types of PvP: Battlegrounds, Castle Siege and Relic Wars.
Battlegrounds are what you might think, immediate battles filled with teams of individuals. Players can win gold, powerful equipment and other prizes, making them pretty valuable to blood-thirsty individuals who can only stomach killing a score of people or fewer at a time.
Castle Sieges are the most interesting to me, being that the end result of the winning guild is that they will "rule" the winning Nation, and will even win rights to have their Grand Marshal speak to everyone in the nation at will. It was intriguing, and pretty amusing, to watch as the Grand Marshal (named "Lolli...something") went back and forth with players from the chat as they discussed (loosely, very loosely) the tax rate. He warned them that he could raise it to 99 percent, and then continued to give them directions. While it was a little distracting and easily ignored by switching off the appropriate channel, it was actually a very cool dynamic. Someone does the work to successfully siege the castle, and in return they are able to put "their man" in office, with all of its power and influence. I have a feeling that there is much more to Castle Siege politics than bickering in chat.
Relic Wars seem to be the nation-pitting 1000-strong battles that legends speak of. Essentially, if a nation is successful in its grab for a relic, its citizens will benefit by having a buff placed upon a certain attribute, statistic, etc. Each nation has 4 relics in 4 temples, and all one has to do is capture a relic and hoof it back to their home temple. Think of it as a giant, bloody and noisy capture-the-flag scenario, but add on hundreds and hundreds of players. Interesting even to those who don't like PvP, to say the very least.
A friendly community in a FTP PvP MMO?
And while those non-PvPers might see a game like Aika and sneer due to its PvP nature, I can say that the game seems to give PvEers plenty to do, as well. I am now approaching my double digits and do not need to search very hard to find a PvE quest, and despite the reputation of PvP games being made up mostly of villains and bogeymen, I found almost every player that I came across to be friendly and helpful.
In fact, during a mission to find materials for acquiring my Pran, I asked someone if they knew where the materials might drop. I had been at it for a long time, stacking body after body of grunty pig-men at my feet, with no luck towards my goal of finding just three more "water essences", and I was becoming frustrated. Not only did they tell me where I might find them, but healed me during the process and gave me tips. Then, after realizing that even with her help that I might be doing this for quite a while longer, she simply instructed me to follow her.
A few minutes later, she opened a trade window with me and filled it with the materials I needed! I asked her what I owed, and she just turned, ran off and said "Nothing, I have about 400 of those! :)"
I am glad I gave the game a try. And by try I mean a chance to show me what it might be able to do, and how it might be able to entertain me. Let's be honest, there is no shortage of FTP click-to-move grinders out there, but upon second glance I can see that Aika is different than that. Yes, there are the elements that we have grown to love and hate about these games, but the community seems honest in its race for glory, and seem friendly enough even to newbies. The graphics grow on you and are quite nice, and if you take a closer look, many of the mobs/characters are actually finely detailed. I imagine that at higher levels it must get even better, as you experience the rush of having a few hundred players gunning for your blood.
For now, though, I'll be happy just watching my Pran grow. To be perfectly honest, I can't wait to dress her up in some new clothes.
There, I admitted it.