I have more of an issue with the game's early-game blandness. Unless you are the type of player who is used to soft-grinds and fast leveling or Anime-styled games that are usually played in groups, you'd think that the game was literally nothing but the pressing of a few buttons. I certainly thought it was that for the first dozen or so levels.
Luckily, the game opens up and becomes fun, but it takes a while to get there. I sat down with game producer Aaron Biedma to ask about the controversial packs, combat mechanics, and adorable dragons.
Starting off in the game is promising. There are eight classes, including one locked, mysterious class that Aaron was not willing to talk about. Let's just call it the FartKnocker class so he'll regret leaving out information during future interviews. The starting classes are the Guardian, a sword-and-shield melee class; another axe-wielding melee class called the Ravager; the Duelist, which is a dual-wielding damage-dealer; a ranger class called the Gunslinger; a massive gunner called the Grenadier; the healer Bard; a magical damage class called a Wizard; the supportive Sorcerer; and the FartKnocker. At level 40, players can learn skills from any one of the other classes to make for a more unique and powerful character.
The character customization options are pretty limited, but there is no gender-locking, and there are tons of gear and costumes that will hopefully allow players to look really unique. I didn't get a chance to see them all because of my time constraints during this phase of beta. Character animations are top-notch, and the game is a bit generic but quite lovely. It's several steps above many of the other recent Anime free-to-play games I've looked at lately.
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The quests I experienced in-game are nothing special. What makes them worth playing through is the fun story and cutscenes that go along with them. I am not a fan of a game that is mostly grinding, but Aura Kingdom comes from the seemingly new school of Anime free-to-play design and presents its grind with a softer edge. Sure, I had to kill a kajillion monsters overall, but each quest represented taking down several or a dozen of them, gathering some material, and running back to the quest-giver to turn it in.
You'll spend most of your time in the first 20 or so levels killing monsters for the sake of a few bits of treasure and equipment. The levels truly fly by, which made me wonder whether the game will really be able to retain a level-hungry audience for long. Add in the expensive pre-order Founder's Packs and you have a recipe for some intense drama as players who paid a lot of money for early entry into the game find themselves with nothing left to do but create another alt. Let the buyer beware, of course.
Running instanced dungeons is a requirement for advancing many of the questlines. They're simple affairs and might grow more complicated and challenging later on, but I rarely had any issues with difficulty. There are boss monsters who provide the best loot and best fight; some of them even fire off special attacks that can be side-stepped if a player is watchful. Honestly, most of the content I played through felt as though the game is meant for much younger audiences, making the steep preorder prices even more confusing.
One of the real shining points of Aura Kingdom is the Eidolons, pets that fight or heal during combat and perform a few other unique tricks. There are four main Eidolons to choose from initially, but many, many more will be coming down the pike after the game's release. Right now there is a warrior pet called Serif, a healer named Merrillee, an AoE attack dragon called Grimm (the cutest baby dragon, ever), and a more roundabout Eidolon called Alessa, who comes in the form of a small unicorn. The Eidolons are "more of a companion," according to Aaron.
In my short time with the game, Aura Kingdom impressed more than I thought it would. I have played so, so, so, so, so, so, so many free-to-play, Anime-inspired MMOs that come from beyond our borders. I've seen just how bland many of them can be and how many of them are obviously tuned for the stereotypical grindhouse gaming cafes that many Eastern gamers frequent. But Aura Kingdom seems to come from the newer school of design that keeps many of those same grindy designs in place but adds in fantastic new graphics that can probably run on a toaster, plus interesting storylines, tons of choices in the item-shop, and many different classes and customization options. And now, $500 preorder packs.
I like this new school of design, for sure, but it does need a few tweaks. I'd like to see a bit more variety in the quests. I'm tired of reading a snippet of story, running off to kill 10 monsters, and coming back to do it again in another area that is designated only for certain levels. Aura Kingdom adds in a bit of variety to the quests, but I'd like to see it broken up more. The dungeons help with monotony, but all of the players in the game are so incredibly hypnotized by the possibility of hitting another level that socializing is just not that easy. All that is left to do is more questing.
The evolution of design standards is a slow process. But design is changing, and Aura Kingdom is part of that change.
Next week I'll be off for the holidays, but I will return on the 30th of December with a revisit to Istaria in celebration of its 10-year anniversary. I'll be joined by developer team member Amon at 4:00 p.m. EST, right here on our livestream channel!
Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!