PAX East 2018: Hands-on with Pantheon Rise of the Fallen

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Those who have read a fair amount of my work will know that nostalgia is something I tend to rail against pretty hard. I’m a big advocate for constantly spot-checking your nostalgia in the cold light of reality and asking yourself if your memories are accurate.

This is not because I don’t feel any nostalgia. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s because I am wildly aware of how powerful a force it can be as someone who often will spend extended amounts of time working in elaborate mythology gags for character traits based on old roleplaying, to the extent that one of my characters has a particular class as a reference to an old game no one else I know actually played.

All of this is a long-winded way of pointing out that Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen already had a bit of an in with me when I sat down to play. Because while I wasn’t personally familiar with the game that it was referencing, I am personally familiar with that game’s close cousin, and I have a fair amount of familiarity with the playstyle. And it’s a playstyle MMOs have, in large part, moved beyond.

This is not something that happened overnight, I’d like to stress. Even back in the early days of World of Warcraft I can remember dungeon runs in which the strategy was clearing up to a room, then making a brief camp in that room, then trying to pull a few things at a time to winnow down the opposition.

We’ve largely moved on beyond that because, well, it doesn’t exactly produce lots of neat and memorable fights so much as it feels like creeping about the edges and slowly whittling your way through things. But this is also exactly what Pantheon is interested in reproducing. It’s about creating the fun of creeping along together, pulling carefully, and using varied abilities in concert to deal with a mess of different situations.

And in my hands-on, I’m happy to say that it does hit that goal solidly.

Some of that was just a matter of setting the stage correctly. I was playing as the Rogue of the party, while my host was serving as the tank as a Monk. He explained that Monks weren’t really supposed to be main tanks, but that’s what we were doing here, which of course brings back plenty of memories of “well, that’s sort of a tank, we’ll make it work.” We also had an Enchanter, a Shaman, and (I believe) a Cleric; my focus was more on my Rogue arsenal, so I admit to missing certain nuance.

After a bit of examining my abilities, we headed into the keep to start smacking our way to the first boss. This consisted of battles that… well, should feel familiar to any old-school player from a similar era. Find a secluded space to beat the enemies up, rotate your abilities calmly, do your best to temporarily disable adds while following targets called out by the tank.

This sort of beating.

I’m happy to say that everything animated smoothly and felt enjoyable; the biggest balance issue I found was that I always felt as if my resources were running low with no real way to manage them. (Then again, “periods of inactivity” also matches the era being emulated quite nicely.) My main kit consisted of a backstab, a basic attack, a self speed buff, and a pair of DoT effects. If pressed, I was also able to temporarily disorient a target as needed, which came in handy on several fights.

The actual journey in didn’t have much in the way of distance; it was slowed mostly by the relentless number of enemies, each of whom had its own particular tricks that, yes, needed to be carefully managed to make sure we didn’t wipe. Some targets had to be designated as high priority, others could be more easily controlled, and so forth.

If you’ve gotten used to dungeon runs in more modern MMOs, this sort of thing would feel almost entirely alien. No running forward and using AoE to smack things down; you hack away at single targets and might be able to hit two things at a time if you’re quite lucky. It’s a very different experience, and one that may shock players with a preference for newer combat.

For my part, I was enjoying myself. Not necessarily because it was the greatest combat I’d ever experienced, but because… well, familiarity breeds familiarity. I knew what I was doing. This felt like slipping on a comfortable old pair of shoes.

Eventually, we made our way to the first boss, and here is where the whole experience felt really old-school. I was warned ahead of time that this particular boss might well lead to a wipe, and in fact the past few runs had done exactly that. The goal was to control her with stuns until her adds were down, then focus on her before she bursted down the tank.

Needless to say, everything went wrong pretty quickly. I got her stunned with a smoke bomb to the face, and we went to work on the normal adds, but a couple of other patrols ran by to join the fight, followed by a resisted control spell from the Enchanter and a moment before I could re-stun her. She also had two abilities aside from a tank buster, an AoE sleep spell that persisted through her smacking people and a group-wide thrash that hurt badly.

My muscle memory said that we should all be drinking Poison Potions and grouping up for Curaga when needed. Wrong game, right thinking.

This is the chamber where the party will die.

A couple of us did wind up dropping, but we managed to pull things back together and controlled things down to the point where we could get ourselves back on track and get the adds down. My temporary stun got a workout to keep her locked down, and when we were finally on to just fighting her, we managed to avoid any massive catastrophes to bring her down.

I was told this was an unusual event that rarely occurred. Whether or not this was true and my experience with this gameplay type helped or it was, in fact, relatively common will be a mystery for the ages. My ego won’t let me assume that I just happened to be good.

The real test of Pantheon is always going to be how it’s received among the general audience. As I mentioned, this is the sort of gameplay style that games have largely moved on from, and that means some people are going to bounce off right away, while others are going to set up camp and make it a home. You can argue whether or not they’re right to do so, whether it’s better to have engaging single fights or an engaging process of exploring and pulling.

But if you’re eagerly awaiting the game and hoping that it brings back the muscle memory of the old days? It does that, it looks pretty while it’s doing that, and it does it with panache. I definitely had fun with it, and while I might recognize that it was relying on my nostalgia centers, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a success.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in Boston for PAX East 2018, bringing you expert MMO coverage on everything (and everyone!) on display at the latest Penny Arcade Expo!
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