There was a certain something that remotely intrigued me about Astellia Online before we reached the closed beta phase, so like any sensible human being who has done this dance, I immediately began to temper my expectations. After all, the two things that managed to pique my interest were primarily that the game was promising to abolish extant gender locks in the game by launch and allow for solo dungeon exploration. Neither of those facts indicates that a game is actually going to be good, of course. At best, they indicate that the localization team seems to have its heart in the right place.
Still, I’m always willing to give the time of day to a game with its heart in the right place. That was probably the root of the interest, really, that it felt like the game was at least aiming at fixing cultural disconnects rather than just not caring.
And having played the game long enough to form some first impressions in its first round of closed beta, I can say… it’s fine! Arguably even on the better side of its particular subgenre of our subgenre. It’s hardly perfect, and if the phrase “Korean MMORPG” sends you heading for the hills, you are unlikely to come back for it. But it sure as heck isn’t the sort of legendary disaster common to recent releases, and it arguably reaches the point of being outright fun.
Let’s start with the two biggest disappointments I had starting the game. First of all, while the Warrior and Assassin classes are slated to have their gender locks removed for launch, they have not been removed for this first test. That disappointed me, especially since those are closer to the classes I tend to play (with the caveat that the five classes are all firmly into the “ya basic” territory you probably expected). Second, once I settled on Archer, what I found was the fairly predictably sway-backed supermodel in permanent heels that jiggles like she’s smuggling two water balloons in a halter top. You can, thankfully, adjust your body dimensions within a reasonable range and I was happy with my final character, but it feels like the modeling team has never heard of a sports bra.
And the outfit team definitely has not.
Still, these problems are pretty well endemic to the aforementioned subgenre; while they may be unwanted, they’re not exactly unexpected. But no time to think too much about that; it’s time to get a video intro of a creepy doll before waking up to your beloved childhood home and…
Aw, heck, you know this house is getting ruined and you’re getting a whole lot of concepts thrown at you in short order. It’s the sort of fantasy world you expect, then. You quickly find out that you’re a special sort of person who can summon multiple Astels into battle, with Astels being diminutive cute little things that level up, follow you into battle, have various passive effects, and so forth. Imagine a version of Pokemon wherein the trainer is also fighting stuff and you’re most of the way there.
The system either is not terribly well-explained thus far or else I missed it, but the game actually strikes a pretty solid balance. You can actually have a bunch of Astels out at once, and each one has a special ability you can trigger. However, every one you have out beyond the first is constantly draining resources from you, and when those resources are gone, you wind up releasing the additional Astels. As a result, they’re somewhere between the spots of Companions from Star Wars: The Old Republic and traditional pets.
Actual combat is something I’d describe as being closer to tab-targeting games than the typical active combat fare you might expect. There is a quick dodge mechanic, useful whilst evading the more difficult enemies, but much of the gameplay is about picking your skills and planning out their combos. You also get to enhance the skills you use more often to improve their power, with skills having a few different paths for upgrades (for example, status-inflicting skills can have status duration and status power increased).
To my satisfaction, my Archer did not wind up with an assortment of skills that came down to “attack, attack harder, attack really hard.” Even at a low level, the skill range allowed me to bind things, hit them with a long cooldown, engage enemies in melee, and even unleash a trio of shots by way of a skill combo. Yes, there are a few skills that work as “skill combos,” with the skill automatically activating three times in quick succession, but they work out all right partly because of that enhancement setup mentioned above.
Consider the Straight Shot action combo: It hits three times, but each subsequent hit is more powerful. Do you enhance the first hit, thus sinking skill points into a percent increase that’s going to have less effect than if you had gone with the big hit at the end? Do you enhance the final hit, thereby meaning that the first two hits just lead into that and are otherwise less relevant?
It’s not a revelation, of course, but it is more than mildly enjoyable. It works. It feels like a familiar basic setup with an added sheen and polish to be a bit more playable. If you’ve played lots of these games, you might be a bit less charitable than I; your mileage may vary and all that.
Similarly helpful is the fact that the voice acting and storytelling is surprisingly not terrible. It is definitely up for debate whether or not it’s good, but… look, let’s be realistic here and admit that the bar for this in MMOs is low, yes? It seems self-evident to the point of parody that no one is really expecting this to be amazing. You want the story to not be painfully stupid and for the voice acting to reach levels above “bored people barely able to read the lines.”
And yes, it clears that bar. The voice acting, while not great, is mercifully free of anything terribly annoying, and while there’s a certain dearth of details in the game right now, some of that seems intentional. It’s all fine. You can even skip through the story with no ill effects if you want to, just going to each given marker and advancing along.
“But I don’t care about the story,” you say, “I want to roam around and do stuff freely.” And… well, herein lies part of the problem of a test version of the game in which certain things are still blocked off and my patience has limits: There are definitely holes in what I’ve seen so far. Crafting appears to not unlock for an awfully long time, for example, which is notably disappointing. I can’t tell you how useful crafting winds up being as you advance in the game.
What I can definitely say is that there were, at the very least, aspects of the design that already piqued my interest. Case in point: Every open zone of the game seems to have a number of hidden little chests scattered around it, and picking all of them up confers achievements, one by one. The achievement system in and of itself serves as a nice way to mark progress, with various useful bonus items being accrued as you hunt for things somewhat off the beaten path.
The thing that kept coming to mind for me was thinking back to pre-Searing Ascalon. That’s not to say this is all necessarily as good as that; rather, my feeling is more that for whatever flaws this game has, I fundamentally wanted to flit around, investigate things, look into the weird corners of the map, and get frustrated because I found the first, second, and fourth hidden box here, where the heck is the third, give me a dang hint!
Sorry. That just happened.
The more I think about Astellia on a whole, the more I worry that I am grading it on a curve to a certain extent. Things like removing gender locks for launch aren’t even in the game during this test, which means grading not just on a curve but on a purely hypothetical curve. It’s coming, but it’s not there yet. And it still features elements I don’t like, and the world feels kind of overly convoluted, and I can just see where some things are going to be irritating to pick up to progress…
But then, at the end of the day, first impressions are just first impressions. And my first impression wasn’t that this is the Next Big Thing to hit the market or that it’s going to blow people away who never would have believed in it before or anything of the sort. It is a solidly designed game of its subgenre that does a few things differently and a lot in a familiar fashion, and it is ultimately notable as much because of the care taken in its design as anything else.
And that’s enough. If you have no interest in the style of game, this is not going to be the one that convinces you. But for a new MMO you could do a lot worse, and I had fun playing it. I expect to have more fun when it launches. It has issues, but it seems to have an eye toward fixing those issues with an understanding of why they’re issues.
Plus, you know, by launch I’ll be able to play around with the classes I like a bit more. That does ameliorate some things.