Progress Bar: Inside the latest 24-hour pre-alpha test of Pantheon Rise of the Fallen


This past Saturday was when Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen elected to open up its floodgates and let a whole bunch of people into its latest pre-alpha test. And I was one of them.

I’m not really sure why, to be honest. I don’t remember ever backing this game at any tier. I most definitely am not a part of the creator program for the game. And this wasn’t a press event or some sort of exclusive access. But there was the invitation sitting in my email inbox, waiting for me. Hell I even thought it was a scam for a few moments there.

But it wasn’t. It was legit. So here’s what I experienced in my few hours inside of the pre-alpha build that was available.

As you can see, I’ve got some in-game pictures sprinkled throughout this piece as usual, which is thanks to Visionary Realms kindly allowing me to skip past the otherwise currently in-place visual NDA, and in my opinion I’m not really sure what the big kerfuffle is with Pantheon’s visuals. I genuinely do think that they are an improvement over what looked like standard Unreal-style graphics from previous versions of the sandbox. Even if the texturing can skew a bit simplistic in comparison, I feel like the realism was there where it counted (especially in the skies) while the graphic shift has at least something like personality to it.

As for how it all looks in motion, it’s… fine. I wasn’t really expecting intense levels of VFX in a pre-alpha, but the spells that my Enchanter was throwing out were perfectly serviceable. The animations were unremarkable but acceptable. There was enough work done to at least put me into the combat.

What the game did put me into was the deep end, however. Again, probably not terribly surprising given the pre-alpha nature, but still a jarring experience nonetheless as my human was plopped in front of what I presume to be a wizard’s tower and given no indication or tutorialization whatsoever. It was up to my own experimentation, a bit of Google searching, and the patience of the global chat channel inhabitants to suss things out.

One of the first things that I pretty quickly had to pick up on while in the game was talking to every single NPC available. There are no floating exclamation marks to indicate who has something for you to do, so it was a few frenzied minutes of right-clicking every named NPC to see if they had a task for me. One of them did, and it seemed simple enough on the face of it: Head up a cliff through a tunnel and see if the big tower was leaning.

My penchant for reading quest text instead of mashing through it in a first play of a game served me well because Pantheon doesn’t have a mini-map right now, nor does it have any map of any kind (at least not from the very start of things). Luckily, the quest text was still available in full in the journal and it told me precisely where to go. So, yes, you’ve got to read in this game.

As I walked, I elected to get into a few fights, where I got my butt handily slapped over and over again by the woodland wildlife. Mercifully death didn’t carry any kind of penalties at this stage, but it did bring back some of those old MMORPG lessons: finding how to rest to recover health, and finding out how to check the strength of a target. None of these details were specified or spelled out in the game itself, but Googling taught me the appropriate slash commands (/sit and /consider respectively). I bound those two commands to macros and started to get a feel for combat.

Much as in other sandbox games of this sort, my opening moments in battle were spent trying to figure out where the envelope of my class’ ability was. I only had two buttons on my hotbar as an Enchanter, and one of those required an immense amount of my class’ third resource, so really all I had was auto-attacking to build it and a Shiv move to spend it. As you can guess, the level of foes I could take on with such a measly setup was pretty minimal, as I was skating by a bare few battles by the skin of my teeth but failing at most. Frustration was beginning to mount.

It was at that point that, when I had my inventory open to try and figure out how to sell things to a vendor, I noticed there were a couple of spell scrolls in my inventory. Now I had three buttons to press. I know that reads like I’m being facetious, but this was a relief. It didn’t stop me from flying too close to the sun a few times, but I finally learned what the check text meant in terms of challenge level that my solo Enchanter could take on. I made way to where I was supposed to stand, wondered why the quest wasn’t telling me it was complete or not, noticed that it was listed as finished when I opened my journal, shrugged, and went on to turn in then street sweep.

It took me three and a half hours to get to level four.

The climb was grueling, the combat was a bit dull, but at the same time I started to appreciate the very opening bits of a rotation and the potential for the Enchanter class. The NPC that sold spell scrolls for me showed some of the debuffing potential that I could get to later – level six is where things get particularly interesting – but I was pretty much stuck on Noob Fields for a long while.

When I did get to level four and moved into a different zone, where I found that enemies could still be manageable, things felt like they were opening up a bit. I started on a bunch of gathering and crafting professions. The number of NPCs handing out quests unfolded exponentially. I was still having to literally take a knee after every single solo engagement, but things felt like they maybe were coming together.

And that’s kind of when it hit me: That sense of things maybe coming together seems to pervade my whole experience with Pantheon as it stands now. And it didn’t seem like I was alone.

I’m going to be honest: It’s really, really hard not to look at this game without peering through the lens of its extremely rough and self-owning development trajectory. While this pre-alpha felt like something was there, it was also challenging for me to not remind myself that it took Visionary Realms an exceedingly long time to get here. And juxtaposed against that was an extremely active and generally excited global chat, as people relished in the fact that rats were slaughtering them or that the game felt like EQ1. It was a strange sort of desperation swirled with excitement, along with some apologia and excuse-writing for things that aren’t there yet.

I called out the fact that the quest didn’t alert me it was done as bad design. “It’s not bad design,” someone in global snapped back at me. “It’s just not in yet.” Which I don’t think is the excuse that person thinks it is.

But even so, through all of the old-school punching, through the design decisions, through the basic-ass features that just weren’t in the pre-alpha build yet (if they ever will be; something tells me maps won’t be one of them but I could be wrong), there really is a sense that Pantheon has… something possible in it. I think ahead to those later spells that the Enchanter gets and my intrigue at what that’s like in a group setting ramps up. People in the global chat were alarmingly nice and helpful. There was this sort of odd buzz that still skewed a bit like people coping but also felt strangely honest.

My time in this 24-hour test of Pantheon has therefore left me conflicted. I’ve never wanted this game to fail, and I pinched the bridge of my nose and sighed with all of you when they attempted that 247 extraction nonsense, but it was easy to sigh and shake my head because I wasn’t in-game or attached to it. But now that I have been in-game – have had my hands on the whiffs of intriguing and possibly great sandbox MMORPG gaming Pantheon offers – I’m now left saddened by the way things have gone yet strangely hopeful for it to maybe work out. Even if I admit it’s a possibly foolish hope.

On the one hand, this kind of gameplay is mostly in the past for a pretty good reason, or if there are those who are seriously wanting to experience these old days, there’s at least one other complete game there. But on the other hand I’m now cheering Visionary Realms on just that little bit more.

I’m not necessarily a fan, but as a lover of this genre, I’m now both upset yet hopeful. And I hope I get a chance to revisit things another time later. When there are more steps forward. Maybe.

Early access MMOs are a minefield of underdeveloped releases and almost immediate buyer’s remorse. That’s where Massively OP’s Progress Bar comes in: It’s Chris Neal’s monthly look at developing online multiplayer early access games – and whether they’re worth your money and attention.
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