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n-Space tries its hand at a Diablo-esque adventure on the 3DS and we sample the goods...
“All the character of a corned beef sandwich, with none of the taste.”
“More interesting than an accountancy lecture. Barely.”
And these are some of the nicer comments I've had about my writing. People just don't seem to appreciate generic twaddle. It's as though basic competency isn't enough, as though people expect something original or interesting as well. Something moving or beautiful. Something approaching art. Of course, it's hard to produce art when your subject matter is so consistently unoriginal, when publishers insist that 'design by marketing committee' is a reasonable substitute for artistic vision. It's not surprising that the bearded and obtuse dismiss games as a serious medium when so many titles are so clean-cut and obvious.
Heroes of Ruin seems clean-cut and obvious, at least superficially. The result of a “merging of ideas” between Square-Enix and developer n-Space, you can't help but suspect it's been dreamt up to scratch a marketing itch rather than a creative one. The art style was designed to have “a broad range of appeal” and largely determined by “focus groups” according to Squeenix producer George Wright, and despite being a multiplayer hack-n-slash dungeon-crawler with randomly generated levels and loot, the official line is that it's an Action-Adventure, rather than an Action-RPG.
“I think we’ve got a lot more mainstream appeal than just another RPG would or just another action game would have.” n-Space Producer Tim Schwalk has previously bragged (thanks, Siliconera).
“If I had a copy of this, and I really wanted to play with magic, I could choose an appropriate character. But my buddy who always plays Call of Duty and Madden, he can jump in as a Gunslinger. He’s got bombs and guns, and he’s going to ‘get it,’ you know?”
You might not expect a great deal from the story of such a game. Let's see:
“War raged for over a hundred years until strong, powerful Lords emerged from the fighting to bring a fragile peace to the land. This peace is threatened when one of the Lords, Ataraxis, ruler of the city of Nexus, is taken ill by a deadly curse. A call is sent out, promising rewards beyond measure for anyone who finds a cure.” (From the game's official website.)
Still, once you scratch the surface, there are a few interesting (if not strictly original) ideas running through Heroes of Ruin. Additional players can drop-in and out at any time; you can choose to let strangers jump in at random, Demon's Souls-style, or simply limit the privilege to selected friends. The difficulty rebalances at each checkpoint to reflect the average level of your current team, and enemies gain new abilities as the difficulty increases, rather than simply getting stronger. Loners can elect to play solo if they prefer (which presumably, they would), but risk losing certain multiplayer-related bonuses. The game's randomised loot is also handled intelligently; walking over dropped armour displays its stats compared with your current equipment, and a simple tap of the d-pad can either equip it or sell it off straight away. Take that, fiddly RPG menus. Cleverly, all the loot you've sold is transmitted via Streetpass so that anyone can potentially buy your old +10 Pants of Destruction.
Playing as the 'Vindicator' (a paladdin-archetype) reveals a competent if familiar battle system: sword combos can be strung together with a magic-draining (but powerful) dash attack, R blocks, and a quick tap sends you rolling away from danger. Enemies in the demo didn't display any ground-breaking attack patterns or AI, but they're serviceable cannon-fodder, and the Tibur (Shark-men) stand-out against some other fairly drab fantasy staples. Four character classes will be available in the final game, including a mage-like Alchitect, a melee-focused Savage, and a Gunslinger that attacks from afar with bullets and bombs. According to Community Manager Kevin Eva, each character has “their own reasons” for embarking on the quest, some of which, he hinted, might not be entirely above board.
We encountered two mini-bosses during our brief play-through: a skeletal pirate captain with the power to make players (literally) run away in fear, and a conch-wielding Tibur that summoned two horrifying sea mutants, all dark and mangled with extraneous, pincer-like limbs. The final boss, an amiable-looking pink leviathan, could only be summoned once certain key items had been wrenched from the cold, dead hands (fins?) of the mini-bosses – a sensible fail-safe given the randomly-generated layout of the levels. After hacking at his tentacles for a bit, and dodging some hot, salty spume, our pink friend soon came to a sticky end, marking the end of the demo.
Heroes of Ruin still has several months of development time left. Many of the place-holder NPCs are yet to have their dialogue implemented, and various improvements await the interface and AI (that Tibur mini-boss just glitched nervously from side to side as we hacked him to death). The team is certainly exploiting all 3DS connectivity features to the full, and plans for downloadable daily challenges promise to extend the game's appeal post-release. Although we didn't experience anything particularly original or compelling during our play-through, there's no doubt that n-Space has implemented a number of zeitgeisty features, and the current dearth of original 3DS titles means they're potentially well-placed to find some fans for the game. Nevertheless, questions remain about the originality of the setting, mechanics and design choices on display, and it's unclear whether Heroes of Ruin will prove inventive enough to be of real interest to fans of the genre.
There's a sense that, despite the clever connectivity options, n-Space might be playing it a little too safe with the rest of the design; there's little evidence of nuance in the combat, and developer comments suggest that puzzles will be perfunctory at best. Balancing such a dynamic difficulty system is going to prove a real challenge, and currently the only real penalty for dying is an annoying trek back to your team-mates caused by some inconsistent check-pointing. Hopefully n-Space will implement some mechanism for players to manually tweak the difficulty, as it seems unlikely that any purely automated system could offer a consistently tense and challenging experience given the varied team-configurations that can arise.
n-Space may still have time to address these issues if they're willing to take some creative gambles (Bastion, as a recent example, managed to integrate difficulty choices within a compelling risk/reward framework extremely successfully) but unfortunately, it's precisely a lack of creative-risk taking that currently poses the biggest threat to the project. By playing it safe, n-Space may be missing an opportunity here, and if there's one thing worse than failure, it's mediocrity.
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