Tag Archives: Action RPG

KRPG Cage Fight: Wild Frontier vs. Zenonia 3

I have said before and will say again, Wild Frontier is the best Korean role-playing game (KRPG) in the app store. Wild Frontier may not have the same name recognition as the Zenonia franchise, but it trumps those games in every conceivable way.

The recently released Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story has more of a buzz at the moment, standing upon the hype and legacy of two previous games, the release of the third having been drummed up pretty heavily, and the fact that Gamevil is very active in developing games for the iOS market. Meanwhile, Wild Frontier developer KTH has only one game in the app store — Wild Frontier — and little clout on which to gain footing.

Nonetheless, Wild Frontier is incredible. In this article, I pit Wild Frontier head-to-head against Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story in a number of important categories to prove once and for all which is the better game. Let’s rumble!

Graphics:

Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story

Zenonia 3 is the first Zenonia to support the iPhone 4 retina display, and it’s about damned time. The first two Zenonias were blurry, smudgy looking affairs that never lived up to the visual capabilities of even the pre-retina iPhones. No doubt, Zenonia 3 looks great. But the sprites and animations don’t do anything they didn’t do in previous Zenonias; there have been no refinements to the artistic presentation other than to ensure the game is of proper resolution for the device on which it runs. Enemies still poke around the environments in stilted fashion, and characters in story sections just don’t animate properly at all. Zenonia 3 is pretty, but it’s also pretty pedestrian.

Wild Frontier

Wild Frontier was the first KRPG to embrace retina quality graphics, and the sprites, backgrounds and animations are superb. Everything is full of color and of life, and animates smoothly. Enemies blink and twitch and look alive; your character actually moves his legs when he runs. In general, Wild Frontier’s sprites include more frames of animation than Zenonia’s sprites, and it really makes a difference. Add to this weather effects such as rain and lightning, and daylight cycles including dawn, day, dusk and night and Wild Frontier is one fantastic looking game.

Winner: Wild Frontier

Sound Design:

Zenonia 3 offers up some of the best music the series has yet seen, but its loops are still short and repetitive, and the sound design is overall fairly generic. None of the tunes really stick with you, and that’s actually a good thing — they’re so repetitive, it would become annoying if they did. In terms of instrumentation, the soundtrack is also comprised of pretty harsh sounding synthesizers.

Wild Frontier’s soundtrack is more subtle and emotive, often relaxing and more melodic than anything Zenonia has ever known. The game also makes more of an effort to simulate real instruments. The music is obviously synthesized, but strings sound plucked, string arrangements are epic, and the compositions are layered in thoughtful, compelling ways. Further, the musical sections are much longer than in Zenonia, making them much less repetitive over time. Wild Frontier is a melodic treat.

Winner: Wild Frontier

Story:

Zenonia’s story is one that we’ve played a million times, Divine forces battle Demonic forces, the Heavenly realm having fallen from grace, and humanity caught somewhere in between. Mixed in are the personal issues of our protagonist, which mostly amount to boy likes girls, but refuses to admit to liking girl, meanwhile being teased by his fairy companion: grade school romance and teasing, framed in a cliche struggle between good and evil.

Wild Frontier tells the story of a group of travelers having landed upon a new continent. The protagonist Chris is not an adventurer, having tagged along on the journey to follow after his girlfriend, Lamia, adventurer extraordinaire. Much as it pains her to do so, for his own protection and safety Lamia leaves Chris to pursue her adventures. With encouragement from some of his fellow travelers, Chris realizes that to win Lamia back he must become an adventurer himself, capable of surviving in this new land, and with the help of his friends and the Mokar natives he sets out to do just that. There are no demons, and the fate of the world does not hang in the balance. Wild Frontier plays out on a smaller, but altogether more compelling stage; it tells a story of relationships, self-realization, perseverance and personal growth. There is no other KRPG that tells a tale quite like it, nor as effectively. It’s a rare thing in KRPGs, but Wild Frontier’s story is actually worth experiencing.

Winner: Wild Frontier

Characters & NPCs:

Zenonia’s characters are occasionally endearing, but more often juvenile and irritating. They interact with each other not as adults, but as grade school students. NPCs in towns often approach Chael with their problems, most of which are trivial or stupid, and often refuse to offer information for reasons that are simply childish. By and large, Zenonia’s characters are one-dimensional and annoying.

Wild Frontier puts a greater emphasis on characterization. Characters have personalities and real-life problems. They also have real and adult motivations for their actions. Lamia cares about Chris, and that’s why she has to leave him; she doesn’t want him to get hurt chasing after her on adventures. Ben is a crotchety academic, and teaches the Mokars to mix potions and draw maps; he’s also older and requires more rest, and all of this factors into conversations he has with Chris throughout the game. Meanwhile, Roman sees the brighter side of life, and constantly offers Chris advice, assistance and encouragement. He’s an immensely helpful character, and serves to guide Chris on his path to become a self-sufficient adventurer. Greg is aloof and anti-social, and not because he’s an agent for evil, but simply because he can’t be bothered by other people. Meanwhile, the Mokars are consumed with local concerns — monsters threatening the village, missing persons, the need for supplies — but are generally friendly to the outsiders, just as you might expect people to be in a small, foreign town. The characters in Wild Frontier are fueled by their personalities, and are much more than simple mouthpieces intended to push players onward; they feel as if they really live in this world.

Winner: Wild Frontier

Character Classes:

Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story offers four character classes. The Sword Knight is a strength-based melee fighter, favoring heavy weapons and armor. The Shadow Hunter is an agile melee fighter, favoring lighter armaments and putting a greater emphasis on dealing damage through critical hits. The Mechanic Launcher is a long-range class favoring weapons, and the Nature Shaman is a long-range class favoring magic and totems.

Wild Frontier offers three variations of melee classes. The Warrior wields two-handed weapons for high damage, the Tanker is a defensive character favoring heavy armors, and the Scout is an agile fighter capable of dual-wielding small weapons and inflicting criticals. There are no ranged classes, and while there are class differences, Wild Frontiers classes generally approach combat in a similar fashion.

Clearly, Zenonia 3 offers a greater variety of character classes and approaches to combat.

Winner: Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story

Interface:

Over the course of three games, the Zenonia franchise has made leaps and bounds in interface design. Zenonia 3 has one of the best in-game menu systems I’ve seen in any iOS role-playing game. The controls are easy to use and their positions and opacity may be customized to user preference, and the in-game menus used to manage your character, inventory, quests, etc. are slick, intuitive and easy to use. They also fully embrace the iPhone’s touch interface. Zenonia 3 is a big win for interface design.

Wild Frontier has pretty solid controls; the d-pad could be a touch more sensitive to input, but I really have no gripes against the game for control during play. The in-game menu for managing your character, however, relies on the d-pad and confirm/cancel buttons for navigation and manipulation, and ends up feeling pretty clunky. It’s a lot better than the menus in the first Zenonia, but not nearly so good as the menus in Zenonia 3.

Winner: Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story

Questing:

Zenonia is well-known for its assinine fetch quests: kill 10 bats in the forest, collect 15 frog horns, find a document and bring it back, etc. While some of these quests serve to progress the storyline, many of them serve only to keep you in one place far longer than you should have to be there. I managed to reach level 15 in and around the first town in Zenonia 3, but found myself constantly being sent back into the Akun Temple area to battle level 3-5 enemies for fetch quests. When you’re level 15 sword knight is battling level 5 frog-people, you’ve been in one place too long. And yet the game kept giving me pointless things to do, liking buying a steak for a hungry child, or collecting flowers for another … Zenonia makes a habit of providing pointless quests as a method to artificially extend the completion time of the game. Further, it’s not always clear which quests are important to advancing the story, and which are filler, and so you just sort of do them all until you’re given permission to move on.

Wild Frontier categorizes quests as Main, Sub or Free. Main quests are those pertaining to the story, while Sub are side-quests you may perform to assist the NPCs you meet in towns. Free quests may be picked up daily from the job board in each town, and are short, repeatable and entirely optional quests that you may undertake for extra experience, when you’re headed that way anyway, or just when you’re bored and looking for something to do. The quests often make sense within the context of the setting, which makes them feel more worthwhile to undertake, and the game does a pretty good job of telling you exactly where you need to go and what you need to do, kill or collect to fulfill the quest requirements. More importantly, you always know which quests are important and which are extra, which allows you to more easily gauge and plot your progress through the game.

Winner: Wild Frontier

Grinding:

Zenonia is a grind-fest. It’s not uncommon to spend 30 minutes or an hour grinding to survive in one area, only to move to the next area — a transition of only a single screen — and to then be obliterated by new, significantly higher-level opponents. And so you spend yet another 30 minutes to an hour grinding to survive this area before moving on. And God forbid you skip through an area without grinding, because enemies two areas on from where you belong will flatten you. Zenonia forces players to grind for experience points constantly throughout the game (and then keeps you in one place too long with questing before forcing you to grind again?!), and the grind-fest eventually becomes a snooze-fest.

Wild Frontier encourages you to press on through the game, and discourages you from dallying too long in any one area. On first entering a new area, enemies will yield significant experience points. Level-up a few times, however, and enemies will give you only 1 experience point per kill — and that’s the game telling you it’s time to move on. Further, enemies are more powerful during the night than during the day, and will yield greater experience bounties. Grinding at night, you can quickly harvest an area and move on to the next. While Zenonia strives to keep you in one place far too long, Wild Frontier is constantly pressing you onward into new, unexplorered territory.

Winner: Wild Frontier

Looting:

Enemies in Zenonia occasionally drop items. Some of them are useful, but I often find my inventory swelling with garbage that I never use, which I either cart around until the end game or sell off in the nearest town. When I’m actually seeking items, item drops occur only infrequently. No matter which way you cut it, it’s frustrating. Then there’s the mining: you need to carry a special pickax, which will eventually break on you. The act of mining is a constant tap-tap-tap of the action button to beat on rocks, and you have to tap it again every time you pick up an ore. Looting in Zenonia is tedious, time consuming and frustrating. It’s a chore to harvest or mine or items, and then it’s a chore to manage them in your inventory. Further, there is neither rhyme nor reason for most of what you find enemies carrying; to get flowers, you have to kill weird forest spiders?!

Wild Frontier does neat things with it’s looting mechanic. Downed enemies may be harvested for materials, and those materials are generally relevant to the enemy from which you take them — plant-based enemies yield leaves, wood and thorns; crabs yield shells and claws; mammals yield bones, leather and fur; etc. And these are not random item drops; every slain enemy lingers as a body on the field, and every body may be harvested for materials. These materials can then be used in rest areas to craft weapons and armaments, or to cook food, or may be sold off in the Mokar shops for coin. Mining ores from stones or foraging for items in the forest works just the same as looting bodies: you hold the button while Chris harvests materials — a process both simple and well animated — while the message display lists out your findings as they happen. Looting in Wild Frontier makes sense, serves a purchase, and is far less tedious than in Zenonia.

Winner: Wild Frontier

In-App Purchase:

Zenonia 3’s system of in-app purchase is one of the more draconian examples currently to be found in the app store. As anyone can tell you who has played either of the first two games, Origin of Life items are essential to successfully completing the game. When you die, the Origin of Life item allows you to resurrect in place without suffering the usual penalty for dying; resurrecting without an Origin of Life, you lose experience points and item durability, which ultimate leaves you nearer to death’s door than before you died the last time. In the first two Zenonias, the Origin of Life was pricey, but could be purchased using in-game currency. In Zenonia 3, the Origin of Life is only available for real-world currency via in-app purchase. And the game will flat-out steal them from you, such as in the Midgard Bridge quest where you have to raid the demon camp: your character should be roughly level 15-17 at this point in the game, and you’re without warning thrown up against level 47 demons who make short work of you. You’re supposed to find another way around, but the only way to realize you can’t win this fight is to walk into it and get killed, then being given the choice to use an Origin of Life or to resurrect at a penalty.

The Origin of Life is not the only item you can only get via in-app purchase in Zenonia 3. Examine scrolls, two-way portals and other important items must also be purchased with real money. So you pay for an Examine scroll, use it on an item only to find that the item is worthless to you — of lesser value than your current equipment — and … you’ve wasted your actual money.

As I said in my full review of Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story, “the IAP is a textbook perfect example of how to ruin an otherwise good game, and clear indication that Gamevil doesn’t really value its fans and supporters.”

Meanwhile, Wild Frontier also includes items for in-app purchase, but those items are entirely optional. By consulting the Item Shop in each town, you can use real-world money to expand your inventory, add extra ability sockets to items, purchase scrolls to reset your stat and skill points, purchase extra runes or equipment sets, or an unlimited use taming kit. You can also purchase first-aid kits, similar in purpose to Zenonia’s Origin of Life.

Dying in Wild Frontier, however, does not incur the same penalties as in Zenonia. If killed in the field, you may opt to use a first-aid kit if you have one, or you can wake up in town with a deduction in gold. The game does not penalize your experience points or equipment durability, though, so does nothing to cripple your character in the way that Zenonia does.

The bottom line on IAP in Wild Frontier is that it is entirely optional, and not necessary to complete the game. A well-prepared adventurer can survive the game’s challenges, and an unprepared adventurer will wake up in town, where they can easily embark once more, better prepared for the opposition after a visit to the accessory shop (sells potions and other support items, based on in-game currency).

Zenonia is full of cheap deaths, encouraging and all but requiring that you use the in-app purchase system to by restorative items; Wild Frontier offers in-app purchases to enhance the game, but does not require them of them player.

Winner: Wild Frontier

Price:

At the time of this writing, Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story retails for $4.99 and carries with it the potential of spending a fortune via in-app purchase.

When I originally reviewed Wild Frontier, the game retailed for $0.99; at present, the game is FREE. In-app purchase is available, but entirely optional.

Winner: Wild Frontier

Conclusion:

Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story definitely has some things going for it. My final impression is that it’s a highly entertaining game, derailed by a draconian system of in-app purchase and taken with a grain of salt. For better or worse, it is a Zenonia game, with all of the traditional Zenonia flaws. It does nothing to reinvigorate either the genre or the franchise. For all the good to be found in the game, flat storytelling and characterization, and an over dependence on experience grinding and assinine fetch quests are trademarks of the Zenonia name.

Meanwhile, Wild Frontier does so much right that it’s hard not to love it. The game offers a great story with a wonderful cast characters, a beautiful world to explore with flourishes such as weather and daylight cycles, fantastic art direction in both stills and animations, an enjoyable soundtrack and solid gameplay. It also takes many of the KRPG conventions which often prove problematic in other games, and turns them on their heads, making them all a part of the fun. What’s more, Wild Frontier is an incredible bargain.

There is no question in my mind that Wild Frontier is the better game, and by a long shot. Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story can be enjoyable and takes many steps in the right direction, but Gamevil still hasn’t done enough to improve the game over previous entries, and they really drag the game down with one of the worst in-app purchase systems since SEED 1.

See my original reviews for Wild Frontier and Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story.

Zenonia 3 Review: A great game that no one should play

As its name would imply, Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story is the third itineration of Gamevil’s smash-hit Zenonia franchise, and successor to one of the app store’s most prominent role-playing games.

The first Zenonia cemented itself into the hearts and minds of mobile gamers early on as one of the first iOS games to offer a complete RPG experience. The game was deeply flawed, but managed to rise above its many shortcomings. For one thing, it had virtually no competition within its genre; also, it was as close as iOS had to console classics such as The Legend of Zelda and Secret of Mana, though it fails to live up to either.

Zenonia’s second outing made welcome improvements. The graphics were little better — still smudgy and out-of-focus looking, having been upscaled from mobile phones — but the redesigned interface, improved controls and sound design, new character classes and other refinements resulted in a vastly superior game.

In many ways, Zenonia 3 is more of the same; it doesn’t rewrite the rules, but it does adhere to the second game’s precedent of refining the formula. But given the app store’s present RPG landscape — in which we see Zenonia now completing with ports of Final Fantasy I, II and III, and Secret of Mana, original role-playing games such as Chaos Rings, Eternal Legacy, Aralon and Across Age, and a slew of KRPGs including three Inotia titles, Queen’s Crown, and the utterly brilliant Wild Frontier — does more of the same old Zenonia stand up to expectations?

======

Zenonia 3 follows the adventures of Chael and his fairy companion, Runa. Chael is the son of Regret, protagonist of the first Zenonia. The game’s overarching story is that of a conflict between Good and Evil — the Divine and the Damned — and humanity caught in between. The opening scenes depict a battle between the knights of divinity and the invading demonic forces, and … I’m already bored. It’s only the same scene I’ve seen opening nearly every Korean RPG I’ve ever played. But then, Zenonia has never been a narrative powerhouse. Fortunately, the game fairs better in other areas.

The most notable improvement is the graphical presentation. Gone are the blurry sprites of Zenonias past, which were awful even on pre-retina displays. Zenonia 3 is the first pretty Zenonia, crisp and colorful even on the iPhone 4 retina display, and a very welcome visual treat.

The game’s interface is also much improved over previous games, no longer the cumbersome beast it once was. The on-screen controls are responsive and as unobtrusive as might be hoped for, while the in-game menu — from which stats, skills, equipment, inventory and quests are monitored and managed — is slick, intuitive and easy to use. In addition to being functional, the interface enjoys quite a bit of visual flair, and the controls may be repositioned and the opacity adjusted to the user’s preference.

Gameplay-wise, Zenonia 3 remains a KRPG with the usual trappings: grinding and fetch quests. However, as far as I have played, the game has been much more judicious in its handling of these aspects than previous entries. You will still be required to revisit old territory maybe a little too often, but things are not as bad as they once were, and all of the other gameplay improvements make the backtracking more tolerable than before. Beginning a new game, players complete a brief tutorial quest and are then warped into a mysterious dungeon for some real adventuring. I was grateful not to have to complete a slew of menial chores before being allowed to venture forth.

Combat is similar to past entries — an attack button to mash, and various attack skills available at an MP cost — but feels better on account of more responsive controls and better combo animations.

The supremely annoying weight and hunger systems of past entries have been dropped in Zenonia 3, which is for the best. They were a buzzkill and will not be missed.

There are four character classes from which to choose: the strength-based, melee fighting Sword Knight; the agile Shadow Hunter, relying on criticals to deal heavy damage; the Mechanic Launcher, a gun-toting ranged battler; and the Nature Shaman, a magical ranged class.

Chael’s character sprite looks fantastic to begin with, with variations for each chosen class. And as you play through the game and don various new armaments, his appearance will evolve to reflect his gear.

Overall, Zenonia 3’s enemies are also a step up from previous efforts. The tribesmen faced early on are awesome looking, and boss battle are also more impressive than in previous games.

Zenonia 3 sports a number of social features, including Game Center support and achievements with Facebook and Twitter posting. There are two types of network play, asynchronous PvP and co-op play in the Execution Rooms, both accessible from towns. Also, messages and items may be exchanged with other players via the Network Gal in each town.

A number of smaller flourishes round out the experience, such as quest markers now appearing on doorways when important NPCs lurk inside of buildings, some Game Center achievements manifesting themselves as equipable “titles” in-game which grant bonuses to the player, and the ability to level-up and customize your fairy companion to realize advantages in combat.

Zenonia 3 is not without it’s shortcomings, however. There’s a bug to keeps the game clock running even when the game is inactive during multitasking; at time of writing my game clock shows 18 hours on account of my not killing the app overnight. While the narrative has its moments, the overall tale is dreadfully dull, having been done to death by so many games before. The script is also rife with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, typical of games translated from Korean. Gameplay-wise, Zenonia 3 offers nothing we haven’t already seen in the previous two games; it’s the same old song and dance, but delivered in a more palatable package, making the game more of an upgrade than a new experience. Level grinding and fetch quests make their triumphant return to artificially extend gameplay, but I expected no less; I’ve long begrudged KRPGs for their stubborn adherence to what is essentially junk gameplay. And combat does become repetitive, as there is really little to the mechanic beyond standing in place, mashing the attack button …

My final gripe is the in-app purchases (IAP), and this is a BIG GRIPE. The game will give you a handful of Examine scrolls, Origin of Life items, and other “Paid” items in the course of play, but insofar as I have seen, the only way to get more of these items is to pay out-of-pocket for IAP. Considering that such items were available for purchase from item merchants in previous games — using the in-game currency, rather than real-world currency — it’s bullshit they are only available as IAP this time around. Especially considering that Origin of Life items are nearly essential to completing the game, as you will otherwise be penalized with experience and equipment durability reductions for dying — and die you will a lot later into the game, and usually unfairly. Considering the game costs $4.99 to begin with, Gamevil is seriously screwing players with IAP and Zenonia fans should be outraged. I sincerely hope players will make themselves heard on the matter. Furthermore, many of the restorative items and equipment available via IAP could potentially give players an unfair advantage in network play, essentially making the IAP a major disincentive to engage in network play for those unwilling or unable to afford IAP. Much as I like Zenonia 3 otherwise, Gamevil ought to be changing their company name to GamEVIL for this one. I cry foul.

While I’ve felt that past Zenonias were mostly overhyped and under-realized, Zenonia 3 is the first game of the series I feel truly deserves whatever praise it may find. It looks great, plays well and holds a lengthy adventure in store for those willing to see it through. Removal of the weight and hunger systems from previous games has really helped to streamline the experience, leaving the kernel intact without the chaff, and the interface and control overhaul make playing the game better than ever.

Despite app store crowding, there’s always room for another RPG if it’s a good one, and Zenonia 3 is just that. Mind you, it’s still a Korean RPG with all that implies — the grinding, the fetch quests and the grandiose, hackney storytelling that may turn off some players — but fans of the genre should know by now to expect such things, that they’re just a part of the deal. Accepting that, I would gladly give Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story an effortless recommendation. And yet, I cannot effortlessly recommend Zenonia 3, because much as I feel the game has going for it, there is one major bugbear that derails every good thing I have to say about the game. And that’s the IAP.

It is ABSURD that a game costing $4.99 should be so bogged down by in-app purchase, and all but require you to spend yet more of your money on expendible items. I would expect this from a freemium title — it is the very nature of freemium games to nickel-and-dime gamers into poverty — but not from a premium RPG in a longstanding, well-regarded franchise. I am fully in favor of IAP being available for players wanting to enhance their gaming experience, but IAP is plain evil when a game all but requires that you spend real-world money to see it through to completion.

I genuinely like Zenonia 3: The Midgard Story, but cannot in good conscious recommend it to gamers. The IAP is a textbook perfect example of how to ruin an otherwise good game, and clear indication that Gamevil doesn’t really value its fans and supporters.

You have been warned.

If you really want a good KRPG and one that doesn’t attempt to fleece you, play Wild Frontier.

Zenonia 3 [$4.99 + bullshit IAP] is developed and published by Gamevil. Reviewed on an iPhone 4.

Wild Frontier Review: An Utterly Fantastic KRPG

I must be a glutton for punishment, the way I keep coming back to Korean RPGs. They constantly infuriate me with their level grinding and fetch quests, cliché stories and juvenile characters, clumsy interfaces and unresponsive controls. So why do I do it?

Well, because now and then a ray of light shines through cloudy, gray skies. Once in a while, rain falls even in the desert. And every so often, along comes a KRPG that really knocks your socks off.

Wild Frontier is that KRPG.

Wild Frontier offers a refreshing change of pace from the standard, tiresome KRPG norm. For once, your character is not the prophesied savior of the realm. The kingdom is not facing imminent peril at the hands of demons, awakened from centuries of slumber. The fate of the world does not hang in the balance.

You are Chris Noah, one of a party of shipwreck survivors washed ashore on a strange, new continent after tagging along with your girlfriend, Lamia, on one of her adventurers.

Yes, you heard that right. Lamia — not Chris — is the adventurer. As the game begins, Chris has never so much as touched a sword. But adventure does indeed await Chris in this uncharted territory. When Lamia leaves to explore the island in search of a dragon, Chris has little choice but to take up arms to find her, and to prove to her his worth.

During the course of his adventure, Chris is helped by his fellow shipwreck survivors Roman Whisker and Ben Krize, the mysteriously aloof Greg Wolfe, and the island natives who provide quests and services.

Players are given the choice of three characters classes, focusing in attack, defense or speed, and each featuring unique skill trees. On gaining experience levels, three points may be distributed amongst character attributes, and one point spent to learn or improve a skill.

Likes:

Visual Presentation: Wild Frontier is fantastically pretty. While most KRPGs are ported from cell phones with smeared-looking visuals, Wild Frontier’s sprite-based graphics are crisp, clear and colorful, even on the iPhone 4. Characters and monsters are beautifully animated; camp fires flicker, fireflies flit about at night, water laps at the shore, and other visual details abound. The game even features day and night cycles, and weather effects such as rain and lighting. The character portraits look great too.

Without compromise, Wild Frontier is one of the prettiest sprite-based RPGs on the app store.

Weather & Day-Night System: The sun sets, day becomes night; the sun rises, night becomes day. Time passes in real-time, with transitions occurring while you explore your environment, and not while transitioning to a new screen. It’s impressive to behold, but the change is not merely cosmetic: monsters become more powerful at night. As you wander, rain, lightning and other weather effects also add to the game’s sense of immersion.

Chain Attacks & Skill Use: Unlike most KRPGs which simply allow you to activate your special attacks by pressing a button, Wild Frontier emphasizes combo attacks. To unleash your skill attacks, you often must chain them together in sequence with regular attacks. This system of attack combinations helps to keep the player engaged in combat, rather than just mashing the attack button.

Looting Bodies: Slain enemies fall to the ground and must be searched to reveal loot, usually including items, crafting components and/or currency. Searching bodies takes time, with larger enemies requiring more time to search than smaller enemies, and the longer Chris searches a body, the more items he is likely to turn up. Chris is unable to attack or defend himself while searching bodies, however, so it is often best to fend off other monsters before looting. It’s a cool game mechanic.

Story: The game’s story is light-hearted and fun; a welcome departure from the heavy themes (often poorly rendered) of similar titles. The characters are likable, and the fetch quests are often couched nicely into the tale. For example, an early quest sends you into the forest to collect medicinal ingredients for Ben. Ben is an elderly, wizened, Einstein-looking fellow; at this point in the game, he has tripped and wounded his ankle. Once you bring him the necessary ingredients, he is able to craft a potion to mend his wounds, then teaches the potion recipe to the villagers. Thereafter, Chris is able to purchase healing potions from the village’s item merchant.

Dislikes:

Translation: Sadly, Wild Frontier suffers a number of Koreanisms. For example, the word “leaf” sometimes appears in the game as “reaf”. Also, the developer missed some text in their translation, and you will occasionally see Hangul (Korean characters) appearing in messages. So far, this has not proven to be a problem; all of the important text does seem to have been translated to English. As far as I’ve seen, only some incidental text — “?” instead of “Hm”, for example — has been missed in translation. There’s nothing game-breaking here. It’s just a spot unpolished that really stands out in a game that is otherwise polished to perfection.

Back in December I proclaimed Queen’s Crown a Zenonia killer. So what then do I call Wild Frontier? A Queen’s Crown killer?

Without question, Wild Frontier is my new favorite Korean RPG. The game looks great and breaks the KRPG mold in a number of significant ways. It includes items for in-app purchase, but these items are entirely optional and intended to enhance the game; they are not necessary to complete it.

Wild Frontier is a steal at only $0.99, and any fan of the genre should definitely pick it up. Popular KRPG developers Gamevil and Com2Us should wake up and take notice; KTH is new to the fray, but putting the veterans to shame. If all KRPGs were as good as this, I’d play them until the day I die and never speak ill of them again!

Wild Fronter [$0.99] is developed by KTH. Reviewed at version 1.0.1 on an iPhone 4.


Inotia 3: Children of Carnia Review

Korean developer Com2Us‘ The Chronicles of Inotia is one of the longest running and most notable Action RPG series on iOS.

Its first entry, Legend of Feanor [$0.99], released in late 2008, only months after the app store’s debut. The game was rough around the edges, but also the app store’s first notable role-playing game. The 2009 sequel, A Wanderer of Luone [$2.99], upped the ante manifold, adding multiple character classes, a party system, vastly improved mechanics, a larger world, better story and remarkably detailed graphics. The game wasn’t perfect, but earned NoDpad’s highest rating and our enduring admiration.

At the time its release, Legend of Feanor was unchallenged in the app store and stood out as a unique product. A year later, A Wanderer of Luone entered a more crowded market but stood apart from the competition on account of its substantial merits and vast improvements over its progenitor. The game really raised the bar, and even today holds its own against the very best Action RPGs on iOS.

Understandably, we were eager to get our hands on Inotia’s third, Children of Carnia [$4.99].

But with A Wanderer of Luone having set the bar so high, Children of Carnia has a lot to live up to. In some ways it succeeds, and in some ways it does not. Overall, Children of Carnia is a game worthy of the Inotia name, but it doesn’t offer much improvement over Inotia’s second and is really just more of the same. For anyone who enjoyed A Wanderer of Luone, that might be enough to spark interest.

Children of Carnia is a Korean Action RPG, which means — you guessed it! — grinding! And fetch quests! Hurray! The player steps into the shoes of Lucio on his day of ceremonial adulthood, who — in typical RPG fashion — is quickly swept into an adventure on which pivots the very fate of the world. Lucio may be assigned any one of six classes at the outset — Barbarian, Templar, Rogue, Shadow Hunter, Priest or Arc Mage — each with different strengths and skill trees, and able to use different types of equipment. The game then gets off on the wrong foot by asking you to kill deer to collect 8 scraps of leather to be sewn into your ceremonial clothes; yes, the moment you begin you are given a tedious fetch quest.

After completing this “quest” and performing a few other menial tasks about town, it’s time for your ceremony into adulthood alongside your childhood love interest Ameli, and the ball finally gets rolling. And here is where the game stands apart from A Wanderer of Luone:

In the previous game, your character was essentially a generic player in the larger tale. The player’s choice of class dictated not only the main character’s abilities, but also their appearance and gender. When additional party members joined up to fight alongside you, they were nameless mercenaries without any role in the story. The overall effect was that the characters participated in the story, but were not a part of the story. Children of Carnia brings the story more to the fore by developing a cast of characters who interact with each other, who relate to one another, and who each have a part to play in the larger tale. The game attempts to put a stronger emphasis on narrative than in the previous game, and for this I applaud Com2Us’ efforts.

When during their ceremony Lucio and Ameli discover a fallen orc in the forest, Ameli administers to his wounds while Lucio gathers the materials she requires to heal him. The orc is no sooner on his feet again than he is murdered by mysterious interlopers, but not before placing his charge — a set of gauntlets — into the youngsters’ hands, petitioning their assistance in completing his mission, and instructing them to hide from the approaching threat. And so the tale unfolds …

As in previous series entries, the bulk of the game will be spent exploring maps filled with monsters to be slain and running errands for characters met along the way. Some of these errands will advance the story and reveal significant plot points, while others will be rather trivial. Combat is frequent and consists of selecting a target and pressing the attack button; your party will then pound on the creature until it dies. At any time during combat, the player may use their character’s skills to turn the tide of combat — inflicting greater damage, striking multiple foes, buffing the party or healing its wounds — while AI controlled characters will use their assigned skills of their own volition so long as they have MP enough to power them.

Likes:

The Party System: The party system first seen in A Wanderer of Luone returns in Children of Carnia with welcome improvements. Where party members were largely left to chance in the previous game, Children of Carnia provides a large cast of characters from which to choose, and allows the player to swap party members in and out of action at will from the menu, ultimately giving the player much greater freedom in choosing the lineup of their adventuring party than before.

An Emphasis on Story: Children of Carnia exhibits a greater emphasis on story and characters than in previous games. And while the story is ultimately lacking in originality, it is still nice to have personalities with whom to empathize during the journey, rather than the cardboard figurines of previous Inotia games.

Quest Indicators: The game not only puts quest indicators on characters you need to talk to, but also on doorways leading to characters or events. It’s a nice touch and ensures players won’t bypass quests without realizing they are there, if for example a quest is in a potion shop that I otherwise wouldn’t go into because I don’t need to buy potions.

Dislikes:

Art Direction: By no means the worst looking Action RPG on the app store, Children of Carnia is far from attaining the visual splendor of its predecessor. A Wanderer of Luone was and still is one of the prettiest sprite-based RPGs on iOS, and a personal favorite for art direction in video games. Children of Carnia just looks beaten and bruised, smeared in the mud by comparison.

The characters are super-deformed, with heads disproportionately large to their bodies, and everything is far too cute. For example, the character art for the orcs shows them to be hulking and tough; their in-game sprites, however, look more like orc plushies.

The game’s use of color is also very subdued, seeming almost monochromatic compared to the both use of color as seen in A Wanderer of Luone.

Grinding and Fetch Quests: Typical of modern role-playing games, and of Korean role-playing games in particular, grinding and fetch quests have become a popular method of artificially extending the length of your game by forcing the player to dally in one location for far longer than they otherwise should have to. This is typically achieved by blocking story progression until certain conditions are met (usually too many conditions), or by populating the area ahead with opponents so overpowered that the player is forced to level-up their characters before having any chance of survival. And so you will often find yourself traipsing back and forth through the same areas fighting rabid badgers for the 200th time either because someone asked you to kill X-number of rabid badgers because they just don’t like badgers, or because someone asked you to collect 15 jelly beans and jelly beans are only carried by rabid badgers and so you will have to kill between 25 and 50 rabid badgers in order to liberate those 15 jelly beans from their dirty, greedy, jelly bean mongering paws. Having then collected said jelly beans, you might be asked to carry them across the street to Nancy, because Nancy loves jelly beans and doesn’t give one thought to the dead badgers who had to die to attain so many jelly beans …

Blatant Disregard for Animal Rights: If ever you’ve wondered how elephants made it onto the endangered species list, Children of Carnia should clear it right up for you. Much of the game is spent slaying adorable forest creatures. Kill deer to collect hides for leather. Kill Ostriches for their combs. Slay rattlesnakes for their venom. Also, bears, armadillos, wolves and more. Last I checked deer were relatively nonviolent creatures. Is everything in this world rabid? I don’t mind slaying countless droves of monsters, undead and the like. But I have to drawn the line at bunny massacre. Children of Carnia is far too much about the murder of innocent forest creatures, to the point that I would have serious hesitation handing the game off to a child for fear the impression it would make.

Interface and Menus: The beautifully crafted d-pad and buttons of the previous game are gone, replaced now with gaudy neon indicators that suit the game not at all, except to further promote the ugliness that abounds. The menu system is pleasantly informative, and it’s fairly easy to manage your party and whatnot. But it’s ugly as well and can be frustrating at times. For example, it is no longer possible to compare items in inventory to items equipped, and information windows for items and skills often obscure other things I’d like to be able to access (like the button to exit the menu). Interactive buttons for items are uncomfortably close together, and it’s a bit to easy to inadvertently make input mistakes, such as dropping items instead of using them.

Item Identification: Most of the weapons and armor you will find in your travels will need to be identified before they can be equipped or sold. Early in the game, though, equipment sells for far too little to recoup the expensive of having it identified, and most of the items you find will end up being worthless. It feels like the game is punishing you unnecessarily for finding items.

Universal Support is a Joke: Children of Carnia is listed as a universal app for both iPhone and iPad, but on the iPad essentially plays like an iPhone game in 2x mode; just without the 2x mode. In no way is the game optimized or designed to be played on the iPad.

The Chronicles of Inotia: Children of Carnia is a solid Action RPG for iOS. Not ground-breaking in any way and certainly flawed, but entertaining nonetheless. For gamers who found A Wanderer of Luone enjoyable, Children of Carnia is an easy recommendation; on the flip side, those who did not enjoy that game will likely find nothing of additional interest here. Compared to its predecessor, Children of Carnia offers some minor gameplay refinements, but it’s all rather similar. The game lacks the online multiplayer component introduced in A Wanderer of Luone, but I never much indulged in the feature and don’t really miss it; some players might.

Bottom-line, Children of Carnia is an enjoyable role-playing game, though it becomes occasionally tedious with its fetch quests and grinding. If you’ve played Korean RPGs in the past, you will pretty well know what to expect; Children of Carnia is one of the app store’s better entries to the genre. But if you haven’t yet played its predecessor, A Wanderer of Luone, you might save a few dollars and try it first.

The Chronicles of Inotia: Children of Luone [$4.99] is developed by Com2Us. Reviewed at version 1.0.3 on an iPhone 4 and iPad.

Secret of Mana Review: The SNES classic comes to iOS

At long last, Square Enix’s masterwork Action RPG Secret of Mana has come to iOS. I may as well tell you up front, Secret of Mana is one of my favorite games of all time. The question is not whether the game is any good — it’s good, and always has been — but whether it holds up on the iPhone.

For several reasons, Secret of Mana is a difficult game for me to review. Originally released in 1993 for the SNES, the game now has a 17 year legacy as one of the most highly praised games ever made. I personally harbor 17 years worth of love and devotion for the game. And while veteran gamers likely share my love for it, there are likely a lot of teenage and young-adult gamers who will now be experiencing the title for the first time on iOS, and who will be approaching the game with expectations a world apart from my own. In this review, I will attempt to cover the bases for longtime fans and newcomers alike, and will try to check my adoration for the game within reasonable bounds.

For the veterans, this is the short of it:

The iOS version of Secret of Mana is a port of the original SNES game, which is to say that the game is NOT a remake, and NOT the original code wrapped in an emulator. Changes have been made to the game’s interface to accommodate the iPhone’s touch-screen interface; these changes have some collateral impact on gameplay, but the game’s content and the gameplay itself remain identical to the original game released in 1993.
And as ports go, Square Enix has done a fantastic job. If you’re a veteran Secret of Mana fan, the iOS version of the game delivers a faithful — albeit not identical — rendition of the game you love, and some of the differences will be touched upon further into this review. If you’re new to Secret of Mana then you’re in for a treat, because the game remains fantastic after all these years.

The requisite, abridged background material:

Secret of Mana, known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 2 (literally, “Holy Sword Legend 2”), is an action role-playing game for the SNES developed and published by Square (now Square Enix) in 1993. It is the second entry in the Seiken Densetsu series of games, which in recent years has come to be known as the World of Mana series, with releases such as Children of Mana and Heroes of Mana on the Nintendo DS, and Dawn of Mana on the PlayStation 2.
Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, known as Final Fantasy Adventure in North America, is the first game in the series and was released for the original Nintendo Gameboy, while Seiken Densetsu 3 for the SNES has never been officially released outside of Japan (though excellent fan translations may be found on the Internet). The PS2 game Dawn of Mana is known to be Seiken Densetsu 4, while the other games in the series occur outside of canonical numbering.

The Seiken Densetsu series originally drew inspiration from Square’s own Final Fantasy series — the first game even had a chocobo — as well as Arthurian legend. From the second game on, the series abandoned chocobos and blatant references to the Final Fantasy games, becoming a franchise unto itself.
At first glance, Secret of Mana may appear to be very similar to other Action RPGs already available in the app store. Such an impression would be misinformed, however. When it comes to Action RPGs, Secret of Mana is a genre classic, one of the most venerated Action RPGs ever made. It should come as no surprise then that subsequent genre entries would mimic it. And for the most part — especially wherein the app store is concerned — such games have proven poor impersonators.

For those gamers unfamiliar with Secret of Mana, I feel it important that we disambiguate the game from the many Korean Action RPG mobile ports — Zenonia, SEED, Axion, Itarus and the like — currently plaguing the app store. While Secret of Mana may be the grandfather of such games, they are embarrassing progeny.

Secret of Mana was originally developed as a top-tier title for a prevailing gaming console, and not as a budget-priced cell phone game. Square cut no corners in designing the game, and so they felt no need to recycle content, pad the game’s length with trivial tasks or level grinding, shackle the game with poor scenario writing, or otherwise skimp on production. The same cannot be said for KARPGs. Unlike Zenonia and its ilk, the player will never be subjected to an endless parade of pointless fetch quests. In striving to save the world from utter destruction and tyranny, you will never be asked to place your efforts on hold to venture into the woods to slay demonic squirrels in an effort to collect 10 bags of flour so that some idiot townswoman can bake her autistic fiance a cake. The world is in peril, and cakes aren’t going to save it! Secret of Mana propels you ever forward, from one location and encounter to the next, and always in service to the greater narrative. The game is excellently paced, and the story comes together very nicely without the extraneous distractions that RPGs have become known for in recent years. And that’s brilliant, because let’s face it: fetch quests are bollocks.

Secret of Mana puts a great deal of emphasis on its overarching narrative, that narrative being used to fuel and inform gameplay.

The game begins with Randi, our protagonist, and his friends involved in childhood shenanigans at the falls. He slips on a log and falls headlong into the cascading waters. Shaken but alive, and in a nod to the legend of King Arthur, he discovers an aging sword embedded in a stone in the middle of the lake beneath the falls. The sword calls to him and he draws it forth, claiming it — and unwittingly claiming a world of responsibility — as his own. Randi slashes his way back the village, through weeds and rabites, only to find that his actions have set off a series of escalating events ultimately resulting in his banishments from the village he has long called home, and his acceptance of the responsibility of restoring the diminished sword to its former power, and using it to put down an empire and its evil schemes now threatening to consume the world.

Randi begins his quest alone, but doesn’t stay that way for long. He is soon joined by Primm, a headstrong, young girl searching for her boyfriend — a soldier sent on a witch hunt — and later joined by Popoi, a sprite child having joined a dwarven fleecing act after losing his memory. For reasons of their own these characters tag along on Randi’s quest, and become a major point of play in Secret of Mana. As Randi and company encounter guardian spirits throughout their quest, these spirits will lend our heroes their powers. To Randi, they imbue their power into the Sword of Mana; to Primm, they grant support and restorative powers; and to Popoi, they give attack spells capable of delivering direct and devastating damage to opponents. At any point during the quest, players may take control of Randi, Primm or Popoi, may command them to equip weapons, use items and cast spells, or may customize the AI behavior of uncontrolled characters to be either more or less aggressive in combat, to use charged attacks or not, etc. If at any time the primary character is defeated in combat, the player will automatically take control of a remaining support character to carry on in combat, or to restore the other character to life using magic or a Cup of Wishes. The dynamic created by controlling and maintaining these three characters becomes a major part of gameplay, and the player’s success in Secret of Mana will wholly depend upon their capability to manage and command the three characters at once.

Secret of Mana is not a hack-n-slash, button-mashing Action RPG. In Zenonia, you can get by pretty well by pounding away at the attack button, wailing on enemies and allowing the game to adjust your character’s facing accordingly to strike at nearby targets. That doesn’t work here; at best, mashing the attack button will result in a rapid succession of very weak blows. To achieve full damage, a charge gauge must be allowed to fill between attacks. After delivering a blow, the gauge will begin to climb from 0 to 100 percent, after which characters may attack for full damage. This mechanic encourages players to move around during combat, choosing their moments, making a strike and then withdrawing to await another opportunity. Because of this mechanic, combat plays out at a slower pace than in similar games, but keeps the player more involved in combat by forcing them to attack opportunistically and to utilize evasion tactics between attacks. While I have never taken issue with this aspect of combat, gamers and critics have had mixed impressions. In essence, the charge gauge is a real-time implementation of Square’s Active Time Battle system from the turn-based Final Fantasy games.

There are no side-quests in Secret of Mana, but fret not over things to do. The main story line offers plenty of action, and will constantly propel you into new and exciting places, rather than stalling you in any one area for too long. The story will see you revisiting areas, though, particularly early on as you will be traveling between the Water Palace, Gaia’s Navel, the Haunted Forest and the town of Pandora quite a few times in resolving the Pandora story arch.

Travel is one point of contention gamers may find with Secret of Mana, though, as there is no map on which to track your progress or navigate. The player will simply have to memorize where locations lie in relation to one another and traverse the ground between them, at least until the point at which Flammie comes into the story and it becomes possible to travel quickly to any location by air. Overall not a big deal, but it could potentially be difficult to find your way around the game if you were to put it down for an extended period and come back to it having not played a while.

Likewise, there is no quest log that tells you where to go or what to do next. Generally, this information will be provided within the context of the story by speaking to NPCs or in scripted conversations. But again, if players should return to the game after a long hiatus, there is nothing in the game to remind you where you should be heading next, except to talk randomly to NPCs in hopes that one of them might drop a clue. The best and only solution to this is to pay attention to what you’re told in the game.

It sometimes pays to meander about, rather than proceeding straight on to your next destination, though. For example, there are two weapons orbs in Pandora castle which may be obtained after defeating Thanatos. If the player should listen to Jema, however, and travel directly to the water palace rather than delaying their departure to search the castle and speak with the king, these important items would be easy to miss. It’s important to keep your next task in mind, but also to explore areas thoroughly. Return to important story characters after completing related tasks, and you may find rewards awaiting you. But do not expect to see yellow exclamation points floating over important NPCs, nor to see windows awarding your bonus XP and items when completing quests.

At this point, I think it should be clear how the game plays out and — for those unfamiliar — some significant ways in which Secret of Mana differs from other Action RPGs they may already have played from the app store. Now to address some of the differences veteran players may expect from the SNES original.

The most evident difference is of course the new controls. Lacking a gamepad, the iOS version of Secret of Mana implements virtual on-screen controls. For the most part, the controls work very well. They are responsive and relatively tight, though certainly not a perfect replacement for a physical controller. Movement is allowable in any direction, and action buttons are used to attack or dash. I do have one complaint. On the SNES, double-tapping the d-pad in any direction would allow the party to run. This “double-tap” code is still a part of the iOS version, despite the lack of a physical d-pad and the presence of a dedicated dash button. More often by accident than by intention, sloppy command of the movement stick — a double-flick — will cause your character to dash. It’s one of those things that really is easier to do by mistake than on purpose, and it can potentially cost you an attack in a critical moment, as dashing depletes your gauge the same as attacking.

The game’s innovative Ring Command menu remains intact on iOS, though it’s less of a joy to use than it once was. You can access the menu for each character by dragging their portrait to the center of the screen. There you can navigate the character’s rings by pushing their portrait up or down, and switch to another character by pushing the portrait left or right. Swiping up or down outside of the ring spins it, and tapping an item allows it to be used, equipped, etc. It’s all very functional, but takes some getting used to. And you had better get used to it, because you will be spending a lot of time in the menu managing your characters, or using spells and items.

When using spells or items, players do not push a cursor around the screen as in the SNES version to select a target. Instead, target icons appear on the left side of the screen and allow targets to be selected with relative ease.

One very nice addition is the new quick-use slots on the right side of the screen. Four slots are available, and any menu command — equip a weapon, cast a spell, use a particular item, or even access one of the command screens — can be dragged to these slots for easy access during play, without having to rummage through the ring command menu.

The SNES version of the game contained a multiplayer feature, in which a second player could join the game to play as one of the support characters. Sadly, this aspect of the game is lost on iOS. Secret of Mana is single-player only.

The AI program has also been pared down, and support characters are now limited to five preset behaviors. Sufficient, but I do miss the more flexible system in the original game that allowed me to tweak behavior more to my liking for creating aggressive ranged attackers.

On the SNES, Secret of Mana is a very pretty game. Aside from the new virtual controls and the minimal presence of some drawn artwork in the menus, the iOS version retains the same graphics from the original, and is still a very pretty game. Those 16-bit pixels don’t look quite as sharp at modern resolutions as they once did, though. Nonetheless, Secret of Mana looks fantastic — a beautiful girl having become a woman, having gained a few wrinkles over the years, but not lost her charm.

And man, can she still sing. Hiroki Kikuta’s score is exceptional, a timeless and magical soundtrack that stands up with the very best game music ever made. Quite a welcome departure from the raspy, repetitive crap that passes for music in most Korean Action RPGs.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Seventeen years after its initial release, Secret of Mana remains the gold standard Action RPG. The SNES version of the game will forever be the definitive version of the game, but Secret of Mana is certainly no slouch on the iPhone. The game has been competently ported to iOS, gameplay intact with necessary changes made to effectively accommodate device input very different from that of the original game. Despite its age, Secret of Mana manages to outshine the many impersonators that have come over the years, including those very recently introduced to the app store. Age can’t touch this classic, and I sincerely hope that Square Enix will continue to give similar treatments to deserving titles from its glorious back catalog.

Aralon has been all the rage this holiday season, and I will admit it’s an impressive game. But I bought it day of release, played for thirty minutes or so and promptly lost interest in it. It may be a marvel on iOS, but it feels like so many other role-playing games on other systems that it struck me as rather generic and lacking in personality. I then purchased Secret of Mana day of release the following week, and have hardly put it down. Of all the quality releases this holiday season — and there have been many — Secret of Mana is the only game I’ve made a concerted effort to spend time with. It’s the only game I’ve found myself desperately wanting to play when I’m not playing it. It’s the only game that keeps me in the restroom twice as long as I should be when at work (don’t tell my boss). The game is just that good. It’s an endearing title that captures the simple magic of gaming, which so many modern releases — for all their fancy graphics and complex systems — have come to lack. Secret of Mana has a lot of heart, and I [heart] Secret of Mana.

Secret of Mana [$8.99] is published by Square Enix. Reviewed at version 1.0.0 on an iPhone 4.