Monday, September 26, 2011

Free To Play Again: A Look at Rusty Hearts and Puzzle Pirates.

Now and again, I check out the world of Free to Play MMORPGs. In years past, I'd have to rely on directories dedicated to the topic and download from a link to the individual game's website. Now, there is a growing Free to Play category on Steam, and I periodically check out the offerings there. What I look for in a game like this is, naturally, the same gameplay that I would like from a commercial/retail priced game. Of course, I expect that there will be both an in-game currency of some sort and a premium currency that can be purchased with real-world dollars, as these games are financed by the players who decide to buy something. I evaluate a F2P game on whether the options purchasable only with premium currency are neat options, or whether they are essential parts of the game. Games that provide too many in-game benefits for premium gear are "pay to win," and with too much content sealed off behind a paywall, the game isn't so much "free" as it is a glorified demo, shareware in disguise. With these criteria in mind, I've spent some time with two more games now available on Steam, Puzzle Pirates and Rusty Hearts.

Puzzle Pirates:

Towns, islands and decks of ships may get crowded, but you can pretty much teleport
 somewhere else if you aren't having fun.

This isn't my first time playing Puzzle Pirates, as the game has been around since 2003 and shortly after release I gave it a try. Three Rings Design has continued to add new puzzles and gameplay refinements over the years, and Steam support got me back in to see what had changed. Your character is a scurvy dog who looks like he/she escaped from a Playmobil collection and you are dropped into a world where virtually every task that can be performed is done so with a puzzle game. Players can work on or even own ships, become merchants, and attack other vessels or search for buried treasure. Back on islands, shops, inns and homes are owned and operated by players and working or playing in one of the many different buildings opens up new puzzles. Getting into swordfights, fisticuffs or drinking contests with other players have puzzle games all their own, and gambling on more traditional games like poker, spades or hearts can make or break a bucaneer's fortunes.

There's a lot of free content, with the basic puzzles to operate a ship available for free, including sailing, rigging, cannon operation, carpentry and bilge pumping. In-game currency is measured in pieces of eight, frequently abbreviated as "poe" and this money can be earned working ships for the NPC Navy or jobbing as temporary crew on a player-owned ship. Owning a ship, working a shop, or playing most parlor games are among the many activities that require a special badge purchasable with doubloons, the premium currency. Some of the locked away content is available to freeplayers daily, and many, many hours of entertainment can be had without spending a dime. Puzzle Pirates also gets major points from me on making premium currency purchasable with in-game money at a player-driven market exchange. Players can also join crews that may operate one or more vessels to launch their own expeditions, and buy custom furniture for player housing.

One of the many challenging cooperative or competitive puzzles representing labor in Puzzle Pirates.

As a character plays more of the puzzles well, skill levels in each of the games is tracked on a permanent profile. Characters can be visually customized with clothing and weapons that can be earned in-game or purchased with either poe or doubloons. Weapons can be used to make custom strikes in the swordfighting competitive puzzle, which is reminiscent of tetris, and is the last part of boarding actions taken when ships get into naval battles. Fist fighting is handled in a minigame that plays a lot like Bust-a-Move, with colored bubbles filling up the top of the screen that need to be "popped" by bubbles of the same color fired by a cannon from the bottom. Many of the puzzles are variants on popular puzzle games like Bejeweled, Dr. Mario, and Rocket Mania, with a piratey theme. I've won enough to buy a ship playing poker in a seedy tavern, brewed beer and clashed swords after a voyage spent cleaning and loading cannons or pumping seawater from the hold.

Rusty Hearts:

For now, you'd better like these three if you want to play Rusty Hearts, because even with customization, this is pretty much it... sometimes these guys will be wearing an afro or sunglasses, but little else changes.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the beat-em-up Anime MMORPG Rusty Hearts. Currently in beta from Perfect World Entertainment, Rusty Hearts is set in a moody gothic gaslamp horror anime where mercenaries fight vampires and demons in the service to a psuedo-military organization. The cutscenes providing the backdrop for the world, as well as the environments themselves are very pretty. The story and dialogue options are appropriately hokey and translated about as well as any standard anime series or video game. As of this article, you select as your base one of three characters, so in public areas in low-level zones, everyone looks pretty much the same. The dour swordsman Frantz, the foul-mouthed witches' apprentice Angela and the wanderer-turned brawler Tude are the three currently playable characters, but there is a fourth in the works.

The gameplay is fairly smooth, with various special attacks unlocked and trained as characters level up, and basic attacking, grab/counter, block and combo maneuvers make gamplay feel more like an arcade fighter like Double Dragon or Golden Axe than a typical RPG. Monsters drop equipment and potions as well as cards which randomly are hidden in a grid of rewards the player can blindly choose from when a dungeon is cleared. Players are ranked at the end of a level based on combo length and special move use (style) compared to how many hits they take, to get a letter grade that affects rewards at the end of a stage. Gamepad support is present, and recommended to save wear on the keyboard, but customizing keybinds for gamepad leaves something to be desired. Unlocking harder difficulties opens up cooperative adventures suitable for a party, with rewards matching the extra challenge.

Boss fights feature tougher opponents and more complex strategies than the standard
chaining of special abilities and occasionally blocking.

If you can deal with every player being copies of the same three people all over the place, in addition to new skills and better equipment, eventually costume pieces can be unlocked to give individual characters a custom look. The fast route to these cosmetic modifications is premium currency purchased through the cash shop, but some costume pieces can be earned by questing or bought with in-game money. Players who don't care about the appearance of their personal characters will find that most of the game is free, cash shop items having very little impact on game power. There is also a PVP arena, a guild system and customizable personal quarters, plus a game bank and player auction house. The difficulty scales very well with how much time a player wishes to put in, so a solo/casual player has a good experience as well as the more involved players interested in partying up and tackling tougher adventures.
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Jay said...

i might try them puzzle pirates. :D

Chris C. said...

These sound pretty interesting.

Alpha said...

I'm definitely not an 'MMORPG' sort of guy.

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