All About Fragnarok
Dark Souls released in Japan just last week and I was fortunate enough to play through some of the game. My intent was to make a very focused character that specialized in a single role. In Western pen and paper RPGs, a min-maxed character (or the player controlling them) is referred to as a Munchkin, since creating such a lopsided hero is perceived as childish and ridiculous. This was actually a pretty good tactic in Demon's Souls, as one could do absurd damage without having to horde a high amount of levels.
This is what actually made my starting class and focused stats very unorthodox. I didn't go with the destructive Sorcerer or elusive Wanderer. Instead I picked the feeble Cleric with the intent on casting powerful Miracles. Yes, there were some great Faith based spells in Demon's Souls: Anti-Magic Field, God's Wraith, and Regeneration to name a few. But you got those later on, making it much harder to start a Faith based caster. As predicted, the Miracles obtainable for my newbie Cleric weren't super impressive. A basic heal spell, a short force burst that knocked enemies back but did no damage, and some kind of buff that let me communicate with the dead (I have yet to purchase this spell, so its description might completely downplay its actual function).
A change from Demon's to Dark is the removal of MP and the implementation of "Spells per day". This is a classic staple of Dungeons and Dragons and was even a part of the NES version of Final Fantasy (They replaced it with MP in the remakes). It's slightly different in Dark Souls, as each individual spell has its own limit, instead of a single value for all spells of a mage's level. This means I could cast 5 Heals, 1 Greater Heal, and 25 Forces before resting. Still I couldn't cheese out as with Demon's Souls Royal and simply regenerate magic points. As my life blood of Miracles reached closer to zero, I knew I'd be forced to recover at a Bonfire. Using this resting point is a double edged sword: while it grants me more spells and heals my wounds, it resets and revives every standard enemy.
Each time I made some progress with a boss or unlocked a new passage, it also seemed to coincide with the need to replenish my Miracles. So I found myself fighting (or simply running) from the same set of dastardly undead over and over again. From hollows that rained down firebombs from high above me, a gang of rats that poisoned with two strikes, ghoulish archers backed by a fire breathing dragon, and thorned plantmen that could swallow me if I got too close. It was simply nerve wracking to battle these fiends a seemingly infinite amount of times. I was close to 12 hours in when it seemed like I just couldn't move forward with Faith alone.
To ease my mind, I decided to take a break from Dark Souls and play something else. I was still in the RPG mood, but wanted something that wasn't nearly as abusive. I enjoyed the idea of creating my own character, or better yet a whole team of protagonists. The first game to pop in my head was Icewind Dale 2. I try to never be a graphics whore, but with a vanilla CD install the game has not aged well. It looks a tad ugly and some of the visuals are straight broken. This brought me over to GOG.com, where I considered purchasing a game I already owned just so I could see what I was doing. But Good Old Games actually pointed to a different suggestion: try out The Temple of Elemental Evil. And so I complied.
I had never actually played TToEE and had kind of forgotten it existed (What's a Troika!?). It was pretty busted when it first released in 2003, and my PC gaming focused more on online trots like Diablo 2 and Final Fantasy XI. But after the hour download and install I was ready to get my feet wet as a clueless newbie. I've played Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition before, so I was already fairly keen on the rules. In hindsight, that's probably what made my first party such a ridiculous failure. My main "damage dealers" consisted of a feeble archery based Halfling Ranger and a Half-Orc Monk that couldn't hit the broadside of a bus. My Half-Elf Sorcerer and Human Cleric also couldn't really help nuke, as most of their spells consisted of buffing. There was a shining glimpse of hope traveling in my bag though: a Holy Longsword + 1.
The local minister of Saint Cuthbert, Terjon, seeks to convert as many townspeople from the Old Faith to this new religion. As long as you're not flat out evil (Or simply don't tell Terjon you blew up his home chapel) you can help him recruit followers. These may include a leatherworker, miller, or agreeing to marry a loudmouthed fighter. After aiding the priest, Terjon can be convinced to covert the carpenter's apprentice Marek back to the Old Faith. In turn the apprentice will marry Althea and build a barn for her father Filliken. With your good standing with the family, a high charisma male (Sorcerer, Bard, Paladin) can flirt with Filliken's other daughter Meleny. Upon proposing marriage to the young lady, Filliken will present a dowry with the powerful divine blade.
While my Half-Elf Sorcerer and Meleny were happily wed, no one in my party was actually competent enough to wield such a weapon. Its very presence perplexed my Sorcerer, Cleric, Monk, and Rogue. My Ranger at least was trained to use swords, but was so weak that carrying the weight of the blade encumbered her movement. It seemed as with Dark Souls, my party in Elemental Evil had hit a roadblock. So in typical D&D fashion when the going gets tough the tough reroll. Yes, after about 8 or more hours of play, I restarted The Temple of Elemental Evil.
This time I went with a total Munchkin party: a 20 strength Barbarian, a Cleric that was simply Half-Elf and non-Evil for his War and Good Domains, a Bard that could talk his way out of hell itself, a Druid that skewered with a spear just as well they summoned an army of wolves, and a Wizard both tough enough to tank and could render enemies inert. This team rocked the radiant Holy Sword + 1 and caught up to my first party in half the time. This boosted my morale enough to switch back to the daunting Dark Souls.
I was actually holding on to something similar to Elemental Evil's Holy Sword. When you first escape the Undead Asylum and arrive at Firelink Shrine, the NPCs direct you to head up the long stairs on the right and into Undead Burg. However, ignoring this advice, you can instead travel into the cemetery on the left. The graveyard is obviously not a place you should be roaming around at such a low level. The skeletons lurking around are powerful, fight in groups, and worse yet drop no souls upon death. But hurting them isn't the goal here. These reanimated dead are guarding a few wonderful treasures scattered about: a Wing Spear, Zweihander, and nearly 1200 worth of large souls. The two-handed greatsword has incredible attack power at 130, making it an excellent addition to those that braved the grave.
My Cleric lacked the strength to use this massive sword. But I had learned my lesson from Elemental Evil and said sayonara to my Miracle worker. Yes, after 12 hours of hard work, I restarted Dark Souls as a brutish Warrior. With a bit of knowledge and much more tenacity, it didn't take long to build up my strength score. After only putting in about 6 points towards massive muscles my Warrior was able to hold the Zweihander in both paws (It will probably be a good log while before I can use it in one, though). And boy howdy did this beast make a world of difference. Everything in the Undead Burg died in one hit, including pesky hollows armed with heavy shields and spears. The first boss departed with only two dives to his noggin. Even massive stone giants that took forever to bust with my Cleric could only survive a few swipes of my Warrior's sword.
While I managed to reach my Cleric's position in just 2 hours, that still doesn't mean it was a brisk journey. In true Munchkin fashion, my Warrior is a glass cannon that can't take as well as they give. HP is still at the default level and without a shield blocking is almost useless. The greatsword might hit hard against several enemies, but it's very slow. I've destroyed five enemies at once, only for a sixth to catch me off guard and deplete a chunk of my health. In fact I'd say most of my Warrior's deaths have come from sheer cockiness.
You'll eventually run into knights that brandish rapiers, and while they might start with their buckler forward, they also goad with a fencing riposte. I made the error of judging that there was no way they could parry my two-hander. But in true Raphael vs Siegfried flair, my miscalculation backfired. With my Warrior's guard down, the knight inserted his sword into the bank of left thigh, withdrawing 500 hit points, several thousand souls, and all the humanity in my account.
Min-maxing within Dark Souls can help boat loads. However, it's really the knowledge of your enemies and environment that will save you. You'll be going in blind and fighting many strange opponents. While many games--even The Temple of Elemental Evil--use death as a punishing end to failure, dying in Dark Souls will simply make you more aware of your situation.
Final Fantasy XIV turned out to be a huge failure that never seemed to recover. The development team wasn't able to mend the problems with the game and the population has steadily dwindled. Though, it did help garner interest in Square Enix's previous MMORPG romp: Final Fantasy XI.
Those that purchased the special edition of XIV received a Square Enix Security Token which could be used across both games to help prevent hacking. It wasn't actually a new device, as it was originally introduced along side the XI odd-on A Crystalline Prophecy back in 2009. As an added bonus, anyone linking the token to their accounts obtained a special Mog Satchel which affectively doubled their XI inventory space.
I always had a soft spot for FFXI's world of Vana'diel. It mostly came from it being the first MMO I got seriously into. Before that most of my experience was with Ragnarok Online, which despite being a massive world, didn't emphasis teamwork or exploration. RO was mostly a somber solo grind with little adventure or story. Final Fantasy XI on the other hand was sandwiched after the success of EverQuest and predated World of Warcraft by a year.
The journey from the rocky wastelands of Bastok, through the sandy beaches of Valkurm, and into the jungles of Yhoator could be argues and long. You had to find five other adventures of varying party role: tank, healer, support, and several damage dealers. You also had to be very close in level. If anyone was three or more levels higher, it could severely hamper EXP flow. I recall it taking almost a month to get my starting Monk up to 30, and my poorly picked Thief subjob wasn't even up to par.
To help motivate players along the grind were the very rich storyline missions. These included cutscenes and detailed characters you'd expect from a Final Fantasy game. The arrogant Taru Black Mage Shantotto became popular enough to be featured in both Dissidia games. Even the random fetch quests brought into context of who these characters are and how your good deeds helped shape the nation.
With my bolstering Mog Satchel and a new Steam version of FFXI, I was ready to once again venture through the exotic world of Vana'diel. I was eager to see how things changed over the years along with the latest Abyssea add-ons. I already knew that things had gotten easier. Over time the developers had sought to relieve the stress of long level grinding. The first step was introduction of Emperor rings that granted the users free bonus experience as they fought monsters. However, even more steps were taken while I was out of the world: Level Syncing and Fields of Valor.
Level Sync eliminated the need to find similarly leveled characters. You just had to find anyone of the correct jobs and the leader could sync them down (never up) to the desired member's level. This allowed long standing veterans to party with and gain experience with much lower players. This often led to seeing players in full Dynamis and Nyzul armor running around Qufim and other low level zones. I even got my Warrior to 75 by slicing up arctic Pugils with players that ranged from level 18-60.
What really turned leveling from a chore to a breeze were Fields of Valor (and later Grounds of Valor). These brief little tasks required you to kill a set number of specific enemies. Completing the objective would instantly grant hefty bonus experience, gil, and tabs to use for buffing. At first there was a restriction that pages within a Valor manual could only be taken once an hour. However, this was eventually lightened. While you would only receive gil and tabs once a hour, the Valor pages could be completed indefinitely for experience. It also didn't matter how strong the goal was, as long as the monster gave 1 experience it would count towards a completed Valor page.
What resulted was that people stopped fighting the hardest experience yielding enemies, and instead focused on the bare minimum weakest targets to complete a Field of Valor. Additionally, instead of going in with a once standard team of six, parties amounted to anyone willing and able. This could range from simply soloing to joining a confusing orgy of 18 people bashing on large swarms of monsters. These members also didn't need to be up to snuff. Mages often would not have the proper spells and many damage dealers couldn't hit the side of a bus. I even indulged in this sloth, often coming to a party without a weapon or pants (just like real life).
What further perpetuates this lower level tom foolery is the end game leveling inside Abyssea zones. To enter Abyssea you first need Traverser Stones, each of which grants you 30 minutes in the area. You can hold a max of four for 2 hours of fun. While first timers will be barren of Abyssea currency, returning visitors can use any of their accumulated "Cruor" to purchase status enhancements or be infused with Atma that provides huge benefits. These buffs can include absurd bonuses from increased critical hits, rapid MP refresh, instant reraising, large damage immunity, and more.
Experience and Cruor chains work a little differently here. You gain increased experience for killing the same enemy over and over again. This can start as low as single digits if you're too under leveled, and caps at a little above 600 a kill. However, to gain more than just a small sum of Cruor you have to fight a different mob than the last one you just fought. This results in people specifying if they are going after more levels or alternate reality cash.
An added twist to the simple "kill the monster" is the generation of Abyssea Lights. Monsters need to be killed by various attacks to gain different parts of the color spectrum. Normal physical attacks shed a bright white pearl, magic damage yields faint blue azure, and many weapon skills forge rich ruby, among others. With more lights gained, the quicker experience will flow. As an added bonuses, lights will also increase the chance that a monster will drop magical pyxis chests containing various rewards.
Sturdy pyxides left by deceased enemies might contain large chunks of experience, cruor, time extensions, colors of lights, artifact armor, key items to spawn powerful monsters, or even useable items. A lot of these boxes can litter the battlefield as most damage dealers can slaughter a beast or two on their own. It's too much of a hassle for players dedicated to fighting or healing to stop and open the locked chests. Often each alliance will bring along one or two "key masters" (key whores) who's job is to simply open chests with keys they've bought with Cruor. Since these key users don't need to aid in the fight, they can arrive as any job and leech all the experience they can sponge.
Increasing lights along with large time extensions means that beating up experience monsters can also bleed into a good end game event. If a Linkshell needs to amass four or more hours of time and a full array of lights for a big bad boss, they are first going to detour and smash some smaller threats. The only difference really is that those going after notorious monsters won't need to actually deal with the experience chain, instead opting to just kill anything for lights. This can even mean the Black Mages and Scholars might splinter off to a smaller group and hunt down magical enemies that are easier for them to reap and destroy.
In conclusion, Final Fantasy XI experience is not only abundant, it is flooding. This is the equivalent of a tsunami hitting a desert. I mentioned that it took a month to get my Monk to level 30 the first go around. With the current system I took both my Scholar and Bard from 1 to 30 on a weekend; my Samurai reached max level in a little over a week. It almost gives me war trauma flashbacks to Baal runs in Diablo 2. Before grinding was way too slow, and at this point I might claim that it's so fast that it's mind numbingly boring.
Thankfully, once your job is powered and geared, there is a lot more to do and experience in the game.
Team Fortress 2 has gone free to play and this has brought in a huge influx of new players and returning veterans. Most players gave the game a try back in 2007 as part of the Orange Box. In those days the game was a straight forward class based, team oriented shooter. Each of these classes had around three to four weapons or tools to complement their roles, ranging from the Pyro's close up flamethrower, the Snipers' long range rifles, Medic's healing medi-guns, and Spy's disguise kit.
In 2008 Valve switched things up by introducing new items for first the Medic, followed by the Heavy, Pyro, and Scout soon after. These new weapons could be gained by completing achievements related to each class. Some of these early achievements had strange requirements that might rarely happen in the thick of battle. Such example include Medical Intervention: "Save a falling teammate from dying on impact" and Trauma Queen: "Deploy 3 Uber-Charges in less than 5 minutes, and assist in 5 kills during that time". This made gaining these new weapons daunting and time consuming.
To relieve some of this problem, Valve created an item drop system coupled the update to both Sniper and Spy. While players could still gain items by completing achievements, they could also be awarded random free weapons, gear, and hats from playing the game over time. With enough time spent playing Team Fortress 2, players could wind up with a cluster of strange items and duplicate weapons. To help players gain the items they actually wanted crafting was introduced.
The basics of crafting starts by smelting down weapons. Two weapons from the same class can be turned into scrap metal. Three scrap metal creates reclaimed metal, and three reclaimed metal forms refined metal. It's using these three types of metal with common items to create rarer and special items. To make even more specific items both Class Tokens and Slot Tokens can be made by smelting down three unwanted weapons. All of the blueprint recipes are stored within the crafting menu, helping to ensure that players don't waste their time randomly guessing.
From playing on and off for five years I'd collected my share of unwanted Eyelanders, KGBs, and Jarates: enough to build around five refined metals and play around with the more interesting class weapons. For my Scout I turned my Force-Of-Nature into the Shortstop peppergun (Which I assumed was a pistol); my Soldier traded in his Direct Hit for a self-healing Black Box; my Demoman sacrificed one of his spare Scottish Resistance for the rapid fire Loch-n-Load; my Heavy didn't expend any of his own gear and instead took an Engineer Frontier Justice and Pyro Homewrecker to form the high clip Family Business; Likewise my Engineer took a Spy Ambassador and formed first a Southern Hospitality and then the hyper building Jag; last my Spy turned in his Cloak and Dagger for the identity stealing Your Eternal Reward.
This whole task was a bit time consuming and a little confusing at first, but in the end made my arsenal much more diverse and powerful. Crafting in Team Fortress 2 is an interesting means of keeping players' attention, but it's hard to tell if it's just a gimmick. It also of course creates quite an imbalance as seasoned players will have more choices over new players. This is of course unless somebody wants to spend real world money in Valve's virtual Mann Co. store. But spending several hundred (or thousand) bucks on a free game is a subject for another post.
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