Platform: PS Vita (PSN, £23.99)
Developer: Game Arts
Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment
The Vita has inherited countless JRPGs from the PSP, but there's no denying that Sony's handheld dearly needs some spiky-haired grindy fighty looty games of its very own. Basically, it needs Monster Hunter. With projects like Soul Sacrifice still months from release, the way is clear for Ragnarok Odyssey: a localised RPG from Game Arts that uses the Vita hardware to devastating advantage.
After picking a class (a mix of melee bruisers, archers and spellslingers) and tailoring their appearance from a huge array of cosmetic options, players are thrown into the last bastion of civilization before an enormous unexplored danger zone. This frontier town acts as a hub with all the mod cons, such as a pub and a save station, and several vendors who will increase their stocks as you bring back materials from the outside world. A few fun characters are on hand to chat with, but as the leading light of the Pacification Squad tasked with defending the friendly hamlet, you'll soon have to sally forth into the wilds in search of fun and profit.
Much like the Monster Hunter series or Phantasy Star Online, Ragnarok Odyssey's world isn't really a vast expanse of terrain; rather it's a selection of specific maps that can only be accessed by accepting their corresponding mission. Colourful though slightly spartan, these levels tend to consist of numerous smaller linked areas, and are populated by a diverse assortment of deadly critters. When battle begins, things go from familiar to surprisingly epic.
Unlike many competing RPGs, even some of the PSP's clunky Monster Hunter titles, combat is an absolute joy in Ragnarok Odyssey. It's a fast and furious real-time affair that could have supported a fully-fledged brawler, granting all classes a range of devastating combos, launches, aerial attacks and skills. Whether you're hefting a ridiculously oversized hammer with a drill on the end or wielding a nippy pair of spiked knuckle dusters, commands are responsive and immediately gratifying, while simple targeting and second-stick camera controls give you a good view of the action. Foes run the gamut from adorable slimes to massive multi-storey giants, and as you progress, you'll have to deal with larger and more punishing hordes.
Ragnarok Odyssey certainly doesn't scrimp on the "Action" bit of ARPGs.
Instead of panicking when faced with the Vita's feature set and integrating absolutely everything to see what sticks, Game Arts have done a fantastic job of using the touchscreen in convenient, subtle ways. Potions are a simple thumb jab away, often making the difference between life or death, while you can trigger a recharging rage mode with context sensitive tap. Better yet, expressions and multiplayer callouts ("follow me!" "Attack!") are equally accessible; freeing up face button real estate and putting everything at your fingertips. Ragnarok Odyssey deserves to be hailed as a masterclass in how the Vita can improve familiar gameplay without relying on awkward gimmicks.
The Vita's robust online multiplayer capabilities have also been utilised well here. Upon visiting the local pub, players can set up or join lobbies to quest with up to four other heroes. Some harder request missions absolutely need multiple players to succeed, and the classes work well in tandem, especially when taking down some of the larger monsters. You can set up matches for specific goals and tastes, so if you're only casually playing for fun or looking for a skilled party of experts to take down a particularly nasty boss, finding likeminded comrades is simplicity itself.
Ragnarok Odyssey almost manages to achieve greatness, especially thanks to the lack of direct competition. There's certainly a lot of repetition to contend with even from the early stages, especially in terms of palatte-swapped enemies and constantly-regurgitated maps, but it's difficult to care when faced with such strong core action gameplay. Raw value is also pleasingly large, since Ragnarok Odyssey positively brims with content, both in terms of story missions and different pieces of equipment to experiment with.
Unfortunately, a single divisive design decision stops Game Arts' RPG from being anywhere near as compelling as it ought to be.
In most ARPGs, which essentially focus on grinding, killing monsters rewards you with experience that gradually powers up your character. You'll feel like you're accomplishing something with every kill, even if it's an enemy that you've slaughtered dozens of times before. But in what can only be described as a bizarre aberration, Ragnarok Odyssey has no experience or levelling mechanics whatsoever.
Instead, your character's base stats are automatically increased after completing certain bosses, while other passive buffs can be assigned by equipping different weapons and 'cards' dropped by defeated monsters. Collecting and trading these cards is an addictive little metagame in and of itself, but the process is also obnoxiously random. You're just as likely to find nothing of value after a successful mission as you are a valuable new stat boost, while new items such as headgear, clothing and weaponry requires you to amass a certain number of raw materials. Which might get dropped by the creatures you fight... or more often, not. Defeating monsters therefore becomes an exercise in patience, with no real sense of accomplishment until you get enough droopy fish lips (no, really) for a sword upgrade.
There's none of the compulsive 'just one more level' thrill of continually powering up a character, and sadly, its purposeful omission makes continued questing feel hollow and unsatisfying. It's a shame, because Ragnarok Online had the makings of a long-term addiction that would have left the 3DS gathering dust.
- Engaging and responsive hack & slash gameplay, impressive variation between classes
- Loads of quests, equipment, cards and customisation options
- Enjoyable cooperative multiplayer, especially with friends
- Feels hollow without experience and levelling systems
- Plenty of recycled enemies, maps and environments
- Level design is fairly spartan if colourful
The Short Version: Ragnarok Odyssey will more than tide you over until Soul Sacrifice hits shelves, featuring a wealth of addictive content and silky-smooth action RPG gameplay. Sadly, the lack of compelling experience and character levels might make malaise set in sooner than you'd like.