As an outsider, it’s hard to get a grip on the appeal of MMO Ragnarok Online. Is it the pleasantly mundane nature of gameplay, which carries no real narrative apart from the drive to “go do stuff”? Is it the sprites? That is, are people so hungry to play an MMO that resembles the great 16-bit RPGs of their past as to naturally gravitate to the MMO that looks the closest to them? Is it the simplistic “click and watch it go” approach to combat? Could it be the ability to get married in-game, to know that as a gamer you’re only a few clicks away from finding someone you want to spend the rest of your life with even as you battle Porings and Spores for the 392nd time? Or is it the server software that allows pretty much anyone to set up a server on which the admin can tweak the classes, experience handouts, and difficulty?
Obviously, the appeal of Ragnarok Online lies in some formula that takes into account the combination of all these things, and it’s a little bit different for everyone who plays. As such, it stands to reason that for some people, the driving force behind their love of the game is the “sprites wandering around a 3D landscape” visual style and the overly simplistic combat. It seems like preferring these things over the other reasons to love Ragnarok Online would be a rare occurrence amongst the game’s sizable population, but indeed, it is this group of people that XSEED Games hopes to court with the DS edition of Ragnarok.
Ragnarok on the DS has no online component. Nintendo’s WiFi connection will do you no good here unless you are in close proximity to one or two other people, presumably close friends, who have also bought Ragnarok for their own DSes. If that’s the case and if all of you have played six or seven hours into the game, you can access the one multiplayer tower to be found, presumably for the purpose of amassing great riches and bags of loot. I wish I could tell you how this plays, but I fear I’d have to turn to Craigslist to find anyone within a hundred mile radius who has bought Ragnarok and is itching for some serious multiplayer shenanigans.
As such, I have little choice but to talk about the single player game, the meat of the Ragnarok DS cart. And this is too bad, because the less said about it the better.
At the very least, it will look and feel familiar to anyone who has played the MMO. The 2D sprites are big and well-drawn, and the process of traversing the countryside is painless. The entire game can be played using only the stylus and touchscreen, which makes for a very simple set of commands with which to battle, run, or even cast spells. It’s easy to pick up, and if it appeals to you, well, get ready for 40 hours of tap-tap-tapping that stylus into oblivion.
That said, the DS version of Ragnarok spends way too much time feeling like an MMO-shaped peg in a JRPG-shaped hole. The transition is at best awkward and at worst infuriating.
The most egregious offenses leveled at the player come as a result of the story that was tacked on to the experience. Most of the story is told through dialogue, and the dialogue is done very, very poorly. The developers saw fit to punctuate almost every “spoken” line with a little thought-bubble emoticon. In and of themselves, these little expressions of emotion aren’t so bad—the problem is, each of them takes a couple of seconds to happen, and it slows . . . down . . . the dialogue so much as to make all of the exposition feel like an utter slog. This applies doubly to the tutorial portion of the game, an almost unnecessary inclusion given the point ‘n click nature of the gameplay. To be sitting there looking at contrived, fourth-wall breaking conversations on how to attack, how to do techniques, how to achieve a little bit of control with the secondary characters . . . it’s almost enough to inspire a sell-back right there.
Past the stilted dialogue, the gameplay gets repetitive after about five hours, mostly due to the mundane nature of the side quests. Almost every side quest involves heading out and constantly wailing on enemies until you find enough of some useless item to give to some hapless townsperson. And you have to do them, because what doing these side quests is doing is masking the grinding you need to do to level up enough to progress on the main quest. If you don’t grind on through the side quests, there’s a good chance you’ll end up traveling for what feels like miles in game distance, all just to have to do it again once the disproportionally difficult boss fight rocks you into next week.
If Ragnarok was going to use the JRPG template as a way to transition to the DS, they might have done well to skip the grinding.
Nintendo’s little machine has seen its share of beautifully implemented RPGs from the Pokémon series to the remakes of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy games to the Mario & Luigi games. Unless the player is familiar with—no, unless the player loves the PC Ragnarok experience, there’s no reason to eschew any of those other quality RPG choices. Ragnarok is simply too rough around the edges, too tied to its online style, and honestly, too boring to rate with the rest.