France-based developers Movingplayer and publisher Bulkypix have been hard at work lately on Yslandia, the latest MMO to shortly hit the App Store. Already released in Canada for testing purposes and set to hit US and international stores any day now (together with the US-based servers), this distinctly European take on the traditional eastern-influenced MMO formula had my attention from early on.
That Yslandia hails from a European developer is not something to be understated. It permeates every facet of the game-- just as PC gamers saw a remarkable departure from traditional RPG paradigms in the popular Polish-developed title, The Witcher-- so too does Yslandia show off its own influences and underpinnings, for better or for worse.
The most immediate evidence of this in play is in the artwork and in-game sprites. Gone are the cutesy, bright color palettes and heavily cell-shaded artwork usually seen in MMOs. Instead, what we have here are more detailed sprites with a purposefully subdued tone; emphasizing a realistic brush as trees and houses and even characters are painted in modest colors. The artwork in general brings to mind a water-color painting; not as visually striking as the color explosion of most JRPGs, but not without its own charm.
In so far as the gameplay is concerned, MMOs traditionally have been about lengthy solo leveling experiences (read: grinding) with a smattering of teamwork needed in certain encounters. Yslandia on the other hand is more focused all around Player vs Player combat and social interactions (but with its own share of grinding). The three islands that make up the initial release of Yslandia are comprised of respective starting islands for the Simeh'a Alliance and the Zaa'me Coalition (essentially, Light vs Dark), and a neutral territory called Gilda where all the PvP combat goes on. And it's on this latter island that most of your time in Yslandia will be spent.
On Gilda, teams have to work together to capture Totems on the battlefield, thereby claiming territories for their Faction. The game itself encourages this teamwork-- particularly teamwork through guild participation-- by way of its skill system. Departing from any existing skill-building concepts, characters in Yslandia learn additional skills by "training" with other guild members. Every 10 levels, you accumulate training points in addition to your standard skill points, which can then be invested in other guild members, bestowing upon them a skill you currently have learned. Aside from skills learned in this fashion, characters start with 4 skills, 2 of which are usually passive.
'Usually' in this context is used quite loosely, as Yslandia boasts a massive lineup of 18 different classes to choose from divided amongst 6 very different races (some of which have no passive skills). The developers have also gone beyond the usual warrior/ranger/mage archetypes to offer interesting classes such as the Necrophage, the Lycan Bloodhound or the mana-sucking Nocturn Deceiver. Unfortunately, with the class diversity on offer, what does get left by the wayside is character customization-- don't expect that new cloak you found to have any effect on the way your character looks. Even so, the sheer number of classes on offer, and just how different they each look and feel, means it is less of an issue than it could have been.
Unfortunately our pre-release time with Yslandia didn't offer much opportunity in the way of experiencing large-scale battles, so the verdict is definitely still out on whether the PvP-centred approach works or not. What we did see was an ample number of quests to help your character through the initial 10 levels, after which quests spill out onto the contested Gilda island too. The current quests support progression to level 25, and comprise the usual collection and courier quests with a fair bit of grinding in between. We've been told by developers to expect a new island shortly which will extend the level cap to 35, so continued support is definitely on Movingplayer's agenda.
Yslandia does two other things which we really liked, and showed a bit of innovation on behalf of the developer. Firstly, the user interface is sensational: your character is controlled by either tap-moving or by an on-screen analogue stick; and skills and items can be placed absolutely anywhere on screen via an intuitive iOS-like hold-to-move system that I hope is picked up by other developers too. Secondly, some classes have the ability to 'take over' their guild mates as familiars once they have disconnected. The game describes this as proxying, and it's certainly a fresh feature that whilst limited to 1 life only, enables guild mates to assist each other even when they're offline.
If there are any shortcomings to note in Yslandia, it's that character animations aren't really up to par with what we usually see in these games. Spells and ability animations range anywhere from barely serviceable to really great (we loved how ranged spells have a charging animation), but there is a certain lack of believability to standard attacks and hit responses. This may be attributable to the fact that we were only able to play on the European servers--- which were not entirely without the expected lag-- and so the responsiveness expected of combat was just not there.
Of course, there is also the obvious downside that whilst you hoard your various items, they will never have an effect on your appearance in the game world-- one Guardian is essentially indistinguishable from the next. Movingparts is aware of this, and have promised that some form of customization through PvP rewards is just around the corner.
What will be interesting to see is how all these elements mesh together in a fully populated game world, and whether the PvP-centric gameplay will hold up as a fulfilling, engaging MMO. Certainly players will have their own positions on whether a competitive environment will sustain them or not, particularly as there is a pseudo-requirement that players be part of a guild to enjoy all Yslandia has to offer. Personally though, I feel that the European charm and its willingness to push the boundaries of long-held MMO concepts nicely positions Yslandia as something different worth checking out.
Yslandia is currently priced at CAD$4.99. While you're waiting for the US and international release, check out our forums to see what experiences our Canadian readers are already having with Yslandia.