Game: Ragnarok Odyssey
Developer: Game Arts
Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation Vita only
Forget about Gangnam Style, or those really nice kimchi-flavoured ramen that I love, because – in gaming terms, at least – Ragnarok Online has always been Korea’s most famous export. It is an anime-tinged MMORPG loosely based on Norse mythology which has been in existence now for over a decade, racking up a staggering $800+ million in total sales, subscriptions and microtransactions. There have been sequels, movies, and spin-offs to the original game – including the diverting Nintendo DS dungeon crawler that appeared in 2008.
But the most prominent – and best of all the non-MMO Ragnarok titles – is unquestionably the hack ‘n’ slash role-player Ragnarok Odyssey, which has been around for well over a year in Japan, and was released in North America several months ago. After shifting in excess of 100,000 units, plucky ‘ol Xseed, veterans of masterminding Western releases for some terrific titles in the past few years, have seen fit to give UK gamers the chance to sample some full-on Norse hack ‘n slashery. Has the long wait been worth it?
There are two things about Ragnarok Odyssey which are impossible to ignore. Firstly, you have the terrific visuals. From the incredible, cinematic introductory sequence down to the in-game action – which often features battles with stupendously-sized beasties – this is a seriously pretty affair, one of the best that the console has to offer. It all moves along at an impressive old lick, and has a gorgeous, bright colour palette. The second obvious thing is how closely the game resembles Capcom’s big-hitting Monster Hunter series, although let me be clear that at this point that storied franchise, incredibly popular in Japan, has not received a handheld port that has worked quite as well as this does, at least from a technical standpoint.
Action kicks off with almost minimal fuss, with the game incredibly simple to pick up and become immersed in. The story is pretty basic in its execution – a simple tale of a hardy bunch of warriors hell-bent on protecting their once peaceful land from the advances of a bunch of pant-dirtyingly huge giants and their accompanying bestiary of evil. Your role in all of this begins by using the impressive range of customisable character parts and class system to create your chosen warrior.
The myriad hairstyles and outfits offer the opportunity to invent some crazy looking Norse-style badasses, although I was disappointed by the lack of a shaven headed/bald option so I could fully feel like I was living vicariously through an on-screen approximation of myself. Don’t expect the range and choice of something like Dragon’s Dogma (another spiritual cousin to Ragnarok Odyssey, incidentally), is what I’m saying. The six different class types, on the other hand, offer a fair bit of diversity in how you play the game, and I was chuffed to find out that you can also swap out your class later on if you wish, allowing you to mix it up a bit and learn the techniques associated with each job.
I opted initially for Sword Warrior – which is your basic action-RPG-balanced vanilla character type, adept in attacking and guarding whilst not really excelling at either. Oh, and with a bloody big sword, obviously. You get a predictable, yet very welcome cast here: the spell-casting Mage, bow-and-arrow-wielding Hunter, nippy Assassin, slow yet devastating Hammersmith, and the healing do-gooder Cleric. Nothing you haven’t seen before if you have played any role playing game in the past several decades, but well-implemented nonetheless.
The game itself follows a safe and simplistic structure: from the town hub, you accept missions which involve embarking on a sortie against the clock, which will require you to defeat a set number of particular monsters, which will in turn reward you with valuable materials and resources that you can take back to home base and use to craft into weapons, protective clothing and potions. There is a neat system that allows you to use the tarot-style cards you can buy from stores or collect from downed enemies in order to grant extra abilities or stat-enhancements. Weapons and armour have card slots into which you can place the cards you own, similar to how you would add Materia to your gear in Final Fantasy VII.
Combat itself is damn good fun. When playing as sword warrior or the giant hammer fellow, attacks feel more like a sophisticated third-person brawler than an RPG. Sure, there are potions and HP and all that kind of stuff, but there are also launchers, air-juggles, and some banging combos, not to mention an overdrive-style rage mode. You can dash – a skill that you will find yourself employing with alarming regularity given the fact that even as early as the third mission you can often find yourself swamped by vicious enemies all attacking you en-masse. Some, but not all, of the classes can also guard too, but be warned: employing abilities like the extremely useful dash comes at the expense of your AP meter, which diminishes with each use – although it does refill pretty quickly and can even be increased by drinking the right potions.
You get three lives on each mission before recieving the mission fail screen, and believe me, to begin with you will see that screen a hell of a lot, at least until you start levelling up your equipment and knocking up some decent clobber and tools to carve up the enemy scum. Levelling up is not achieved by the usual RPG means, however. You don’t earn experience points in the traditional sense; becoming more powerful is all about the equipment you are carrying, and the way you jiggle your card collection around to enhance it, which means that repetition of some already conquered areas to harvest materials and goodies is highly recommended. The Cleric and Mage are particularly weedy when you kick the game off – and my first playthrough using the powers of wizardry saw me have my magical ass handed to me repeatedly until I had toughened up.
Item drops and suchlike are entirely random, but certain stuff can be found in specific areas once you learn the lay of the land. Much the same way that the “grinding” aspects and game structure of Atlus’s genius Persona 4 Golden were perfectly suited to handheld gaming in short bursts, Ragnarok Odyssey is ideal to dip into for a few missions at a time, and features excellently logical controls to suit the format. It is always crucial to remember that however much you may love one particular class , you can always swap things around to suit each mission type anyway. For all the magical spells and healing abilities in the world, sometimes all you really need is a large gentleman holding a ridiculous hammer to come in and make everything alright again.
The touchscreen isn’t employed very much at all, and the rear screen,crazy swiping and shape-drawing nonsense is entirely avoided. You can use the touchscreen to select potions and instigate chat during online play, but that’s it. The camera is excellent and mapped to the right analogue stick, highlighting the natural advantage the Vita has over just about every other handheld in existence.
Multiplayer-wise, you can play surprisingly stable on or offline co-op, in teams of up to four players each, merrily trading chat or text message-esque in-game emoticons with each other all the while thanks to the highly sophisticated in-game chat options. The way you set up a session is simple to understand even for a complete imbecile like me. When you get into a lobby, one person is put in charge and chooses missions, with your progress, participants and which missions you can choose limited by your progress in the game. If you have only progressed as far as the second chapter, then you will only be able to play that far online, regardless of your companions.
VERDICT: For all our moaning about a lack of decent Vita games, just lately there have been some corkers. And this is another. This is a tremendously fun romp that works exactly as a handheld game should: enjoyable for long periods but absolutely spot-on for a few hours or missions on the go. I love playing my Vita in the morning with a coffee before I go to work, and now I have another worryingly compulsive way of spending these precious pre-rat race moments to join Persona and EDF Portable.
As a veteran of the decent PlayStation Portable Monster Hunter titles, I would boldly declare that Ragnarok actually out-performs Capcom in many respects. This is bright, funny, compulsive and technically proficient, a direct counter to the po-faced, clunky-controls of Monster Hunter. You have wonder why on Earth this wasn’t a UK launch title, such is its accessible and likeable nature.