Monday, May 25, 2009
So this is the mystery review I was talking about: I am currently spending a lot of time in the open beta of Luminary, a new game from Aeria Games, a company specializing in Free2Play games. Luminary is easy to underestimate, because it looks a lot like many other Asian 2D games, with colorful, cute, cartoon graphics, and screenshots that overflow with dozens of characters and monsters. But once you start playing it, you'll discover a surprisingly deep economical game, the likes of which I haven't seen before. Forget everything you heard about games promising you a "player-run economy", Luminary is the real deal.
All weapons, armor, and tools in Luminary are player-made. By killing monsters, doing quests, and harvesting, you gather resources, and these resources are what everything else is made of. If you want a better sword, for example because you outleveled your current one, you will either have to craft one yourself, buy one via the market (auction house) from another player, or find a player to craft one for you. There are even "manufacturing requests", where you can state what you want another player to craft for you, provide the resources and a commission, and can even set a minimum skill level of the crafter. And there is a helpful window showing all master crafters online.
Now you think "but how do I know what resources I need for that new sword, and where to get them?". All this info is contained in a handy Game Info screen. You can search it for any item, monster, town, dungeon, or NPC. It will not only tell you what resources you need, but also give you the location of all the monsters that drop this resource, including drop probability and the complete loot table. This gives farming monsters a unique dynamic, because suddenly you aren't just doing a kill ten foozles quest, or farming monsters for random loot and xp, you are working towards a specific goal, looking for specific resources for your next piece of gear. I never understood why other games outsource that sort of information to third-party database websites, it is a lot more useful when integrated directly into the game. As you can always check what all items and resources are currently worth on the market, and how to get them, you can easily find economic opportunities for maximum profit.
There are no character classes in Luminary, but there is a system of skill points. You can improve your skills by exercising them, but that is usually rather slow. The faster way is to read skill books, but many of these cost 1 skill point to read, and you only get 1 skill point per level. So you can't be good at everything. But you can make 3 characters per account, and you are even allowed to have two accounts (not more), and run one of them multi-client or on a second computer for the boring afk harvesting jobs. As you will probably only master one of the 6 possible weapon types in the game (3 melee, 3 ranged), the weapon you choose defines a lot of what would otherwise be considered your character class. Every level you get 5 stat points to distribute, and somebody who has chosen a bow, or the "magic" cane as weapon will distribute the points differently than somebody who chose a sword, spear, or axe. You can gimp a character by distributing his stat points badly, but at level 10 and 30 you are able to reset and redistribute. I recommend a melee weapon for your first character, as the stats are easier to distribute for those (keep DEX and VIT at or slightly above your level, put the rest of the points into STR). On the other hand ranged weapons have the obvious advantage that if you shoot a monster that uses melee, you can already wound it before it can reach and hit you.
Combat in Luminary is similar to those of many 2D games, you just click on a monster once, and exchange blows until one of you drops dead. But you have an unfair advantage over the monster, you can drink unlimited numbers of healing potion during combat. That makes it possible to beat even monsters a good deal higher in level than you are, unless they one-shot you. But of course healing potions cost marbles, the virtual currency of Luminary, and if you try to farm higher level mobs you'll quickly find you're spending more on the potions than what the loot is worth. There are no spells until much later in the game, but cane wielders use mana to power their weapon, and thus need to drink mana potions as well. At level 20 you'll learn to summon a combat pet, but even with that there isn't really much strategy involved. But the mob density is high, and most mobs don't attack you, so combat is more about farming monsters, a more interesting variety of resource gathering than harvesting. Luminary is more of an economic game than a tactical combat game.
And of course there are also quests in Luminary. The first quests are a kind of tutorial, teaching you how to fight, gather resources, craft, and trade. Starting at level 25 other quest NPCs open up, and you can also visit Jack, who gives you timed quests to farm a certain number of monsters in a limited time, and get a stack of resources as reward. There are not only monster-killing quests, but also specific quest-givers for every type of manufacturing craft skill. Starting at level 30 (I think) you can also get random quest from the magic lamp that is delivered to your inventory at random times if you are online.
Crafting is a major part of Luminary. Reading books to improve your crafting skill doesn't use up skill points (apparently this is different from the Korean version of the game), so you can always be a crafter in parallel to whatever else you put your skill points in. But getting crafting up can be extremely expensive and time-consuming, so don't expect everyone to be able to craft everything. Simple items are crafted by simply choosing what you want to make, the make menu helpfully shows only items you have the resources for, choosing how many you want to make, and waiting 10 seconds for the crafting to complete. More complex items, like weapons and armor, can exist in various degrees of quality. This is influenced by you dexterity and by the score you achieve in a mini-game. The mini-game is a particularly uninspired clone of Bejeweled, but you only need to play it to a score of 10,000 to get the maximum bonus of 10% (less score gives linearly less bonus).
Luminary also has a political part of the game, which is tied in with the economic game. Players can buy "shares" of the various cities in Luminary, each share giving a vote. There are regular elections to town council, and there is even an elected leader for the whole server, called "GoonZu", who is elected every three months. Political, economical, and social factors come into play in Luminary's mentoring system. When you first create a character you are asked to state who recommended the game to you (choose me! :) ), and then you can choose a mentor from a list of players of at least level 50. While you level up, these people get rewards and reputation points. So your mentor has an interest in you doing well. Of course there are always some people who just try to collect a maximum number of pupils, without doing anything for them. But as you can always switch mentor, it is easy to find somebody who is actually willing to help you, at least with advice, but sometimes even sending you newbie stuff and so on. That makes for a much better new player experience than most other MMOs.
As I mentioned, Luminary is Free2Play. Which means there will be an item shop where you can buy stuff for real money. The item mall isn't enabled in the open beta, but as Luminary is a port of a Korean game, I have an idea what kind of things players will be able to buy. They are the usual suspects for these sorts of games: Added inventory space, teleport tickets for those too lazy to walk, skill and stat resets, clothes for looks (the character doll has the ability to equip clothes for stats and clothes for looks), various stats bonuses, mounts, skill books, and items that increase the rate with which you gain experience. It is hard to say yet how balanced all this will be, between people who spend a lot of time and little money, and people who spend a lot of money and little time. But the open beta is certainly very playable without all these items, so there don't appear to be any must-have things.
Of course no game is perfect, and Luminary certainly has a number of flaws. One classic problem is the translation from Korean to English, which is relatively well done, but not quite perfect. You'll often stumble over small mistakes like the "Successful Rate", where the meaning is obvious, but the English isn't quite correct. More seriously some of the quests explaining the more complicated game features to you suffer from the direct translation of the instructions being not that easy to understand, or too short. Especially McCoy's crafting quests suffer from that. Typical stumbling blocks are you being asked to click on the "red square", which actually is a white frame with black text, and only a thin red border around it. One quest only advances when you craft a level 8 weapon, but the instructions aren't clear, and most players end up making a useless junk weapon, because they weren't told to increase their skill first.
But mostly whether you like Luminary or not depends on whether you can like a game which is so different from the classic big 3D MMORPGs. Luminary is an MMORPG, but just like both chess and monopoly are board games, Luminary is very different from World of Warcraft. Combat is much easier, but the economic game is satisfyingly complex and deep. Your WoW raiding skills won't help you a bit, but if you used to play the auction house in WoW, you might very much enjoy Luminary. You'll have to ask yourself whether you can live with colorful cartoon 2D graphics. And while of course Free2Play has big advantages, you'll also have to live with the possibility of somebody else spending a lot of money on microtransactions to get ahead of you. To me that isn't very different from somebody else spending a lot of time in game to get ahead of me, but opinions on that are divided.
Personally, for me Luminary is just the game I need right now. A game where thinking and planning what to do next advances you faster than your button-mashing skills. This is *not* a casual game like Free Realms, in fact I'd say Luminary is a lot more hardcore than World of Warcraft, but in a very different way. Getting elected as GoonZu, or even just town chief, is a feat that would require a huge amount of dedication, and online time. I'm not planning to do that, but I'll try to make a name for myself as a crafter. I don't mind microtransactions, in fact (Shock! Horror!) I plan to spend some money on items of convenience, like teleports and a bigger inventory. Luminary is currently in open beta, but apparently characters won't get wiped again before release, so you can effectively already start playing. Recommended! Speaking of which, in a blatant attempt of self-promotion, don't forget to put "Tobold" as the person who recommended the game to you. :) Western game companies can learn a lot about social engineering from Asian games.