Review | 3/2/2010 at 1:42 PM

Ragnarok DS Co-Op Review

Ragnarok DS takes place in the same world as the popular Korean MMORPG Ragnarok Online. Developer GungHo Online Entertainment brings the same artstyle, job system, and fast-paced combat to the Nintendo DS, hoping to transfer some of Ragnarok Online's massive success to the DS platform. On the DS, Ragnarok DS brings players a single-player story and while the massively multiplayer aspect is not present, a 3-player co-op mode is included for Ragnarok fans who don't wish to adventure completely alone.

I never played Ragnarok Online, so I can't speak to how Ragnarok DS compares to it. GungHo, however, seems to have really tried to take advantage of the Nintendo DS capabilities, fully embracing the dual screens and touch controls. The UI is quite informative and functional with a party status window, text combat log, and minimap all on the top screen with the gameplay, skill/item hotbar, camera zoom button (you can view the game at three set distances - more on this later) and menu button on the bottom screen. The game is best played using only the stylus, dragging it across the screen to guide your character around and tapping a skill on your hotbar then performing the various tap-and-hold or slash commands to execute said skill.

The game has a robust class/job system, featuring a novice job (the starter job), seven "low level" jobs (requires level 10 in novice to choose a low level job), seven "high level" jobs (each low level job graduates into a specific high level job at level 30), and two special classes that are only unlocked after fulfilling certain conditions. Each time you level up your job level you get a skill point that you can allocate to a skill of your choice. You also have a base level; every time you level your base level up you get statistic points to allocate to the stats of your choice. The level requirements might sound like a pain, but you level fairly quickly which ensures you have plenty of different skills to play with.

Further customization can be found in the equipment department. Armor and weapons you find can have a random number of card slots (0-3 slots). Enemies you fight have a chance to drop a card specific to that enemy type with various statistics which you can then put into your gear. There is also a blacksmith in towns where you can modify your gear to make it more powerful. There is also an assortment of hats that appear to have a smaller drop rate than regular gear. From what I've heard, headgear was a much revered aesthetic factor in Ragnarok Online, and GungHo brings the cutesy hats to Ragnarok DS full force, complete with silly looking wizard hats and bandanas.

As far as how the game looks, sounds, and plays, the graphics are both cute and charming and look surprisingly good for an anime-style DS game - IF you're zoomed all the way in. The problem is that it's very impractical to play at the maximum zoomed-in camera view because you simply cannot see enough of your surroundings to navigate around or even fight very well (especially if you're playing a ranged job). When you zoom out, as you're forced to do almost all the time, the characters and enemies lose their crisp graphics and definition which makes the game look disappointingly worse. The music fits in well with the game (I believe a lot of the soundtrack was taken from Ragnarok Online if I'm not mistaken), but the tunes of the different songs suffer from being usually only a few bars long and then repeating over and over which can become tiresome.

The single-player campaign has an extremely generic storyline, the same kind of outline countless JRPGs have visited time and time again. The main character, Ales, has just been orphaned upon the death of his mother. He blames himself for not being strong enough to save her and thus decides to become an adventurer so he can learn how to become stronger. He immediately finds a girl named Sierra washed up on the beach with a past so tragic it gave her amnesia. Shortly after meeting they decide to go on grand adventures together. The single-player is entertaining enough, and it has few nice touchs. The party companion AI is pretty good, for one (you do not control your party companions as combat is in real-time). On the other hand, it also suffers from a couple of glaringly bad design decisions. First, in each new area you must find the map to get the minimap of that area to display on the top screen. Now, I know that many games employ a system like this, but the reason it's especially such a poor decision in Ragnarok DS is because the amount of environment you can see on the playscreen is so small (even zoomed all the way out) it becomes almost vital to have the map to navigate the maze-like zones. In a couple of areas where I missed the map, I found myself walking around in circles for a frustrating amount of time. I simply don't see why this design choice was made. The other major frustration factor is that after completing a main objective in the main quest (which almost always has you crossing several large zones), you must trek all the way back to town to get the next step. This seems like nothing more than an annoying time sink as nothing ever happens on the way back to town. The developers could have simply ported you back to town upon completion to the exact same effect with the only things missing being your lost time and irritation.

So how does the co-op aspect of the game stack up? Before you can access the co-op area of the game, you must play about five or six hours of the single-player campaign to unlock the area that houses the co-op play: the Mirage Tower. Once there, you can talk to an NPC to customize your appearance (customization choices include name, gender, hair style, and hair color), but these changes will only be reflected in the tower. You can play the Mirage Tower single-player or multiplayer with up to two other people via local wireless connection or Nintendo Wi-Fi. Either way, the multiplayer is multicard only, so if you want to team up with a friend or two even locally, you'll both have to have your own copies of the game. There is an interface set up for you to customize messages you can spew out with a button press so your teammates will know what you're doing if you aren't in a position to talk face-to-face (messages such as "proceeding to next floor"). Gameplay in the tower is very straight-forward: each floor you must meet a certain condition (e.g. defeat all enemies, trigger all levers in the correct order) to proceed to the next floor. After every five floors you'll be faced with a boss which upon defeating will present you with various rewards that carry over to your single-player game: base level and job level xp, physical character customization options for the tower (which everyone gets) and cards and gear that you can either choose to bid on against your fellow adventurers (no money involved, just a simple rolling system to determine the winner) or pass. Every 15 floors you can save your progress in the tower so upon coming back during another session you can, for instance, start on level 15 instead of level 1.

While the rewards are definitely nice, the Mirage Tower grew a bit boring pretty fast. I felt a bit like I was doing the Den of Evil quest from Diablo II over and over. Clearing all the enemies from the floor three times in a row gets old, especially when you get to frequently play the where's-the-last-mob game due to the fact that you are not able to see an adequate amount of your surrounds to get such an objective done in any timely manner. The good news is that you always get the map of each floor from the get-go, the bad news is that enemies are not tracked on the map which would have considerably sped things up.

As with the single-player, the co-op part is also plagued with questionable design choices. For no apparent reason you are not able to access your menu while you're adventuring in the tower, so any gear or hotbar changes you wish to make will have to be done BEFORE you start. I promptly ran into a reason why this would be an inconvenience immediately after I started playing. I thought I had set a new stack of potions I had recently purchased to one of my hotbars, but after about three floors I noticed that I hadn't. Because I couldn't access the menu, I could not remedy this problem and as a result I ended up slowly losing health and dying to the boss on the fifth floor. The reason behind this choice is beyond me. Another conceptual flaw is that because everyone who is able to play in the tower must play at least five or so hours of the single-player campaign, I find it extremely unlikely that very many people will have made a healer for the Mirage Tower. This is because Sierra, the main party companion in the single-player, is a Shaman, a powerful healer. So be prepared to do a lot of potion-chugging in the tower without a healer.

The co-op portion of Ragnarok DS is extremely limited and ultimately disappointing. Though the rewards are nice, the repetitive nature of the Mirage Tower and several bad design/conceptual choices make the co-op play become really old really fast. If for some reason you have friend(s) that have their own copy of the game and they're playing it at the same time as you, you might share an enjoyable hour or two playing it together, but because the co-op area takes a good chunk of time to reach and the amount of stuff you can do cooperatively is so limited, it's exceedingly hard to recommend Ragnarok DS as a co-op title at all; it's more like it's a single-player game that happens to have one area where you can play co-op.