As another offering from the long line of products minted by Perfect World Entertainment, you can expect the same level of gloss and careful study that they put into all their games poured into this one. With all of the different properties developed and published by PWE, I think that Ether Saga Odyssey happens to be the most playable for a North American audience. The international English version has been with us almost two years now, officially launched July 1st, 2009 and it shows a solidly built, fundamentally sound MMORPG.
The first thing that struck me about ESO happened to be the cartoon nature of everything in the world. It’s touted as an animé-styled game and looking at the character design this provides an apt description. The environments of ESO provide a strange palate of pastels accentuated with solids and the characters have the big-eyes-small-mouth portraits expected from an animé. I found myself constantly zoomed in and mystified by various elements of the landscape and character models quite often.
Graphics and Sound: Superb in simplicity, accentuated with scintillating FX
The graphics in this game are quite straightforward. Textures for environments are complex and provide a solid visual for regions from towns, vales of ruined buildings, sweeping forest vistas, lily pad filled ponds, and . The rush and burble of water greeted me and the herds of various animals had their own soft night noises to greet me. During the “night” phase there even seemed to be a cricket noise.
A great deal of attention has been given to each of the zones I visited. From the giant foliage, to the very ground which seemed to be a soothing mat of shamrocks.
Everything sparkles. Everything.
ESO has a little bit of a love affair with particle effects. Even the first enemies I came across (something appropriately named a Tulip Ocelot) dripped more sparkles than a Twilight vampire in the sunlight. All of the attacks and skills in this game have tremendously complex particle and plane effects in game that display what you’re doing and provide a spectacular set of visual fireworks. In fact, while combat is going on your character portrait looks like it’s being devoured by a swarm of fireflies on crack.
Completing a quest pops up its own variety of sparkle-reward that also triggers a two-fingers-up peace sign above the character. I’m not sure if that’s also tied to leveling up or not.
There’s also a wide variety of sound effects tied to actions, emotes, creatures, and environments. It’s actually hard to get bored in the game at the beginning. Part of what makes any MMORPG a strong property to bring a community into is that its constantly challenging its veterans and newcomers alike to explore and discover.
The one thing that I found myself doing to this game is killing the music. It’s the only complaint that I have about the overall sound—and it’s a small problem. It’s repetitive and contains sounds that twinkle in the upper tone registers much like striking metal on glass. To describe the music politely, I’d say that it’s an oriental wind chimes and flutes ensemble that certainly sets the scene for the Chinese pantheon of deities and the Celestial Bureaucracy of the Middle Kingdom. After marinating in this music for long enough, however, it was time to make it gone.
Gameplay: A series of interesting mechanics sets this game apart from others
ESO approaches gameplay in a fashion similar to much of the PWE properties: it has a camera-behind, taskbar-oriented UI, with a paper-doll equipped character, backpack, skills, spells, etc. Minimap hangs in the upper-right corner and the on-screen character responds to both WASD and move-to-click—the move-click even pops up this cute little paw icon as she rushes to the selected point. It even provides an auto-path routine for heading to NPCs who want to talk to you (for delivery of quests or to continue a quest chain.)
It’s best to avoid running this game in a window at a high resolution as the UI text happens to be quite small. As for performance and graphics settings, there’s a lot of options that can be tweaked making this game seem to have a fairly stable footprint. It runs extremely smoothly on my system and looks like it can be pared down to bare minimums. Examining the number of particle effects and other gimcracks within the game, it probably doesn’t lose very much with the cartoony models at the lower settings.
As for a criticisms for the UI, so far, I haven’t been able to figure out how to invert the Y-axis on the mouse in game.
When a character hits level 15 something amazing happens in Ether Saga Odyssey: they start to be able to collect, combine, and train up pets from across the world. Almost every animal in game (even those bizarre Tulip Ocelots) can be caught and trained. Every class and race has a starter pet to assist them in battle. It’ll be simple and without many skills, but it’s still something.
Pets provide a secondary type of personalization for characters and a second set of skills to work towards. They can be used as health tanks, as support characters, and as buff-factories. In fact, a player can have more than one pet “out” by using a function called Fusion—fusion causes a pet to become one with the character, placing a glowing aura around them and enhancing certain attributes as well as increasing overall health.
In a weird sort of homage to games that do pet breeding, ESO has pet melding. A process of strange and terrible alchemy where one pet is melted down and injected into another resulting in a Frankenstein hybrid that becomes a mutated version of the two combined. In fact, the more melds a pet undergoes the higher the chance that it will mutate unexpectedly in attitude or appearance.
According to the website, melding has some significant benefits, such as eventually producing a much sought after super pet.
I wonder if I can meld a sheep and a spider pet. Then I would reign supreme over all the Middle Kingdom with my arachnomutton!
All of the monsters in game have a chance of dropping a Transformation Card. These cards can then be used to transform the player into a monster of the type listed on the card. These monster transformations come with their own advantages and disadvantages according to the family of the monster that they changed into.
As there’s a complex graph of what types of monsters do extra damage to each other, players might find themselves farming for cards from one family so that they can use them in areas high in a susceptible family.
Gameplay: Social system
I couldn’t leave this one out. Ether Saga Odyssey has an extensive emote and social system that is inescapably profound. Just bringing up the grid of total emotes gave me a moment of pause from growling to laughter, all of which trigger extensive animations and sounds. Some of them—like Break it Down—also engage interesting and amusing props.
One thing that seems different from other MMOs is that the chat box allows its own emoticons; however, it’s hard to say if this is a good or a bad thing as the effect is constantly abused by chatters. It’s not uncommon to see giggling monkeys or other moving figures taking up multiple lines in the chat space.
If nothing else, the community has been really taken with the ability to plant graphics in the chat box as part of their everyday conversation.
Freemium: It’s all about the accessories, baby; and some utility items
Like all of PWE’s properties, the cash store mostly contains a lot of accessory items for changing your character’s appearance with some utility items. Ether Saga Odyssey uses a currency called E-Bucks which currently transfer 100:1 with PWE ZEN. It looks as if at this time I can purchase about 2,000 ZEN for $20 making it an exchange of about 1¢ per ZEN, $1 per E-Buck. (Something seems hinky about the exchange rate on the site, I believe they accidentally put “Buck” instead of E-Cent.)
Note: People who pay more than $20 a pop when purchasing ZEN can receive bulk discounts resulting in better exchange rates than $0.01 per ZEN.
Looks like a full mana/health potion costs about 2.50 E-Bucks ($2.50.) A “Lover’s Memento,” a gift I can give to a friend to automatically teleport to their location only costs 25¢. And $10 gives me the ability to chat in the World channel with an Angelic Bell.
Looking at the cash store, if I wanted to update my character’s look with some better hair like cool voodoo band ($3) and hot crescent shoes ($3) and top off the ensemble with a crescent dress ($15)—that way I have skulls in my hair and I look like I’m on fire. Ends up costing me almost $21… Oh look, I can get hair with horns for $5!
Alright, I think you get the point.
The selection of costume parts, including effects, is pretty extensive and permits a great deal of personalization as long as you’ve got the scratch.
Conclusion: A highly accessible game, with beautiful environments, animé characters, and pets
Broken down Ether Saga Odyssey is your basic swords-and-sorcery MMO using all the tried and true elements of every game that came before. It’s not going to wow anyone on innovation or taking risks, but it does provide a staid and stable environment to play in. The addition of the pets and transformation system does give it enough flair to set it aside from most, but it’ll still come down to individual player preference. (ESO is one of a series of products in Perfect World Entertainment’s stable so this game feels like they’re filling out a niche.)
Most of the beginning quests happen to be go-and-kill type with some visit-this-person style while getting your character up to level 15 when the real game starts. I spent less than three hours in this game and explored all the beginning areas, there seems to be no end of beautiful environments and strange people to visit. Not to mention the various gods sitting on Eloquence Peak.
People who like looking good will enjoy the cash shop does seem to be a little bit expensive in some places, but that’s only when the object in question is particularly complex, the simpler outfits actually run cheaper. People who like prowling statistics trying to make the best equipment will have fun capturing animals and melding them looking for the legendary super pet.
A combination of good character models, sparkles everywhere—and I do mean everywhere—a pet system, a transformation system, and a fairly involved community means that you’ll find a lot to do in this game.
[Author’s Note: Ether Saga Online became Ether Saga Odyssey April 27th 2011. As this article came out shortly thereafter it still referred to the property in its previous name; I have updated it to reflect the change in trademark.]