A friend read my last post and said that Mystic Ark sounded a lot like Demon’s Souls. I thought I had failed at conveying what the game was like, because really, they couldn’t be more different. He clarified:
I’m not talking about Demon’s Souls notorious “soul-crushing difficulty”. I’m talking about world-building.
The premise is pretty much identical. You’re trapped in the Nexus. Worlds are fucked up and it’s your job to go in and fix things. Each world tells a story through it’s interesting locales and their inhabitants. There isn’t so much of an overarching plot as there is an emphasis on scenario, setting, and tone. You are but a guest in these worlds, and the game doesn’t bother to concern itself with a standardized storytelling when it gets the job done through other less conventional means.
Which is true! I haven’t played Demon’s Souls myself, but for what I’ve read it also shares a tone of isolation. However, Demon’s Souls is more about stranding you alone in an extremely hostile environment. Isolation is used to create horror. In Mystic Ark the isolation is used more to create a feeling of loneliness or melancholy. Also, it is very much buried in the background, while Demon’s Souls is all about being trapped, alone (or so I hear). In the last post I threw 1400 words at the screen trying to define this aspect of the game that is very intangible.
So if everything I wrote about last time is subtext, what is Mystic Ark like on the surface? I think what best summarises Mystic Ark is a little something called the Happy Book.
In the land with only children and no adults (most guides name it “Children’s World” but that sounds dumb and I’m not going to play along) there’s a library filled with all sorts of interesting books. Some offer strategies for local baddies, others act as shops, and a couple save and heal (“Oh wow!! Oh wow!!”). One calls itself “The Happy Book” and provides a selection of specialized services.
90 gp – negotiate damage floors
400 gp – Increase magical power
1000 gp – Level up
4000 gp – Prevent Poison
Pretty sweet deal! 90 gold for stopping all damage floors along is a heck of a bargain, and when you select the option the book gives you a pair of boots that do just what was promised. But then the book informs you that there are no damage floors in the game. It’s a dick move but it only cost a penance and was good for a laugh. If you’re smart you’ll move on… but, those other options sure are tempting. Choosing “Increase magical power” gives you a Intelligence Seed, a one-use boost of a few points to your magic stat. Not bad, but not really worth the price tag. A grand for a level, however, does seem like a fair deal, and maybe it will net you more than one! Hope spring eternal and it’s hard to pass the option up. Paying nets you something like 867,239 experience points (I love how it’s a completely arbitrary, yet oddly specific number), only for the book to chide “Ha, ha! Just kidding.” By now the lesson is well and truly learned.
4000 gold isn’t that much. Sure, it’s a chunk of change, but nothing that couldn’t be one back in a handful of battles. About the cost of a new, high-end weapon. And to prevent all poison for the rest of the game. That’s not something to be dismissed lightly. Sure, the book hasn’t been particularly kind so far, but maybe it’s all to discourage you from this particular choice. Honestly, it’s a hard temptation to resist. And the book offers just punishment for not wising up and walking away. It doesn’t quite keep it’s promise of preventing poison, but it does the next best thing and gives you enough antidotes that you’ll never have to worry about poison again. In fact, it fills every space in your limited inventory with antidotes. Now, up to this point I had maybe been poisoned twice in the entire game. Poison hardly presented a danger than needed to be nullified. There was no need to carry more than one antidote, let alone the odd fifty the book gave me. And with each one selling for 5 gold, it wouldn’t even come close to recuperating the 4000 gp investment. What’s more, you can’t pick up any new items until you make some space, which means either selling off antidotes or dropping them. And since you can’t select multiple items in your inventory at once, getting rid of the antidotes means addressing them one by one. It’s a dick move, completely awful, and entirely your own fault. It’s not like you can’t say you didn’t see it coming. But at the same time it’s fun and memorable. A neat, little, out-of-the-way twist on RPG conventions, and the perfect example for Mystic Ark at large.
Mystic Ark falls squarely within the foundations of the traditional RPG, but you can feel it pushing at the boundaries constantly. Wheather in the unconventional scenario structure I talked about yesterday to the sprinkling of little puzzles just about everywhere you go. Sometimes a NPC will ask you if you’d like to try and solve a brain teaser like a sliding puzzle or moving a knight to capture all the pawns. The rewards for these are often negligible or non-existent. They’re just for fun; a break from all the dungeoning and monster-slaying. Elsewhere you come across a room in a dungeon with three chests and are told you can have the contents of one. If you decide to open a second chest the game drops your HP to 1 and removes all your magic. Have fun with the monsters!
Not satisfied with monster slaying and dungeon diving, Mystic Ark introduces some light adventure elements. Often examining objects will provide you with a detailed view and several options for interaction. These elements are never anything too deep or complex but they add a robustness to the experience. I like that the game is trying to add something to the normal RPG grind but sometimes it falls into the adventure game trap of having you do inexplicable things for no reason. One puzzle that was especially bad had you “follow proper manners” by dropping knives and forks into bottomless jars.
Another way that Mystic Ark tries to change up the formula is the progression through the scenarios. The game wants you to have more to do than just travel from dungeon to town to dungeon to town. So instead, NPCs will assign you tasks, or ask you to meet them somewhere else, or having you run back to the nexus to rescue a person trapped as a figurine. All this running around the map and revisiting old areas doesn’t bother me much. I like playing the scenarios out and the game thoughtfully gives you a crystal that makes backtracking easy, but players more sensitive to arbitrary goals won’t like that the game is basically a series of fetch-quests. As long as the quest had some justification I was fine with it, attributing it as part of the “story,” but one in particular had me shaking my head. A dungeon is blocked off by some guards, in a nearby town a scientist is missing. You rescue the scientist from the nexus where he’s transformed into a figurine. He doesn’t reward you with a way past the guards. Instead, now they’re just arbitrarily gone. I’ll fetch your stuff for you, game, but you’ve got to give me a reason to do so. It doesn’t have to be much. Any simple justification will do, but when you fail to provide even that you’re both destroying the charm that’s so endearing and revealing the simplicity of the underlying structure.
The Happy Book represents what Mystic Ark does best: irreverence, charm, and subversion of RPG tropes. The scientist quest is what is does worst: arbitrary event flags and fetch quests that waste the player’s time in the name of “gameplay.” Thankfully, there’s a lot more of the former.
Next time I’ll talk about, you know, the actual gameplay. The heart and soul of the RPG, that is to say: battles!