First Impressions: Pocket Legends

On paper, Pocket Legends is just one of many free-to-play fantasy MMOs that litter the gaming landscape, a little blip that is otherwise drowned out by the noise of its peers. On paper, Pocket Legends is skimpy in standard MMO features: only three classes, no customizable avatars, completely instanced, and a maximum of four skills on your hotbar. On paper, it might be a passing diversion, except for one little detail: Pocket Legends is the first truly successful 3D MMORPG for mobile devices.

And that makes all the difference, my friends.

Several of us here at Massively have been devouring Pocket Legends since it was released this past week, first for the iPad, then for the iPhone and iPod Touch. The general consensus is that for what it lacks, this micro-MMO has the most important quality of all: it's genuinely fun and addictive. Hit the jump for more detailed first impressions!
"World of Warcraft in Your Hands"

The above quote is what Spacetime Studios and their fans would have you believe -- that against the general consensus of 3D, realtime MMOs on mobile devices not being technically feasible, Pocket Legends pulls off an impressive rabbit trick to somehow make it all work. Instead of the clumsy Facebook-style "MMO's" (such as Turf Wars) where graphics are a bare minimum and turn-based battles as thrilling as it gets, Pocket Legends ushers in a good-looking 3D game that runs smoothly and offers many of the features that MMO gamers crave: leveling, grouping, looting, customizing skills, dungeon crawling and (yes) emoting. It's not World of Warcraft, not by a long shot, but it's probably as close as the iPhone is going to see for some time.

The joy and appeal of this game starts and ends with its portability. Pocket Legends may not be a game you'd want to download and play on your regular laptop or desktop computer, but chances are you already have a MMO for those machines. Instead, this title gives you an online gaming fix on the go, whether you're at the airport, on a break at work, or, as is often the case for Massively readers, tied up in a supervillain's lair awaiting rescue by Super-Schuster and the Avenging Editors. It helps that this game is obviously made for short play sessions, allowing players to start a new game or join an existing one quickly, and then to plow through levels in 5-10 minutes each.

Spacetime claims that Pocket Legends can be played on any of their mobile devices, save for the first generation of iPhone, and can connect to the servers through WiFi, 3G and even Edge networks. I got the chance to test it both over WiFi (which had no discernible lag) and Edge (slower, but serviceable), and was impressed by the performance as other players and I romped around castles and swamps.

Fun at a Price

Surprisingly, the core Pocket Legends game is absolutely free on the App Store, which was a last-minute decision by Spacetime Studios to draw in more players. You can't beat free, even if it's "free" -- that is, free with strings attached.

The first price of Pocket Legends is in its business model, which utilizes a cash shop much like other MMOs we know, love and sometimes resent. Spacetime gives you two character slots and the first dungeon completely free, but they dangle the store in front of you with lures such as additional dungeons ($1.99 each), more character slots ($0.99 each), respecs ($1.99), emote packs ($0.99 each), high level gear and even gold. None of these additions are necessary to enjoy the game, but they are tempting, especially when you've run your existing dungeons a bazillion times and are looking for new challenges and locales.

The second price lies more with the limitations of the game, standard MMO features that either could not be added to the game for various reasons or haven't been developed as of yet. In addition to the restrictions listed at the top of this article, you'll have to be okay with a lack of guilds (there is a friends list) and a cumbersome chat interface that -- in my experience -- is rarely used to communicate. Indeed, the social framework of the game is tenuous at best, as many of your traveling companions are as temporary as the can of pop you're drinking right now, to be tossed aside when the experience is over.


The Name's Charming, Prince Charming

I wanted to put all of that on the table, up front, because whatever restrictions and costs Pocket Legends asks you to swallow, in the end it's definitely worth it. I'm absolutely amazed that the game not only runs well, looks great and has a well-thought out user interface -- an impressive feat considering the restricted size of the iPhone/iPod Touch's screen. A virtual joystick on the lower left pilots your toon, while the auto-attack button, skills and potions line up on the right. In the middle is a map toggle, which throws a Diablo-type map outline over the main screen to help you get your bearings (a feature that I definitely utilize in each of my play sessions). Swiping the screen rotates the view, while pinching it allows you to zoom in and out. The iPad has more territory to work with and somewhat better resolution and zooming capabilities, but from all accounts, the two versions feel almost identical.

By thumbing your name at the top-left, a menu pulls up with many standard features: your stats, inventory, skills, the store (which you can use to buy and sell using in-game currency as well as real-world money), your friends list and the game menu. As you level up, you are given a handful of attribute points to distribute between the three core stats (Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence), as well as either a new skill or the ability to level up a particular skill of your choosing. Since you'll acquire up to 12 skills but can only equip four at a time, your skill loadout offers a bit more in the way of customization.

Each of the three classes -- linked to their respective animal avatar -- is more or less what you'd expect in a MMO. There's the bear tank, the cat sorceress, and the bird archer, which will look like every other bear tank, cat sorceress and bird archer you encounter. Equipped gear does help with visual distinctiveness, although when you're a teeny-tiny character on the screen, it's not as impressive as you may hope.

Visually, Pocket Legends' world is cartoony and attractive, reminiscent of World of Warcraft, Wizard101 and Torchlight. It not only helps to cover up the obviously limited polygon count, but throws a charming vibe your way that says it's okay just to enjoy the game for what it is and not to get too serious about it.

Adventure, Glory, Fortune and a Slimy Death

While there is a neutral "towne" where players can theoretically mingle, the vast majority of Pocket Legends takes place in dungeons, which are broken up into levels that range from forest harmony to Gothic architecture. You don't have to progress through them sequentially, however; levels can be replayed infinitely, or out of order if one desires. Each level contains mobs and treasure chests, as well as a few other surprises.

Although it's possible to create a solo experience (by creating a password-locked game), generally you'll want to jump into a dungeon run with other people. This is because the health regen rate is absolutely atrocious between battles, which will require you to drink a ton of health potions (and, hence, buy more) to make any headway. If you die -- and by soloing, you'll die a lot -- you're sent back to the start of the level with a fraction of your health, although all of the mobs killed up to that point stay dead. As I found in my first day of play, striking out on my own in Pocket Legends is a one-way ticket to frustration and poverty.

Happily, it's fairly painless to jump into groups, which see people joining and dropping all the time. While you won't be conversing that much with other players while stomping down the dungeon paths, it's still great to know that you're playing alongside other real people, and that they can use their smarts to size up a battle and emerge victorious. Some class skills can be combined to create effective combos -- or so the legend goes -- although for the life of me I have no idea how you'd organize the combos without split-second reflexes.

My only real qualm with the gameplay is that the auto-attack button and skill buttons aren't always as responsive as I'd like, sometimes requiring me to hit them two or three times to get them to go off.

All in all, Spacetime Studios looks as though they have a pocket-sized hit on their hands, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they'll add on to this title in the future.
This article was originally published on Massively.