First Impressions: Pandora Saga beta event

When I was asked to check out Atlus Games' Pandora Saga in its new form, I was slightly excited. Only slightly, though. See, I've taken a look at it before and found a lonely game with nothing but grinding to offer -- at least at first. So I hoped that the game had changed some, perhaps matured a bit for this newer offering for a newer audience. I didn't know it back then, but the game I was playing was not really the North American release. I just signed up and played it, and I didn't pay attention to any warnings that "This is not the North American version!" if there were any.

As it goes, this new version is really just a more localized and tweaked version of the previous game. The big difference for me came not in the form of quests and content, but in playerbase. The game space was flooded with players, most of them pining to hit level 30 first or run off to reported huge PvP matches. Again, I kind of felt left behind. Yes, I was given some handy experience potions and stat-increasing aids, but normally I play a First Impressions game a few hours a day for five to seven days. I had this game for only about three days.

Click past the cut and I'll tell you more.

I normally do not have an issue with grindy games. In fact, I often enjoy a soft grind (that sounds dirty) as long as the game breaks it up with different monsters, great story or interesting landscapes. Pandora Saga's NPCs don't care if you want to know more about them -- they simply have a task for you to do. Not only that, but they know someone else who has a task for you to do. Then, that NPC knows someone else who has a favor to ask. On and on it goes. Every quest I performed came down to this: run to NPC A, grab quest. Run to spot A, kill monsters. Run back to NPC A, turn in quest. Be forwarded to NPC B, repeat the cycle.

Yes, I understand that the first levels of many games are simply a build-up to better things, but for my sanity's sake: give it some variety. I was so excited when I was finally asked by an NPC to retrieve something, simply because it was something different than running for miles and miles only to kill a handful of monsters. As my luck in this game would have it, once I ran to the spot to dig up the item, a pop-up suddenly appeared telling me that I had finished digging it up and that I should return back.

What? No digging animation even? I ran this far for that?

In this way, Pandora Saga is its own worst enemy. The game looks great -- sort of a combination of Final Fantasy XI and Vanguard -- and the combat animations are fluid and fast. The problem comes when you realize that you are being duped into mindlessly killing monsters by a bunch of spiteful NPCs. Hell, if they want me to kill all these monsters, that's fine. In fact, they can keep the experience and the reward. Just talk to me, NPCs -- just let me know a bit about you. I'm so lonely.

When I first reviewed the game, I enjoyed the grind much more, thanks to finding a small group. In this beta event, however, players were busily grinding their way past me. I found players of my same level, but the three I asked were too busy to answer me. Many players were even clogging up the chat, bragging about their "dedication" to grinding. I must be a strange gamer, but I don't look at slugging through hours of mindless content as something to feel proud of. I certainly do not want the badge that reads "The Guy Who Did Everything The NPCs Asked."


"There was a rumor in chat about a level 20 ability that allowed you to call your mount while out in the wild, but that announcement only made me feel a little more like a chump for actually expecting an enjoyable low-level experience."

The combat system is fun, though. As you level, you can put points into learning different types of combat styles or different weapons. One player from the Warrior class bragged, "I'm a Warrior who uses a spear!" I liked that. I had a nice low-level taunt ability that made pulling mobs a breeze, and again I regretted not having a small group to play with to make the grind fun. Remember, it's not the grind -- it's the way in which the grind is presented to you. The combat system might have been neat, but the mindless grind sucked some of the fun out of it.

There are weird examples of design sprinkled throughout the game. Mounts, for example, are only available at stables outside of town (as though the streets of town cannot support the weight of a mount). Once you get on your ride, you can get to your destination much faster. This is good, being that the smart alec NPCs are asking you to run, run, run everywhere. Once you get to your hunting spot, you jump off of the mount and kill away. Once you're done, however, you cannot call the mount back; you simply must run back to town. There was a rumor in chat about a level 20 ability that allowed you to call your mount while out in the wild, but that announcement only made me feel a little more like a chump for actually expecting an enjoyable low-level experience. Why even have the first 20 levels, if all they serve to do is make the player feel like that moment in time is worthless?

Let me take this another way, though. If you are a player who enjoys a small grind (or maybe even a large grind at later levels), and who enjoys grouping and hardcore gameplay, then you will probably enjoy Pandora Saga. If you liked Final Fantasy XI, then you might enjoy Pandora Saga. I wish I could recommend the kingdom vs. kingdom PvP, but I did not make it to the appropriate level in time before the wars began. Fortunately, this is just the beginning of this game. While it might not seem like it, I did enjoy the potential that the game offers. As I said in my earlier column, I will leave the game on my hard drive and explore it some more later when it goes into launch mode.

I would like to take a moment and say that the GM staff was amazing during this experience. GMs helped me and the rest of the community during the event. They joked around and generally kept on eye on things. In particular, a GM named Bux did a fantastic job of keeping me informed and even protected me when I was on the way to join a kingdom for PvP.


"The developers know that any player worth his salt (which does not include me, by the way) can grind through those initial 20 levels in a few days and afterward will have a character that was well invested in and fought for. I get it -- the grind is a tool in a lot of ways."

In the end, Pandora Saga is not to be judged only on its first few days of play. That's just not fair to the game. While I do find it slightly ridiculous when a game presents its early experience as some kind of punishment, I understand some of the thinking behind it. The developers know that any player worth his salt (which does not include me, by the way) can grind through those initial 20 levels in a few days and afterward will have a character that was well invested in and fought for. I get it -- the grind is a tool in a lot of ways. But at least place me in nicer surroundings, or for the love of all things good, stop making me run so much. The Chronicles of Spellborn was generally one of my favorite games; I loved it as a fanboy and still do to this day. I think it was a travesty that the game was shelved as it was, but traveling in that game was as absolute nightmare, and the two games share that in common.

So, throw in a working mount from the beginning, take 10 minutes to walk me through the lore of the place (not on the website, but in the game), and pepper in the occasional quest that is not a "kill-ten-rats" quest, and I will change my opinion. Until then, I await the open beta and release.
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This article was originally published on Massively.