Free for All: Ecol Tactics Online has a fun story but weak combat

Ecol Tactics Online screenshot
I took a look at Ecol Tactics Online not so long ago and mostly enjoyed what I found. When the game recently launched into open beta, I knew I had to check it out again. It's possible that the game I experienced before the open beta would be vastly different from the one I'd find later on, but everything felt familiar even though I was given access to higher-level play and cash shop.

I enjoyed the storyline and quest text much more this time around. Last time, gameplay appeared pretty standard, but now that I know what to expect with combat and performance, I can enjoy the story a bit more. But a player can ignore the story completely and still find the game enjoyable. That's an issue with many MMOs in general. A lot of the time the story has no bearing on a player's character. This time I slowed down and read up most of the quests I came across and discovered some pretty cute tales and toons.

The combat is still fun as well. Of course, turn-based combat is what this game is all about.

Ecol Tactics Online screenshot
I'd like to point out first that I attempted to join a group of players so I could show just how group combat works. I asked around but was generally met with blank stares and empty chats. Either the players had no idea what I was saying or group combat is just some sort of social no-no. I couldn't even figure out how to click on another character. I thought I might be able to privately message someone or examine a character's armor or weapons, but without the ability to highlight players, I gave up for a while. Eventually I found the party board, but it turned up empty. Other players might not be interested in playing with each other, or maybe the game is just so solo-friendly that there is no reason to group with others.

I decided to check in on my personal account just to make sure that my challenge level was not being tainted by my having access to a high-level character. The best way to explain the level of difficulty (or lack of one) is that each instanced combat area that a player will visit can be tuned up after a successful completion. If I enjoyed a particular area, I could revisit it on the next level of difficulty. Some quests sent me back into the same area a few times. I didn't really mind the mechanic because the turn-based strategy meant that each battle was slightly different, but I did get tired of seeing the same enemies over and over.

Ecol Tactics Online screenshotI also found myself wishing that the instanced combat areas were larger. Each area acts sort of like a tabletop game, but combined with the tiny browser window that I was forced to play in (unless I wanted a grainy fullscreen mode), everything felt too small. Sure, many of the abilities and weapons in the game are designed to work within these smaller spaces, but the design gives the game a sort of claustrophobic feel. Even the town areas are divided into small zones that really only serve as dividing areas between shops. It was hard to tell how many players were on simply because they came and went so fast. The chat was mostly quiet. Compared to the mood in other free-to-play browser-based titles, the silence was a bit eerie.

Ecol Tactics Online is a fun, casual title for people who enjoy a light grind and some turn-based challenge. I played around with different mercenaries but found that the game was still relatively easy. Different character abilities really didn't seem to make much of a difference to the outcome. No matter what, I was going to win. When I turned up the challenge level, I did find myself occasionally wishing I hadn't, but it made me wonder why the game doesn't just crank up the challenge level from the beginning.

Combo attacks did provide some variety to gameplay and made me think more strategically. Luckily an early-level tutorial explains just how to work a combo -- namely, Knock Back Attack -- but I accidentally finished the tutorial without even doing the combo. It only backed up my thought that so much of Ecol Tactics Online's strategy is optional. Some might take that as a sign that there are many ways to complete a battle, but I found myself thinking that the game was just too casual.

The cash shop opened up with the open beta test as well. I found the prices to be pretty low. Even though I was given access to a good chunk of change to spend in the cash shop, I didn't really see many items that begged me to buy them. The most common cash-shop money-maker, extra inventory spaces, proved too tempting for me, however. Some of the other items you'll find are potions that boost experience, weapon enhancements, and items from the infamous gacha category. Gachas are generally seen as a gambling item, paid for with real-life cash that sometime result in a nice weapon or costume. Players have been known to spend a lot of money on these cash-shop mainstays. Gachas make a lot of money and have begun to show up in many Western MMOs as well (we call them lockboxes). They're controversial, but they make money for developers.

Ecol Tactics Online screenshot
I enjoy the light strategy of Ecol Tactics Online but find that most of the gameplay is generic enough that the strategy elements come across weak, even for a casual title. The quest text and NPC stories are often fun to read, but when they result in yet another request to venture into the same areas over and over, the joy is lost. I would be much happier with larger maps, players who are willing to play in groups, and a fullscreen option that actually works. Playing in a window that is almost a third of my monitor size takes away most of the immersion and impact that the game might have.

As I pointed out last time, Ecol Tactics Online is a sort of Wakfu-light. I think it's safer to call it a very casual turn-based title with some multiplayer elements; it's a game in need of more variety and a good dosage of larger battles.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to beau@massively.com!
This article was originally published on Massively.