Rise and Shiny recap: Hello Kitty Online

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Rise and Shiny recap: Hello Kitty Online
Each week Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. Some of the games will be far out of your gaming comfort zone, and some will pleasantly surprise you. We will meet each Tuesday and Friday night at 8 PM Central time, followed by this column the Saturday after. I welcome any suggestions for games, either in the comments or at beau at massively dot com.

This week I asked my readers to man (or woman) up and download Hello Kitty Online by Sanrio Digital. I'm a firm believer in the old saying "Looks can be deceiving" and have tried to keep that in mind as I look for games. After all, what is the difference between fluffy pink and white bunnies and giant robots that throw hissy fits? In fact, if I were to ask my readers what makes up the difference between a game like Hello Kitty Online and a game like Lord of the Rings Online, they might only shrug and say "C'mon, Beau, you can see the difference."

Remember, though, that we can still pull emotions out of cartoon characters just like we can out of more realistic ones, and it has been shown that many moviegoers actually feel more connected to stylized characters over super-realistic representations. I wonder if Hello Kitty Online can inspire the same strong emotions that a hardcore raider feels?

Now, before you skip to the bottom to start filling out the comment form, stick with me. This column looks at all types of games, openly and honestly, and I try to steer clear of passing judgment on something until I consider it from all viewpoints. Granted, I know exactly what players mean when they talk about their preferred graphical style, but let's take a moment and see what Hello Kitty Online has to offer.

First of all, downloading the game was a nightmare. From what I gather, the game is making a transition from Aeria Games to where it is based now, and this has created some confusion about client downloads and account log-ins. To avoid any trouble, I started with Google as a new player might, searched for Hello Kitty Online and followed their instructions perfectly. It turns out that I had to go to an alternative download site and had to patch from there, but in the end I wasted nearly two days of playtime. While I understand the issues with transferring accounts and such, I have no idea how a 12-year-old-girl would ever be able to figure it out since it just doesn't work well (at the time of this writing.) Let's hope they smooth it out, soon.

"The game is filled with clever PG versions of the usual stab-and-kill MMORPG gameplay. When you are asked to collect items from local starfish creatures, you whack them on the head only to have them "fall asleep" instead of dying."

The game didn't shock me with its graphics. After all, what 36-year-old male American doesn't know something about Hello Kitty? OK, so maybe I am the only one in existence, but any glance around a toy convention, store or magazine will familiarize you with the iconic giant-headed white cat. I cannot tell you exactly what Hello Kitty is, or what it all means, but the closest comparison I have come up with is that group of goth children from South Park. Cigarettes, coffee and shoe-gazing dance-rock are to them what giant heads, humongous flowers and bright colors are to the Hello Kitty enthusiast. It's simply a choice of culture.

Although I knew what to expect when I logged in, I was pleasantly surprised at how it all flowed together. While the animations were primitive, there was a consistency to it all; a flow that made it feel more together than quite a few "adult" games I have played. The click-to-move worked fine as a control option, and right-clicking upon my character brought up a menu of options that you would not find in many "AAA" MMORPGs: a profile to fill out, video options and others.

The game is filled with clever PG versions of the usual stab-and-kill MMORPG gameplay. When you are asked to collect items from local starfish creatures, you whack them on the head only to have them "fall asleep" instead of dying. Then, in place of re-spawning, the mobs "wake up." It was not only a clever way to keep the game family-friendly, but also made more sense than having mobs re-appear out of thin air. While many of the quests are of the kill-ten-rats variety, the quest-lines are broken up with requests for crafting materials, items and bits of easily digestible story.

Farming is another activity that has benefited from developers knowing the challenge level of their game, while still giving their players credit. Essentially you meet up with a farming NPC and ask for access, or you can go to another player's farm. It's similar to housing in many games like EverQuest II. Once there, you can fertilize, plant and water seeds that soon grow into full fledged trees or plants. The grid layout of the farm was easy to understand and maintaining the farm was cheap. Within an evening I had a small orchard of apple trees and set about plucking apples, leaves and other goodies from them.

Gathering is about as simple as it is in many games, consisting of finding a node and clicking on it. Many nodes had two options, one for "gather" and one for "chopping down." This was another example of a simple way to illustrate interacting with a tree, and it made me wonder why such complex games like Vanguard and World of Warcraft provided only one option when gathering. You can level up in several other categories, setting this game firmly in the "skill-based-lite" category. Even with that title, it does more to satisfy my love for open character development than many of the major players.

Hello Kitty Online also features housing (I have not experienced it yet), a cash-shop, and a very friendly community. Out of the five nights I played, GMs were present during three of those sessions, hanging out with players and answering questions. The map was easy to read and provided real-time player- and NPC-labeled locations, chat was a little confusing but worked well, and crafting required only materials, knowledge a small amount of time. All the activities and travel times were well-balanced, again settling into a satisfying mix of depth and variety.

So, will the game stay on my hard drive? No, but not because it is a bad game. In fact, it is a great game for younger players or for fans of Hello Kitty, and even makes a great game for groups of players that want to step out of their comfort zone to try something whimsical and fun. While the game is separated from other "AAA" titles mainly only by graphics, it is still pretty light on content. The skills are basic and everything is a little too bright and cartoony for my tastes.

Still, I am happy to see a "kid's game" that doesn't talk down to its audience and is well built. In fact, more developers should do what Hello Kitty Online does: pay attention to your fans, be honest in your development and do not be ashamed of your style. Own your IP, and for goodness sakes have fun with it.

Next week, we are looking at Pandora Saga, a beautiful free-to-play game from Japan. So far it feels like a free version of Final Fantasy XI, but with better graphics. We are going to join up and try it out together on the Lucida server. My character name is Beau.

Now, go log in!
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