Free for All: Will there ever be another setting like Ryzom's Atys?

Ryzom map

Ah, Ryzom. To this day it remains one of my favorite MMORPGs for several reasons. I was reminded just how much I still enjoy the game when I logged in to witness a storm rolling through the land, lightning sizzling from the sky, rain falling straight down on my character's head. The planet that Ryzom players find themselves on is called Atys, and it's no ordinary planet. In fact, it's not a planet at all. Instead, it's a giant rootball that floats in space.

Yes, a rootball.

I'm no scientist, but I'm pretty sure that a massive rootball is an impossible thing, but it doesn't matter. The game's original designers were French, and if you follow French MMOs, you know they always seem to come up with something completely unique. In this case, Atys is literally made up of a wad of giant roots and bark. I have to wonder: Why aren't there more unique settings like Atys in gaming today?

Atys cross-section

Atys creates its warmth much in the same way a pile of mulch might: The breaking-down of plant material creates heat. Sure, it's quite a stretch to have a floating rootball in the first place (how did it get there, and how did it get so big?), but the mystery is what has always called to me. There are enterprising players who believe they have discovered more about the inner-working of the planet, but I'm content to take it as it is.

In the sky of Atys are massive roots, so large that you can see tiny trees on the skin of the roots, hundreds of feet in the air. Those same trees would be massive on the ground. Unfortunately, there is no way to climb the canopies, but I can only hope that, one day, the Homins (the races of the game) will be able to venture to the top of the very highest roots.

Prime Roots screenshot

The prime roots are essentially the underground area of Atys. A friend of mine once described the area and its inhabitants as being akin to the biome of an underwater cavern, and I agree. Most of the creatures you find there have lost their sight or their color, and there are plants that provide their own light through phosphorescence. It's an amazing -- yet very dangerous -- area, well worth a trip even if the player doesn't intend on doing more than snapping screenshots.

Ryzom screenshot

In-game weather systems continue to be as rare. For some reason, developers do not seem to value them. In Ryzom, players will witness the four standard seasons. Each season brings not only actual changes to weather patterns but changes in the way the landscape looks. Leaves fall, snow covers the ground, and eventually, storms produce beautiful, flowering plants.

On tops of that, the weather affects how and when a player might gather certain materials. Some materials are available only during certain times of the year or during certain weather events. The weather even affects the massive mobs of animals that players see covering the landscape. Those mobs will actually migrate or change habits during certain times of the year.

Ryzom mob screenshot

I cannot emphasize the mob behavior in Ryzom enough. It's important because it not only represents an emphasis on immersive gameplay but does what so many other developers have promised (and yet not delivered) by making mobs and NPCs more than boring creatures that do nothing. There are many NPCs that sit in one spot, of course, like merchants, but their stillness is needed for trade. The fact that a player can witness lines of soldiers marching over a hill or a line of herbivores being attacked by a predator (thanks to predator and prey behavior) is more than most modern MMOs have ever done. This mob behavior allows players to learn when and where a mob might appear or which aggressive hunter might be around the corner.

Ryzom Zorai screenshot

There are four playable races in Ryzom. First, we have the Zorai. They are tall, mysterious, and magical. They also come equipped with masks that are stuck to their faces, giving them a mystical look. Next, there are the Fyros, the hardy warrior-people who thrive in the desert. Then you have the Matis, the closest thing to a noble elf that Ryzom offers. They can usually be found in the forest and have buildings that are crafted from the wild stuff that grows around them. Lastly come the Trykers, an adorable race of smaller individuals who live on the water and have a knack for gadgets.

Each race could fit into a standard fantasy game, but taken as a group, they feel completely unique. The game's armor and weapons are all crafted from goods that come from the planet, meaning much of it looks organic or natural. This emphasis on items that look as thought they might have been crafted by a lonely island survivalist give the game an even more original spin.

When you blend all of Ryzom's unique elements together with wonderful yet mysterious lore and characters, you'll find a world that has never been seen before. It can be shocking to step out of Atys and into a standard fantasy world simply because we see so much typical fantasy as it is. I'm always curious why developers are so willing to use the same old character and monster designs that we've seen for the last several decades, and I wonder which came first: the genre that outlines these designs or the willingness to repeat these designs ad nauseam?

Either way, Ryzom stands alone as a unique setting. It's just a shame that given the game's spotty sales, I know originality just doesn't pay as well as copying a mass-market IP.

This is my last column with Massively. I've had an incredible time with the site over the last four years, but I'm off to do some different kinds of freelancing within the gaming space! You can find me on Twitter or on my personal site if you'd like to stay in contact. I'd like to thank my loyal readers who made these years so much fun, and also my editors (especially Bree!), who taught me more than I ever thought I needed to know!

Every Saturday, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, mobile, classic, 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!