There was one phrase I'd always heard used to describe Atlantica Online: "free-to-play turn-based MMORPG".
And that always made me think "what the hell??" How can an MMORPG, which by definition, you would think involved a bunch of people doing a bunch of stuff all at the same time, be turn-based? Well, I finally got around to having a play with it, and now I know the compromises involved. But the end result is a game which definitely has some charm, and, importantly to me, passes the test of being genuinely different to the other MMORPGs I have played.
First of all, in an element reminiscent of non-MMO CRPGs, in Atlantica, you control your "main" character, and a team of "mercenaries". Apparently at endgame you can have eight mercenaries, but it builds up gradually - my level 34 character is allowed to have six. Selecting an effective combination of classes for your team is a big part of the game - the options to customize individual members are not that extensive, but picking a good "formation" with a good combination of offence and defence and healing is key. Looking at the website, there are 23 different classes of mercenary (many of them have a level requirement and require a quest to unlock, I believe), so obviously the number of possible combinations is absolutely enormous.
Combat may be turn-based, but this is certainly not a game where you can plan your strategy in a leisurely fashion. You have 30 seconds to take your turn, and can move up to five characters in that time, so while we're not talking Starcraft levels of clicks-per-minute, you need to be fairly sharpish with your decision-making, and should probably adopt the attitude that a suboptimal move is better than no move at all because you ran out of time.
The complexity curve of combat starts off quite gently. As I said, the number of mercenaries you control grows as you gain levels, and also, each individual mercenary will not have a lot of moves available - initially, it's "attack" or "use magic" (although later, some mercenaries will have up to three different magic spells rather than just one). "Attack" varies by type: some mercs, like a Swordsman, make a single-target attack on an enemy in the front row. An Archer, however, can target any enemy, even if they're standing behind someone else. And then some hit multiple targets - a Spearman hits a target, and whoever is standing behind him. A Viking hits a target and anyone standing directly next to him. So you want to pick the appropriate target to maximize the number of enemies hit by these multi-target attacks.
Plus, you want to arrange your own formation so your softer characters are standing behind more robust melee types. This is especially true for your main character - if they die, it's a wipe, no matter how many of your mercs are still standing. So you'll seldom want to put them anywhere near the frontline.
Magic effects include more powerful attacks (like a Swordsman's "Flame Sword"), crowd control (like a Viking's "Frozen Axe", which freezes up to three enemies and renders them unable to act for a couple of turns, or an Archer's "Silence", which prevents its targets from using magic themselves for a couple of turns), healing (always vital of course!), buffs, etc. Spells have cooldowns which prevent you from using them every turn, as well as consuming mana from a traditional blue mana bar, so you'll want to pick the right moment to cut loose with them, especially in PvP.
As you get a larger party, you run into the "no more than five characters can act per turn" limitation. Now you have to consider which mercs you want to use each turn, as well as what you want to do with them. Sometimes the choice is easy (no point using your healer to do a weak magical attack if nobody needs healing), sometimes not so much, as you really really want to use everyone.
But anyway, how do all of these thirty second turns fit into a persistent multi-player world? Well, that's where it gets a bit dodgy. When you're out and about in the world of Atlantica, you'll see other players running hither and thither, and wandering mobs shuffling about, much like every other MMO. It's just a single human figure, though, representing each player, even though it's really a group of up to nine. And a single monster figure represents a group of monsters, generally three to six or thereabouts in my experience. And, when a player engages a monster, both figures just stand there with a little sword icons over them to indicate that they're fighting. If you stood nearby, you'd see the monster keel over dead a few minutes later (actually, I think you can right-click on the mob and choose to observe the battle, haven't done that myself though). Additionally, I haven't seen any aggressive hostile monsters yet - they all just wander around and wait for you to attack them. At first I thought this might be because I was low-level (given that many MMOs don't make you deal with aggressive enemies at first), but I'm 34 now and no sign of any change!
This adds up to a somewhat less than immersive world. It feels very game-y, moving from zone to zone, ignoring the hordes of monsters that you're not interested in fighting, and then activating the turn-based combat against those that you do want to kill.
Still to come: my thoughts on how Atlantica approaches some other standard MMO tropes, also its PvP, and the deal with the interaction between free-to-play and the item mall.
Next post in this series: More on Atlantica Online