Monday, December 18, 2017

RPG Talk: Dungeon Fighter Online

In which I talk (write) about RPGs from a storytelling perspective...

Platform: PC (standalone and on Steam)
Release: 2010 (original) and 2015 (global relaunch)

I debated whether or not to write an RPG Talk for this one, because the game is rather story lite in that the plot mainly serves as an excuse to move the player from one setting to another as they brawl their way through the fantasy world of Arad. But that said, Dungeon Fighter Online does some interesting things that I think are worth talking about, some of which requires real world context.

I don't remember when I made my first DFO account, but it was during the original Nexon release, and while I had fun, I eventually put down the game and was a little sad to hear in 2013 that the North American servers were shutting down. Because I had played during this period, I was aware of what is now known as the pre-Metastasis world. I'd adventured in it.

When DFO returned in 2015 as a worldwide edition under the umbrella of its original Korean developers, Arad had gone through a massive event called the Great Metastasis that upended the world. On a whim, I logged in on my new account in 2017 expecting to relive my glory days in Grand Flores only to discover that the newbie forest had burned down!

I'm not sure if the overhaul was a reboot intended for the relaunch, or something that happened in the Korean original (like how World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion transformed old Azeroth), but it was definitely a surprise and if tied specifically to the relaunch, then there was no better way to do it.

Though an online game, DFO is closer to being a side scrolling Diablo series in execution. Barring a few instances, gameplay can be done completely solo (though there are shared town instances so players will see each other while in shared areas).

The new storyline has the player character going through Arad after the Great Metastasis, which has torn the world so badly that the formerly subterranean city of Underfoot is now on the surface, serving as the main player hub, and the Sky Tower which connected Arad with the land of Empyrean has been destroyed.

Following the Metastasis, a malevolent force called the Black Nightmare has infected Arad. Its tendrils reach everywhere, making elemental spirits go mad, bringing the dead back to life. It's much the usual fantasy world bad mojo and the player character gets roped into helping various people investigate it.

There apparently were four great heroes who faced off with one of the Apostles (incredibly powerful and not necessarily evil entities) and gained fame because of it. The timeline's a bit fuzzy, but this seems to have happened before Metastasis since it's clear a fair bit of time has passed for them and the Metastasis itself may have been about ten years before the game starts, and it wasn't just a physical remaking of the world. Reality itself changed, so some characters who were previously enemies in the original timeline could be allies in the current one, and the interesting thing is we get to visit the original timeline at a few points.

Much like Diablo III, each character class gets a class-based introductory sequence that explains who they are and how they came to the starting point of the game. For classes with different genders, they will have two entirely different sequences depending on whether the character is male or female. (This carries over to gameplay as well, as characters of different genders will play a little differently even if they're the same base class.) In some cases, the character's past will come up during the story, though never to the point where it interferes with the plot. For instance, the demonic lancer was once a famous gladiatorial slave in the imperial arena and when he meets Vaughn, an imperial knight, he hopes that Vaughn doesn't recognize him. It has no relevance to the main story, but it's a nice touch.

Beyond the occasional class-based nod, the player character dialogue appears to be similar across classes, though as of this writing I've only spent a significant amount of time with the male mage and the demonic lancer (the latter of which is currently a male only option, but might open up to a female variant later as most of the older classes were single gender at the start and eventually got male/female variants). The result is occasionally odd as the same dialogue doesn't always feel appropriate depending on which class the player is playing.

Compounding that, the Korean to English translation was clearly not done by a native English speaker, and the translation quality varies wildly. A game like this is large enough that there were probably multiple translators. The result feels like a fantasy adventure written by a kid. It's been spellchecked, but sometimes the wording is a little strange and the dialogue feels like it fell out of a cartoon. (For instance, while writing this, I found this gem from an enemy: "Sonic waves never miss! Dang!") Quests are typically workmanlike, go here and do that, and when there is an attempt at humor, it feels forced. The cinematic subtitles are actually worse than the rest of the game and have that "Engrish" feel of older Japanese to English game translations.

I'm not sure if DFO reads this clunky in Korean, it's not a deep story to begin with, but I feel like some opportunities were lost.

For instance, there are two clearly sad moments in the main story. The first is when Iris is revealed as a traitor. She begins helping the player early on in the first third of the story, and by the final third, we learn that she was an instrumental part in causing the Great Metastasis. In fact, she's been manipulating the player since they'd met.

Her betrayal is played for tragedy, because it was out of her control, but even with the requisite soft piano music, it wasn't enough to feel like it really meant something. Clearly it was supposed to be, but I just didn't feel it.

The other moment has to deal with Vaughn, who is probably the most complicated character in the story. Vaughn is one of the heroes who defeated Sirocco, but he's flighty, gives his men a hard time, and is constantly talking about his wife, Emily. He also clearly has an agenda as we discover he was involved with the Metastasis experiment that caused the tragedy (not to mention whatever the hell it was he grabbed off the last boss in that final cinematic).

Emily never appears in the game, but Vaughn uses her as an excuse to go disappear an awful lot, or talks about how he wants to be with her. It turns out that Emily dies during the storyline while Vaughn is helping the land of Empyrean get under control again. There is no indication at the moment it happens, because Vaughn behaves completely normally (doing the usual gushing about how he's going to see her and it'll be so sweet). The player finds out much later, in the final leg of the game, that Emily passed away.

The fact that Vaughn hid that should have revealed something about his character, but he more or less says that he didn't want his men to worry. While that is a reason, it didn't feel like an honest one, because we never see him interact with any of his soldiers aside from Hartz, who takes just about everything in stride.

Eventually the player tracks down the origin of the Black Nightmare to the Apostle Luke (I'm not sure if he was named after the Luke in the Bible because 11 of the 13 Apostles do not have Biblical names) and it's funny how fighting the Nightmare is everything to the people of Arad, and yet it's merely a means to an end for Luke. Luke, ironically, had a vision that foretold of his death, and he's been using the Black Nightmare to collect energy so he can strengthen himself and survive. But in doing so, he brought about his own end.

This isn't lost on the other Apostles who help bring him down.

The Apostles are interesting, because they're not a united front. They come from different realities and eventually arrived in the land of Pandemonium. They are not able to kill each other, and there seems to be some sort of mechanic that forces them to acknowledge those of a similar power. But they don't have to like each other and may scheme to have another killed by the hands of mortals. Though the storyline currently ends with Luke's death, it's implied that Hilder, who was the one behind Iris, has plans that can now be enacted due to Luke's death.

The world of Dungeon Fighter Online is an interesting mash-up of genres, which helps since the gameplay largely consists of punching through dungeons upon dungeons of enemies. Though Arad is more or less medieval fantasy, the land of Empyrean is an Asian-influenced future with energy plants, robots, and a train that cuts across the ocean. Yes, DFO has the usual goblins and minotaurs (called "taus" in this world), and various demonic threats, but the player also faces pirate crocodiles, biker gangs, and robot insects. It's an everything and the kitchen sink approach, but it oddly works as the enemies are themed to where they appear and though biker gangs aren't appropriate to medieval fantasy, they work well enough in the more modern Empyrean.

Arad is a little unusual though, using a dark elf city for its main hub, and the human empire on Arad is oddly unnamed for most of the story. When I finally found it, it turned out to be cultural mishmash with De Los Empire being led by Emperor Leon Heinrich (not to mention that "De Los Empire" sounds like it was named by someone who knew what Spanish looked like, but not what it meant). And though the empire is typically portrayed as the evil empire, it has redeeming qualities in the individuals who represent it, showing that it's not the monolith it appears to be.

From my understanding, the current storyline is at its end, and there has already been a soft reboot of the world on the Korean servers. It will probably remain playable for a few months, maybe even half a year or more, on the global servers, and it's not bad. If you're looking for a RPG brawler, it's enough to keep you entertained.