Astellia Impressions

Astellia isn’t a game that’s really been on my radar, but the Massively OP staff were given a number of keys to the beta, and I’m always up try a new MMO, so I decided to check it out.

At least Astellia is prettyI won’t say it’s as bad, but Astellia reminds me of Trinium Wars in that it feels less like a real game and more like a parody of bad MMO tropes.

To start with, the tutorial is about 90% cutscenes and 10% gameplay, or at least it feels that way. I admire that the developers actually wanted to make story a priority, but they’ve mistaken more story for better story.

There’s not really an effort to explain the setting to you, to develop any characters, or to give you any reason to become invested. There’s very little context for anything. Instead you’re just bombarded by an onslaught of corny dialogue and ridiculous fantasy names — and this is coming from a guy who willingly and happily reads a series where the name “Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor” is a central part of the story.

As far as gameplay goes, the main selling feature of Astellia — and the source of its name — are the Astels, fey spirits you can collect and then summon to aid you in combat. Very much shades of Pokemon here.

Looking over the journal of potential Astels you can get, it seems there are more options later on, but the Astels available to me at the start were all in the form of seven year old girls. It’s exactly as creepy as it sounds.

My archer and her Astels in AstelliaAlso, one of them has a giant cup of tea on her head, and her abilities centered around buffing allies with “soothing tea” mid-combat. I acquired her whilst an army of demons burned my character’s home village, presumably murdering everyone she ever cared about, and the tonal dissonance was so whiplash-inducing my immersion never really recovered.

It’s also probably worth noting that the Astels didn’t really seem to do much. Maybe they feel more impactful when you’re in more challenging content and/or have leveled them up more, but in the time I played it felt like I could have ignored them entirely and nothing really would have changed. Not a good sign considering this feature is the Astellia’s chief claim to fame.

The graphics are pretty, but not so pretty as to make the game really stand out. The bar is pretty high these days, and Astellia isn’t going to compete with the likes of Black Desert, especially since there isn’t a lot of personality to its art style. I will say some of the character and mob design is pretty cool, at least.

Combat in Astellia is your standard tab target affair, complete with mobs that drop dead after a few hits and don’t seem to require any tactics to defeat. There’s an active dodge mechanic, but I didn’t encounter anything that actually needed to be dodged while I was playing.

Female armour is alive and well in Astellia

This is reasonable attire for an adventurer to wear into battle.

What surprises me more than anything, though, is how bad the animations are. None of my abilities had any kind of flair to their visual or audio effects, and it felt like they had no impact at all.

If there’s one thing you can usually count on Eastern games to deliver, it’s great combat animations, but in Astellia — at least as an archer — they were at best on par with those you’d see in a ten year old Western WoW clone.

This, at least, could be attributed to beta jankiness. This was a true beta test, not a soft launch, so there’s still time for combat to improved. A lot of the game’s other problems feel pretty deeply ingrained, though.

The worst thing is that without Astellia’s glaring flaws — its overbearing attempts at story-telling, the vague whiffs of child exploitation, and the like — it wouldn’t be memorable for anything at all. There’s really nothing about it that’s unique or interesting — it plays like it was built using a checklist of generic fantasy MMO tropes.

The classes, for instance, are as generic as they come. Warrior, assassin, archer… There’s not even an attempt at originality.

While it seems a bit arbitrary to me, the trend seems to be to compare Astellia to Bless Online, and for my money, Bless is a much better game. Bless had better graphics, a better story, better classes, and better combat.

My archer in AstelliaI’d still tentatively recommend checking out Astellia if/when it becomes free to play, but only as an exercise in kitschy silliness. This is definitely not a game I see as worth playing seriously. It’s all the ridiculousness and creep factor of TERA minus the good combat, which was about the only thing TERA did right.

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SWTOR: Catching Up

The Jedi Under Siege Update has brought me back to SWTOR for another brief visit. I know, I’m a bit behind the curve. Things kept coming up. I played through the new story initially on my agent, but the return of Nadia Grell made this a perfect opportunity to finally bring my Jedi consular up to date, and that’s where the real story is, so let’s talk about that.

The Jedi and Sith do battle on Ossus in Star Wars: The Old RepublicThis will contain spoilers for all of the story to date, including Jedi Under Siege.

The downward slide:

When I’d left off, my Jedi had been about halfway through Knights of the Fallen Empire. Getting him caught up meant finishing off that expansion, Eternal Throne, and the subsequent patches.

I’d forgotten how good Eternal Throne was. Fallen Empire is good, but Eternal Throne is close to the best the game has ever been, rivaling and in some ways exceeding the best of the original class stories.

It’s a shame they couldn’t keep up that momentum.

I didn’t really notice so much at the time with months of time in between each update, but when you play through it all in one go, the drop-off in quality after Eternal Throne is stark. The War for Iokath is entirely forgettable, and the Traitor arc had some interesting ideas but is far too rushed to properly flesh any of them out.

This is a bit of a tangent, but can we also take this moment to acknowledge the fact that the Republic is the evil faction now?

My consular, Senya Tirall, and Arcann in Star Wars: The Old RepublicSeriously, the Republic’s been showing a shady side since Shadow of Revan (and arguably earlier depending on what story arcs you’ve played), but as of Eternal Throne onwards, they’re just the bad guys. The Empire has proven itself the more honourable faction time and again.

While the Republic was plotting a power grab to twist the Odessen Alliance to its own ends, Empress Acina was bargaining in good faith. While the Sith were fighting and dying to save Voss and ultimately liberate the galaxy, the Jedi were planting potatoes on Ossus and washing their hands of all responsibility. The Republic were the ones to fire the first shots on Iokath. The coming war is their fault.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, the Imperial loyalist in me isn’t going to complain about this smear on my enemies. On the other, I wanted the factions to be more gray, not for which is black and which is white to flip. I mean, I’m not saying the Empire doesn’t still have a very pronounced dark side (no pun intended), but they are clearly and decisively the better faction now.

When it came time to choose sides on my Jedi, I only picked Republic out of a desire for completionism. I really wanted to go Empire, and not just because of my personal preference. It’s objectively the right choice. Siding with the Republic after Eternal Throne means betraying a loyal ally (Acina) for people who spent the last five years abandoning and backstabbing you.

And that brings us to the latest story.

To Ossus:

The battle over Ossus in Star Wars: The Old RepublicThe trouble with Ossus is that it’s clearly the first part of a new story arc, and therefore hard to judge in isolation. When viewed as part of the larger whole, it might take on a new light. With that in mind, I try not to be too harsh, but right now I’m not exactly thrilled.

Obviously the headline here is that the war between the Empire and Republic is taking centre stage again. I don’t have the knee-jerk negative reaction to this faction conflict that I do to the endlessly tedious Alliance/Horde war in WoW, but it’s not something that thrills me, either.

The trouble with any story like this is that, as I have said before, neither side can ever really win or lose. The structure of the game prevents it. So it’s a conflict that has no real drama.

It worked in the base game because the faction war was just a backdrop for our class stories. We each had our individual stories to give us personal motivation, whether it be unmasking the Children of the Emperor or fighting to earn a place on the Dark Council. We need a similar hook or twist now to make things interesting, and while that might be coming later, Ossus doesn’t provide that. It feels like a side quest at best.

I’m also concerned that this may be too much an attempt to reset the story. I’m okay with taking the focus away from Zakuul and back to the base factions, but we can’t totally ignore recent events. Lana, Theron, the Alliance, and the war with Zakuul have all been too much a part of the game for too long to be swept under the rug. I really hope that’s not how this is going to play out.

My consular alongside fellow Jedi on Ossus in Star Wars: The Old RepublicOn a related note, what I find perhaps most concerning about Ossus is that it’s introducing so many new characters. That might not seem like a big issue, but one of SWTOR’s biggest problems is that it has an overly bloated cast and nowhere near the resources to give all the characters their due. And now they want to add even more characters to juggle?

Why?

It just shows really poor judgment on the part of the developers. And doubly so when you consider that so far none of the new characters are at all memorable or interesting. I’ve already forgotten most of their names.

Ossus is not entirely a write-off. When it’s not wasting time with faceless newbies I have no reason to care about, it does reintroduce some very beloved characters, though even with them there are stumbles.

Firstly, as trumpeted from the rooftops by Bioware for some reason, Darth Malgus is back. This frankly reeks of a marketing ploy. It comes totally out of the blue with no good explanation of how he survived, and the whole thing feels pretty silly.

That being said, Malgus is still one of the best characters in the game. Like Lana, he’s an excellent example of how to make Sith interesting, nuanced characters rather than mindless brutes. He’s as ruthless as you’d expect a Sith lord to be, but he also obviously cares deeply for the welfare of the Empire, and he’s thoughtful and pragmatic. I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t able to take his side in False Emperor, and he’s a character I’m happy to once more follow into battle.

Darth Malgus returns to conquer Ossus in Star Wars: The Old RepublicSo no matter how poorly handled his return might be, it’s still probably a net win for the game.

On the other side of things, we finally have Nadia back. That was, after all, the whole point of bringing my Jedi up to speed. He and his wife are reunited.

This also was not handled well. Of all the companions in the game, Nadia’s probably the one who was most well-equipped to track down the player when they went missing. She’s Force-bonded to you, she’s exceptionally strong in the Force, and she commands a sizable army. Her letter in Fallen Empire talks about how she’s on the warpath to get you back, and she has everything she needs to achieve that goal.

Ossus 100% ignores all of this. The Rift Alliance has apparently vanished into the aether (it’s not even mentioned), and it appears that Nadia gave up on finding you almost immediately and just buggered off to Ossus to farm with the rest of Jedi.

If you romance her, that’s also mostly ignored but for a few lines that could be interpreted as vaguely romantic if you squint and tilt your head. I was wondering if I was bugged and the game wasn’t recognizing the romance tag or something. Only at the very end do you get a very brief patch of dialogue in which you can choose to reaffirm your relationship.

All that being said, there is still a fair bit of Nadia in this patch, and Nadia is still an absolute and utter delight. I particularly enjoyed her effusive delight over what the Alliance had accomplished, and her truly inspiring vision for peace after the war.

My consular reunited with his wife, Nadia Grell, in Star Wars: The Old RepublicMan, we all need a Nadia or two in our lives.

It’s a long way from everything I wanted, but it’s good to have her back all the same.

* * *

So it’s not all bad news, but I can’t say I’m feeling very good about the state of SWTOR right now. I really hope that once Anthem launches and more resources are freed up things will improve.