In a post-World of Warcraft world, the massively multiplayer genre has become an oversubscribed one. With a variety of both paid and free-to-play alternatives available for fans of the genre, something special is required for a game in the genre to bring itself above the torrent of competition. In the case of Rusty Hearts, the methods of attempted differentiation are an attempt at story-based gameplay and a fairly unique crossed Gothic and steampunk aesthetic. Unfortunately, these supposed innovations fall fairly flat in the light of a poor execution of story-driven gameplay, generic combat and completely uninspired quests.
The vapid, lifeless attempt at the provision of a story can almost immediately be seen for just that: following the creation of an account and a character, the player is flung into a Prologue section introducing the characters and general setting. While nothing may sound particularly upsetting about such a design choice, after all, this is a decision taken by virtually every story-driven game (what is narrative without a little context about the world events are set in?), but the issues lie in its implementation: whether it was merely a bug with my installation, it was impossible for me with three different characters to complete the Prologue. A certain point would be reached, and then the game would cut to the game’s town in front of a woman whose sole purpose seems to be the giving of quests to the player. From this introduction, it is fairly difficult to care even the smallest amount about a story one lacks the necessary introduction to. The game’s core feature of product differentiation fell down at the first hurdle.
Even in front of quest-woman, the game disappoints once again after the first half an hour: the illusion of a complete, in-depth game with a variety of different gameplay is shattered by the fact that upon the completion of a level in a dungeon, as a quest, will often result in a second question to complete that level at a higher difficulty level under some pretence of obtaining some object that is only available in the same space due to the enemies present being more numerous and more hardy. It is a key feature of the genre that this sort of environment reuse is key for the necessary grinding to obtain higher levels to be able to take place, but it rarely done is so brazen a manner as here: “yes, you may well have completed this region before, but later quests will require you to have better equipment and be of a higher level for them to be at all doable – we’re doing this for your own good.” As well as taking the element of player choice out how the grinding is to be done, and artificially making it part of the “story”, it is insulting to the intelligence of MMO players: people will come into this game knowing what it is, and knowing to expect and actively seek out this sort of repetition. It is akin to pulling out a tooth and then being told to reinsert it in order to pull it out in a more painful manner because you didn’t quite pull all of the root the first time around: all of the “secret” rooms and enemies that are involved in these further quests are present in the first run-through but are somehow artificially placed off limits by the game. It is merely a cheap strategy by the developers to gain more playtime out of people attracted by its low price point of “free.”
The gameplay itself is also a little disappointing. Again, the game seeks to set itself apart from other MMOs on the market: the combat is not about free-movement in large-scale battles, but rather about Streets of Rage-esque screen-by-screen screen-clearing sections which, upon completion, then enable the player to move onto the next combat section. This approach is somewhat questionable for a game like this, particularly in the 3D setting: given that there can be long gaps between the individual instances of combat means that there is always sufficient time for the player to heal and thus any sense of real trepidation and real strategy in item use go out of the window, as well as completely destroying any sense of pacing in favour of a stop-start approach which would only appeal to the most ADHD-addled of videogame players.
The combat is employed as in virtually any MMORPG: X, C and V control physical attacks with weapons, with the row of keys above controlling various magic. While generic, the approach is competent and will be familiar to anyone who has played any similar game. The way in which the player performs in combat is assessed on an F to SSS scale with the ranking determining an amount of bonus experience at the end of any dungeon floor: a potentially interesting mechanic ruined by the fact that it favours physical attack combos thus serving to punish the use of magical abilities. Stripping away more than half of the combat options in order to incorporate this shoehorned mechanic seems a little excessive, without adding any real depth to the game, with it being fairly simple to attain A ranks and above.
The inventory system is clumsy, but this is something merely symptomatic of a deeper problem of the genre: there is such a focus with constant rotation of items with marginally better statistics that there is never going to be an effective way to handle this short of allowing the player to carry an infinite number of items, which would itself break any sort of realism in the handling how players carry items. The Rusty Hearts method of dealing with this is quite elegant though, comparatively: there is both a weight limit and a numerical limit on how many items can be carried, which, while annoying in the short term, is a sensible way to handle the problem.
Rusty Hearts is somewhat of a mess: gameplay stutters along through the most half-arsed of quest narrative, but does so with a certain level of style with its pseudo-cel shaded environments and player characters. Style over substance, however, does not lead to a compelling gameplay experience, but rather an empty interactive screensaver, void of any real content.