Pocket EverQuest Review
You've probably heard of EverQuest, the epic game that’s taken on almost legendary proportions in the gaming scene. It's one of those games that inspire such fanaticism that you have to question the sanity of some of the hardcore players. Like some of the more obsessive players of pen-and-paper based RPGs (Do people still play those?), fervent EverQuest players sometimes let elements of the game spill over into reality, and in-game elements become commodities which are bought and sold in real life (I’m not talking about t-shirts, hats, and mugs—people are actually paying substantial amounts of REAL MONEY for items THAT ARE JUST PARTS OF A GAME and DON’T ACTUALLY EXIST. I hear there’s some sort of game in Asia similar to EverQuest, only it has far more players, some of which form roving gangs in real life. I fear what would happen if this game ever came to the U.S.)
I haven't played the game and don't plan to (I'm not crazy about the concept behind it), so I wasn't sure what to think when Sony released a scaled-down version of the game for Pocket PCs.
Pocket EverQuest, thankfully, isn't a massively multiplayer romp where the online alter egos of thousands of sixteen-year-olds travel through dungeons and hack each other to pieces in an obsessive free-for-all. PEQ is really a fairly well designed Diablo clone with an isometric point of view and a series of quests. The game sticks to the simple hack-and-slash formula of the latter, and thanks to good design and implementation, pulls it off pretty well.
PEQ was clearly designed for the pick-up-and-play paradigm of Pocket PCs. After the game loads (there's no opening movie) you're taken to a screen where you either select a previous character or create a new one (you can have up to four active characters). When creating a character, you'll choose from one of four characters (druid, magician, warrior, wizard), all of which have the usual strengths and weaknesses and use magic and brute force to varying degrees. After you create a character for the first time, you're plopped down in the city of Freeport, and your quest begins.
Game play consists of the two main staples of action-based RPGs: killing monsters to complete quests and watching your character advance levels. Not that it matters much (at least the developers don’t seem to think so), but you’re in the world of Norrath, which is located on the East Coast of some fantasy world. Most of the quests are of the "Area X is full of monsters. We need your help to clear it out" variety, and they, along with the people offering them, aren't hard to find. Some of these involve mundane messenger duties, i.e., performing a task so you can get a key allowing you to finish another task. The game's interface makes it all pretty easy--just tap where you want to go, and your character will go there. On the bottom of the screen, a console tells you everything you need to know--health and mana (used to cast spells) are displayed in color-coded bars. On the bottom left side are four hotspots, which give you quick success to spells and potions. Fortunately, there is an excellent auto map feature that will prevent you from getting lost so you can keep focused on the job at hand. Since the game draws only parts of the map you've visited, it's easy to determine if you've missed any areas on a particular map. Equipping spells and items is a matter of tapping and dragging. To view signs or talk to characters, simply approach them and an icon will appear above them.
Combat is a mixed bag and will disappoint those who enjoy infusing a little strategy into their mindless killing. Combat can start in one of two ways--you can initiate it by tapping the attack icon and selecting a target, or you can simply be attacked. Combat itself is primarily an automatic affair, with the computer controlling both player and opponents. Magic users seem to
have an advantage here--although they're physically weaker and have lesser weapons, you can manually cast spells while they're hacking away at their enemies. Spells can get quite powerful as your character advances. Character advancement is one of the most satisfying aspects of an RPG, and it’s handled pretty well here: a status bar in the character screen shows what level you are and how far you have to go to the next level. If your character can cast magic, you’ll be able to distribute bonus points to certain spells. The missions themselves seem balanced--you'll find plenty of outdoor areas as well as dungeons, and the monsters you encounter are varied enough to keep the game challenging for your developing player and numerous enough to keep the game from being too predictable.
The graphics are pretty good, but there are some tradeoffs. The game is tile-based, meaning that it is drawn in sections at a time. Although everything in the game is nicely drawn, you can see the world being drawn as you walk through it, which makes it a little hard to suspend disbelief. Also, since the maps are also loaded in sections, you'll know you're at the end of a map when you reach an edge with nothing but blackness beyond (this is visually not very appealing, but can be helpful when you're fleeing enemies, since they won’t follow you over onto the next map!) The game is also a little sluggish, although it was consistent in its slowness. One thing I noticed is that there is a brief pause when tapping on a destination point for your character. I wish it was possible to control your character through the d-pad rather than playing the tap-tap-tap or tap-and-drag game. As it is, the d-pad is used to pan through the immediate area surrounding the player, which comes in handy for scoping out the nearby terrain. It would be nice if the controls were somewhat configurable.
Sound is the obligatory hack-slash-grunt variety, although the incessant clomp-clomp noises used to represent walking, typical in many RPGs, are thankfully absent in the game. There's some terrific "We're embarking on a grand adventure" music in the game's intro screen that I wish we could hear more of in the game itself. Wouldn't it be nice to hear an ominous tension builder when approaching an enemy? Or a triumphant little ditty after slaying an enemy?
One challenge for handheld games, especially ones that can take dozens of hours to complete, is accessibility. In other words, the game needs to be easy to dive into at a moment’s notice (i.e., during a lunch break or a commute). Fortunately, PEQ excels in this department. There’s not a whole lot of plot in the game—just enough to keep it from being a mindless romp. There’s no
mythology to be learned, nor are there lots of people you need to keep track of; note taking isn’t necessary. The game has a tongue-in-cheek undertone and an almost homemade feel--characters are dressed in outlandish clothing, and they either give you quests in straightforward terms or blabber nonsense. If you need to find out your current quest, you can bring up a summary in the appropriate section of the console. The game is automatically saved when you exit (via a Windows XP-like close button in the top-right corner of the screen). To reload, simply tap on your character after reloading the game. When you die (and you’ll die quite a bit, believe me), you’re whisked away to a nearby area, sans some of your money. Allowing your character to heal is also handled efficiently—hit points and mana restore automatically; there’s no need to find a place to rest or rely on healing potions, although they’re available and can be a lifesaver in combat. Fortunately, the rate at which these two items restore increases as you wait, ensuring that you won’t waste battery life waiting for your high-level character to get back into shape after a near-fatal battle.
The game’s quirks are fairly limited. I’ve had a few lockups on my Pocket LOOX, sometimes during level loading. The level loads themselves are thankfully very fast, even when played from a microdrive. Aside from the performance issues, the engine isn’t quite perfect—sometimes my character would just stand there like an idiot when being attacked, and other times, I would follow a wandering monster to another screen only to find that it had vanished without a trace. Tapping on the pop-up icons can also be frustrating—sometimes tapping on one just makes your character walk over to the place you tap on the screen.
Pocket EverQuest is a well-designed game that looks good and plays well. Those looking for a story-based RPG will find it lacking, but its jump-right-in design elements will make it a hit with many action-oriented gamers, which are its target audience. Like Diablo, it favors those who like playing a game obsessively for a few days and moving on to something else—I’ve already heard stories of people finishing it in 22 hours. I imagine many gamers will find it like a piece of candy—short, sweet, and not quite satisfying. Still, those of us who like our virtual killing escapades to be as hassle-free as possible will likely gobble up Pocket EverQuest until we kill the last monster, eagerly tuned in for episodes two and three (the Pocket EverQuest Web site seems to suggest that additional episodes are in the works). A-
Allen Gall is a freelance game reviewer and the games editor for CEWindows.NET. If you have a game you'd like Allen to review, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org