Though recent months have seen a flood of traditional MMORPGs inside the Facebook canvas, a true role-playing game has yet to break through. Social RPGs such as Frontierville, Ravenwood Fair and the like do include an avatar but the progression, stats, and choices that define an RPG are attached to the simulation not the character. Playdom’s upcoming Deep Realms looks to be the first to meet the textbook definition with the quality needed to succeed.
Described by Raph Koster and Alex Ou as having a “somewhat normal ‘something bad has happened in the world and it’s partly your fault and you just don’t know it…’” storyline, the title follows many standard jRPG tropes: it is isometric; exploration is tile based (visibly so); there is a collection system to create better items than can be purchased; areas are both replayable and scale; and there is character progression. The list goes on.
Character progression is achieved through five classes – warrior, thief, ranger, sorcerer, and priest – their attendant skill trees, and unique items. Players are not locked into decisions; re-specialization is available. And after level 37 multi-classing comes into play.
Of special note is the elixir system. Along the skill tree is a class-specific bonus that appears as an elixir beginning with a 5% bonus. It is a permanent bonus to the player (I played a thief and received a bonus to my dodge ranged attacks skill). These same elixirs can be sent to friends who then receive the same bonus for 25 hours. If said friends receive one of elixir from all five classes, the effect is increased. Elixirs are not only particularly functional, but they also serve as a positive social incentive.
Unique among Facebook titles today, Deep Realms is built on a height map. Rather than build the world with an overabundance of obstacles to force the player to take the path “suggested,” the angle of inclination/declination is just made impassable. It also makes the world rather pleasing to look at.
With a complete inventory system, crafting/collecting system, store, allies (friends), maps, and personal statistics, the UI could quickly become cluttered. But this has been solved by placing most information inside only a few panels including a personal information view reminiscent of a collectable trading card.
The social aspect of Deep Realms is particularly important as the player’s allies serve a critical function beyond gifting both useful items and daily elixirs. Due to the exceptionally high health of boss monsters, allies are critical not just to winning, but to winning in a reasonable amount of time.
As a player explores each tile on a landmass, that tile becomes “used” or no longer explorable until the player reaches a certain level and the game begins to scale. Boss fights are the exception. Fought in rounds of seven attacks, if the boss isn’t defeated it retreats a few squares away. Energy is needed to activate each tile but in this case the tiles reset. What’s more, a third vital – courage – determines just how often you can fight the boss. Run out of courage and you will have to wait for it to recharge (or pay a fee for a potion).
This is where allies come into play. Through asking for help or via visual cues when a player logs on, allies are made aware of friends in need. Allies can aid in the attack of a boss by simply joining the fray. The attacks may be made concurrently or not, but if allies are fighting during the same round they can send messages to one another. Once the fray is completed the loot will even be split according to damage.
A final component is the arena. Intended as a player-versus-player option, it contains up to six opponents: two from three increasing levels of experience (determined by successive wins which give bonuses thereby making the player stronger). Choose an opponent and the player will compete in a turn-based combat. Win and the player will receive bonuses to help continue the climb to the next tier.
Like every RPG, Western or Eastern, Deep Realms has a story – or rather it claims to. It does a fantastic job at ensuring that upon first play there is at least an hour’s worth of gameplay if not more. Potions drop at a steady rate allowing the player to experience a full tutorial over an expanded time rather than a very short and inefficient instruction session.
But key to the jRPG genre is engagement in why the player should follow the journey. This is not the story of the player but a linear path to be followed. Story elements in that first hour are few and very far between. Deep Realms does many things right and just may be the first true RPG title to become successful on Facebook. Hopefully, by launch Playdom will have added a bit more of the RP into the RPG.