With nearly every other studio turning to the more profitable mobile devices, there is a disturbing lack of new full-fledged PC MMORPGs. Therefore, it’s good news when something like Astellia is bound to be released in western territories. A Korean game that sticks to the guidelines of every other fantasy MMORPG, Astellia’s biggest selling point is its advanced pet system.
Astellia is a free-to-play game in native South Korea. Here’s hoping that doesn't discourage you right from the start, but the translation to North America and Europe is made with an accompanying price tag. It’s the same strategy that other games such as Black Desert Online and Bless Online used in the past, with completely opposite results.
However, it seems that the intrinsic limitations of the F2P model are being obliterated, at least judging by the amount of cool costumes you earn without spending a dime. A cash shop is evidently planned but not available at the time of this Astellia closed beta, so we’ll reserve our judgment for a later date. Developer Barunson E&A promises that Astellia will be a play-to-win game without any cash shop trickery, which always makes for some nice press, but in the end these claims tend to fall on deaf ears. We’ve heard it all before, right?
Despite the studio’s best efforts with localization and plans to remove gender-lock further down the road, Astellia feels generic. It’s your standard cookie-cutter MMORPG where you go with the flow instead of actually experiencing a memorable journey. It’s shaping up to be a decent game, but it doesn’t bring anything remotely new to the table and is terribly similar to Aion, which was released nearly a decade ago.
But Astellia is no Bless Online, I can tell you as much.
Heroes in High Heels
Starting with the class selection, you’ll notice that you are setting foot in familiar territory. You have five classes firmly set within the known boundaries of the genre: Archer, Warrior, Assassin, Mage and Scholar, all of them gender-locked for this beta. The removal of gender-lock is planned for after the official launch, so it should take a while before you can get your male Archer doing the rounds.
By now you probably expect the Archer and Scholar classes to be represented by your traditional female characters of otherworldly beauty standards, purposely wearing high heels into battle and still managing to sprint like Usain Bolt on a good day. The Mage character is, also expectedly, the teenage-looking girl that is probably older than you and I combined, for story purposes, although she doesn’t look like she’s any older than 12.
Costumes seem to come out from the minds of the same fashion designer that worked in Aion or TERA. These are undoubtedly stunning creations that deserve to be admired in every detail, and are clearly designed with that intent, but the female armor is mostly about fanservice with the traditional “less is more” approach to body protection. Video game logic, right?
Luckily, Astellia’s character creation system is exceptional, filled to the brim with every kind of slider that you could dream of. After Black Desert Online, player expectations regarding character customization naturally rocketed, so it’s nice to see that Astellia at least tries its best to keep up with the current benchmark. It’s not on the same level, but you’re able to create whatever you want to, from a pretty character to a devilish abomination, if you feel so inclined. Sadly, there is no slider to remove those heels.
When the game starts, a vision of a freakish living doll with a huge cog serving as a hula hoop will introduce you to a world on the verge of chaos. Everything is going to hell, there is a really bad woman doing really bad stuff to innocent people. It’s the kind of prelude where the excitement ramps up to eleven, grabbing you by the collar, only to end in an underwhelming and predictable way; you are special and it’s your mission to save the land, going where the wind takes you and completing quests for anyone who has the audacity to ask. Fixing some fences? Sure. Picking up mushrooms? Why not, I know how to do that. Finding some escaped pigs? My life experience has led me to this moment. Will you care for the story? I doubt that many players will hesitate when it comes to skipping dialogue.
Astellia’s quests are bog-standard, with an overly straightforward approach consisting of clearing up the quests in one area before moving on to the adjacent region. The aforementioned quests are good examples of what awaits you and your greatness, with the occasional dungeon to provide a moment of respite once in a while. Granted, there isn’t much that can be done to spice up things for the entire duration of an MMORPG, but hopefully endgame will bring some added excitement to an adventure that feels like so many others.
Occasionally, you may feel tempted to explore the land in search of hidden chests, a little feature that is meant to distract you from the main questing. Finding these chests will unlock some achievements, getting you some little rewards for your trouble, but it’s more likely that you’ll stumble upon them by accident than design.
Astellia comes with a distinguishing feature in the form of the Astel system. More than glorified pets, Astels are the companions that you will meet and recruit during your journey. It’s like finding Pokémon and evolving them, with the added bonus of sporadic chitchat to push the story forward.
Before an Astel decides to join you in your adventures, you must convince it by means of a quest chain. These are usually simple and reward you with a brief cutscene showing the endearing design of these creatures. While most of the designs seem veered towards the usual cute small girl with a characteristic theme (fish, tea, music and so on), some are more clever in their approach. Such is the case of Tetrinio, a hyperactive duck with serious Don Quixote ambitions and equal levels of bravery and foolishness. Currently there are over 30 Astels of different classes and with different buffs to discover.
You can always keep one Astel with you, but you are able to summon two more when push comes to shove. Each additional summon speeds up the drain of your stamina bar, meaning that you’ll only be able to have three simultaneous Astels in battle for a few seconds. You can level up your Astels and raise their abilities with various Star Jewel stones. I enjoyed the Astel mechanics as it opens up the potential for more tactical battles, being a slight step up from your traditional pet or companion system.
However, it is held back by an outdated tab-targeting combat system. Chaining skills isn’t as smooth as it should be, and animation canceling is a feature that is still being worked on. Animation locking can also be a problem, preventing active dodges to be used to their fullest. This esults in combat that theoretically has some depth, but needs further polishing to make it feel smooth and enjoyable. I like that you can enhance skills and create interesting combos, but it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before and it is never going to feel like pure action combat.
Astellia comes with the remaining features that you would expect from an MMORPG, including gathering and crafting, or the mandatory arena for PvP. It’s a game with considerable depth that does enough to stand above other unsuccessful experiments, but it lacks that defining component that makes heads turn in awe. The core mechanics are in place and give you a reasonable idea of what it wants to be, but it's definitely a work in progress.
The graphics aren’t a problem, but it’s not like the Unreal Engine 3 is going to make your game stand out from the competition. Astellia is above average by today’s standards and in some locations it looks truly pretty, but it's not vastly superior to the likes of TERA, a game from 2011 that runs on the same engine.
It’s difficult to come up with a groundbreaking MMORPG, which is why I don’t want to sound overly harsh. Astellia is a game that tries to tick all the right boxes and is currently being improved in some of its more sensible areas, such as combat and classes. No matter how much it's fine tuned or its rough edges are smoothed, it’s never going to turn into a shiny diamond. Switching it from free-to-play into a premium game will also place it under heavy scrutiny from players who are familiar with the practices of the Korean version.
Will it be a better game when the official launch time comes? It’s highly likely. However, gamers nowadays are known for their short fuse and unwavering demands, without any consideration for the amount of work that a certain task may require. Gender-lock is a good example of a pressing issue that must be solved as soon as possible, otherwise word of mouth may do some irreparable damage to this game. Astellia may be as familiar as they come, but there is some fun to be had exploring the huge world, if you’re not too demanding or looking for the next big thing.