Early Access: Ecol Tactics Online
By Darren Henderson (DizzyPW), OnRPG Editor-in-Chief
Ecol Tactics Online feels like the type of game that we should have been seeing a lot of at an earlier stage of the MMORPG game. I don't feel like the technology is so advanced that it wasn't an option before now. Heck it's just a turn-based tactics game at the core so what was the hold up? Instead browser games have been content for what feels like forever throwing trading card games and empire builders or a hybrid of the two with maybe a single feature that differentiates it from its peers. So of course when the announcement was finally made that GamesCampus was stepping outside the realm of client-based titles for a new browser game set to do just that, I know I wasn't the only one on our forums that got a bit giddy that a true tactics game was finally being made available online from a relatively well known publisher. But the question on everyone's mind of course was would it stand up to mobile giants like Ogre Battle Tactics, Disgaea, and Final Fantasy Tactics? MMOHut's Bakerman Brad and I jumped onto the private test server to talk to a member of the Ecol Tactics team and see for ourselves.
What I found in the tutorial was a serious throwback to my gameboy days of long Saturdays grinding away at my small army in similar tactics games. Ecol Tactics Online plays out just like any tactics game before it with hidden speed stats determining player movement order, a small line of icons at the top left of the screen showing upcoming turn order, and simplistic and easily navigated menus allowing you to position your characters, attack (whether through basic auto attacks or a huge variety of MP burning spells with different ranges and effects), or simply wait and choose a direction to face in anticipation of the enemy's movement. Status effects will also play a part in combat including drowsiness (lowers movement stat), sleep (stunned until attacked), paralysis (can use items), silence (no skills), and stuns (turn completely denied). That much I'm sure you guys could have guessed in any title brave enough to throw the word tactics into the name. Now let's talk about the features that set it apart (as well as those that make it generic).
Character Creation and the Tutorial
Granted it's a browser game with small sprites so you're not going to see anything spectacular here. Choose your sex, your skin color (pale, normal, or dark) and your hair from around 6 or so options. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't a bit more options here and would love to see at least a secondary option on hair color at launch so that you could mix and match it with the styles offered but at the very least we should see some cash shop options for improving character customization as there's no reason it should remain this basic.
Afterwards you go into a rather lengthy but at the same time quite cleverly written tutorial that does a fantastic job of introducing the 4 character roles you can fill in the form of your useless scrub of a character getting saved by a band of 4 mercenaries (1 of each role type) and their epic flaming tiger pet. Besides learning that warriors are cocky bros that wear their sunglasses at night, archers love short shorts, priests have the tranquility to fight without disturbing the sleeping cat on their head, and mages can throw massive waves of fire while somehow staying cool enough to not cook the egg in their hair, you also get your chance to try out each class in action against a huge array of powerful monsters. It was a fantastically fun way to test out some of the epic skills that can become available to your personal character or mercenaries you hire long before you ever actually unlock said abilities in the game. Though I was a little said when the bro thought my female character was a guy. Hopefully that's addressed as localization work gets finished.
I'm only level 2. This quest is out of my league.
Although the dialogue in the tutorial felt a bit forced, I saw a glimmer of hope following it that this game might actually develop a decent storyline. And if you're a true tactics fan this should be an important feature to you. I want to believe the Ecol Tactics team recognizes this as well but I haven't played far enough in to confirm it. On the bright side you won't have to worry about me giving up many spoilers.
The Hubtown and Character Development
So what is there to do once the tutorial ends and you're thrown into the middle of town with all the other chibi weaklings? It's time to forge your personal character's path to power and build a mercenary team able to support you in your quests.
As I mentioned earlier there are four roles you can acquire, but what I didn't say is that your starting character can master all of them given enough time and patience! Each role has a different weapon requirement however so you will have to think carefully at the beginning of a battle before assigning your character as that's the weapon you'll use for the rest of the fight.
The Fighter is the tanky front liner that specializes in blockbacks and other powerful skills that hit mostly in melee range though they have some devastating mid-range skills for clearing huge waves.
The Archer is a support dps character that can do serious damage to single targets at range as well as line up some sick combo shots if the enemies are positioned correctly.
The Healer can keep your party going strong and also has some intense AoE damage spells to keep them viable when healing and buffing isn't required.
The Mage makes the map explode in pretty colors while tombstones rain from the sky.
Never underestimate the power of a good blow
As you fight battles you will slowly collect a series of skill stones that can be combined for a chance to unlock new skills in a given class. This becomes increasingly difficult to do though as the skills build up through a tree system and each time you'll need 3 of the highest tier of said tree to unlock the following skill. And towards the really high-end spectrum you might even have your items destroyed during the merging process. I expect mass nerd rage to follow but at least there will be a sense of pride for those that can achieve the ultimate powers of a given role. And with 350 skills total and a gold cost associated with attempting to merge skill stones it should be a long while before we see someone that can claim to be a master of all abilities.
Equipment also plays a major part in the strength of a character. The statistics are rather simple with 8 pieces of gear contributing to hp, mp, strength and defense (physical), Intelligence and Resistance (magical), Hit and Evade (Accuracy), and Movement and Jump. You can also acquire fashion sets to give your character that extra bit of personality.
As you build wealth you can choose to spend it in the auction house to further power up your character or hire mercenaries to take on tougher missions to obtain greater rewards. Mercenaries are a lot more static than player characters, usually bringing roughly one active and one passive skill for their given role. While you can hire up to 6 mercenaries and one AI controlled pet at a time, it's likely the better solution to seek out friends and collect similar quests in town to help each other out on. Starting at level 10 you can form parties consisting of up to 3 players each bringing 1 mercenary each. Just be aware that regular mercenaries cost 1,000 gold and rare mercenaries cost 5,000 gold so don't think you can build an army on a whim. This is a real gold sink.
The World of Maps and PvP
Once you're all set to begin your journey you can simply leave the hubtown to clear various maps or perform quest objectives. At launch Ecol Tactics is set to have 100 total maps available, each with varying degrees of difficulty and rewards waiting to offer more replayability. Also if you completely clear all maps in a given area (each area hosts multiple maps) then you will unlock the challenge map that carries many unique features such as a competitive leaderboard and massive rewards including the occasional cash shop items. These maps however will throw some seriously twisted challenges at you such as exponentially increasing mob spawn per turn or even forcing you to strategically choose your movement to race monsters to a finish line while avoiding traps. Yea racing in a turn-based tactics game. It's in there. Though they're still fine tuning this particular "raid" so it might not be available until a month into the open beta.
PvP will also be a heavy focus in this game with 1v1 battles allowing players to test their might and mercenaries against rivals. A monthly PvP tournament with decent rewards is also planned. Word of 2v2 and 3v3 battles is also in planning but they haven't quite figured out a way to speed it up enough to keep players from getting bored waiting for 5 other combatants to make their moves. Still though it should make for an interesting mechanic having guild vs guild showdowns in a tactics game.
Tactics and Ambiance
There's a few other tid bits of info I came across while testing this game that I'd feel would be incomplete to leave out of my write-up. For one there are strategic formations in combat that you can set-up to gain bonuses with your movement speed. If an archer is one diagonal space behind a teammate for instance, this grants a passive called suppression fire that boosts their critical strike chance. Also attacking foes from the side allows you to do roughly 10% bonus damage and 25% from behind. These attacks also give a boost to your accuracy and critical strike chances.
If you manage to hit a foe from the front with 3 attacks you can push them back 3 squares; this one is a life saver when trying to create some distance while healing up an injured mercenary. Another neat trick is surrounding an enemy on all 4 sides causes a 'blindness' effect that blocks their ability to move and lowers their accuracy in the process. I mentioned earlier that each character has a hidden speed attribute that determines turn order but you can strategically adjust this turn order by moving and not attacking to push your next turn up a few ranks and time massive combo attacks against your foes. While there is an auto AI option available for those feeling lazy and not wanting to control their troops, I can't imagine ever using it as I can't stand seeing inefficiency in my moves in a tactics game.
In terms of ambiance the music in this game is nothing to write home about. It's your usual chibi anime repeating tracks that get tiring after the first twenty minutes or so. Currently you can turn them off but I'd rather they just offered an option to lower the volume and the member of the team we interviewed said this was already in the works. While the characters are too small to have actual expressions they do offer a ton of Ragnarok styled emote bubbles you can pop up to show your emotions. While this is done through a clunky menu they are currently working on text commands to make the emotes more easily accessible. While the spell effects are incredibly flashy and one of the highlights of the experience I will say that the nonadjustable low resolution of the window takes some of the magic away. Also those with poor eyesight may have a tough time reading the text due to this tiny resolution. I did really enjoy the animated character models that pop-up next to text during cutscenes and hope more are included as the game develops.
In terms of localization the game was looking surprisingly good so far. There were a few oddities as I've shown in earlier images in this article but overall they are doing a top notch job in the early stages and hopefully the later stages get just as much love. There's also a ton of new content on the way including a total of 250 maps, the crazy multiplayer raid with unique challenges I talked about earlier, and a level cap expansion from 30 to 40 once open beta hits.
Honestly there's a lot of strategy and a decent number of features included in this game, and I can't wait to see how it all plays out in terms of the PvP. Because after all tactics games have been around for ages but it was always a pain linking up gameboys or whatever device you had to test your goon squad out against your friend. If Ecol Tactics manages to do PvP right I imagine the rest of the game will fall into place and create quite a successful niche browser title at launch.