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How to Kill the Momentum Before it Even Exists

February 26, 2010

Having not pulled out the trusty old DS Lite for anything other than casual runs through New Super Mario Bros. over the last, oh, six months or so, I was pleased to see a couple of DS games show up in my mailbox this week for the purpose of PopMatters reviews.

Well, okay, one of them was Scene It: Twilight.  Anyone who says that they can review that one with some modicum of objectivity is a stone cold liar.  I plan on having some fun with it, but that’s for later.

One of Ragnarok's more exciting moments

For now, I’m tinkering with Ragnarok, the DS adaptation of the Ragnarok Online MMO that started as a Korean sensation (a.k.a. something to do while they wait for Starcraft 2 to come out already) and has since spread into a moderately successful worldwide experience.  As far as I can tell, it maintains the MMO’s “2D sprites in a 3D world” graphics style and its very, very simplistic combat mechanics, but it puts those recognizable elements into what so far looks like a very traditional JRPG, with elements of the dungeon crawling that I’ve been playing so much of this year (first Torchlight, then Shiren, and now this).

Here’s the problem.  I don’t want to play it.  I don’t even want to touch it anymore.  It has left such an odious first impression that picking it up out of some sort of professional obligation to give it a fair shake in the review is the last thing you want to do.

I think it was a Head & Shoulders commercial that said “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” (or, maybe it was Oscar Wilde, or Mark Twain, or Will Rogers…for once, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer on this), but it seems especially true in a case like Ragnarok‘s.  You spend the first 20 minutes of the game in a stilted, static, unskippable bit of preprogrammed dialogue that exists to serve as a tutorial.  “Hey look, the “menu” button is over there!” “Well, hello, female with amnesia! Let me show you how to battle!” It’s so forced, and so out of context with the rest of the game as to be both distracting and the most memorable part of the game thus far.

That a similarly forced and lengthy tutorial shows up an hour or so into the game for the sake of introducing some of the more “advanced” techniques only serves to dredge up the trauma of those first 20 minutes.

Developers: You are doing yourselves and your audience no favors by trying to shoehorn tutorials into places where they don’t belong.  Rather than 20 minutes of “expository” tutorial, flash a hint on-screen the first time a mechanic is available, or at least put the tutorial in the context of something that actually has to be done to further the story.  Setting up a tutorial like this means that for the rest of the gaming experience, the game itself has to sit there and try to make it up to the player, making the reward for learning things like “click on the monster to attack!” sweet enough that the player forgets about the ridiculous introduction.

As it is, I can’t fathom giving Ragnarok a good score, because it’s already spent a solid chunk of time insulting my intelligence.  I should at least be able to get to the middle of the game before I start thinking it’s an inane, repetitive drag.

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