Legends of Aria is an easy game to hate. It’s not your average MMORPG where you are the chosen one, destined to a fate of daring adventures and greatness. There is no clear goal to achieve, no classic experience levels to grind; you are a nobody with the entire world in front of you. You can decide your fate and accept the missions that other villagers offer you or focus on a set of masteries.
Legends of Aria is a sandbox MMORPG that requires players with the right mindset. You need to know exactly what you are getting into or you will find yourself lost, dazed and confused, looking for a helping hand that doesn’t exist. This is an old-school MMORPG hoping for a large and thriving player community, where you are what you set out to do and you get better at something by performing the respective actions.
This is a spiritual successor to Ultima Online created by former lead developers of the classic MMORPG, but one that shouldn’t rely on nostalgia to cover up for some glaring faults. Old-school should never serve as an excuse for unpolished mechanics and questionable design decisions, with the Early Access stage boasting as much potential as it shows clumsiness.
Kill Ten Rats
Before we delve into the matter of things, let’s put Legends of Aria into context. This game ran a successful Kickstarter campaign when it was called Shards Online, way back in 2014. Fearing that the Shards name could negatively impact the game, Citadel Studios decided to change the title to Legends of Aria. However, the concept of community-driven shards remains, and this is one of its most appealing features. Player-run servers have their own set of rules, so if you prefer unrestricted PvP and ganking, you are free to create or join such a server. The Legends of Aria Early Access is now available, but how is the game shaping up?
In the Legends of Aria MMORPG, you have over 30 skills at your grasp. You don’t have to restrict yourself to a couple of them, but you can’t be a master of all trades since there is a skill level cap that requires you to keep a watchful eye over your specialties. Some trainers will teach you the basics but evolving requires a lot of experience and grinding. Legends of Aria doesn’t ask you to grind through experience levels as you usually do in theme-park MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, but there is a significant grind to each skill, turning Legends of Aria into a colossal and somewhat tedious time sink.
Selecting your starting character is a biting decision. The choice between Warrior, Mage, Archer, Bard, and Blacksmith isn’t entirely straightforward, because it will greatly impact your overall path. My first option was the Archer, but as soon as I discovered that the arrows come in limited numbers, I was in serious trouble. Would I purchase them with my hard-earned coins, or should I set out to craft them myself? For that, you need to chop down some trees and make the arrows with the Carpentry skill, something that can take quite some time.
I decided to take a step back and go for the Warrior class, but every weapon and piece of gear has a durability factor, so soon I found myself hitting rats with my bare fists. Luckily, I was able to afford a pointy warfork and some protective armor to speed up my progress. Or you can learn blacksmithing and craft your own gear and weapons, it’s up to you.
Before starting your journey, a quick trip to the settings page is strongly recommend in order to change movement control to WASD. The default control system feels obtuse and harmful to the experience, with this simple change making a world of difference.
You’ll spend a long time down in the sewers killing spiders, rats and bats, which conveniently drop bags of coins and other items. Bandit camps and graveyards are other relevant grind locations, with non-negligible loot drops from each fallen enemy. Each action that you make rewards you with a minuscule amount of skill experience, so it’s inevitable that you’ll repeat it to exhaustion.
Taming is a crucial skill as it will bring strength in numbers. You start by taming a chicken, but as soon as you can tame giant rats, you are on your way to having your own private army. Five rats will serve as a great aid, damage sponges that divert your enemy as you relentlessly attack without interruptions. However, I’m not a fan of the text commands that you must input in the chat (“all attack”, “all follow”, “all guard” and so on) because it’s not 1997 anymore.
Slashing, Lancing and Archery are skills that improve as you use the respective weapons, while Healing almost comes as second nature. Bandages are your best friend in Legends of Aria, so make sure that you carry a few hundred with you. You read that right, hundreds!
Our House in the Middle of Celador
The sandbox mechanics in Legends of Aria offer you the means to forge your own path. For most players, that path involves the endless grind of the most profitable areas for gold coins and to become a master at a given profession. The logical next step is purchasing or building a house, with the player housing system coming into play.
If you have the necessary currency, you can purchase a land deed and a house blueprint. Welcome to a world of cozy comfort and taxes. To build your house you need to gather the resources as well, so it won’t be a simple task, but when you decide where to settle down, you open a world of possibilities, if by possibilities you mean a marketplace, that is.
You can hire a merchant NPC to sell your crafted goods right next to your house, in the hopes that many adventures happen to go by and fall for your wares. You’ll find countless merchants in the world of Celador trying to make a buck from other players, small cogs in a gigantic machine of player-driven economy. While your initial gear can be purchased from town merchants, the best gear is player-crafted, so you must browse through the merchandise from the hired merchants if you want to make any progress.
Nonetheless, the world feels somewhat empty, without much going on. Apart from the overblown number of merchants and many players assembling at the inn to eat, rest, and bind to the location, there isn’t much going on in terms of excitement. You must create your own stories and that involves using gatekeepers to fast travel to distant regions, grinding and fighting for most of the time.
Combat in Legends of Aria is dull and without any sort of in-depth tactical prerequisites. It feels like a means to an end that should be made much more exciting; you sit through it, bandages and healing potions ready to be used, watching as your hero misses half of the swings because that’s how it is meant to be. While you may go for other, more peaceful jobs, everyone will have to fight sooner or later, so this is an area that should be improved.
The enemies don’t show any signs of intelligence, such as bandits failing to notice you as you rub shoulders with them, or haplessly backtracking to their spawn point as soon as you move a few inches away from it. All humans and wild creatures also tend to resort to the same behavior; attack until their health bar is low, then suddenly try a silly escape that never amounts to anything.
Die in protected areas and you’ll lose all your valuable possessions unless they are blessed. You will return in underpants, stripped from your belongings but reinvigorated by the skills that you won’t forget. A few places such as the Barren Lands should be avoided until you feel confident in your skills, as this unguarded area is the place where open PvP unfolds. This is a change from the initial plan of making Legends of Aria a full open PvP sandbox, but it’s a comprehensible decision considering that the frustration of losing your loot can be devastating, especially for new players who won’t have the time to settle in.
Out of Time
The UI in Legends of Aria is, to put it bluntly, a thing of the past and could do with a major revamp. The character creation system gives you a glimpse of what’s to come, with bland and bad looking buttons straight out of the early noughties. The in-game experience isn’t any better, with a clunky UI that can’t be excused by the simple “it’s old-school” reasoning. While the core mechanics of any game may deliberately feel old-school, the interface should never feel clunky and a chore in some respects.
The backpack is a good example of this. The jumbled mess of superimposed objects that you must rummage through is a weird design decision that in no way improves the standard inventory experience. The object list right below helps slightly, but with dozens of objects to scroll through you’ll soon find yourself longing for a proper, large grid-based inventory. The mini-map and world map are pretty much useless as well (and you have to buy a map for each region), and once again the old-school excuse doesn’t stick in this situation. What kind of joy arises from being unable to zoom in the world map and seeing the previously discovered locations in some detail?
There are other issues showing that Legends of Aria still has a long way to go before an official release. Despite being in development for five years, Legends of Aria lacks polish in many areas, including severe lag issues that make it unplayable. There are also other problems such as floating objects, clipping issues, actions that fail to register such as picking up an item, using a bed at the inn, and more.
Legends of Aria feels like a bittersweet return to the roots of the MMORPG genre. It offers an incredible depth that can be rewarding, but cuts corners in many other parts. The graphics don’t look bad when zoomed out, but character models are utterly outdated, while combat is just present, without any excitement or depth. However, it’s the rare kind of experience that does without the sort of hand-holding that plagues most similar MMOs. You have a world in the palm of your hands that isn’t pushing you to go here or there; you make your own tale, albeit one with many hindrances along the way.
The goal of becoming a spiritual successor to Ultima Online isn’t entirely farfetched, but it feels like Legends of Aria could use a couple of years of additional polish to become a true old-school sandbox MMORPG for the new generation. The big question that remains is if players are going to wait that long for it to happen.