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MORPG Rusty Hearts (RH for short) made a big splash at E3 this year. Captivating hardcore MO and traditional hack-and-slash fans alike, RH has been compared to such titles as Guardian Heroes and Devil May Cry. This has been on account of its stylized presentation, fast paced dungeon crawling action and deep, yet accessible RPG elements. Add in PvP and the fact that RH is free to play, it has people clamoring for access to the closed beta, which began Wednesday morning.

Gamer Limit sat down with Perfect World product manager Mark Hill to get an in-depth look at what makes RH a stand out game. We toured the streets of fictional Slatina, braved its lower canals and decimated waves of skeleton warriors. Judging from what we saw, gamers won’t want to miss this gem from Perfect World and Stairway Games.

The Economics Of Beauty

One of the first things you notice when you get dropped into the world of Rusty Hearts is the anime inspired, cell shade art direction. It is quite impressive, with a wide color palate and vivid detail. Battles transpire through rapid combo chains and flashy spell casting, all with seamless animation. It’s reminiscent of an anime that serves generous helpings of sword play and magic. Bleach anyone?

The style, it turns out, isn’t there just to turn heads.  “There’s a lot of action on the screen,” Hill explains, “especially when you’re [in] a party full of people. The cell shaded style keeps everything really tight.” It also enables RH to keep relatively low system requirements. Cell shade animation does not tax a system as much as its 3D counterpart. “We want to lower the barrier of entry into the game but still offer a really high quality triple-A look.”

No matter how seamless the art and action is, though, too much too fast can cause a sensory overload for beginners. Stairway Games found a way over that hurdle as well. While running from battle to battle, our progression through the early dungeons was controlled by large sternum-looking gateways that retract only when all the enemies were cleared.

Hill promises that once players get a hang of things, battles won’t be as stop and go. “These areas are pretty small as you can see . . . but in later dungeons, the rooms get much bigger, there are much more enemies, and they are a lot more difficult.”

Dungeon Crawler Unlimited

‘Dungeon’ is a loose term in Rusty Hearts. The preview focused on the canals of the fictional town of Slatina, which are the closest things to dungeons visually. Stone walls rise from a zig zag causeway, soiled with fungus and detritus. Once the game gets out of closed beta, however, RH aims to deliver more environments like Gothic castles, expansive cellars, sewers, etc. For the sake of naming convention, however, let’s call them all dungeons.

Each dungeon is preceded by a staging area. “This is where there are NPC [who] can give you skills,” Hill explained. Some of them will also dole out story quests.

We were also directed to a nearby wanted board where players can accept quests unrelated to the storyline. These unrelated quests offer a way for players to jump out of the plot and engage in more than just random grinding. Players can partake in straight-up gaming oriented challenges, like kill x number of enemies or finish this dungeon within five minutes.

Story focused gamers shouldn’t ignore the chance to play hero-for-hire, however. Hill says these unrelated quests “help you progress. They help you level up, give you xp. They [will] have some really cool items, too.”

Once in the dungeons, expect loads of hack-and-slash. We didn’t preview anything that made RH stand out in this regard. At the same time, we didn’t see anything wrong with it either. Hack-and-slash is, and should be, a straightforward endeavor. And in RH, there was plenty of it to be had, with droves of skeleton warriors and a fleshy, obese butcher boss to be taken down. Once the game is ready for the public, expect flying demons, sadistic maids, exoskeleton giants and other baddies.

Each playable character has a unique style of fighting and range. I played as Angela, who has an extravagant black scythe which makes for long range sweeps and slashes. Her magic was powerful, with an especially gratifying combo that included tossing an enemy in the air, a few quick scythe strikes and a pillar of purple and pink magical energy. Purple and pink never looked so good.

Players can also take advantage of Frantz, a rapier wielding nobleman who reminded me of a dark haired Alucard of Castlevania fame. He has more of a medium range with controlled sword swipes. Finally Tude, with a bitching gauntlet claw for a weapon, is for players who enjoy getting up close and personal and who aren’t too enthused about magic. I’d like to say that RH has something for everyone.

We Can Do This The Easy Way, Or The Hard Way

Both the wanted board quests and dungeons will be available in multiple levels of difficulty. As players complete each one, a higher difficulty is unlocked. For dungeons in particular, there are four: Normal, Hard, Very Hard and (my favorite) Blood Mode.

“There are some in game quests you have to complete before you have access to [Blood Mode].” Hill let us know that players will not be ready for this mode until their characters are significantly leveled up. “Enemies that were bosses before become normal mobs in Blood Mode. It’s super intense, but it’s really, really cool.” Really cool as in more xp, more loot and special items.

To make sure the people you play with are ready for the same kind of intensity you are, Rusty Hearts makes creating parties really easy. With just a few clicks, you can give your party a name, establish how many players are allowed and what level they need to have. Jumping in and out of a party is even easier. You can literally create, join and leave parties on the fly without having to exit to a menu screen, making it possible to maintain the high levels of action promised by RH.

Since the game is played across multiple servers and channels, the developers implemented a system where players choose a server to play in (ours was called Ruska) as well as a numbered channel. Players can switch between servers and channels at their discretion just like they do parties. In fact, they can join parties on other channels through the same interface and instantly be transported.

Like the art style and dungeon design, the server-channel system also lends to the economy of play. When a server gets too crowded with characters running all over the place, a player can easily switch to a new one and everything carries over seamlessly – location, character, party, etc. – without missing a beat.

Making The Grade

So you’ve killed a bunch of monsters, racked countless combos and pummeled the dungeon boss into a pulp. Do you get any special prizes? The answer is yes.

Similar to other hack-and-slash, beat-em-up games, Rusty Hearts gives you a grade at the end of each dungeon. The grade in this case is based on style (# of skills used, combos, etc.) and the amount of damage taken. Getting a triple S is always gratifying if just for the simple fact that the computer approves of your gaming skills. Well, it’s not that gratifying.

Thankfully, RH goes further than that with the loot card system. While in battle, felled enemies sometimes drop special cards. Then, at the end of the dungeon, any cards picked up get put into a shuffle giving players a chance to gain extra money or gear.

Hill explained the dynamics of this loot card system. “If you’re playing on your own, you can choose, pick one and pay a certain amount of in-game gold to re-select. But if you’re in a party, everyone chooses from the same deck.”

So, sometimes it pays to do things alone if only to raise the chances of getting valuable items. Then again, higher difficulty levels yield better loot cards. Therefore, one has to be cautious when going solo, especially when trying to score loot from harder dungeons.

Putting The RPG In MORPG

During the preview, Angela had two base skills – fire and dark magic, which amounted to small blasts of yellow and purple light respectively. As your character progresses, these blasts will turn into massive conflagrations, and you can add new skills for a total of 12, based on a simple skill point system.

“Each skill and each new level of skill has a certain skill point cost associated with them.” Hill remarked. “You can concentrate on leveling up your current skills, or spend your points on a wider range of skills.” This forces the player to really think about how s/he plays the game, strategizing gameplay as well as parties.

Functional customization doesn’t stop there, according to Hill. “You’re constantly finding gear. And you can gear up your character based on the direction you want him to go.” Just like skill, donning gear will be a strategic decision, based on whether you want your character to be magic heavy, a powerful tank, etc.

One must not confuse gear with costume, however. In Rusty Hearts, these are two separate elements. While the former is focused purely on augmenting stats, the latter is almost completely cosmetic. We weren’t able to play around with costumes, but judging from the screen shots we’ve seen, it seems you can get pretty creative.

Equipment durability, crafting and item auction are also present in the game. Returning to the staging area, we visited what was called the Unmanned Store. This is a place where players can sell and re-purchase items, as well as spend coin to repair their gear. We didn’t get to test out crafting or the item auction, but, these will be available through a number of shops and the in-game menu respectively.

Now, About That PvP

Rusty Hearts offers five PvP modes: Solo Survival, Team Survival, Leader Match, Tag Team and Team Deathmatch. Both survival modes give players one life; the last man/team standing wins. The leader match plays out a bit like traditional warfare in the sense that once the team leader is killed in action, that team loses. Tag team pits one player from each team against each other, with a new team member jumping in once someone falls. Then there’s good ol’ team deathmatch.

When asked about it, Hill started glowing. “A lot of players are really going to love PvP. It’s really exciting, kind of a Smash Brothers style arena where everyone gets in and starts fighting.”

Unlike Smash Bros., RH guarantees no two players is going to have the same set of abilities. This is because players will use the same character in PvP as they use in the campaign. So, set your heart on taking advantage of your fully customized character when in the arena.

This isn’t without a set of checks and balances, however. A level 30 Tude won’t be able to go on a rampage choking out level 10’s willy nilly. “There are different rooms [in PvP]. There’s beginner, intermediate, advanced and free,” explains Hill. “Beginner is level ten to fifteen, and so on. So [the game] groups people together based on their levels. And eventually there will be a ladder system that will automatically group people together based on their stats.”

One of the best parts of PvP is the fact that the rewards you earn smacking other players around carry over into the campaign. There’s no leveling up in PvP, but having at least one benefit that helps you progress through the greater part of RH is comforting.

Controller or Keyboard, That Is The Question

Rusty Hearts let’s players choose between playing with the keyboard or the controller. It seems that Stairway Games recognized that RH carried with it influences from the old console based hack-and-slash, beat-em-up games. This was a way to make the game more accessible to fans of these games, even to those who have never touch a PC for gaming before.

Albeit, core PC players need not worry that the controls will have been dumbed down. “One of the things that the development studio made sure of is that [the game] was balanced between both control schemes so one doesn’t have an advantage over the other,” says Hill.

That said, the main challenge Stairway Games faced on the controller side was the obvious physical limitations. For example, there are twenty keys which I use heavily for RH. There are eight buttons on the Xbox 360 controller minus select, start and home. In order to compensate, Stairway mapped the default attacks to the face buttons, the spells to the shoulders, and implemented button combinations that players can customize.

Hill remarked, “we did a lot of testing to make sure that it was balanced and people were able to deploy the same amount of attacks, to make sure that characters were the same speed, could cast spells, take potions.”

This may not be the ultimate factor that decides whether the game gains a large following, but, it definitely helps. At the recent expos, the Perfect World booth was always full with people playing RH and they had many console gamers stopping and telling them that this will be their first core PC game. The effort, it seems, is paying off.

The Beta And Beyond

All this talk of Rusty Hearts is making me want to play some more Rusty Hearts. Truth be told, I’m not a traditional PC gamer myself. I actually just a few months ago purchased my first true gaming laptop which now sits on my desk like a supersized stealth jet waiting to be booted. I’m not a big fan of Multiplayer Online games either.

There was just something caught my eye with RH ever since my first experience with it at E3 and now, after this preview, I understand why. The game is combining the best elements of hack-and-slash and RPG, PC and console, and shaking things up until you get a truly immersive, fast paced and fun game.

Shall I see you in the closed beta? For those who don’t have a key, hit me up on Twitter. I might still have a few lying around. *smile*

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