Ryzom's had a difficult life; launched in the same year as WOW, the French science-fantasy MMO went ignored, except in reviews that tipped the thermostat somewhere between tepid and lukewarm. Since then, it's been killed, resurrected, gone from subscription-based to free, and the single server is now populated by a bunch of dedicated players and - if the chat is anything to go by - lots of people who come for a couple of weeks before leaving.
These are my first few hours in Ryzom, and first impressions of a game that not many people have played. Currently available to download and play for free, complete with expansion, there's enough that's done uniquely in Ryzom to warrant the download; whether you'll be one of the two-week wonders is entirely down to the way your mind works.
Hour Zero: Setting Up
First, you have a choice of four races. This would be easy if that choice was four recognisable characters, like Elf, Dwarf, Jedi and Toilet Duck. But part of Ryzom's appeal to the die-hard fanbase is its unique lore.
So we have Civilisations, not races. There's the Fyros, a tanned desert Fighting race, or you might try the Matic, a paler, leaner race who see life in everything - even gloves. The Tryker are a playful-looking feline race, and the Zorai are grey-skinned creatures who wear masks to demonstrate their spirituality.
Class selection is even less traditional. You select a group of "actions", within the four independently-levelling specialisations of Fight, Magic, Foraging and Crafting. There's some overlap in the options, and a pro-tip I learn from chatting is not to waste your crafting points in other areas; you'll need them all.
Although the help screens are full of prosaic descriptions of what my race does and doesn't feel about truth, life and whether it's rude to leave the toilet seat up, it feels more like a personality test than a concrete matter of racial benefits and drawbacks. It all means nothing to a first-time roller. I begin to suspect that this is a game where role-playing might have a more substantial role than setting up a character in the opposing team's capital city and shouting "OH MY GOD YOU GUYS ALL SUCK SO BAD".
Hour 1: Class Training
Quote of the hour:
"Damn, that's some bad emoting"
If life were the opening hour of an MMO, then we'd all be dead from excitement. No other genre has to create that sense of progress so urgently, to give you extra powers and to introduce you so steadily to the gameplay elements. In Ryzom, thanks to the four crafts that level individually, you can barely move for progress.
Unless you're dogmatic about attacking with either your dagger or your acid spell, you'll find yourself levelling up in both Fight and Magic - experience is apportioned between your skills depending on how much you use them. What's going on is immediately obvious and fair, and maintaining a balanced approach will save you having to go for a catch-up grind at a later point.
But that's not all - there's no penalty for buying skills outside of your initial specialisation. No "I cannot train you, [incompatible class]". No higher point cost for crafters training outside their class. Beyond spending more time improving your skills (which can be tedious with Foraging), it feels like the character selection screen was almost entirely cosmetic. Ryzom really is a classless society.
The first mission for fighters and magicians is to kill some docile Yoba, and the combat system is instinctive for anyone who's played a comparable game. The Yobas, though. It's heartbreaking, slaughtering such a docile and friendly mob; while you're killing one, the others come up and snuffle at your shin pads, registering only curiosity at the wholesale butchery of their pack. I had to kill all the witnesses, just to get that look of serene sadness off their faces. Also to complete the mission.
So, what's the point of having classes in a world where everyone can be the same? Won't that render the game bizarrely even? Well, the first mind-bending trick Ryzom has up its sleeve is Stanzas.