MapleStory DS - Staff Retroview  

Maple Syrup Dreams
by Michael Baker

20-40 Hours
+ Fun, cartoonish atmosphere
+ Four simultaneous stories to follow.
+ A unique play style for each character.
+ Decided lack of fetch-questing.
+ Plenty for the MMORPG fans to enjoy.
- Plot takes some time to make sense.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Once upon a time, there was a little MMORPG in Korea. This is hardly a rarity, as the online market over there is insanely cluttered. Through charm and cutesy, cartoonish graphics, it somehow carved a niche for itself and has survived ten years in a very competitive industry. Two years ago, it even spawned a single-player game: MapleStory DS.

   MapleStory has always been about the 2D side-scrolling action, and in many ways it plays similarly to games like Castlevania or Shantae. There's plenty of platform-jumping, with most areas providing rewards for thorough exploration. Monsters abound, coming in all shapes and sizes. One of the biggest assets of this game is the wealth of material it inherited from its online origins (eight years of it), which means players can expect to face everything from banana-flinging monkeys to alien invaders, and enjoy it. Plenty of references are made to the online game's backstory, but the references are subtle enough that they blend in with the overall presentation, and do not require familiarity with the main title.

   While the online game isn't particularly noted for its gripping, coherent narrative (at least not when this game was produced), MapleStory DS does a remarkable job with its multiple protagonists and intertwining story. Few RPGs try this sort of storytelling with more than two heroes or plotlines; MapleStory DS does it with four heroes, three villains, and a marauding army of misfit toys. The protagonists cross paths regularly, sharing pieces of the overall plot before going their separate ways, but each character has specific levels, enemies, and events unique to them.

Swords That Smash Evil Who's the boss now, huh?

   The heart of the story is the Rubian, a scarlet crystal of immense power that fueled the rise of Sharenian, the first great kingdom of Maple World. Human envy and greed allowed it to also become the doom of Sharenium, and three thousand years later history looks ready to repeat itself. Each of the four protagonists holds a connection to one piece of the broken Rubium, and as each story unfolds more mysteries are revealed and resolved. One of the few downsides is that the four plots cannot be played simultaneously at first. After one character's story is chosen and finished, the rest become available, but for that first story there are sure to be many obvious plot holes that only get explained through someone else's eyes.

   What really brings it home are the individual stories. Even though the plot eventually converges on two separate final bosses, the paths to reach those points are quite different. The Thief's need to pay off a debt starts him on a crazy treasure hunt that tells him far more than he ever thought he knew about himself. At the same time, that treasure hunt has attracted the attention of a dastardly old man who sends his two bodyguards, the Swordsman and his friend, to snatch the prize. The Swordsman's story then diverges to become a quest to save his friend from the influence of the old man and the siren song of the Rubium. On the other side of the plot, the Mage and the Archer are both requested to check out the situation in the hovering city of Rudibrium. The Archer, tired of having to pull dead weight around whenever she does a job, heads off on her own. From there on, her path is a tale of hubris and downfall, as an irate divinity decides to teach her a lesson in humility. The Mage, on the other hand, is a meek little guy who only begins to come out of his shell when he makes a new friend, who just happens to be the source of the hordes of crazed toys. When the Archer and the Mage finally come together for the final showdown, one is aiming to destroy the final boss, and the other is trying to save him. With this much going on, from four points of view, it really does take multiple playthroughs to appreciate how it all works together.

Caption She sings of the lack of noses.

   Each story takes ten hours on average to complete, with the challenge levels well balanced to ensure that general timeframe. Only once is the player tasked with a fetch quest along the lines of "find X amount of item," and then only as a plot point. This abandonment of an MMORPG staple really helps to keep the game on track. While it can be fun to run around bashing monsters for experience or the special trading cards, grinding is usually not necessary. Clever use of defensive techniques and power skills is enough to carry the day, and the experience flows from there. The Swordsman, Thief, Archer, and Mage all play very differently from one another, with each possessing basic abilities like defending, double-jumping, dodging, power-boosting, or teleportation that the others lack. Boss encounters can be challenging or easy depending on which hero is the current protagonist, on those handful of occasions where the plot aligns for a major boss battle. The variety of skills helps widen the divide between character play styles, and keeps things fresh through to the end.

   MapleStory DS benefits from its adopted hardware in many ways, but most obviously in terms of graphics. The screen size forces the game to focus on smaller sections of the area maps at a time, and the developers stepped up with a high level of detail and an adapted GUI that takes full advantage of the lower DS screen. Important scenes get special treatment, just not always in the same manner. Reflective or contemplative scenes usually warrant an illustrated splash page, or even a montage, but active scenes get 3D-rendered animation that looks like it came from the later days of the PSX era. While the animation is true to the MapleStory esthetic, this does not make it any less odd when it comes to character proportions.

   Having never played the original game, it's hard to say how much of the musical score MapleStory DS shares with its parent. The environmental themes are all easy on the ears and enjoyable on loop for long periods of time, so those likely originated from the online game, but the major event themes are vibrant and emotional, fitting their scenes as if crafted for them. Like any soundtrack, it has its ups and downs, but overall it's worth having the sound on for this game. The occasional sound cue events for the Mage and Archer, not to mention one or two boss battles, encourage that too.

Swords That Smash Evil I am shouting because this is important!

   I enjoyed this game more than I expected, and my expectations were pretty good after I played part of the sequel at the Tokyo Game Show. The way it handled the interwoven plot was nothing short of fantastic. I've played plenty of games with interweaving plots, and this has to be the most coherent example I've seen using this many main characters. I'd have to go all the way back to Treasure of the Rudra for SNES before I could really name another good example of this style of RPG storytelling. Each protagonist had clear goals, motivations, and plenty of unique material. This may have been Nexon's first attempt at an offline RPG, but the end result was anything but a beginner's effort. I will definitely be getting the 3DS sequel later this year.

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