Last year Snowblind Studios and Sony Online Entertainment scored on the PS2 with the release of Champions of Norrath, an Everquest-based hack & slash RPG with free online action. It was met with both critical and commercial success, no doubt based upon the feverish popularity of the Everquest brand, despite being no MMORPG. A year later, the franchise returns with Champions: Return to Arms, a direct sequel to Norrath. Like the original, it?s a fine hack & slash RPG that?s both lengthy and challenging, with vastly improved online play. A couple of silly bugs hamper the game, but they don’t ruin it. Like most hack & slash games, it can become repetitive, but if you?re a fan of this genre of role-playing, Return to Arms is a no-brainer, and definitely one of the better action RPGs on a game console despite some of its notable flaws.
If you played Champions of Norrath, you can import your character from that game and put them to use in Return to Arms, unlocking the higher difficulty settings that way. Like before, a new player can only use the default difficulty level until they beat the game, and then they get a new setting. In order to get the highest you?d have to beat the game 3 times, each time with your existing character, complete with their last levels and items from the end of the last playthrough. The classes consist of the same ones from Norrath, along with a new pair; a lizard-like shaman and a tiger/lion look-alike to add a little exotic flavor to the usual barbarians, clerics, and the like. Each one has their particular pluses and minuses ? a cleric or ranger should keep their distance due to low health, while barbarians should get right into the fray and tank during a skirmish, relying on potions to restore health. On the other hand, these same barbarians have no mana regeneration or reliance on skills, while clerics can fight up close at times and cast useful spells from a distance as well. The classes really make their impact in multiplayer; like many MMORPGs, having a well-balanced party is the first key to success. Nobody runs into a hard battle with 4 barbarians, but instead a well-rounded group of adventurers.
Whether you?re playing solo or multiplayer, offline or online, Return to Arms’ plot maintains the same situation ? the Prince of Hate, who was destroyed in Champions of Norrath, has been shattered into shards and sent across the planes, and must be recovered before all are in the hands of evil and thus used to resurrect the evil Prince. Not that anybody really cares, as it?s the freaking Everquest world that?s always been pointlessly overly dramatic. The one difference is the ability to be good or evil; right off the bat you either side with the Champions or side with evil and collect the shards to help the revival process. There?s little difference in the story arc aside from a few different twists and story tidbits, but it?s doubtful you?ll really care, Return to Arms is definitely not a game built upon a storyline, but instead the addictive hack & slash action. Thankfully the game does last a good while. Though there?s no in-game clock to tell you how long you?ve played, it?s roughly 20 hours to beat on your own.
The basic gist of Return to Arms is like its forebear, Diablo ? hack enemies, slash enemies, cast spells at enemies, find new armor and weapons, collect gold, level up, etc. Nothing really new and this is the kind of stuff that makes the game an RPG, albeit a different RPG from the Final Fantasies of the world. The level-up system lets you customize a character?s skills, from basic enhancements to stats to learning/upgrading unique skills that help you fight tougher enemies. The action is fast and furious at some times, slow and strategic at others, where you stand in place recovering health/mana before tackling the next set of baddies. For every time you have to fight off 10 goblins at once, there?s a particularly tough set of enemies you have to ?lure? out slowly to progress through ? especially in situations where a boss battle is near and you actually want to survive. The game is pretty damn challenging, though never really cheap aside from the bosses that are capable of rendering one- or two-hit kills, making the fights frustrating at times. There?s some weird balance at times too, with some levels being very difficult and others pretty easy, though this perhaps is dependent on which character class you use. And the way the game is setup, you can?t really overlevel aside from being sure to slaughter everything in your path for the most possible experience, so you just need to be strategic and smart to win ? a surprise seeing hack & slash games are considered by many to be mindless. Only one small section deviates from the traditional dungeon crawling gameplay; a somewhat annoying stealth sequence that?s trial and error at its worst.
Visually, Return to Arms is beautiful. Despite the semi-overhead view that obscures the action sometimes, leaving you open for blind attacks, the game overall looks sharp. You’ll see clean textures, nice character designs, great spell effects, and a vast variety in Planes ? almost every level and section in the game looks like something brand new, each with their own quality details. A well-implemented map system that?s been retained for years is also a great benefit, hiding away in the upper corner for ease of use (if you choose to keep it on-screen, of course). It fills in as you go along, revealing alternate paths, checkpoints, warps, and exits. The three different camera angles allow for up-close action (which demonstrates the beauty of the game but gives you less visibility), and up to long-distance that shows more of the field. You can play your own way, basically. It?s apparent that Snowblind has a very solid grasp on the PS2 hardware, and has pumped out a game that almost defies the age of the console.
Aside from the main quest, you can partake in some challenges in completed planes and acquire some medals. Most are best left for later on, as beating the Four Horsemen at a low level, for instance, is a very tough call compared to doing it in the 20?s. There?s also a small sidequest to get the most powerful weapon in the game at the Plane of Valor, but otherwise Return to Arms is a very direct and linear game that manages to be fun for 20+ hours despite not being very original and more of the same similar to past games in its genre. Whether you play online with friends, offline with friends, or in single player, the game is fun, enjoyable, and addictive at times to boot. The wacky difficulty curve is cumbersome, but at the same time it gradually increases with your level, for a more progressive challenge. Return to Arms is in short like any other game in its genre ? if you love this kind of gameplay, you?ll dig it since the evolution is pretty stunted but at the same time it?s still the same quality hack & slash action you love. If these games aren?t your favorite, well then you?ll probably not enjoy it, but non-fans may find themselves enjoying the full experience.