|Dev: Stairway Games|
|Pub: Perfect World|
|Release: (Open Beta)|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Robert VerBruggen
In the half-decade quest to create the next World of Warcraft, no developer has succeeded—but some have made significant improvements to the MMO juggernaut's model. Perhaps the most impressive are games that replace WoW's lackluster combat with tight beat 'em up or hack 'n' slash mechanics. Rusty Hearts is the latest entry in this arcade-based tradition, and while it has plenty of flaws, it offers hours of button-mashing carnage in a gothic setting for no charge.
The first thing you'll notice when you boot up Rusty Hearts is its unique vibe. The music is a spooky medley of acoustic guitar, piano, and metal tracks. The aesthetic is an interesting blend of photorealism and anime—the environments look like they came out of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, complete with the haunted castles and undead enemies, while the characters are cel-shaded and dressed in a Final Fantasy-ish emo style.
Speaking of characters, your first task will be to choose from among three of them (a fourth, a very attractive lady, will become available soon). While there's no customization to speak of until you start finding gear, each character has their own backstory and a unique look. I went with Angela, a spunky redhead with magical powers who swings her weapons in a slow (but powerful and wide) arc. Those who prefer MMO characters to be anonymous might find it offputting, but to me it was a nice change of pace.
Once you hit the street, the purpose of the game is to invade Castle Curtis and take down the evil vampire Vlad, and frequent but short cutscenes place your quests in the context of an unfolding plot. The quests are divided into story, normal, and random types, but they almost always involve going into a section of dungeon for some reason or another. You'll go to that section, fight through it, kill the final boss, and then get a new quest—which very well may send you back to the same section of dungeon to do something else. Yes, Rusty Hearts wrings every hour of gameplay it can out of its in-game real estate.
In between quests, you'll do a variety of things—repair your gear (do not forget to do this regularly), trade, buy weapons and armor, bring raw materials to businesses that do crafting—but these feel more like routine chores than a core part of the experience. The message is clear: Rusty Hearts is all about the dungeons, not about a big, persistent world that you can get lost exploring. Even when the hub city of Bramunez opens up a little, you'll spend as little time in it as possible.
The dungeons themselves are unapologetically linear. Like God of War and its countless clones, they place you in a room, throw some enemies at you, and then unlock the next room when the enemies are all dead. Rusty Hearts is shameless about repeating this process hundreds of times—the rooms are all separated by plant-like walls that disappear when the enemies die; there is no effort to make the breaks between rooms seem realistic or natural.
As far as combat goes, while the environment is 3D, Rusty Hearts is still basically a side-scroller like Streets of Rage, complete with the ability to juggle multiple enemies with the same combos. In the default control setup, you move with the arrow keys, and when confronting enemies you can attack, grab, block, use any magical skills you've acquired, and consume your power-ups. Personally, though, I preferred a USB controller, because I've never found the arrow keys very effective in 3D games.
Further, the difficulty is low enough at first that unless you play quests well above your level, it doesn't really matter what you do until you get to the boss fights—as long as you keep hammering buttons, you'll be fine. This is fun enough for a while, but eventually you start to wish you had more of an incentive to truly master the game's impressive combo system, which the game doesn't deliver until you've put in many hours of play time.
Unsurprisingly, Rusty Hearts has plenty of multiplayer components for those who get bored of questing solo. You can tackle a dungeon in a group, though I found this tends to make the game even easier and more repetitive unless the dungeon's difficulty is set very high. There's also PvP action to be had if you're Level 10 or higher, but this is also a button-mashing fest, my character's slow movements didn't seem suited for it, and there weren't enough players around to match everyone up well. (My first fight found me, at Level 10, facing an opponent at the level cap of 25.) For modes, there's deathmatch, survival, tag team, and "VIP" (in which the game ends when your team's leader dies). Survival and tag team seem to be the most common on the servers.