A little look at…Ragnarok Battle Offline

French Bread may be busy these days with the likes of Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax and the catchily-titled Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late, but back in 2004 they were a small doujin circle trying out everything from one-on-one beat ‘em ups to shoot ‘em ups and, to complete the classic trinity of ‘em-ups, this Ragnarok Online themed side-scrolling beat ‘em up.

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A quick note: the ‘Offline’ part of the title’s important, and suprisingly it’s not to distinguish the game from it’s Korean MMO big brother. Ragnarok Battle Offline actually started out (and was released as) Ragnarok Battle Online – a Flash game that appears to have either vanished from the web or simply lost in the cracks of the internet due to the title being an amalgam of two vastly more popular games.

The other thing I want to bring up is the classic story of Ragnarok’s official owners being so impressed with this game that they licensed it for proper release in South Korea – and this is true. But the really interesting titbit that’s often left unsaid is that the Japanese original’s near-as-dammit official in the first place, with the reverse of the box sporting an official Ragnarok Online holographic sticker – as do both soundtrack CDs.

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But that’s quite enough Ragnarok-related online/online[other]/offline[like online, No Not That One] talk, what makes this game special is that it’s still damned good fun even if you don’t know if a Poring’s something you hit, ride, or eat. It’s a mechanically sound beat ‘em up with all sorts of great touches that go far above and beyond the sort of quality and good design sense expected of a mere fan game – combos, air recovery, dashing (air dashing too) and the ability to block are all there for you to learn how to master, with Guardian Heroes-style skill/spell execution the icing on an already indulgent cake.

In keeping with Ragnarok Online’s gameplay stats, skills, and spells are learned and upgraded after gaining enough XP to level up, with some requiring a certain amount of points invested in a particular stat or skill to unlock. Not only does this give you free reign to tailor your chosen class to your personal tastes but it also means that by the time you’re ready for a new trick you’ve had plenty of time with the old one, creating an experience that layers extra complexity and tactics onto your chosen character the longer you play. The simple pleasure of watching my Magician grow from a walking glass cannon to a walking nuclear warhead helped immeasurably in making the stat allocation screen feel like an integral and enjoyable part of the game rather than fiddly busywork between zapping orcs and fish.

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Even with such engaging gameplay there’s always a danger of this sort of game turning into a dull conveyor belt of enemies to endlessly smack in the face until the designer decides you’re done even if you do have up to two extra friends in tow – but not so with Ragnarok Battle Offline! Here you’ll find yourself struggling to see in dark caves, running away from giant boulders, squaring up to an orc woman after destroying her washing line… the variety packed in is a delight both for completely new players as well as Ragnarok veterans, and indeed any MMO fan will chuckle at the bots in the background of certain stages or the panicked player streaking past with a line of aggro’d mobs on their tail. There’s a real love and respect for the source material here that thankfully never crossed over into blind hero-worship, always considering whether the little nod or cameo adds to the overall experience.

It’s not an especially long game (there are nine stages in total), but with classes playing very differently from each other and also changing again based on your chosen gender there’s an awful lot to discover, and mastery will take even longer still. The game is always keeping a record of your best times through every section of every stage, encouraging repeat play even after everything’s been seen and done. Those who really must have more Ragnarok Battle Offline will be happy to hear three expansion packs were released with a selection of all-new stages to conquer although actually buying them outside Japan is a pain in the rear (and not something I’ve been able to do myself, sadly). Anyone who’s spent a weekend on Gravity’s successful MMO will find something to raise a smile in here, and those that wouldn’t touch an online title even if their life depended on it will be left with ‘just’ a lively and incredibly enjoyable side-scrolling beat ‘em up.