"The game has a dynamite aesthetic and is certainly playable, but I was really put off by the 'free-to-play'-ness of the design."
When I think American McGee, my thoughts turn more towards Lewis Carroll-inspired madness and dismemberment; to nightmarish landscapes and dark, dismal thoughts. When I think American McGee, I definitely don't think of Red Riding Hood or Japanese cultural mythology — and yet with Akaneiro: Demon Hunters, Spicy Horse's new free-to-play action RPG, that's exactly what I got. I was able to spend a few hours playing around during the tail of the game's beta test. After creating my character (based on the 'Prowess' stat), I was dropped into the world and tasked with, as you probably expect from this genre, slicing and dicing tons of enemies.
The first thing you'll notice about the game is that it has an incredibly well-developed and well-executed sense of style. Strong black lines dominate the 3D models in the game, and the UI looks as though it was wrought from paint splashes and thick pieces of charcoal. Everything from a fly-ridden corpse on the battlefield to the little pictures of your gear in the inventory menu is part of a cohesive whole, and this is indubitably Akaneiro's most distinctive feature. Without a doubt, the game is very pleasant to look at. Musically, the game features wind and string-heavy standard "Asian-themed" sounds, but most of what I heard was minimal — yet still rather evocative.
The gameplay, however, is a bit more pedestrian. It works as a sort of Diablo-lite, with you whacking and slashing enemies and then scurrying around to grab all the goodies that pop out of their fallen bodies. Special skills are mapped to the right mouse button — and you can have up to three in your arsenal at once. Add in the usual complement of weapon and armor options, and you've got the recipe for most hack-and-slash ARPGs released these days, which is where I found myself somewhat underwhelmed. Combat felt very by-the-numbers, and I wasn't often doing much more than mashing my attack button over and over against the same one or two types of enemies. Granted, this was only early game, but my impressions did not suggest a huge amount of complexity — and admittedly, I expected as much from a browser-based game. The controls were solid, though the game's programming did occasionally feel a bit loose, with animations desyncing and actions sometimes feeling like they lagged a bit behind my button presses.
The game's free-to-play model revolves around Karma shards, little red gems that pop out of your enemies upon their demise. They function both as the primary method of healing (think Diablo III's health orbs) and your main currency. Skills, gear, and resurrections all cost Karma. If you run dry during a boss fight, it's back to town — and here, I had to raise an eyebrow. Because of how limited my options were (attack, special skill, run away), I died several times against the first boss I encountered, and the only way to beat him seemed to be through a war of attrition that left my supply of Karma nearly exhausted. You don't gain experience until you complete a mission, and you don't get even a small amount if you bounce back to town, so there's no grinding to gain levels beforehand, either. I can't speak for the rest of the game, but if this is the general way things progress, it seems like a rather cheap way to ensure you're forced to buy shards now and then.
All in all, I wasn't amazed by my time with Akaneiro. The game has a dynamite aesthetic and is certainly playable, but I was really put off by the "free-to-play"-ness of the design. At every turn it felt like the game was encouraging me to simply buy more Karma shards to make things doable, which itself defeats the usual impetus behind these kinds of games, where building a great character and finding better gear is part of playing, not something you simply buy. I certainly wouldn't write the game off altogether without a bit more playtime, but my time thus far has me a bit apprehensive. It's available both as a downloadable client and via a web-browser, though, so if you want to see for yourself, give the game a shot!