On a whim yesterday, I decided to try out Scarlet Blade, a new Free-2-Play MMO from Aeria Games. Here are my impressions.
First of all, if you are at all concerned about the depiction of women in video games, Scarlet Blade will probably cause an apoplexy. This game is absolutely shameless. It makes TERA look like something made by Puritans. There are no pictures in this post because pictures would probably make it Not Safe For Work.
You can only play female characters. More accurately, each class corresponds to one female model/body type, though you can change the facial features and hair styles and colors. There are six classes: Defender (tank with a sword), Medic (healer with some sort of gun), Shadow (melee dps with claws), Whipper (melee AoE with a whip), Punisher (ranged dps with rifle), and Sentinel (ranged dps with dual pistols).
The game is a set in a futuristic, somewhat post-apocalyptic setting with an anime vibe. The female models are pretty much built for looks. To be fair, though, the game's lore does make this somewhat understandable. I'll go into more detail a bit further down. Of course, the fact that their clothing (if you can even call it that) is as skimpy as possible is just shameless pandering. There's also a lot of innuendo tossed around.
Combat is the standard hot-key combat, combined with basic theme-park questing. The interesting part of the mechanics is that abilities follow the Diablo 2 model. There are no default abilities other than the basic attack. You have to invest points gained as you level into different abilities. Points can be spent to upgrade old abilities or unlock new ones. So basically, you choose exactly which abilities your character has. If you want heals or buffs, you have to forgo improving dps abilities. If you want DoTs, snares or AoEs, that takes points away from your other abilities. There are also passive abilities that you can invest in.
It actually works quite well, at least while levelling. Endgame with fixed builds might end up in the standard straight-jacket.
One thing to note is that even though there are two factions, questing is the exact same on both sides. Only the name of the faction changes. There may be faction-specific content later on, but I didn't encounter any.
By now, you're probably coming to the conclusion that Scarlet Blade is another themepark MMO pandering to the lowest common denominator of adolescent males. And you'd mostly be right. But there is one element which is possibly worth taking a second look at: how the game treats the relationship between player and avatar.
In most MMOs, indeed most games, the character on screen is assumed to be an independent entity as far the rest of the game world is concerned. The player does not exist, the player is the character.
In Scarlet Blade, however, the female character on screen is an Arkana: a genetically engineered or modified being designed for combat. The player is the Commander of the Arkana, the one who controls it. It's sort of the equivalent of a drone being flown by a pilot back at base.
Only the drone is sentient.
Scarlet Blade runs with this setup. A lot of the quests come in the form of your Arkana talking with you about the situation she is in. NPCs talk to both your Arkana and you. A lot of NPCs don't consider the Arkana to be human at all. One of the questlines for the Punisher involves an NPC Arkana who was forced to come over to your side when her Commander defected.
I find it very interesting that the game is set up this way. It does justify why each class maps to a specific body type, and why there are multiples of that body type running around. I wonder if a lot of men find it more palatable to play as a man controlling a female character, than to play as a female character. I know it more closely maps to how I think of my characters in other MMOs. I am not them, they are my chosen weapon.
As well, it raises a lot of interesting issues. Slavery, mind-control, autonomy, the morality of sentient weapons, remote-control of weapons from a safe location, even gender issues related to control and objectification. I've always been interested in the intersection between player and avatar--as in Slashdance's masterpiece Frame of Mind--and this is one of the few games I've seen tackle that area.
In the hands of a less purient company, this would be an extraordinarily fertile design space. One that is an ideal match for video games. In a lot of respects it is a shame that Scarlet Blade co-opts this idea merely to have an excuse for having scantily-clad female avatars running around.
On the other hand, a more respectable company would have never come up with this scheme in the first place.