A World Without Robin Hood : Sherwood Dungeon Review by MMORPG Examiner

by Jaime Skelton

October 1st, 2010

Original Article: http://www.examiner.com/mmorpg-in-national/a-world-without-robin-hood-sherwood-dungeon-review

 Although a few months ago, Love was a big buzzword in the world of MMOs because of its one-man development team, the small team, independent MMO is nothing new in the world of online multiplayer gaming. Neverdaunt 8bit has also been around for a while, and standing longer than both of these games is Sherwood Dungeon, a game that has passed its sixth year in May. Sherwood Dungeon began as a hobby creation of Gene Endrody, but has evolved to a game that has gained a million monthly visitors and a cult-like following.

There's one thing that is certain about Sherwood Dungeon: it's not like other MMOs or online games. To walk in with the expectations of a classic MMORPG only results in confusion, and even frustration. While the game certainly offers a few traditional elements, it deviates more often than it stays on course, and it's only with an open mind and a little early patience that players can begin to really appreciate what Sherwood Dungeon has to offer.

Whose Team Are You On?

Saying there is a character creation process in Sherwood Dungeon is technically incorrect. Upon logging in, players can choose from six avatars (three male, two female, and one skeleton of indeterminate gender). Depending on the avatar chosen, players can also choose a hair style. Otherwise, the only other option players have is their choice of "team" color and crest (shield) color. The main color not only dictates what color the player's primary armor piece appears as, but also what "team" they are on. This essentially means players wearing the same color cannot attack each other.

This process, however, is repeated on every log-in (preferences are saved for those who create accounts versus those who simply log in as a guest). Players can, in fact, change any of these options at any time during their gameplay by pulling up the character screen. Bored of playing a doom knight? Want to be a girl (or boy, or skeleton) for a change? Go right ahead.

This also means, however, there is limited personalization when it comes to a player's character. The only defining thing that stays with a character as they change is their current weapon set. There are no armor pieces that display on a character. Ultimately, characters are generally non-descript and undefined, flexible and fluid. While certain players may choose and stick with a permanent look -- especially if in a clan -- most can and will change as they please. What the player lacks in personalization, they make up for in the fluidity of the choice to change.

An Even Playing Field

Like many MMOs, Sherwood Dungeon has a level system. Players gain experience by completing quests and killing enemies, and as an experience bar fills up, they gain a level, growing a little more powerful. However, the level system has limited effect on the actual battlefield, resulting more in a sense of personal satisfaction and bragging rights than actual progression.

Level has so little effect for two reasons: one, NPC enemies scale with level; and two, level and equipment are equalized in PvP. Although level results in better health and better equipment available, this will only affect how well you do against enemies based on whether you keep your equipment up to date with your level. Enemies themselves have no level, and players, while they may be levelled far ahead in progression, can still be bested by a level one player who knows how to properly fight. This means all content, and all PvP, is open to players of any level or time commitment. While this equalization means you can't simply overpower another player or certain content because of your level, it also means a fair playing field that doesn't require a long-term time commitment to enjoy.

Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive and ... Dodge

The combat system in Sherwood is an interesting creature. Sherwood Dungeon is an action game, which means every attack and defense move must be input real-time by the player. While there are skills that players learn as they gain levels, there is no skill bar and no auto-attack. There is, however, much more to combat in Sherwood than tossing punches.

There are three basic attack types any player begins with: the attack, the block, and the talisman (which can only be used once a player has equipped a talisman). Many new players -- myself included -- begin by taking block for granted. This is, perhaps, a result of a culture of games that have taught us that defensive manuevers are only necessary when we are losing badly, but that a full-out offense will usually allow us to best any opponent. Sherwood, however, is not so gentle. The first area itself will usually school a player that a full-out offense will only result in constant death and embarrassment.

There's still more to combat though besides alternating blocking and attacking. Simply holding down the block key will put your character in a permanently defensive state, however, the character goes from a high block (strong) to a low block (vulnerable) while block is held down. Simply holding down block while being attacked will result in attacks still coming through; instead, blocks must be timed with the rhythm of the opponent's attacks, whether it be another player or an NPC. Each attack, be it regular or a skill, has its own attack timing as well, so players must learn to properly read each movement's telegraph and block accordingly to avoid any incoming damage. Blocking has another bonus as well: successfully blocking attacks results in gaining a bonus on your own. A truly succcessful fighter must learn to read each of their opponent's moves, knowing when to block and when to attack.

The "magic" of this system is perhaps one of Sherwood's most appealing features: action combat requires skill, timing, patience, and forethought, even against NPCs. Playing only offensively through attack spamming, or rushing through battles, will result in defeat. Proper timing and reaction to a fight, on the other hand, can leave a player ending a fight with full health, besting even harder enemies without breaking a sweat. Skill is king.

C'mon and Fight Me

Because of its "in-your-face" style of combat, Sherwood Dungeon is a natural supporter of PvP. Because of this, the game is an open PvP game: any player can attack another, at any time. However, there are also caveats to how this system works, in such a way that a player can completely opt out of PvP without the need for a PvP "flagging" system.

First, you cannot attack players of the same color "team." Players can, as mentioned earlier, change their color at any time, so team color means little except for players who want to hunt together without hurting each other in the process. Second, players cannot actually be hurt by someone attacking them unless they consent by returning the attacks.

This process became quite clear to me when I was hunting some form of spider on a dungeon level. Another player decided he was intent on trying to PvP with me -- but only if they had the upper hand to start with. The player would hang around at a distance, and then charge in after I was engaged with an NPC enemy, trying to stand in front of me so that my attacks would land on the player instead of the enemy. Unfortunately, the player failed to realize I was smart to this kind of tactic; they also failed to realize that by doing so, they effectively stepped in and starting taking damage for me from the enemy. I continued my quest, slaying each enemy and carefully avoiding attacks on the player until I was complete with the quest, then turned to engage the player -- now under half health from taking blows for me in his quest to get me to PvP -- and he darted away smartly. Of course, this wasn't the only option I had with this player either. You can ignore a player both physically and through the game system itself, also preventing them from having any effect on you.

PvP also comes with its frustrations though. Players can simply choose to run away if they're losing, and some players may find certain activities (blocking, moving from side to side around the player, using talismans) unsportsmanlike. Ultimately, the choice to engage, and the terms of engagement themselves, are all very much within the player's hands, allowing the player to adapt their playstyle moment to moment.

Fetch Me a Shrubbery

Sherwood offers more than simply picking random battles with enemies or players for the entreupenuering character, of course. There are two forms of quests for people to embark on: the story quest, and random quests in the dungeon.

The story quest allows players to learn the story of Sherwood, following quests from one NPC to another in a quest chain to ultimately summon a great weapon and defeat a great evil. This quest chain takes characters through the nine major areas of Sherwood, all outdoor areas in which enemies drop loot and roam freely around. These areas each have a theme, and offer a few tasks before sending the player on their way to the next area.

Dungeoning, however, is the more traditional style of Sherwood. Here, players speak to the Lady Marian for a quest to go delve into the dungeon (at a level matching theirs), killing a specific set of enemies, to return for a reward. These quests are random, and players are free to refuse her quests until she offers a reward or task that they prefer, before heading down below. The dungeon has dozens of levels, but one may only progress so far based on their level (for instance, at level 10, I was only capable of going as far as level 12). Here, enemies themselves do not drop loot, but players can find and search chests and barrels for equipment.

No Holding Hands

One thing that Sherwood Dungeon strongly lacks is a sense of community. That isn't to insult the community Sherwood has -- there exists quite an enthusiastic one. It refers, instead, to the sense of interconnectivity and interaction within the game itself, or more succinctly, what one can actually do with other players in game.

The limits of Sherwood are perhaps evidenced most in interaction between players. The most common of any interaction, outside of chat, is PvP, as discussed above. Any player can -- and often will -- walk up to you and start trying to pick a fight by swinging at you. Some may even try to harrass players by constantly trying to engage them in a fight, even when the other player shows no interest. PvP is rarely personal, at least among most players; rather, it's just a sudden attempt to see which player can win a duel. Discussion about PvP is often limited to accusing players of not having good sportsmanship.

Players can also self-identify themselves as part of a clan, simply by typing in a clan tag, which often references the clan as well as their rank in the clan. The Sherwood culture results in clans typically claiming a base of their own - usually a choice of server and dungeon level. Clans themselves do end up forming alliances, making enemies, and even raiding or going to war together, but the entire system is very much player-driven. There is no clan chat, no official invite into a clan like there might be in a typical MMO guild system, no ability to group with other players, no benefits award at all to a clan. In short, clans must adapt around the game's structure, rather than let the game structure support the clan.

These is one final aspect of the Sherwood community not spoken of: its economy. There is none. Players cannot trade with each other at all; items can only be sold to merchants (and cannot be bought back by any player). The only item that can be given to another player is the "gift," a special item found from killing enemies outside the dungeon. These gifts can then be either sent to a new player outside the game (via email address) or to a current player. These items are special and this is the only way players can ever trade, but there is no way of knowing what the gift will contain. Gifts remain only as a way of showing kindness, appreciation, or friendliness to other players. While the gift system in and of itself is fantastic, a lack of any sort of economy or trading means that players are fully self-sufficient in the game: in short, a player needs not ever interact with another player for any benefit at all.

Proud to be Different

 I once visited Sherwood many years ago on the encouragement of a friend, only to be baffled by the entire game and to quit within an hour. Revisiting the game with a shedding of expectations, and the patience and openness to a new experience, allowed me a chance to really get a feel for what Sherwood Dungeon is - and what it isn't. To classify Sherwood Dungeon as an MMORPG alongside the hundreds of other modern games sharing that label would be inappropriate; Sherwood is "something else."

 Sherwood Dungeon has a way of bringing players back to their RPG roots, into the homey comfort of dungeon crawling and simplified progression and questing. There's something innately fun about delving deeper and deeper into dungeons, discovering chests, and returning only briefly to the surface before going even deeper below. Sherwood appeals to that core soft spot in the RPG player, and adds to it the excitement of real-time action combat that has a rhythm and learning curve all its own. Even the most entrenched MMO player can find the game growing on them the longer they play and endeavor to learn the game's secrets.

It's true, the graphics and gameplay are somewhat dated, player interaction as a whole is lacking, and as a whole, the game can't compete with its larger competitors in the massively multiplayer online gaming market. The beautiful thing about Sherwood, however, is that it isn't meant to. This can be seen at the base of both the players' passion for the game and its creator's; at the base business model of the game (completely free-to-play, with the only microtransactions being pets and mounts that cost $5 per year); and in the game's simple tenacity to have already stuck it out six years - a goal many free-to-play games never meet. While Sherwood may not be for everyone, while it may not "jive" with every modern MMO players, it nonetheless has a successful formula that has many players marching to the beat of a different drum.