Steam Charts can be fascinating things. They're usually pretty predictable. The latest big thing, except for Battleborn, apparently. A few sad spoors of games that never made it, like the sight of Evolve's player still looking for a new game or hope that it's finally about to take off. Dota 2, because I'm pretty sure that there's a prophecy that the world will end if it doesn't have at least half a million active players.
And then just occasionally, something a little unexpected. Like Tree of Savior, as in either "What the hell is Tree of Savior?", or to the tens of thousands of people playing at the time of writing this, "You know, the successor to Ragnarok Online." Amusingly, it's jockeying for position with Dark Souls 3 at the moment, and two more different genres it's hard to imagine - the land of 'git gud' next to the realm of 'git yur credit crd'.
Korean MMOs stand as an interesting reminder that while most of the world plays games, the how and why can be very different. In Japan for instance, consoles very quickly took over the games market, with the PC largely relegated to porn. In Korea, the growth of heavily grind-driven RPGs rather than the more plot-based and pacey Western games is largely the result of them not being intended to be played at home, but at the 'PC bangs' - cybercafes, where players can buy time on a machine. Competitive games like Starcraft obviously took off as well, but the appeal of many of these RPGs is that sense of interactive wallpaper - something to click-click-click away at while chatting with friends or having a snack. Even with the trusty Skinner box set-up of the average MMO, that's a pretty different set-up to sitting alone in an empty room, maybe while watching a documentary on the history of wool production in the 19th century. Or YouTubers explain in detail why they don't want to see Ghostbusters.
But times do change, and of late we've seen plenty of games try to offer something else. Black Desert Online for instance, with its dynamic questing systems, plot, parkour, resource management and more, all served up in what we apparently now have to call the buy-to-play model. Would Tree of Savior be a similarly interesting game out of nowhere, captivating the hearts and minds of the world with more than just the standard issue gorgeous graphics associated with Korean MMOs?
Well, it might, but it didn't strike much of a chord with me. It's more ARPG than most, with direct player-control and attacks. The first thing I noticed though wasn't the lovely hand-drawn style, but the bar across the top of the screen selling all kinds of random crap. After that though, yes, the genuinely lovely art immediately kicked in. It's a 3D game with 2D sprites, and an immediate sense of silliness if not comedy. A magical teacher casually called Alistair Crowley. Lots of new players running around with onions on their heads - sentient onions being one of the early enemies to whip like flies. Then when you talk to many of the main characters you get decently drawn close-up portraits that help fill you in on some of the subtleties of this world. Specifically, that it's very big on corsets, and any children you see will be very well fed.
But you can see why it's popular as a time-killer, even facing enemies who couldn't hurt you if you gave them your weapon and a hundred free shots. It's got that satisfying thump as sword hits monster, the jangling of gems being swept up afterwards, and a decent sense of pathing to the next bunch of monsters that need smacking. Where something like Grim Dawn works best when it's cranked up to the tension of you versus impossible odds, this is the satisfaction of a dopamine drip. Early on, at least. Reading the forums it looks like it gets a lot more complicated later on, with custom character builds, a lot of gold sinks and players already trading (shudder) 'git gud's about the possibility of doing things like getting to Level 75, realising that you've ballsed everything up, and going back to the start to hopefully get it right this time. That's not my idea of a particularly good time, though it is still arguably a better use of most player's time than, say, learning Esperanto - the language that could have stopped at "Do you speak Esperanto?" "Yes!" and some kind of vocalised high-five.
How long will Tree of Savior last in the charts? Tough to say, and the top slots tend not to move around that much. Just beating the likes of Rust and Stellaris and Doom on the Steam lists a pretty good start for any game though, even if ARK: Survival Evolved currently holds the MMO top-slot. Of course, Steam is just a tiny fraction of the audience for most F2P games (and not often a good one to look for, given how many it just handles the launcher for rather than the actual game). Tree of Saviour's predecessor Ragnarok Online for instance boasted 25 million subscribers at its height, even if the definition of 'subscriber' wasn't the same as Blizzard's 'people who are literally giving us £8 a month to play', with free to play games often having total sign-up audiences clocking in over a hundred million. Some of them not even just bots programmed to spam gold trades in all the chat channels! (Presumably)
Anyway. While I can't say that this one jumped out as one of those great surprises like Undertale or Final Fantasy XIV, it's certainly built up something of a following. If you want to give it a try, it's also free. Though very much the kind of free where you can see it holding a hand out later, for progress if not for direct benefit against other players, and with players already referring to 'f2p scrubs' and the like. Check it on Steam, and if you see any other interesting looking MMOs coming as if out of nowhere, holler. Even if 'nowhere' does technically mean a super-popular MMO that simply doesn't get mentioned much around the likes of World of Warcraft and its Western ilk.