APRIL 16, 2013 - When a game sets out to be something that lovingly riffs on other games, it should probably remember that it needs to be a good game itself. While Knights of Pen and Paper is by no means a bad game, it's not really something easily recommended over the plethora of other mobile RPG's available. It wants you to look at silly design ideas of other RPG's, by making you experience them all in one game.
The concept is appreciably straightforward: you're playing characters around a table who are about ready to enter the world of their Game Master, who is going to take the party on a strangely formulaic adventure. It's a very Munchkin or Knights of the Dinner Table approach: lovingly reference the games we grew up playing, both tabletop and video, but acknowledge that they can be super silly. The only difference is that Munchkin is a fun card game, and Knights of the Dinner Table is a funny comic. Knights of Pen and Paper, however, attempts to dish out meta-humor, and instead falls flatter than a week old cup of Mountain Dew.
A not-uncommon scene of the game.
While assuming the role of the players as one would assume control of a party in any given RPG, you must complete quests, travel the world, slay the baddies, and get the gold. The perspective you see in-game is always behind your players, all donning hats to represent their classes, grouped in front of the GM as he takes you into this mad-cap fantasy world. The visuals behind the GM constantly change between static environments, but you never leave the players who are playing it and their table. It makes for a nice and easy touch-interface because it doesn't have any moving parts. And it's a nice attempt at being meta, but ultimately feels uneventful and bland.
One of the quests early on is to obtain 20 apples from rats. To get this quest you have to open the quest menu, sort through a bunch of different quests, some of which are inexplicably higher level than you, and then have a villager tell you why you need to kill a bunch of rats. Then, you can start battling the rats. To do so, you bring up a battle menu, select the number and type of monsters you wish to battle at a time, and then hop into some standard turn-based affairs akin to the original Final Fantasy, or more contemporary titles like Etrian Odyssey. Widdle the monsters down to zero hit points, and collect your rewards. I find a certain pleasure out of more straightforward RPG's like the older Final Fantasy and Shin Megami Tensei titles, so it's not the combat that bothers me. The problem here is the quest design. Clearly, we're making fun of the dumb quests typical in early levels of any RPG, and more specifically, the inane quest design of turn-of-the-century MMO's like Everquest. But if you're going to make fun of the quest design, you cannot turn around and design your quest in exactly the same way. When it reaches the point that I had to kill some 30-35 rats and epic rats just to get the 20 apples I needed, we've gone too far. That is some grinding-for-the-sake-of-grinding RPG mechanics that makes me pine for the days of finding bear intestines in World of Warcraft.
The character creation/level-up page.
So the quest design is mediocre at its best, but there are some more intriguing aspects of the game. The character progression system is evocative of Etrian Odyssey. Instead of a skill tree, each class has 4 abilities that you can put points into to improve with each level. You can start to really synergize with other classes, and form some very unique combinations. You can eventually get your own World of Warcraft style 5-man dungeon going with one tank, one healer, and 3 different types of damage. It's a rather satisfying thing to watch your characters progress in the same way that it's cool to see your business blossom in some business simulator. Unfortunately, you have to sit there fighting 35 rats to start getting anywhere. I'll also say one really nice thing about the combat: if you just want to do a standard attack with your weapon, you can just tap the enemy and you do damage, rather than having to dig through a menu. Even more awesome, if you're using the touch menu at the bottom, and you're down to only one enemy, hitting "attack" will just automatically attack. You don't have to constantly re-select the only opponent standing on the field arbitrarily. I know it's a small thing but I always find it frustrating to basically say "Yes, I really do still want to hit the only person I can right now."
Financial progression is also painfully slow, and it is the key to getting anything else in the game. You earn money that you can use to buy either health items and equipment from the local store, or to buy things for the "out of game" aspect, like stat-boosting pets, tables, and additional players to serve as extra party members. It's kind of neat, but it creates a strange split between the meta game and the in-game, and everything is just so expensive that you're going to need to kill a LOT of rats and skeletons to start getting anywhere.
There's no real story to the game; it's built on a very pickup-and-play premise. All you do is quest after quest, moving to different towns when necessary to complete aforementioned quests. It's all very standard affair, dragging along some attempts at tongue-in-cheek references to both video game and tabletop RPG's. One of the quests had me visit a village called the Wizards of the East Coast, referencing the publishers of Magic the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons. Oddly, it was on the west side of the map, so it took me awhile to find. But that's really about the best of the referential humor you're going to see out of the game: something that might make you exhale through your nose loudly as your plucking away at the menus buried within menus.
Visually the game is trying to evoke a feeling of "the days of old" with 8-bit, pixelated graphics. Knights of Pen and Paper has it's own style, and I'll give it credit for that. Some of the stuff in the "meta" side of games look kind of weird and out-of-place, like an oddly less-pixelated cartoon beaver that just hangs out next to the DM. Accompanying the visuals is an immediately forgettable soundtrack that tries to be retro, and just feels dated and cheap.
When it comes to RPG's, there is a wide selection of games to choose from, even on just the Android and iOS platforms alone. You may be hard pressed to find sizable RPG experiences at only $1.99, for certain, but you won't be so hard pressed to find more unique experiences for just a little more cash.