Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen - My First Hands-on Impressions

Despite having been in some form of development for the past 10 years, Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen didn't really open its servers to the player community until earlier on in 2024. They've had a few things that people who backed the game with large sums of money could participate in but the larger backing community of the game has been kept at arm's length for much of the game's development until now.

A few months back, the studio behind the game announced what they call Seasons, which to me are just a series of recurring alpha and beta testing sessions meant to garner support with the community while the dev teams continues to work on the game. Regardless, I was excited to get my invitation to participate in Season 1.

With my supporter pledge, I was only given access for the last week of Season 1. Others who had contributed more to the game's crowdsourced funding could have enjoyed up to 6 weeks of playing time. Of course, the week my pledge level was given access to the game was also the same week of my youngest son's birthday and ended right before Easter. This meant that my week would have other things going on that would compete for my time and attention so that I would not be able to devote an entire week to finally getting my feet wet with a game that I've been following for the past 5 years.

Despite the distractions, I did manage to fill many hours with the game. The game is still far from finished so the options I and others were given were limited but it was still sufficient for us to start to get an idea of how the game is coming together. Below are my experiences and my thoughts on the game as it sat at the end of Season 1. Season 2 starts in a few weeks for me and the dev team has promised a number of changes between then and now so my experiences are subject to change next Season but I still think its important to document where everything started.

First and foremost, you can't play an MMORPG without a character. I created a total of 3 characters in my 1 week of gaming. I wanted to compare various character classes to see how differently they played, what their skills were like, and just in general get an idea of which classes I preferred. There were several choices to pick from but I chose to create, in this order, a Cleric, an Enchanter, and a Paladin.

The first thing that stood out to me during character creation though was that of all the races documented on the game's website the only race available in Season 1 was Human. None of the other planned races were included. Now, I could pick between Male and Female Human but that was it. I couldn't even customize the look of my Human. All Male Humans looked alike just as all Female Humans looked alike.  It was a server full of identical siblings. As this was just the first "Season" of testing, I overlooked that limitation but it was a bit disappointing that so few options were available.

Starting with my cleric, I sat out to explore and adventure solo. With a group, players can level up fast and experience a variety of locations that solo players can't in the same amount of time but that speed also means that you can't dive very deep into any one thing. I want to experience my character's skills and abilities. I want to test my character's animations, combat prowess, experience growth, etc. If I'm in a group where all I do is heal my teammates then I don't get the full experience of my character's design. There might be critical bugs in one ore more of my abilities that I don't use because as a member of a larger group I don't need but as a solo player I may depend on.

I wandered around the starting town to get my lay of the land. Immediately, I noticed that the town was sparsely populated with NPCs. Again, Season 1 so things are not expected to be fully laid out but there were enough NPCs. The majority of the NPCs were class trainers, trade skill trainers, and the occasional random person that was likely part of a quest if not a quest giver. In terms of vendors, about the only vendors in the town were skill vendors. There was 1 guy that sold slightly upgraded weapons from the starting weapon each character was issued at the time of creation but there were no other vendors that offered upgraded equipment of any kind. It seemed, at least for Season 1, that it was going to be largely driven by player made items for players to obtain upgrades to their gear. Some monsters might drop some gear but most was worse than your starting gear. Only through learning trade skills would you be able to make your own, otherwise it would be a matter of saving up money to buy upgrades from other players.

Such crafted equipment is pretty standard within MMOs. What jumped out at me early on in this one though was that trade skill levels were strictly tied to your character's adventure level. In a number of MMOs, players can level up their trade skills independently of their adventure. As long as you have the materials to craft with you can grow and expand your crafting skills as high as possible as soon as you create the character. That isn't the case in Pantheon. Just like your combat skills are limited to preset cap each time you level up, your trade skills are also capped per level.

This was both cool and annoying.

Its cool because it forces players to adventure to improve their crafting skills and not have one "toon" that goes out collecting goods for another toon to craft with. I think the intention is to encourage players to do both so that player crafted goods don't skew the economy. But it was annoying because my character's gear was in need of replacement but my adventure level wasn't high enough to allow me to create the gear I needed to be safe. I felt my Cleric's capabilities at solo combat were struggling to keep up with the combat abilities of my targets and my gear couldn't offer enough protection to keep me alive. My poor Cleric died many times and never got higher than level 6. Eventually, I was able to scratch together enough cash to buy armor from other players that would offer more protection but I was frustrated that I couldn't get my skill up high enough to do it myself despite having all of the necessary materials.

What's more annoying is that in this first Season there was nothing that told me what my minimum skill levels were for anything. I would get what I needed from the trainers to make the goods I wanted only to get a message of "Your skill is not high enough!" when I attempted to make said items. Nothing at the trainer said what minimum skill levels I needed to use those skills and when I attempted to use them the game only told me it wasn't enough. I felt that was insufficient. Its one thing to make it a challenge, but there's no challenge in simply hiding that information. The challenge is in obtaining the necessary levels, not determining what levels that needs to be.

As it turned out, I needed to be level 9 to make what I wanted. At level 9, the mobs I would be fighting would outclass the gear I would have been able to make. There seems to be a lack of balance there in what I can make and when compared to what I'd be fighting at that same level. And maybe that's the challenge the developers are going for but as a player I want more balance. I don't always want to feel like I'm behind in gear. Maybe let me make better gear earlier but as my skills increase with my level then I can make that same gear but better. For example, i can make stitched level armor at level 6 but the stats are guaranteed to be minimum stats for that gear whereas at level 9 as my skill increases I have a chance to make that same gear but with boosted stats. It lets me stay even with the mobs I'm hunting in terms of quality but also gives me the opportunity as I grow to replace my gear more evenly. Or maybe just add more gear that can be crafted so players can step up between tiers more easily.

In contrast to crafting, Pantheon offers something new compared to its predecessor EQ. With EQ, characters gained access to new spells every few levels. You might get 5 new spells at level 9 but then nothing until level 14 where you might get another 5 new spells. But with Pantheon, at least in Season 1, characters got at least 1 new spell at every level. I liked this a lot! It made my character feel like steady growth was actually happening. Sure, I can see that might be annoying at higher levels when you're out adventuring far from town when it isn't convenient to visit a trainer at every level but at the starting levels that was nice to see.

Why can't crafting be like that? My class spells tell me what level I need to be to use them. Why can't crafting give me that information? Why can't I learn new crafting recipes at each level? Maybe that will make crafting less annoying. Why let me create every recipe for tattered leather right out of the gate? Let me learn some recipes and then as I skill up I can learn more. That might make crafting feel more rewarding.

As for the world itself, there's no map. The original EQ had no in-game map. Players had to know where they were going, usually through trial and error. Pantheon is the same. At times, I found this frustrating because as a new player I wanted to know where things were but couldn't. But at the same time, it was refreshing to know that I was truly adventuring. I could round a corner and be smack dab in the middle of a nasty bandit hideout, just like if I was out wandering the wilderness for real. That lack of a map really gave me OG EQ vibes.

Combat was very similar to EQ. You had a basic auto-attack and a variety of skills and spells that you could employ at your discretion. The one big change though was that skills and spells use a variety of resources now. With original EQ, certain skills like Bash, Kick, and more were just timing based. You could use them repeatedly in combat but had to wait X seconds between each use. Likewise, spells simply cost mana. If you have the mana to cast it, you could. With Pantheon, each class generates a variety of resources. Some, like my Cleric, still use mana for some spells but other things might require a specific amount of Readiness. Mana regenerates over time to a maximum amount while Readiness is gained through combat and then diminishes over time when out of combat. This means that you have to manage your skills and spells a bit differently in Pantheon. There wasn't much in the way of a tutorial so I had to learn this through playing but it made me more aware of what was going on in combat and not just hammering away at hotkeys indiscriminately like in EQ.

After experiencing a significant amount of combat, material harvesting, and crafting with my Cleric, I opted to press pause on that toon and see how a similar experience with another toon might compare.

Next up was my Enchanter. The same character creation limitations obviously applied so where I had created a Human Cleric before now I had a Human Enchanter. Immediately I noticed a major difference. With my Cleric, I could fight solo. It was tough and each fight was usually a fight for survival with many ending in my death but I felt even those were close. With my Enchanter, combat was no-contest. I died repeatedly and quickly. I never felt I had a chance to win. At level 1 everything is "even" or higher than you. Every fight will be challenging to say the least but with my Enchanter the fights felt impossible. There was no way that character was going to level up without the help of at least 1 other player. I needed a group to advance and there was no way around that. Seeing how I wanted to experience the character as a solo player, I tried in vain for a while to score some kills and gain some experience but EVERY fight I went into ended with my death.

After a while of disappointing play with my still level 1 Enchanter, I decided to move on to another class. I can't say that I was terribly surprised by that outcome as Enchanters are typically very squishy and not well suited to direct combat but usually you can at least get some kills and level up solo as this class. I have an Enchanter on P99 that leveled up fine solo for a while. Why Enchanters die so easily here is anyone's guess. Maybe its just class balancing hasn't been done yet and since this is only Season 1 there's still room to work this out by the dev team.

Next up was my Paladin. I figured this would give me a good sample of the three different class types, healer, caster, and melee. Sure, Paladins are typically a cross between pure melee and pure healer but I prefer Paladins to Warriors. These are the three classes that I would most likely play as my starter when the game launches.

The first thing I noticed is that combat was MUCH easier with my Paladin compared to both the Cleric and Enchanter. It took me 2-3 days to get my Cleric up to level 6 but I did it with my Paladin in just 1 day. Of course, part of that, if not all of that, could be chalked up to a rather nasty bug (or planned limitation, I don't know) that only allows for the 1st character you create to be able to learn any trade skills. So while my Cleric was a blacksmith, tailor, leather worker, jewel crafter, alchemist, and cook, my Paladin was just a straight up monster slayer.  I didn't, or rather couldn't, invest any time in material harvesting or skill training. My Paladin could only rid the world of beasts and burglars through combat. Because I couldn't do anything else, I hunted and hunted and hunted non-stop for hours and leveled up a lot faster than I had with the Cleric.

I died less too.

When I logged off of the game for the final time Friday, I was left with a sense of disappointment. Not disappointed in the game but disappointed that I would have to wait a number of weeks before I could play again. I thoroughly enjoyed my time exploring the current state of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. It felt familiar yet new. It had all of the trademarks of EverQuest that I enjoyed back then with some new flair that was like a welcomed change in the seasonal air. I like that sprinting and climbing are now skills that I can improve through use and leverage to make my time adventuring more immersive and interesting. I like that I have a quest journal to track what I need to be doing but not so much information on the screen that it makes it too easy. I like not having a map despite not knowing where I'm going.

There's a lot of promise in this game but there's still a lot left to be done. I don't see this game hitting the market with a public launch for probably at least another 2-3 years but after Season 1, I'm here to support it until that time. A lot may change between now and then and at some point I may not agree with the game's direction but for now, I'm excited for Pantheon. I'm even looking at upgrading my pledge so I can get more time in the next season. It isn't perfect but it isn't finished either. There's a lot of potential there waiting for the developers to seize it. Let's hope they do.

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