Is it ironic that a MMORPG designed to piggyback on social networking services reached me via someone in my real-life social network? Such is the case with Echo Bazaar, a browser-based title still in beta as of 13 February 2011 (two years after it apparently won an award from Escapist Magazine, hmm).
How about the fact that she has a Facebook account and I have a Twitter account, so initially we couldn't interact at all in the game? Because, you see, Echo Bazaar is entirely dependent on these two services for authenticating players. That's good on the one hand, as you don't need to remember yet another set of credentials, and bad on the other, as many people stay as far away as they can from either.
But I'll return to that later. For now, let's see about little things such as story and gameplay.
The premise is a mix between Gothic horror and Dark City: it's 1889 and London has been pulled underground by the forces of Hell. The very real dangers of Victorian society are now compounded by supernatural threats, and you — just another shadow on the wall — must scrape by however you can.
And in a way, you are a shadow. Because this is a game designed to be played in 20-minute spurts, it lacks writing on the level of Dracula. Instead, it has nice touches such as the player avatars being nothing more than shadows, or the loading animation being a top hat with fangs and blinking eyes. Whatever writing does exist is brief but evocative, with a nice touch of realism; e.g. telling political jokes is risky business. Not many anachronisms here!
Gameplay is reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, with so-called "storylets" providing challenges, which in turn provide various rewards if won. There are two main sources of storylets: the various locations you can access throughout the city, and the so-called "opportunity cards" which you can play whenever you want. Some amount of grinding is necessary, but new options are unlocked often enough that the game never grows tedious. You can also travel anywhere, anytime, and advancement is skill-based so you never feel constrained. You might grow impatient, though, as action points are very limited, and if you run out for the day you must either wait or buy more for real-world money.
Mechanically, the game is simplistic, with each challenge hanging on a dice roll against one of your Qualities, so the only choice is whether it's worth risking an action point. You can get hurt, or suffer other setbacks, but the game is very forgiving, so that's not an issue most of the time. Juggling the various resources via the eponymous bazaar (echoes being the main currency of the game) offers the only other decision-making opportunity.
No, the appeal of Echo Bazaar comes from all the little details; your initial Qualities are Dangerous, Watchful, Persuasive and Shadowy, and there are others you gain during the game. You deal in rumors, gossip, secrets, dreams and portents; there are mysterious benefactors, old crushes and fortune tellers; and sometimes there are brilliant gems hidden in that sparse writing:
A mysterious envelope
Heavy, cream paper addressed in exquisite copperplate. It sits on your doorstep like a cat, demanding your attention.
My main complaint is about the very limited interaction with other players. I may be a solo-er, but much of a MMO's appeal is that it makes you feel part of a living world. Here, there's not as much as a player top, so it's easy to forget it's a MMO at all. Even playing with your friends consists of nothing more than sending/accepting the occasional invitation to an action that provides mutual benefit. A combat system is implied, but unavailable to me as of this writing. On the other hand I can understand not providing an in-game chat or forum, since if you're playing, then you're already connected to your friends elsewhere. But that is a mistake in itself, as it severely limits the game's potential audience.
All in all, a solid title which I'm likely to stay with for a while. It's atmospheric yet unobtrusive, easy to get into (bonus points for simple, humane terms and conditions) and it won't spam your favorite social networking account unless you explicitly ask it to, despite the tight integration. The only remaining question is how fast its small crew can make progress. But I've already written too much.