Exploring Master X Master’s Surprisingly Good PvE Content
Master X Master is NCSoft’s attempt to break into the MOBA market. It’s a fresh take on a tried and tested formula, featuring a WASD control scheme and a unique tag mechanic that allows you to swap between two characters instead of just controlling one. I usually don’t bother with new MOBA releases but Master X Master caught my attention with a rather uncommon feature: PvE.
I was skeptical at first, but after spending a good 20 hours playing the game I can safely say that Master X Master takes its PvE seriously. It’s not an afterthought or a tacky add-on that was included to give NCSoft’s marketing department an extra feature to harp about. It’s well-designed content that feels like it received more love and attention than the PvP modes that were available in the alpha test.
Let’s start with Master X Master’s whimsical cast. There’s a stereotypical sniper girl and soldier guy, but there’s also a wobbly orange blob, a camera-wielding journalist, and a cutesy pop star. If you’re a fan of NCSoft’s MMORPG lineup then you’ll be pleased to know there are several crossover characters from games like Aion and Blade and Soul.
If you prefer playstyle to looks then Master X Master invites you to customise your character loadouts with a choice of four active abilities. You can only pick two to take with you into missions but they can be upgraded to provide more damage or extra functionality. Your basic attack has 3 variations that can be leveled up for even more customisation. There are common variations such as increased damage and attack speed, but there’s also character specific ones like increased movement speed on attack and extra critical chance. Each character also has their own defensive ability. Some have invincibile dodge rolls, others block with shields, and some can even submerge into the ground.
And then there’s Master X Master’s signature mechanic: mid-combat character swapping. Experimenting with different skill and master combinations is incredibly fun and part of the game’s charm and replayability. Swapping has a lot of different uses in combat: you can tag out wounded characters to restore their health, swap to single-target oriented masters to deal with bosses, or change into a support character to heal up your teammates.
But the skill system isn’t without its flaws. With so many well-constructed PvE elements it’s easy to forget that Master X Master is also a MOBA. Skills are shared between PvE and PvP modes so you’ll often find abilities that are lackluster for dungeon crawling. Certain characters are completely shafted because of their PvP focus and as a result, they feel completely useless on harder difficulties. Trying to balance two separate game modes isn’t impossible, but it’s a difficult task that could be avoided by splitting the skill upgrades into separate PvE and PvP paths so they can be balanced without hurting the other game mode.
Fortunately it doesn’t take long to unlock new masters. They cost a modest amount of in-game currency but there’s also an achievement requirement attached to each character. Achievements in Master x Master are surprisingly fun despite their simplicity, and there’s a myriad of fancy titles to unlock. I unlocked a couple of short titles like “The Merciless” and “Ruthless” from regular play, but I quickly found myself achievement hunting for quirky titles such as “Middle Class” and my personal favourite: “Vermin Extermination Squad”. Some titles even give you small stat boosts so there’s a lot of encouragement to try out different modes and characters.
You could shell out a bit of money for each character and bypass both the achievement and currency cost, but certain crossover characters can’t be unlocked by paying. I suspect it's to retain their exclusivity because the unlock conditions are tied to special event dungeons that appear to be on a weekly rotation.
Most of your time in Master X Master will be spent dungeon crawling and experimenting with different characters, but none of that would be enjoyable if the combat wasn’t fun. Master X Master nails it with a unique blend of action RPG and top-down shooter elements. The result is fluid, responsive, and often frantic combat that’s a lot of fun to play.
Weak enemies charge at you in groups and it feels great to mow them down with a well-timed weapon swing or AoE skill. Regular enemies are much tougher and possess abilities that range from simple charges and cleaves to crippling AoE patches that litter the floor. There’s also a surprising amount of synergy between weak mobs and their tougher friends. Caster enemies frequently spawned walls around my character so their weaker friends could overwhelm me, and tough melee mobs bullied me with knockbacks and stuns so their ranged allies could pelt me with projectiles.
It’s easy to dismiss Master X Master as a simple hack and slash game on the easier difficulties—and I agree. Difficulty ramps up once you delve into Extreme and Nightmare mode where enemies have larger health pools and deal considerably more damage, but until then the dungeons can feel a little undertuned.
Master X Master’s PvE content is entirely mission based and each one takes anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes to complete. There’s a party limit of 3 but if you prefer to play solo or as a duo then enemies will conveniently scale down their stats to make up for less players. There was a total of 21 missions in the alpha including a special event dungeon. It doesn’t sound like much for a lobby-based PvE game but these missions aren’t rearranged or randomized levels that are hard to tell apart. These are fully-featured hand-crafted levels with their own distinct locations, enemies, and bosses—it’s more appropriate to think of them as MMORPG dungeons.
Each mission (excluding the event dungeon) has 5 difficulty levels which are more than just simple stat buffs to the enemies. Lower difficulties have fewer enemies while higher difficulties will swarm you with stronger mobs, bosses on higher difficulties have completely new abilities, and the amount of resurrections you get will decrease as you go up the difficulty scale.
Master X Master’s missions conclude with a well-designed and frantic boss fight. I was genuinely impressed when I encountered one for the first time: a female voodoo priest that summoned a variety of totems to aid her. Bosses make surprising use of the environments they are in as well. There was a cyborg boss that occasionally covered the entire floor with an electric attack, and the only way to avoid it was to jump onto raised platforms that are out of harm's way.
The only gripe I have with the mission based system is the extremely limited amount of entries you get per day. Master X Master’s 20 main missions are split into 5 locations and only one set can be active at a time. Your handful of daily entries can only be used on those missions and you don’t get more unless you pay money or wait till the next day. Luckily there’s a random mission option with unlimited uses that puts you and your party into any of the 20 missions.
Running dungeons and experimenting with different heroes is fun an all, but what about progression?
Players can obtain nodes from drops or merchants that are equipped for stat bonuses. They act like gear drops with randomly rolled stats but the bonuses they provide are underwhelming. There are lots of powerful character stats like Critical Hit Damage, Tag Cooldown, and Mana Regeneration so we’ll most likely see stronger nodes in the future. Dungeons also drop gold and materials that can be used to upgrade your skills and basic attack, but again the upgrades are a little weak and won’t make a huge difference until you start playing on the harder difficulty levels.
Master X Master’s progression isn’t focused on individual character growth but instead, it’s about building up a collection of masters that you can freely switch between and upgrade to fit different roles. Every character and enemy in the game has an attunement which acts like an elemental strength or weakness, so having a large pool of masters to pick from lets you counter the mobs in each mission.
NCSoft has a promising gem in their hands that’s begging to be polished. Master X Master makes a great alternative to traditional dungeon crawlers and I wholly recommend it even if the MOBA side doesn’t interest you. There are a couple of rough edges that could be smoothed out, but overall the game has plenty of content even in its alpha state. Master X Master hasn’t been released in Korea yet, unlike a lot of NCSoft’s other games, so we’ll most likely see a global release and I’m looking forward to whatever new PvE content the dev team has planned.