Keeping Seoul at the console

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In just four days in Seoul, South Korea, I filled my Maps app with restaurants, Buddhist temples, must-see attractions, scenic parks, market streets and more to visit. I walked about 10 miles every day and think I saw as much of this huge city as I could with my allotted time. My travels from East to West, North to South in Seoul were only possible with the city’s extensive public transportation network of buses and trains. And while I listened to “Magnetic” by K-Pop group ILLIT more times than I care to admit through headphones (while in Korea, right?) on these trains and buses, I spent most of my time observing how others waited. His stop.

Perhaps surprisingly, everyone is glued to their phones, including me. But unlike me, who was doom scrolling on X (formerly Twitter) before switching to Instagram before switching to X, a lot of people were playing games I recognized like Teamfight Tactics, the self-chess spin-off of League of Legends. But we also have a lot of other games that I don’t know about like Light of the Stars, Soul Strike and more. During a tour of Magnum Studio, one of Nexon’s Seoul-based studios, I asked its head Beomjun Lee if he believed mobile gaming was as popular as my public transit commute. His answer is a quick yes. According to a study published by Statista Research Department in February, according to its 2022 survey, 63 percent of South Koreans will play mobile games, a market worth 14 trillion South Korean won (or $10.2 billion) that year.

Nexon, the company that invited me to its studio, has plenty of mobile hits like FIFA Mobile and MapleStory M, and a good amount on PC as well. Based on how many PC cafes I saw in Seoul, I would guess that PC is the biggest gaming market in South Korea, or close behind mobile. But its main console releases have only featured two so far: KartRider: Drift and last year’s The Finals. With its PC and mobile gaming on lock, Nexon is slowly aiming west, looking to break into global markets and focusing on console releases alongside its regular output to do so. And what better way than to continue to dominate a large mindshare of free-to-play (easy access), third-person (ripe for customization), looter-shooter (the genre popularized by the likes of Destiny and Warframe) games?

Ambitions at Albion

Ambitions at Albion

First Descendant is just that, and even though I’m tired of another free-to-play game and another loot shooter, after an hour, I’m excited, excited for its release this summer. When can I play more?

Revealed last August as part of Gamescom 2023, the first generation is in development at Nexon’s Magnum Studios and has its sights set on a summer 2024 release. I’ve pushed for a more precise release date, but the team isn’t ready to share; It’s clear it’s been working hard to polish it up these past few months, and for good reason — the team has lofty ambitions with The First Descendant.

“The main feature of The First Descendant is the PvE co-op element,” Lee, who is also the game’s lead producer, tells me through a translator. “It’s an online shooter RPG, and we consider it the next generation of loot shooters.”

That word caught me by surprise. It’s a bold statement, almost bragging, but after speaking with Lee and creative director Minseok Joo and playing the game for an hour, I understand where the team is coming from. In my initial impressions, First Descendants feels like a mish-mash of other greats of the genre. Taken literally, it’s a looter shooter made exclusively for “next-generation” consoles, as it’s coming to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S with crossplay and cross-progression along with PC.

Going hands-on

Going hands-on

In a city called Albion abandoned to an Earth-like sci-fi world where humanity is on its last legs, my chosen character, Wissa, is searching for something called Ironheart. She’s joined by an ally named Bunny (yes, the silhouette of her suit is that of a bunny). Immediately, the arms are crunchy and tactile. I sense every bullet and on-screen recoil on the controller and it feels great. It helps that the entire game, developed from the ground up in Unreal Engine 5, is gorgeous. I joke with Lee that I’m glad the team is making a console version of the game since First Descendants melts my PC, which is admittedly due for an upgrade. Seeing terms like “frame generation,” “ray reconstruction” and “ray tracing” among the options confirms my belief.

The weapons are nothing special though. In my play session, I encounter machine guns, submachine guns, shotguns, grenade launchers and long-range snipers. They all feel great, but the First Descendants aren’t doing anything new here. Each character’s magical powers make the battle different. Viessa has access to Ice, a passive skill that creates spheres of ice around her body that damage and slow enemies that get too close, and four active skills that cause knock-on effects, increase running speed and shield, and more. She can also place a blizzard on the playing field, damaging and immobilizing those trapped inside.

Her abilities are different from Walby, a water-based character I’ll play later. Wallby consumes less mana when standing in water and moves to create puddles, making for a rewarding ability loop. She can liquefy the area around her, allowing her to move through enemies with increased defense and speed. Viessa’s movements are more straightforward, but even if it took longer to get my sea legs, Valby’s was more rewarding as part of the co-op experience.

As I progress through the forecourt, I encounter the big bad Karel of the First Descendants. He immediately, seemingly, kills the bunny, and it’s clear he’s not mincing words. They will do anything to get Ironheart.

Unfortunately for Veissa, Karel leaves the Gravewalker tank boss behind, ready for Bunny revenge. This boss fight (and the stunningly beautiful boss I would later take on while playing as Wallby with developer Magnum Studios) was the highlight of my time with The First Descendant. Each boss has its own set of moves and mechanics to follow, including checks that require a lot of strategic work, but it makes me curious how I, the player, would fight them.

The first generation is fast. Characters move faster and have loose flying abilities, allowing them to zip into battle. I can only imagine the magical chaos that would ensue with a full team of four. But the grapple hook excites me more about the possibilities of the First Descendant War.

When fighting enemies, I scan by clicking the right stick to find weak points highlighted in blue. After shooting enough of them, they turn yellow, which means it’s time for my favorite part of the game: grabbing the yellow part and tearing it apart. It’s a fantastic mechanic and takes an experience I’ve played hundreds of times in loot shooters – shoot a bunch to a boss – and makes it more dynamic. It’s not just about shooting; It’s about blasting a weak enough point that I can hold it down and then work to push it harder, shedding layers of bass as I do.

Creating your descendants

Creating your descendants

Outside of combat, the game offers a lot of customization that makes for a free-to-play experience, though I don’t know how microtransactions play into the game. You can customize loadouts for each character, each with their own weapons and abilities. There are tons of costumes, from maid outfits to firefighter uniforms and more, and you can customize different areas of your character with unique chest pieces, Fortnite-style back pieces, and more. You can test it all out in Albion’s Lab, a test field with customizable dummies to check your loadout’s damage output, feel and more. Speaking of the team’s commitment to the game and its community, this lab was recently added following feedback from the recent beta.

“This is my first time seeing it,” Lee says as he shows me, pointing out how recently it was added. This way players can expect the game to change and grow with the community, he says.

I’ve always been wary of free-to-play games and the monetization associated with them, but if First Generation stuck to cosmetic-focused microtransactions, as opposed to letting players pay to perform well in combat, for example, Magnum Studio would be right on track with the wealth of options I see for character customization.

I love that every character so far has been different, and leveling each one up individually, rather than focusing on a single character for months or years at a time, seems like a smart call in contrast to the genre. Knowing that the three playable friends will have different lineages to choose from is exciting, allowing for multiple strategies in how we approach missions.

Lee says the team is taking a seasonal approach with new battle passes at each drop, to keep players engaged beyond the game’s initial launch. As is now standard in the live-service genre, each battle pass includes season-specific cosmetics, and you’ll need to play through new content to get them.

With an hour of The First Descendant playtime behind me, including a studio tour and an interview with team leaders, I (im)patiently await its release this summer. Despite my early love of Destiny and Warframe at one point in my gaming history, both (and many others in the genre) have passed me by. Getting back into them today is too daunting and too confusing. But The First Descendant gives me what I want from those games with variations on the formula. I still have questions, but Nexon still has time to answer them. For now, I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll make it to the next beta.

This article originally appeared in issue 366 of Game Informer.

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