Caravan Stories Review: Minefield of Microtransactions
Caravan Stories is a Japanese mobile MMO that came to America in the form of a PS4 port. In Japan, it’s also on PC, but for now, we only have access to the Playstation 4 version. Instead of receiving a new version of the game, it’s a port, for better or worse – and sadly, I have to say “worse”. It’s unfortunate because Caravan Stories is a gorgeous game. The art style reminds me of a blend of Final Fantasy Tactics and Bravely Default in all of the best ways. Visually speaking, it’s stunning. Yet not even an hour into my gameplay experience, I felt crushing bitter disappointment. If this world were a regular RPG, it would be a smash hit. Instead, all it did was take my expectations and break them asunder.
In The Beginning:
At the start of Caravan Stories, you’re asked to select a gender and race, and that will be where your story will start. If you’re worried about it, don’t be; you’ll reach a point where you can begin anew as one of the other races, keeping what you’ve acquired so far. While that is a neat concept, it’s not quite enough to hook me. The purpose of the game is to travel the world, setting things right using your mobile fortress. This is your home, and also your main base of battle operations. It will join you in combat, and stand in the way in dungeons to draw enemy attacks. This will without a doubt force you into unwanted encounters.
This is still a mobile game at heart, so you’ll learn that you can auto-run to quest objectives. You will bypass any useful items scattered through the land unless they’re in your path. The tutorials are plentiful and easy to understand. The game will guide you through any important game mechanic you’ll need to know about, even the lootboxes. I do appreciate the game taking its time out to show you what to do, especially in an MMO. I may have my misgivings about the game, but it is visually appealing, and there is plenty of depth to the game itself.
During my gameplay, I also unlocked a deeper auto-play feature. A more powerful auto-play. You will be able to mark a path to travel on the map. From there, you’ll gather whatever’s in the area and fight any enemies in your path. This is a great, hands-off way to grind, because you will have no choice but to grind. Even if you spend real money, and there are plenty of chances for that, you will grind. This is all well and good until you learn the game also has an AP/Stamina system! That’s right, engaging in battles will drain a character’s Stamina. When it’s run dry, you can still use them, but at a massive cost to their stats. Your options are to wait or swap them out for other characters for your main party.
One of the main gameplay pitches is that monsters you battle might want to join your party. They’re seldom as strong as your main characters, but they are great backups, and minions to use in PVP. This is why collecting so many characters is important. If you’re an active player, you’re going to run out of Stamina, so you need to swap characters around to keep playing.
These characters can also evolve once they reach their level cap. It will cost gold and Anima. You can get the Anima in lootboxes but you can also pick up a free one daily by talking to your characters in the Caravan. It’s easy enough to get a character to 2-star, but beyond that, it starts to get ridiculous, with 100,000 gold to hit tier 3. My gold cap as of this writing is about 30,000 gold. So without spending money and time, I cannot increase my gold cap to make my team stronger. Unless I’m lucky, it’s going to be a massive hill to climb. To get another Gold Pump, I need to level up my Caravan even further. It’s a mess of a system. I can’t even sell my Gold Nuggets, because I don’t have the room! Of course, I could fix this problem, if only I spent real money!
Convenience, or a Con:
Caravan Stories is an MMO that focuses on “convenience” microtransactions. Building a new part to your fortress, or upgrading something? You can pay gems to speed it up. Crafting? Same thing. This is also true for the Stamina System. Crafting has an item option to speed things up by a few minutes, but they’re rare and expensive. Everything from PVP Stamina to Player Stamina can be filled with the right currency. This isn’t the worst thing. It’s frustrating, but I understand that mobile games have to make money somewhere. Caravan Stories has an absurd number of microtransactions though. So let’s talk about these before we go further.
Phantasm Gems are the first real-money currency. You use these to speed up crafting in your base, as well as buy Lootboxes. Oh yeah, this game has lootboxes too! These lootboxes can contain powerful gear and Anima. Anima are used to Evolve your character to its next tier (1-5 stars). These also can give Premium Points. Premium Points can, in turn, buy powerful (5-star) gear at about 3000 points apiece. I received about 180 Premium Points for 3,000 Phantasm Points (10 chests opened). So if you want a guaranteed shot at this 5-tier gear, you better be ready to cough up some serious cash. For a base of reference, 3600 Phantasm Points costs 30 USD on the PSN Store. Some of this gear costs Crystals, which is a resource generated by your base. Some also cost gold, which you gain in battle, and as a resource in your base.
There is, of course, a downside. Sure, you generate this resource over time by playing, but you have a hard cap on how much you can have at once of both. You have to upgrade the generators in your base, which take parts and Crystals. It also takes time, so this is another way to get nickel and dimed by Caravan Stories. If it weren’t enough that the currency is pretty expensive, you can also spend real money on Gold! That’s right, you can also spend real money on in-game currency, if you don’t have enough or don’t want to wait. I will say to their credit, the achievements drop a pretty healthy amount of Phantasm Gems. That’s a good way to keep your base upgrading at a steady rate. That does not excuse how greedy the game is. No matter how pretty the graphics are, or how much I enjoy the character interaction, the actual game is greedy. As I always say, I don’t begrudge a profit, but this seems to be more than a little excessive. If the game had zero PVP, I wouldn’t care as much. I would be upset, but as long as I am still able to progress, there’s no real harm. But there is of course PVP; several PVP options, in fact.
I enjoy combat in Caravan Stories, even when it’s on auto. It’s enjoyable to watch, and when interacting with it, there’s a decent amount of strategy. You have a variety of formations for your team, and can position your monsters and allies however you like. Each character has a special ability and a role to play, whether they’re a tank, healer, buffer, or debuffer. You can see this by checking Ability in your Caravan. Head to the Caravan (Triangle), and check your Char. tab. You can move your allies and cast abilities as you’d like, but more often than not, you can leave it to Autoplay. As long as your Battle Power is higher, victory is more or less assured in PVE. Battles are easy to find, too. You’ll see your enemies in the open world, so run up and pick a fight. In dungeons, your Caravan will be walking around too. Since it’s nice and big, enemies can aggro to it and pick up plenty of fights. PVE is a lot of fun to watch and take part in, but what about PVP?
So far I’ve unlocked the Colosseum, which is your first PVP offering. It’s a timed MOBA, where you and opponent clash with decks of characters. Each player’s characters are cards that go into the deck and are shuffled up. With three lanes and a Caravan in the center, the goal is to smash the other players Caravan. Each character will have a point cost, and you start with 10 mana. In PVP battles, you also have no real control. You position the units to drop where you want on your half of the screen, but they act on their own. This will regenerate over time, but you have to be careful: these matches do not last long. Here’s where one of my major problems with monetization comes in. Players with stronger characters, due to gear and rarity, will definitely smash weaker players. No amount of strategy can stop enemy units that hit for 3k+. Like most mobile games, this game also has an Elemental Wheel. One element is strong and weak to another, but even with incredible stats, this won’t matter.
A Whole New World:
The exploration aspect of the game is quite nice. It is a beautiful world, and even on autoplay, it’s nice to see this expansive world. Each faction’s areas have a look that matches them. I started with humans, which resembles medieval Europe. It’s easy to see what your next objectives are, thanks to the UI, and you can auto walk to your next areas with ease. You can also teleport if things are a considerable distance away. If you have attuned yourself to an area, you can teleport there via your Caravan. The Caravan is your main hub, and goes with you everywhere. In addition to the already listed monetization structures, you can craft gear, increase your skills power, and so much more.
As you build and improve structures in your Caravan’s interior, it will level up and increase in size. This will let you put more stuff in there. You can also craft weapons for your Caravan, so it can back you up in battle and defend itself in PVP. This costs crystals and other crafting materials, which you’ll pick up on your journey. Extra structures will be offered over time. I like this concept a great deal, but it’s hard to not focus on the money structures. This is another time where the game feels like it gates you behind spending both time and money. This is not a game that is short on stuff to do though. You can join a Guild, go on special Guild missions for awesome prizes, and tackle the Gold and Exp Towers. These are missions you can go on once a day (unless you have more tickets) for tons of money and exp orbs. Exp Orbs are used to boost a character’s exp without having them go into battle. These are fun and useful for boosting your Monsters and other Allies in your collection of characters.
The community has been pretty friendly so far, and the game is active. I’ve seen plenty of other players wandering the world with me, something I seldom see in a mobile MMO. It felt just like a real free-to-play MMO, and it’s in a word, gorgeous. The visual style is second to none and as I already mentioned, feels very much like the Bravely Default games. Each zone feels distinct and the monsters range from vile and adorable. I felt a pang of pity every time I decided to leave a monster behind that wanted to join me because they were so damn cute. I enjoy the world I’m in, but not the mechanics that hold up the overall experience.
It’s a tale of “buts”: 2/5 (Fair)
I’m disappointed to offer such a low score for Caravan Stories because I like the game world that I’ve spent time in. It’s vivid, beautiful, and I’ve found myself vested in the plight of the characters. For every bit of goodwill the game builds up, I find another disappointing mechanic. The most egregious one for me is the Gold purchase. Having TWO in-game currencies that you can spend real money on? That’s repugnant.
I could have looked the other way at some of it, and treated it as “Whale-to-Win” if it only did not have PVP. After three PVP matches, I was getting smashed in less than 30 seconds by other players. I’m still able to enjoy and play the story, but the way the monetization works and feels, I’m not liable to do so. I will give them credit, they are pretty generous with Phantasm Gems. You won’t get the Premium Points that way, you have to spend real money! You have to spend a mountain of it. Caravan Stories offers something enjoyable, and if you can overlook the monetization. I could not do that. I don’t hate the Stamina system, since it does encourage you to try other characters in your party, and that’s fine. There is depth and enjoyment to be had if you can get through the minefield of microtransactions.
Note: Currency was provided for the purposes of this review.
Caravan Stories Screenshots
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