Grinding has always been a dirty word in online role-playing games, but it's one that, for better and for worse, Tree of Savior proudly wears on its sleeve. When I wasn't grinding levels, I was grinding for new equipment or grinding money to afford upgrading that equipment. And when I realized I hated the class I chose after two dozen hours, I began that grind from the beginning. But for all those hours spent squeezing experience points from enemy corpses like water from a desert cactus, there's something about Tree of Savior that keeps me coming back—or maybe I've just spent so long with it I'm taking my captor's side.
That grinding is the heart of Tree of Savior won't be a surprise to anyone familiar with its spiritual predecessor Ragnarok Online, the long-running Korean MMORPG. Tree of Savior bears more than a few similarities, but its expansive class system and gorgeous presentation make it much more than just a rehash of an older game. With over 80 different classes, Tree of Savior offers one of the most robust progression systems I've ever seen—but learning its ins and outs has been as painful as fun.
A class act
There's only four base classes to choose from when starting out, but I eventually unlocked new ones I could stack on top of my base class, adding more abilities that redefined my character. This process happens six times over Tree of Savior's 200-plus levels, creating a ton of complexity that had the part of my brain that loves theorycrafting dizzy with all the possibilities. This all plays out rather slowly as you explore the world, completing quests or tracking down monsters to kill in hopes of getting a specific piece of gear. Fully exploring maps or collecting specific items dropped from monsters can also net you bonuses like extra experience or permanent stat increases from NPCs in each town. While I played mostly alone, there was always the option to join up and murder the incredible variety of monsters that dot the landscape as a group, potentially increasing how fast I could level.
Unfortunately, much of that potential is wasted on poor class balancing. Not every option you choose will be viable, and in true old school RPG fashion, it's possible to ruin your build if you don't know what you're doing. Those dead ends wouldn't be so painful if Tree of Savior provided an option to salvage mistakes—which it partially does in the form of potions that can reset skill points in exchange for real cash. Class choices and allocated stat points, however, are permanent.
Knowing this, I felt terrified of making my own choices when building my character, which is a huge disappointment given how rewarding this system could be if it would let me experiment without potentially wasting so many hours. Instead, I took to community websites to get inspiration from popular builds, but character progression happens so slowly that it's impossible to tell if a class suited my playstyle until after I had sunk dozens of hours into it. That's exactly why my poor hoplite has been gathering dust in the character select screen. His reliance on passive buffs to enhance his basic attack is painfully boring.
While some might praise this aspect of Tree of Savior as hardcore, I'd argue it's simply unfun and needlessly punishing. There are truly original ideas behind some classes, like alchemists being able to "awaken" an item's potential by braving a special dungeon or squires being able to set up vendor stalls in town to repair equipment. But one wrong move or one unfavorable balance update and all those hours invested in building them could be wasted.
The extreme variety of classes also means that there's an extreme variety to combat. My hoplite ran around smacking enemies with his basic attack and bored me to tears, but my new wizard delightfully devastates whole groups of enemies with her spells. When this new build clicked, I entered into an intoxicating rhythm where hours melted away as quickly as the monsters before me. Enemies burst like pinatas when they die, and the catchy music and vibrant spell animations make Tree of Savior scarily capable of turning me into a grind-zombie.
And then a crippling bout of latency grips the servers and the next fifteen minutes are spent wrestling with an unresponsive interface and delayed combat animations. That spell Tree of Savior cast over me is gone and I'm back to wondering whether all these hours are even worth it. While the free-to-play launch is certainly pushing the servers to their limits, many of these problems existed in the quieter early access period too. There's the option to switch "channels" within a map to find one less crowded and more stable, but it feels like a poorly designed and anti-social solution.
Tree of Savior's hand-painted aesthetic is absolutely stunning, but it's far from being the kind of technical marvel that could ever justify the constant frame dips and unstable server connection I've experienced. While I can grit my teeth through dips in framerate, server lag is a far more lethal enemy. Slow connections can make classes dependant on quick reactions unviable—as if I needed even more reasons to be terrified of committing to one type of character. Coupled with the fact that some classes aren't suited to using certain control schemes (in-game messages warn me that using a mouse to control my hoplite isn't recommended) and suddenly 80 classes feels like only a few actual choices.
That so many hurdles stand between me and how I want to play Tree of Savior is frustrating only because I believe this could be a game I would want to spend more time in. With such a singular focus on grinding, Tree of Savior sometimes displays a real mastery of what can make that grind fun. The pacing through levels and new maps is so quick that I often have trouble logging off at night, which starkly contrasts how I feel the next morning when the spell has worn off and I have to force myself to log back in.
There's a powerful sense of nostalgia buried within Tree of Savior, a deep love for a time when MMORPGs offered freedom and simpler pleasures accented by the risk of failure. The expression of that love is a frustrating, broken, and sometimes wonderful thing. My journey through building my hero and grinding is one of confliction. Even while I might persist along that road, I'm not so sure I'd ever recommend you follow.