Every once in a great while, I get a wild hair and decide to bang my head against a wall... hard.
I'm talking, of course, about playing a free-to-play MMO. Disgusted with Darkfall's release, I decided to broaden my horizons by checking out one of those Korean cartoon-graphics games which I steadfastly swore to myself never to set foot in.
Enter, Mabinogi, a game from Nexon, creators of a certain 2D cash cow named MapleStory.
This is a game that will make you stare blankly at your monitor, your eyes glazed over in confusion as you try to figure out what the hell is going on at any given time.
Character creation is amusing in that you can choose between an adolescent, a pre-teen, or a child, automatically vaulting this game into the realm of pedophilia, since, as is the case with most MMOs, one of the first things anyone does is strip their character naked and pine for attention like an overzealous whore on a crowded street corner.
Following the customization of my jailbait, which is semi-involved, though not as much apparently as it could be if I mongered the item mall, I was thrust into a poorly substantiated introduction/training sequence.
In this particular tutorial, which also begged to explain the reason for my sorry existence, a giggly schoolgirl who exists outside of time and space flirted with me, before sending me to the realm of mortals, whereupon I was assailed by a montage of isometric instructional videos which took up 3/4ths of the screen. These were presented by a young boy with a tin can for a head, and a sword imbued with a half-naked child fairy gifted to me by said young boy.
At this point, I was so confused that someone trying to convince me that the sky was green might have had a reasonable chance of doing so.
The game uses a hybrid skill/level based system which tries very hard to be intuitive and make sense, before ultimately failing. The game is essentially based on level and your age, as the amount of AP (Ability Points, required for advancing your skills past each "rank") does not go up unless you level, age, or complete certain quests.
What this means is this: You can grind a skill until the cows come home, but if you don't have enough AP to advance it from F rank to E rank (from leveling, aging or doing certain quests), it's not going to become any more powerful, ultimately defeating the purpose of a skill-based system.
Moving on to the game itself.
Mabinogi is a true sandbox. You're free to pretty much do whatever you feel like. Passing the various gold farmers, gold spammers and naked children nearby, I made my way into the first town, where I was greeted with a myriad of options. This IS an area where the game shines.
You can take on standard kill X of Y quests, fetch quests, part time jobs which may require you to farm wheat, collect wool from sheep, eggs from hens, deliver clothes, craft clothes, cook meals and other mundane, but nevertheless useful tasks.
Or you can neglect to take the quests, and go about leveling your skills of choice on your own. Shear your own wool from the sheep, turn it into thread and then into clothes with the tailoring skill, play music using the instrument skill, cook your own meals, fish, etc... there is never a lack of options, ever. In fact, if you aren't used to sandbox games, you will probably be overwhelmed by the number of things there is to do.
At some point, however, you will need to kill things, and when that time comes, you had better come prepared with lube and a whole lot of patience, because combat in this game is ruthless and unforgiving.
Blink your eyes while you're fighting, and you die. Make a mistake while you're fighting, you die. Move one step too late, you die. One step too early? You die. Die? You die. Die, die, die my darling, zippadee doodah DIE NOW!
You may think I'm exaggerating... I'm not. Mabinogi is the first game I've played where I have actually died in the first 5 levels of the game. By the time I hit level 10, I had died probably a dozen times, and I was feeling decidedly like a pile of garbage strewn across the floor of a low-rent trailer.
Basically, the problem is this: Combat unfolds in real time and relies on something of a rock/paper/scissors format. You've got several options available to you depending on your skills, but the main three are Attack, Smash and Defend. Attack beats smash, defend beats attack, smash beats defend. You also have an ability which allows you to see which of the three your opponent is about to use, allowing you to prepare the appropriate defense, IF you are fast enough.
There is also ranged combat and magic later on, both of which I have found require even more precise timing than the melee combat, and do markedly less damage. At least in my experience.
Anyway, the problem with the combat is, if you are even one step too late, the mob will hit you. Weak mobs (which are rare), will do close to half your life bar with one hit. Strong mobs (which are common), will wipe you out if you make even one mistake. Hard enough for you? Not even close. More often than not, the ability that allows you to see the enemy's next move will not activate, forcing you to guess what it's about to do. If you guess wrong... well, you die.
So, with all the emphasis on combat difficulty, the death penalties must be light or non-existant, right? BZZT. Wrong again, Charlie. Death in this game is a frustrating affair.
When you bite the dust, you have a couple options for what you want to do. You can wait for another player to come along and raise you, which benefits them not at all, and thus it never happens. Obviously this method doesn't work. You can summon the giggly schoolgirl from the beginning of the game to raise you with minimal penalties, a maximum of three times (recharging at 1 per game day, or every 36 minutes), which you will use up in a hurry. You can raise at the last town you visited, which eats up a bit of your experience and generally leaves you a long, LONG way from whatever you were doing, and injured (which I will get to later).
Sadly, the worst option, and usually the one you will be using the most; You can raise on the spot with 1 HP, badly injured, and take a rather massive hit to your experience points. Being as you will be in the middle of mobs with 1 HP, naturally using this option requires you to die several times and lose nearly a level of XP before you can escape the maddening mob trap, and amble far enough away to heal yourself.
Which brings me to injuries. In case it wasn't bad enough that the mobs can pretty much kill you in one hit, if by some miracle you manage to survive, some mobs can inflict injuries on you, essentially reducing your max HP by an amount dependent on the mob, which armor you're wearing, the phase of the moon, what you had for breakfast, and lord knows what else. This "injury" status lasts until you go back to town and visit the healer, or use the first aid skill in conjunction with bandages a number of times to heal yourself. If you elect not to do this, your injuries will pretty much mean that, whereas you might have been lucky enough to come out of a fight with 1-2 HP before, now you are dead... again..
This necessitates carrying mass quanitites of bandages on your person at all times, bandages which take up inventory slots. Inventory slots which are at a massive premium.
Inventory is practically its own little mini-game. Borrowing the only concept from Diablo that absolutely sucked, you have a grid which represents your inventory, and each item you're carrying takes up a different amount of spaces in it. Fine, right? Well, no, not exactly.
You've got stamina potions, mana potions, health potions, food, scrolls, quest items, crafting items, dropped items, equipment of various types, books (which I will get to later), firewood, wool, sketch pads, instruments, tools for crafting, musical scores (if you do music), ammunitions, various weapons, scrolls, berries, branches, doodads, thingamabobs and so many miscellaneous items of dubious usefulness that your inventory could pass for a block sale in a neighborhood full of underaged packrats suffering from OCD. And the space you have to carry this ensemble of things is extremely, EXTREMELY limited to begin with, and further limited for some interminable reason by Nexon's obtuse game design ideas.
Case in point: Remember the sword imbued with a half-naked child fairy from earlier? Well, it's not that great, and chances are, you will find something better pretty early on. Now, in other MMOs, getting rid of the thing would be a simple matter. Maybe find an auction house, a vendor, or if worse came to worse, just drop the stupid thing, right? Nuh uh. Nexon sez, "Can't do that, Johnson."
For whatever ridiculous reason, this utterly useless tutorial sword gets to sit in your inventory for a million years, forever taking up 3 inventory slots, and necessitating furious bouts of impure language whenever you hit a situation where you only need one more slot to pick up that item that just dropped (which happens a lot)
Did I mention that GOLD takes up INVENTORY slots? Yes, indeed. Borrowing Diablo's worst game mechanics seems to be part and parcel for Nexon. This is less of an issue, however, for two reasons: 1) There's a bank for storing money and; 2) Gold is damn hard to come by.
Theoretically the bank also stores items for you, but for some reason, they won't accept musical scores, certain books and that god-AWFUL tutorial sword from hell.
Anyway, I believe I've ranted enough on the inventory thing. Suffice it to say, you're going to be doing a lot of juggling in the few slots you have, so prepare yourself for it.
I will now offer a bit of insight on books. Nexon has a book for everything. Rather than going the tutorial route and simply opening up another isometric video which takes up 3/4ths of my screen, after said intrusion, Nexon begins to explain things to you through books in game. Each one of these books takes up two god damn inventory slots, sells for nothing, and comes loaded with pages of lore and unfocused ranting sandwiching 1 or 2 useful points. This is an exercise in tedium, often requiring you to read through 15-20 pages of refuse in order to glean the 1 or 2 useful things the book is designed to teach you in the first place. Once you're finished, the only manner of disposing of the blasted thing is to drop it where you stand, creating the odd side-effect of walking through town, only to find that the ground looks like a landfill for the Public Library system. This is further exacerbated by the fact that some books are NOT refuse. There are some skills that can only be advanced further, not through using them, but through reading the appropriate book. Thus if you ever decided that you could simply ignore books.... well, think again, as you might miss something you need.
Rounding out Part 1 of this review is the aesthetic component.
The graphics are an anime-inspired affair, rife with cel shading, vivid colors and personality. Where I expected to be merely tolerating the graphics, I find that they fit well with what the game is trying to convey.
The animations are well done, and realistically depict what they are meant to in many cases, however, there are some amusing unintended side effects. For example, position yourself properly when shearing wool, and you will find your young avatar bending over the sheep for the duration of the action, with a sheep in this thought bubble, only to finish with a... um... hip thrusting... motion... when he finishes. I quickly scanned my list of skills to see whether or not my bestiality level had risen, but alas, the jury is still out on that one.
There is quite a lot of room to customize your character's appearance. Different colored robes, garments and outfits, hairstyles, many of which are probably available only through the item mall, some people had pets, still others had mounts. Other than the robes which seemed to be prevalent in the starting area, I didn't see too many people who looked the same, and it's clear that Nexon gave players ample room to explore their individuality through their avatars. After all, a sandbox game is silly when it's nothing but clones. The UI works well for the most part. One of my biggest gripes is having to reprogram your ability hotkeys every time you log out, but as there are not all that many abilities to worry about (at least not yet), it's tolerable.
Sound-wise, the game is a mixed bag. While the music is excellent, and probably some of the best I've heard in an MMO, the sounds are bland, uninspiring, generic or simply non-existant.
Part Two to follow soon.