Continuing with my review of Mabinogi...
Last night I had the opportunity to play for an extended period of time. During this interlude I discovered a couple more things about the game. Some of these things were good, some were not so good, and some were downright hilariously stupid.
Leading off in this section, I'd like to talk a bit about interaction in the game, both with NPCs and other players.
Each NPC has a menu of various things you can discuss with them, including rumors, personal stories, school and training, skills, and other "keywords" which you pick up along the way. During the course of your questing and adventures, talking to certain people about certain things may give you a new keyword, which is essentially a new topic of conversation which you can then go around and bug other NPCs about. As you'll quickly find out, Mabinogi thrives on running from NPC to NPC, chatting it up until you stumble upon someone who tells you something that isn't completely useless.
Wading through the mundane to get to the meat of the matter, however, is as much a source of frustration as anything else in the game. While the translation in Mabinogi is well above-average for an asian free-to-play game, many NPCs you will chat with say some absurd crap that is entertaining, if nothing else.
I recall one conversation with a lady in a grocery store. I clicked on her and selected "Personal Story", and I got a lecture about something or other, including this gem: "Are you implying that this is a grocery store?!"
No, woman, I don't need to imply that. It says, "Grocery Store" right above your head, it's not my fault you can't read the text above your own head.
Anyway, this is a common thread in the game. Finding the right NPCs to talk to in the right order may yield you new skills, new books to advance your skills, or perhaps some information that will help you on down the line.
There's one other problem, however. In Mabinogi, NPCs are shallow, greedy bastards.
Many NPCs will not cough up their most valuable information unless you're 'friends' with them. Making friends involves capitalism at its finest, requiring you to go purchase gifts from other NPCs, and drag them halfway across the bloody town to give to the offending NPC.
Here's an example. In the town, Dunbarton, I ran into someone who told me that Aeira at the Library would give me a book on music theory if I made friends with her. Since I think playing instruments is one of the most interesting features in the game, I naturally jumped at the opportunity. I went to Aeira, did a couple part time jobs, yakked it up with her, figured I'd give her a gift or two.
Well, it took 7 Poetry Anthologies and 3 Rubix Cubes worth of gifts before this girl would befriend me and cough up her book. For the uninitiated, that's about 1500 gold worth of gifts, or what was, at the time, about a third of my money.
One could argue that the NPC befriending system brings depth and life to the game. I would agree if doing so did not involve spending money, which is as scarce as if Mabinogi were affected by the current economic crisis.
A big portion of the money issue derives from the fact that there seems to be absolutely no community, whatsoever. A quick googling notified me that there is no auction house in Mabinogi and no centralized area to trade with other players. Economic stimulation is provided in this game through personal shops, which can be opened by players who purchase permits.
Here's the problem with this approach to economics. Merchant permits cost money, and apparently allow you to open up the shop for 24 hours. There is no economic reference point for a new player to use, and thus no way to find out what players will buy and what is in demand, what you should price your items at, or even where you should set up your shop. For new players then, there is a high chance that the money you spend on a merchant permit will be wasted due to Mabinogi's economic learning curve.
And I'm sure someone will read this and think to themselves, "Well why the hell don't you just ask somebody else?" Ah ha, the joke is on you, anonymous reader, for I did ask, and plenty of times.
It was about as effective as a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest.
My sole nod to positive interaction in this game was a guy who randomly opened a trade window with me and gave me a two-handed sword on my first day. Other than him, I have talked to exactly TWO people the entire time I have played the game. The first was a naked giant female, who seemed to be having trouble with the same quest that I was (Fuck you, 16-toothed snowman!), despite her glaring lack of clothes, we managed to work through and figure out the quest together.
The second person who spoke to me was some sort of an Elf riding an ostrich. Said mounted Elf decided to call me a n00b because I was using a two-handed sword instead of two short swords to slay white wolves south of Tir Chonaill. Yes, thank you Mr. Twatface, but the sword was a gift and last I heard, this was a sandbox game, and it's MY choice what weapon I want to use. Go crash your ostrich into a pit.
So then, that's the big problem with the community. It doesn't exist. There's no general chat, no tabs for finding guilds, and seemingly no way to communicate with players other than walking up to them and initiating a conversation, hoping they will reply with something other than "STFU n00b". Granted that's a bit of an exaggeration. Most people are either named Qfdsfds, and only too happy to tell me about the latest slash of their gold prices, and the cheapest powerleveling anywhere, or else they tend to ignore me completely, as if I were a rather unpleasant relative that they wished would just go away. Either way, the end result is the same. Mabinogi is essentially a really complicated single player game which requires an internet connection.
An internet connection and LOTS of free time. As with most sandbox games, to succeed at all requires abandoning any semblance of a real life. Admittedly, the game is not a grind, so it does earn points for that, however it quickly loses them again by omitting any sort of a way to speed up travel. Unless you want to cough up money at the item mall, you are going to be relegated to walking... SLOWLY... across the world map. Now, I admit that I am far from knowing everything about the game, so I concede that later on, I may get something that makes me run faster, a non item mall mount, a teleporter or some other cool thing, but I'm not there yet, and it's mind numbingly frustrating to trot your slow ass between towns.
So essentially, let me offer you a breakdown of Mabinogi, for the benefit of those who like things wrapped up in a neat little synopsis.
Mabinogi is a free-to-play sandbox game from Nexon, creators of MapleStory. Combat is hard as hell, money is impossible to make, the skill system is limited by the leveling system, the leveling system is limited by the fact that you will die so much that you'll spend most of your time in negative experience points, there's no community and nobody to talk to, no easy way to travel and no surefire way to improve your character. Equipment costs too much and offers little additional benefit, crafting is fun but the items themselves are worse than useless, inventory management is a pain in the ass, customization requires a lot of money, which is again, impossible to obtain. Traveling takes forever, movement is unintuitive, the camera frequently gets stuck in world geometry, and the sound effects are terrible.
And yet... despite all of this, I find myself wanting to continue playing. When I stop and try to figure out why, the reason eludes me. Perhaps it's because the game is different, or because I like a challenge, but even with all the flaws, I'm having fun. Yes, I wish there was a community with some people to talk to, a reason to group with others occasionally, a decent and reliable way to continue gaining AP, better ways to travel... etc... but in this day and age, I can admire a game that tries to be something other than WoW. It's unforgiving to the player, which is refreshing, but admittedly takes some getting used to.
Yes, I'm level 26 and dying to the same mobs that killed me at level 5, and no.. I can't figure out why. I've played through endgame in lots of other MMOs, have a lot of console gaming and FPS experience, but this game simply kicks my ass.
If you're interested in a unique twist on the sandbox genre, and don't mind a game that is HARD, you could do a lot worse than Mabinogi. The game has many charming aspects, is translated well, involves more than just the standard kill and fed-ex quests and requires a lot of effort. If it were possible to find a guild or a few friends to explore some of the other content in the game, and perhaps keep each other from dying every .2 seconds, this game might actually shine. It's close. It really wants to be a good game, but it's being held back by a few things that will probably never be tweaked.
My final score for Mabinogi is 7/10. If I were reviewing the game neutrally, it would probably be closer to 6/10, but I'm giving it an extra point for doing something different than WoW and for managing to captivate my interest, despite all of its flaws. Don't ask me how, it's an intangible thing, like that plain girl next door who really isn't a model, but is attractive nonetheless, try as you might you probably won't ever figure out why.