There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that Ether Saga Online is a decent MMO, even for one that's free to play. Its title bar is still in Chinese, so you know localization hasn't been a priority in bringing the game to a western market. Your first fifteen levels are practically handed to you. Combat can be simplified to a single button press, and the game can automatically walk you to any quest objective you have. If you're not alarmed by this, the only sane assumption is that you're already playing Ether Saga and finding that it does, indeed, have its own brand of fun.
Story and Immersion
Ether Saga Online's story is based off the Chinese classic, Journey to the West (also known as The Monkey King.) Players are determined to be part of the sacred team that will journey westward to retrieve the sacred texts that were lost due to the Monkey King's antics. For those who love this tale, the game's telling of it is a real treat. A light-hearted take on the classic, most of the quests are only loosely related to the story, and are instead whimsical or silly side tales in the world itself.
Upon character creation, there are a few choices to make. There are three races or factions you can be a part of: Ren, Shenzu, and Yaoh. Each have a different back-story, but are functionally the same, except for their starting pet's appearance. There are six classes available: Rogue, Dragoon, Conjurer, Ranger, Shaman, and Mystic. You'll also need to select your character's date of birth and zodiac sign, which will influence which three Nascent skills they receive - a different set of three for each selectable day of the year, and each different per race. As players level, they're also capable of customizing their character by choosing affinities to provide them passive boosts to skills and attributes.
As you start the game, you'll be given a series of tutorial quests that will help give you your beginner gear, teach you the basics of game play and, yes, get you to level 15 without killing a single creature. I'll note that this is a changed system from the closed beta of the game; while the tutorial quests still existed, there was a little more integration in the game than simply granting a level upon each tutorial quest completion, and I'm not sure why this change was made. In addition to tutorial quests, you'll be introduced to the in-game guide. The guide not only provides the basics of game concepts and game play, but also serves as an encyclopedia of such details as Nascent skill calendars, tameable pet lists and abilities, and even boss loot sorted by area.
Eventually you'll find your way to Pokari City, the main city of the game; this is where, for the most part, you're released on the world with your knowledge and allowed to get to the meat and bones of the game: quests and adventures.
Quests are more plentiful than your quest log can handle; those who love doing quests will not be disappointed. The problem with quests, however, is that you'll progress very slowly through the game: after hours of questing in Pokari City, five levels worth, I was still returning to kill the same low-level mobs around the city, with only two quests starting to break me out into more difficult areas. And for those who get lost easily, or prefer having maps or directions, don't worry: there's an auto-routing feature that will guide your character to any quest objective.
Adventures, on the other hand, are realm based instances, which you can also obtain quests for. Adventures also include "Warcries," which are essentially PvP arenas of up to six versus six. Each requires a set amount of players to begin (usually one to six), and the adventure interface will display the requirements, status, and number of players already present. A queue system is used to enter, although it's rarely necessary to wait for entrance. Although these can be done solo at higher levels, these are generally designed for group play, but will not force you to group with the players already in the adventure. Between the awkwardness of difficulty versus reward, finding a group, and the fact you can only queue for an adventure every 15 minutes, adventures felt like a strange implementation that could safely be ignored.
For those looking for PvP, you will be forced to wait until level 45. Combat can be made against any other player, including that of your own race, and even those of your own clan or alliance. The PvP system is somewhat complicated, allows the looting of player dropped items, and includes an Infamy system which severely penalizes a player for killing lower-level players, or players without a PvP history. These penalties include slowed movement, reduced mana regeneration, hostility by the guards of cities and towns, and an experience penalty on death (reducing experience by 5% per death until it reaches zero).
One look at the user-interface can see that it borrows heavily from World of Warcraft. The upper-left hand corner offers your character's current status. Below that are placed the mini-bars for pet status. In the upper right hand corner is the mini-map, which can track NPCs, players, and monsters, and has various radial buttons . A quest tracker appears below this. Along the bottom of the screen, from left to right, are located a chat window, the basic skill bar and the pet skill bar, and the various game menu options. Most of these UI options (outside of the skill bars and game menu) can be resized or collapsed, but cannot be entirely removed from the game screen, leaving you feeling a little choked.
There are a host of windows that can be opened: the character screen and attribute screen display the character's equipment, statistics, and affinities. There are virtue and title windows, pet windows, skill windows, in game guides, inventory, quest logs, access to the in game item mall, and yet more. There's even an in-game Event Calendar (and yes, there are dozens of events all day, every day.) In fact, it's hard to not hit a key and get some window popping up, blocking your view with information about something. A casual player might find themselves overwhelmed with keeping track of all the information they have to manage via so many windows.