Combat in Ether Saga Online is based on the typical combination of auto-attacking plus trained skills, of which there are several types. Class skills, unique to each class, are learned by the use of Spirit, an essence collected only while killing monsters of appropriate level. Each class skill and skill upgrade costs a specific amount of spirit, which is then "traded" in for the upgrade in the same way skill points would be used in other games. Another type of skill is the Ethyr skill, which comes as quest rewards and rare drops from monsters; only four of these can be learned at any one time. There are also Nascent skills, which come from the birth date you select at the beginning of the game, clan skills, which come from being part of a social clan, and Pet Fuse skills, which are granted only when fusing one of your pets to you.
Unfortunately, combat can be oversimplified by the use of "combos," which are simply customizable macros of up to 12 actions. Considering most creatures of level die within three to five seconds of combat, this does help prevent button mashing. As combos simplify most combat to the press of a single button, they both accent the tedium of the grind and make it easier to do.
Thankfully, there are more features to combat besides the attack-skill system that add a little variety. The entire game system utilizes a complex net of nine types of creatures, each of which is weak against, and strong against, two other types. As all player characters are humanoid, this limits them to a specific set of strengths and weaknesses; however, there are two additional systems that aid the player.
The first is that of pets. Every character starts out with a basic pet of the Beastkin affinity, and also obtains a Humanoid pet through their beginning quests. All characters are also able to tame monsters in the wild, and raise and train them, offering a chance to give an affinity edge during combat. While not all monsters are tameable, many are, and guides both in and out of game can provide you with help finding the ones you like best. Pets can learn a few skills of their own, and have their own attitudes, gear, and stats. Pets also require food to keep their experience gain and damage optimal, can be fused to the player to allow the use of special skills (at the cost of the pet's health,) and can be melded with other pets to fuse abilities.
The other system available to players to use affinities to their advantage is that of transformation. Monsters will sometimes drop cards that allow you to transform into that monster, inheriting their affinities (and ability to fly, if any), while retaining your own skills. Some transformations also grant you additional bonuses to your stats. Each card has a limited number of charges (except for the beginner card gotten through the tutorial quests).
Crafting is available once you reach Pokari City, but new players may find it difficult to fund. Each character can learn two crafting vocations, preferably a crafting skill combined with a relevant gathering skill. Of the crafting skills, Guardian Forging, Scout Crafting, and Arcane Tailoring are limited specifically to classes that can use their items; Herbalism, Petcraft, and Cooking are available to all. In addition, all classes have access to gathering skills of Mining, Woodcutting, Hunting, and Foraging.
Both gathering and crafting professions require tools to be able to use; these tools are not permanent, and can break on use. Gathering nodes, however, are permanent, can be found using the world map, and can be harvested from infinitely. The act of gathering is simple enough, and that's a good thing, because crafting is somewhat expensive in terms of materials too; for instance, a simple bow in Scoutcraft requires twenty harvested wood. While a single item's cost may not seem like a lot, consider having to harvest a node at least ten times for each item made, with a chance of your tool breaking (and they're expensive), plus having to buy the equally expensive scrolls to learn how to refine the material and make the items. And with the only items that appear useful requiring drops from instances and rare creatures, crafting does not appear to be geared toward the casual player.
The community I met in Ether Saga Online in game was rather nice, but that may have been because it was so quiet. In what is typically a rarity these days in free to play MMOs, the global channel was actually used for trading, and not much else - and even that didn't scroll by quickly. This is likely due to the fact that each server is split into about 15 realms, one of which is dedicated to trading. The Trading realm, however, suffers the same fate: most of the trading that does occur happens in the city via player shops and advertisements in the common, local channel. While this helps split up the population to prevent over-crowding, more often than not, the game felt empty.
In fact, even during the busiest times, I found that most players didn't talk to each other, even when standing right next to each other. For the most part, there seemed to be no concept of grouping with a stranger at all, and when questing, players seem to simply expect to deal with sharing or find a new place to hunt. Even adventures, open instances that force players to work together, tend to be silent.
The only way to seem to find friends in Ether Saga is to find a clan to join. Because clans only allow 15 members at most, and offer the benefit of special clan skills, most clans don't open themselves to new players or strangers. The other option is that of marriage, a social option in game which allows you to "marry" a character of the opposite gender in game. Marriage, available after level 30, provides you with a few small benefits: the ability to see when your spouse logs in or out of game, a special "Embrace" emote, and the ability to instantly teleport to your spouse. Because of this last benefit, it seems even in game marriages are often either arranged, or made by characters desperate for someone to spend time with in game.
The graphics of Ether Saga Online are bright, cheery, and anime styled - even the more imposing beasts have a look of tameness about them. That isn't to say that the graphics are terrible; in fact, the textures, even up close, are incredibly clean and seamless, and even water detail is impressively high. The graphics fit the almost comical nature of the game, and the world design itself feels realistically populated with trees, shrubs, bloom, and various places and artifacts of interest. I took the time to travel around the world and not once did I feel like I was traveling in a vast expanse of nothingness; even without monsters, there was always something to admire about the game world.
I mentioned localization at the beginning of the article. While I haven't mentioned to say that the text translations are rather well done for the most part, what I found uniquely impressive about Ether Saga Online was its lack of localization for sounds. Sure, the background music is distinctively and classically Chinese, which is perfect for a game set in the story of Journey to the West. What's striking though, is that all the NPCs still talk in Chinese, some for great lengths of time. This might bother some, maybe even most English-speaking players, who won't understand what a character is saying to them; and yet, it lends more credence to the setting of the game, more immersion into the Chinese world into which it is set.
Ether Saga Online's initial impression on me was one of mixed feelings, and after playing the game for a few months, I still feel the same way. The game is lovely, with a world that feels almost perfectly created for the game - and yet, probably not localized enough for those who don't have an understanding of Chinese culture, language, or literature. Some of the game's systems, such as the pet system, are incredibly complex - and yet, the combat system overall is too simple. Each quest tells an interesting story - but the quest themselves lean on grinding high numbers of monsters, and drag on forever.
In fact, I'm finding it quite possible to have fun in a game whose mechanics feel poorly designed. It's a good thing, then, that Ether Saga Online is a free to play game - outside of time spent downloading and trying it, there's no loss to a player for seeing if it suits their style. Ultimately, I think the main appeal for ESO is its ability to hold true to its lore, allowing players to experience a more story-based climate at a casual pace.