A World Full of Critters & Bad Guys
Aura Kingdom is a free-to-play MMO from Aeria Games. Your character is one of a handful of classes of beings who are gifted with special abilities by a mystical cube called Gaia. You can call upon Eidolons as companions and warrior-pets and battle it out with a world full of critters and bad guys, and generally have an adventure all over the landscape to help people and learn about your abilities.
Aura Kingdom is beautiful, which is generally not a surprise for a game whose basic art inspiration is clearly anime. The color palette and many of the visual choices strongly reminded me of playing fighting games in the arcade back when I was a kid, especially during combat sequences. The art style of all the buildings, stonework, and landscapes has the soft color shadings we've seen in other MMOs such as the upcoming WildStar. There aren't many hard outlines similar to Final Fantasy XIV other than on player characters, and that can be disabled in the UI.
Graphically, the most distracting bit of the UI is the text itself. There is a fairly standard layout of windows, chat in the lower left, quests in the right, map in the upper right corner. However, the font size and not having some kind of graphic behind the words to separate it from the regular gamespace made it difficult to read the chat and miscellaneous windows until I found the option in the settings to put a frame around them. While there was a ticker running across the top announcing players' achievements, it was far less intrusive than similar tickers on other games. Much like having the Titan Panel add-on in World of Warcraft, it's easy enough to ignore.
As is typical in many games, there are female non-player characters whose anatomy and costumes are governed by jiggle physics, but I was actually a bit surprised at how few there were. They did, however, make the few with jello in their shirts almost distractingly blatant. Fortunately, the vast majority of the game avoids that trope, and I was pleased to see that the rest of the female body shapes were reasonable for the genre and the audience. In fact, another downside to the graphics of the game is that the vast majority of NPCs seems to have used the same dozen or so character models, simply with different attire or even just a recoloring of the same outfit. After awhile, I started thinking I lived on a planet of clones.
In terms of costuming, there aren't many examples of metal bikinis, although female player characters with the same costume or gear as male characters tend to wind up partially sleeveless and almost always wearing a mini-skirt and thigh-high boots instead of pants, and often showing their midriff.
One curious thing about the sound effects is that there is a noise when you click buttons, particularly in maneuvering through quest dialogue boxes, that sounds exactly like my phone's default incoming text sound. It was a bit distracting and I kept looking at my phone during my review times. During gameplay, dialogue boxes can be all text, or often they're also text and a picture of both characters having the dialogue, acting out some portion of the commentary with a few different emotes.
The music reminds me of most games with Asian roots, such as the Final Fantasy series or Aion, adventuresome without being in your face. It certainly helped set the mood that my character was on an epic series of quests, even if many of the quests were your standard 'kill 10 rats' variety.
The actual game's story is fairly basic, probably aimed toward a late teen/early twenties sort of audience. A few characters swear mildly, and one guy refers to getting kicked in the crotch using terms that parents would probably not be happy their pre-teen heard. While AK's overall story gives off the Final Fantasy sort of vibe, there isn't a huge amount of depth to it. It's no BioWare title, certainly, but it's engaging enough in its own right to keep a younger player interested. The text in the dialogue boxes tend to be a bit sparse, making the story seem lighter and less serious than it should be. It has the potential for being a stronger and more intense tale, but it doesn't quite tip over the edge into being truly engrossing.
Aura Kingdom's character generation is pretty basic. You pick your class, gender, face, hair color, eye color, and then you pick an Eidolon. Every class gets this pet. You pick it in char-gen but don't get to use it until level 10, and there's only four you can choose from initially. Their pet abilities are clearly targeted toward complementing your class' primary role. The eight classes themselves are split into three categories, with a ninth class that's locked. The regular ones fall under melee, ranged, and magic, pretty much the same sort of thing as a watered-down selection of EverQuest II classes with only a few name changes. For the majority of my testing time, I played a Duelist: basically a dual-wielding DPS smash monkey, although I did give the full-on healer-class Bard and the ranged DPS Grenadier a try as well. I didn't get the sense that any of these classes were glass cannons, just mostly cannons with a few healing abilities.
The game starts off in an instanced scenario where you are super-powered, well-geared, and fighting some ultimate evil, coincidentally spoiling one of the central mysteries of the back-story presented on the game's website. While you only have two skills on your hotbar, they're equally bolstered and you wind up doing some pretty epic damage to some high-level demons. It's a clear demonstration of the basics of gameplay without actually being a full-on tutorial, and it's obvious that the intention is to give you a taste of what you can get if you play to endgame. Regardless of class or skills, you lose the scenario's fight and then suddenly wake up in your character's normal life from some distant dream.
You then start running around and meeting people and becoming immersed in the usual quest experience from many an MMO. Run errands for people in town, then leave town to start beating up on things in the forest. Movement is controlled two main methods: the standard WASD format and then click-to-move, although you can mix W plus right-mouse to generate the same movement as many games do with holding both mouse buttons down. The game also supports open-tap, where multiple players can attack the same mob and each one gets their own shot at loot and/or a treasure chest.
The initial leveling experience is fairly swift, comparable to the current starter zones in games such as Lord of the Rings Online or World of Warcraft. You start picking up blue and green gear at level 3 and above, a curious Glide ability at level 5, and get your mount early on at level 7. Ironically, if you can control it properly, Glide is actually faster than riding around on the starter ostrich. With Glide, you start moving, hit the spacebar and then R and zoom off until you either land naturally or crash into something. I was a bit startled that not many players were using it in the starter town.
Another feature that helped ease questing is the auto-path ability. If you click on an item in your quest log, many times the game will auto-path you to it, including hopping on and off your mount along the way as necessary. While not every quest was eligible for auto-path, it certainly lowered the need to scour the entire map to find the exact mob you had to kill or the NPC you had to talk to. Given how slim the information often was in quest dialogues, this was actually surprisingly necessary.
Crafting doesn't begin in the game until you get to the upper 30s in level, with actual recipes designed for characters level 40 and above. The sole purpose of crafting is to refine your gear to improve it, so your basic skills revolve around mining for ores and gems and then blacksmithing them into improving a piece of gear. On the downside, you can't PVP until level 40, so players who want to have a go at other players have to invest some time into the game first. No doubt it's tied into the crafting, given that they both start at the same level.
There is a lesser variant of crafting called Fortification that you can do at any level, where you Salvage unused gear instead of vendoring it and using the results to add stats to any of your remaining gear, but it's not the same kind of crafting that most games allow players to conduct. A second lesser-crafting option is their Secret Stone system, which is a method for enchanting gear by socketing stones, much like in World of Warcraft or Aion. Unlike either of them, however, Aura Kingdom lets you un-socket a Secret Stone and still keep it, similar to SWTOR's mods and enhancements.
Once you get your Eidolon at level 10, pretty much any class can steamroll over any mobs nearby. As my Duelist with the unicorn Eidolon Alessa, we ran rampant over the landscape and tore up the critters and pirates that got in our way. Eidolons have an ability to 'connect to Gaia', which costs 10 MP and takes ten minutes. During this time, your Eidolon is busy and can neither talk to you nor fight at your side, so it's not a great idea to go hunting pirates while it's connected. When it's done connecting, you get a nice piece of gear. The first time I twiddled my thumbs while Alessa was connected, she returned with a Flawless Secret Stone that granted +70 Damage. Not bad, really.
Another feature of the game is what they call the Envoy's Path. As you level up, you unlock points that you can distribute in a kind of talent tree. It's laid out like a game board, and you can only pick a new item adjacent to something you've already chosen. The tiles aren't the same for every class, nor are the rewards. You can respec anytime you want, but as with many games there is an in-game currency cost.