Free-to-play games have a certain stigma attached to them by most people, at least in the West. They tend to have less content, fairly simplistic gameplay, and are often little more than mindless-grind fests. I've played a number of these types of games in the past, and every time I do, I question why I haven't learned my lesson yet. Runes of Magic has shown me why: because there's always the exception to the rule, and hopefully one that will be a trend-setter. It is far from being a perfect game, but many gamers out there may find that Runes of Magic has enough to it to hold their interest.
While Runes was developed by Taiwanese company Runewalker Entertainment - it was localized for the West by the German company Frogster - it shares a surprising amount in common with Western MMOs. In fact, I would say that Runes of Magic is an excellent example of a formulaic, generic MMORPG. Everything from the classes, the world, the story, the quests, the combat... It is all very generic. Honestly, even the UI looks like it was ripped right out of World of WarCraft or Warhammer Online. Yet, the game does do a few interesting things to it and it does come at the low, low price of $0 a month. That's hard to argue with.
Before you begin playing you must, shockingly, create a character. Runes provides you with the choice of one race - a number that will likely increase as the game continues on, and more content becomes available on North American and European servers - and six classes. The classes are all rather straight forward: Warriors hit things with pointy objects and cause large amounts of damage, Rogues stab and poison things for more damage, Scouts use bows and arrows to attack at range, Mages use magic to deal damage at range, Priests heal and buff party members, and Knights make great tanks.
The class choices are pretty straight forward, but this is actually one of the areas that Runewalker threw in an extra, very welcome feature: dual classing. If you've ever played Final Fantasy XI, this system will be somewhat familiar to you although Runes has a number of differences. Once you reach level 10, you can pick up any of the other classes in the game as a Secondary Class. You will then be able to use a limited, though decently extensive, amount of the secondary class's powers, along with special Elite powers that are only open to specific combinations of classes. If you want a warrior that can heal a bit, you can become a Warrior/Priest. If you need a Mage that can take a few hits, try a Mage/Warrior or Mage/Knight. This leads to a wide variety of options available, and the different secondary class options actually seem to make a pretty fair impact on how your character plays. As an added bonus, most of the combinations seem pretty viable as well, which is something I did not expect.
Much like in Final Fantasy XI, you do not raise your secondary class as you level up your primary class. Instead, you switch your secondary class to your primary, and your primary to your secondary. So, if you have a Priest/Scout, but you want to level up scout for a while, you will need to switch to Scout/Priest. This is nice in some ways and a pain in others. On the positive side, it is a bit like having an alt that shares the same name as your main, and you don't actually need a second character to check out another class in the game. It does, however, mean that you will need to level up, basically, two characters to hit the max level, so you will be looking to repeat content. Luckily, content is one area that wasn't skimped on.
Quests and Content
When it comes to quests in free to play games, my expectations are pretty low. If I see five quests between levels 1 and 10, I'll be pleased. So, when I say that Runes of Magic would have been pleasantly surprising quest-wise if it were a subscription-based game, you can safely assume that I was impressed.
You won't find much of a shortage of quests here. Each zone is packed with quite a few to run through - in fact, at least during the earlier areas of the game, you'll have no problem leveling up both of your classes without running out of quests to do. To make this even more true, the game is chock full of daily quests right from level one and on.
I should note though, that while there are plenty of quests in the game, you shouldn't expect anything special out of them. The background of the world is pretty thin and quests stories are far from works of art, but rather just serve to get the player moving along. If you're not the type to obsessively read every quest dialog, then you're not missing out on anything. The quests themselves are also rather generic, as per the theme so far, and feature primarily just kill and FedEx quests.
Gameplay and Interface
Combat works in the tried and true method of using abilities attached to a hotbar. Your abilities will use up points from either your mana or endurance bar, depending on the power, and a number of them also have cooldown timers as well. As you start the game, combat can come across as being really bland, but you do gain more abilities as time goes on, which helps things out. Group dynamics work like they do in any other game, although having your tank backed up with healing spells of his own can be quite handy. The dual-class system allows for some interesting and more varied tactics to be used in combat. In the end, I've played games that have much better combat systems, but I've also played games that have much worse systems too.
I'm not much of a crafter, so I always have a hard time really reviewing this aspect of a game, but Runes does feature a crafting system. The actual system itself isn't anything you haven't seen before, but it does work out well enough. You can collect resources, put them together, use some items to add magical properties, and bam, you get an item. One neat thing, though, is that you aren't restricted to any one craft. You can actually go up every crafting line, if you would like to do so and are masochistic enough to put yourself through it. You can, however, only master one line. Still, the fact that you can basically switch to a new craft whenever, with no real penalty, is great.
While the gameplay is fairly bland, the interface is actually rather nice. Many Asian games use a point-and-click method for movement, which is something I never cared for. Runes of Magic is no exception, except that it allows you to use the keyboard to move as well, and also allows you to move forward by holding down both mouse buttons - which is something I've been fond of since Star Wars Galaxies came out. If you find yourself accidentally clicking on the ground next to your target, instead of your target, or for some other reason you just hate having the option to point-and-click for movement, it can be completely disabled in the options menu.
I found the UI to be pretty pleasing overall, largely due to things like that. The UI itself looks like WoW and WAR, but that isn't actually a bad thing. It has a number of nice features as well. For example, if a bunch of PCs are crowding around an NPC quest-giver, you normally would end up clicking on one of them instead. Hit shift+click, and you'll be selecting the quest-giver through them. The equipment screen is very nice, allowing you to hover your mouse over any equipment slot, which brings up a list of what you currently have equipped, as well as every item you are carrying that can go into that slot. You never need to hunt through a bag to find the best piece of equipment you have. I also never thought I'd compliment a game on how easy it is to ignore people, but Runes is hit pretty hard by spammers selling gold. In the chat window, just right click their name and then click "Add to blacklist." Just half a second of effort removes the spam from your window.
Graphics, Microtransactions, and The Little Extras
Graphically, the game isn't technically impressive at all. It does, however, have an art style that appealed to me well enough, which helped to make up for it. They went with a somewhat cartoony look that helped make the otherwise unimpressive graphics seem more acceptable. The graphics work well enough, and while they aren't hugely impressive, I can't complain too much about them in a free to play game either.
I do believe some of these areas that Runes of Magic is lacking in are helped by some of the miscellaneous features in the game. For example, player housing is nice to see and not something you find in every MMO. You get a home, a busty French maid to call your own, the ability to buy and place furniture in your house, and extra storage space. Furniture can also give rested XP and TP (used to buy ranks in skills), as well as increasing the XP earned when crafting in your house.
Housing is actually one of the areas that microtransactions start to come into play. You can buy certain upgrades to your house, such as the ability to include more objects, and the ability to name your house something other than the random string of numbers it is assigned. You can also do things like buy additional bag space, add the ability to speak on the World channel, and even purchase items with real money. You also can improve existing items by spending a bit of real world money as well, even boosting low level equipment up with high level stats, meaning that they can still be worn by a low level character. You can also do this, however, with tokens that can be earned in-game.
Microtransactions are a tricky thing to use when targeting a Western audience, as there's a lot of pre-existing baggage that comes with it that turns people off. Simply put, a lot of people aren't willing to try a microtransaction-based game. However, I think Runewalker (and Frogster depending on how much was localized) did a pretty good job of it. If you don't want to spend a dime, you never have to do so, and you aren't actually barred from anything by choosing to keep your money. You still get a house, you still get mounts, you still get tons of equipment drops... You'll be comparable to someone who has spent money. You just won't likely look as stylish, is all. Plus, you won't have the bag space, but you should be able to get along fine without it, too.
Runes of Magic is probably the most middle-ground, average game I have ever played. It seems for everything that they do right in the game, there's some niggling problem that brings it down. Yet, at the same time, for every fault I find, I can find something else that can make up for it. While the graphics might be far from impressive, the UI is quite nice. The combat system isn't very exciting, but the dual-class system can make for some fun combinations. The world isn't very interesting, but there is plenty of content.
Yet, for a free to play game, what it brings to the table is far beyond what you normally see from those types of games. Frogster claims that they've hit one million registered users in North American and Europe, and I can understand why. While there are better (and worse) games that cost $15 a month, Runes of Magic is still pretty impressive for not having a subscription fee. Taking value into mind, it is hard to not recommend it for a spin, given that there is no cost of entry.