06/05/2009 at 20:59
[THUMB1]Recent years have seen a massive increase in 'free to play' MMOs that survive based on building asstrong and fervent fan-base that are happy and willing to pay for various extras, ranging from additional missions to outfits and weaponry. Asia has been one of the leaders in this model and has been largely successful in creating serious competition to the likes of World of Warcraft on a global scale, despite having a more limited, but still noticeable, impact in the West.
The range of styles and genre mixes that have become available is large, ranging from traditional RPG styles to more creative and interesting attempts, possibly in an attempt to grab a less competitive and less exploited marketplace.
Dragonica (also known as Dragonica Online) is an online MMO that fits far more easily into the latter genre. Mixing RPG development with side scrolling platform/action gameplay it appears at this stage, to be onto something very interesting and entertaining.
The game aims for a cartoon style and carries it through effectively and skilfully with weapons and special attacks that range from oversized fiery hammers, to your own Bruce Lee to fire at the enemy - not quite at the Wile E. Coyote level of ridiculousness but certainly tongue-in-cheek. The background, music and animation is smooth and fits with the rest of the game extremely well - it comes close to looking a little simplistic at times but the charm and design belies any minor shortcomings you might initially think the game suffer from.
[THUMB2]One obvious and immediately noticable shortcoming with the game is that there doesn't appear to be any obvious method of adjusting the camera which very occasionally feels slightly more restrictive than I would have preferred. Sometimes you want to simply look around for enemies or for the right path to follow, and it's also a frustrating trying to do something as straight forward as looking at the backgrounds and environment.
The initial play period was slightly confusing and, having no-one around to ask what I was really supposed to be doing was slightly off-putting (it should be noted that I had 3 different characters available to try from the start, none at the lowest level so any introduction or tutorials would have been missed). The game does have a couple of very strong points that encouraged me to not lose heart so quickly: the art style, music and general feel of the game feel original and charming. It is one of the most refreshing games I've played in a while and an excellent change from the majority other widely available MMOs.
Even though I was using a keyboard (gamepad control is indicated to be included in the coming weeks or months), I still found that combat and control was decent enough that it caused me no serious concerns. I didn't manage to get as deeply into the combat as I would have liked but, as you can see from the video below, there is an impressive level of complexity to combat; all of which is played out in real time.
[THUMB3]From the portion of the game I played through, the game operates from central hubs where the majority of missions are picked up from - others gathered along the way. This hub leads into vast areas that are full of respawning enemies as you work to complete your quests which may vary from the typical 'kill X number of X enemies' to exploring and finding a specific character. Much like a traditional action game, there are often boss battles at the end of large sections which break up the action nicely. Luckily, the penalties for death seem to be minor, often resulting in little more than having to repeat a small section of the map rather than any apparent loss in experience or another similar punishment.
What surprised me the most was that after eventually working out what I was supposed to be doing, Dragonica doesn't play like I was expecting it to at all. As I was making brief notes, I caught myself writing 'Viewtiful Joe' down as one game that the combat reminded me of. It has the same feeling of impact when hitting the enemies and attempting to string together an impressive combo, it even has enemies that cause cracks to appear in the camera if you manage to hit them so hard that they fly into it.
[THUMB4]For a game that is so full of action, it was surprising how relaxed and straight forward it managed to make it all feel. If it can succeed in carrying forward the promise that it's currently showing and gain the community that it deserves then there is great potential for Dragonica to do very well. The idea of partying up and fighting through the 'dungeons' is one that makes me seriously consider returning and staying in the world for a much longer time than I've managed with other MMOs.
The game seems to have got the core gameplay pretty spot on, I would certainly look forward to trying a number of other features that are only possible to try out beyond a preview test including the promise of 10 player PvP which I can only imagine is going to feel like a more insane version of Super Smash Bros. and is likely to be a significant draw to the game, lasting long beyond any 'storyline' that is there.
The closed beta for Dragonica is expected to be available online over the next few weeks. EU dates have been announced as May 13th-May 22nd.