MMORPGs are a dime a dozen these days, and they're commonly divided by profit model. In an industry mostly filled by just one game (World of Warcraft), many competitors and challengers have created a fairly tumultuous scene for those who don't participate in the Blizzard juggernaut, from Korean and Japanese offerings to a wide variety of American creations. Recently, MMO publisher Nexon has come to the U.S. on the no-subscription, microtransaction-funded model that's commonly associated with casual MMOs. Indeed, three of the games it has released thus far in the U.S. follow that model, with the 2D platforming MMO Maple Story, comic racing action of Kart Racer and Bust-A-Groove-style music game, Audition.
However, Nexon is just as well-known in Japan and Korea for hosting Fantasy Life Mabinogi, an MMO that find some distinctive ways to make itself different from most. Many U.S. players have awaited the game's release for a long time, so when the game entered its closed beta, the 5,000 available spots were hotly contested. I was able to take a look at what's been done thus far in Mabinogi, and it's shaped up fairly well.
Right off the bat, you'll notice Mabinogi's differences in its character creation rules. Rather than simply having a number of slots in which you place characters, you get one "basic" card free and can purchase more. Using one of these cards allows you to create a character or "rebirth" an existing character. The specifics of how this works were not clear, as the closed beta provided just one card and no way to acquire more, but apparently the method works fairly well in practice. There are no "classes" per se in Mabinogi, so character creation is further modified from simply selecting race, gender and appearance by adding in another factor: age.
See, among Mabinogi's most distinctive features is that your appearance changes after character creation, and not just because of what equipment you're wearing, although that is a major factor. Which food you eat to recover stamina will influence your weight, how you exercise will modify your character model, and other factors can cause more subtle adjustments. This doesn't sound so significant, but it really adds to the role-play elements that are central to the game, and it also influences your stats — heavier characters are stronger, while lighter characters are quicker.
Due to Mabinogi's implementation of classless play, players are defined by two things: stats and skills. Stats increase in a variety of ways — weight adjusts over time, leveling up, and stats are gained when acquiring a skill — while skills are learned in two steps: meeting the requirements to gain access to the skill, and then using Ability Points, which can be earned in just about the same ways as stats. Another significant notion is how your abilities can unfold; skills fall under the categories of Combat, Magic and Life, with a strong emphasis on the last category. It is very possible to level up, play and enjoy the game without fighting a single monster after the tutorial. This has drawn many comparisons to the classic Harvest Moon series, although Mabinogi is not nearly as complex as that classic.
As if the Life skills were not unique enough, the game also has a fairly impressive music system. Pick up an instrument, and you can play several generic MIDI ditties after learning the basic Music skill. However, there is also the Composing skill, which lets you write music that you can then play using a form of the Music Markup Language. Though limited to three tracks and only to the sound of the instrument you are carrying, it is robust enough that people were constantly copying a variety of classic game tracks whenever I entered town. I was easily able to find "Katamari On The Rocks" from English players of the Japanese version of the game. This adds a lot of personality to the game that I have not seen in any other MMO.
Actual combat in the game is moderately robust and based on a basic rock-paper-scissors system of standard melee attacks (which can be comboed via timed clicking), blocking and unblockable "smash" attacks that require a charge-up time. On top of that, you can gain skills such as the Windmill, which hits anything near you but costs HP, and Counterattack, which lets you dodge and counter most attacks but has a long charge time and is useless against ranged attacks. This results in combat that is slower but more challenging than World of Warcraft, where active thinking about which move you're going to use is far more important. Party play is rewarded even in this classless system by taking advantage of specialization; arrow attacks are extremely slow but quite strong and can temporarily lower your opponent's MAX HP to weaken healing, while magic is even stronger but eats through your limited mana supplies in seconds.
Mabinogi's sound effects are pretty standard, but well-played enough to give you a clue as to the sound's location on the game screen. The music is fairly plain fantasy fare, generally with a positive tone. The cel-shaded graphics are not exceptionally detailed, but they are beautifully functional and clear while meeting perhaps a more significant requirement — exceptionally low system requirements. I was able to get the game working quite well on my laptop, which is barely able to support the more intensive games from the earliest part of this decade, while my unexceptional desktop was able to run the game at 72 frames per second, a speed that is impressive for someone who's used to games running at 30 fps on the PC.
Overall, Fantasy Life Mabinogi can be held in pretty high regard even in its current beta condition. By the second day of my participation in the beta, the only major glitch was in text display. It seems that a lot of the game world is yet to be completed, but what is there is pretty impressive. The world of Erinn seems to be well on the way to being ready for a U.S. release, and it's shaping up to be something worth anticipating in the MMO scene.
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