Humbled By Kid Games: Dragonica Online

To be fair, I drop less mental bombshells and more complaints about how my weeks were duds.  The latest distraction to defuse any potential of my week was Dragonica Online.

First impressions will be that Dragonica Online is a sickeningly sweet kids game slightly corrupted with a hint of the lolicon that’s so popular in its world region of origin as to be apparently inseparable from most products imported from there.

Yes, it’s yet another free-to-play Korean import.  However, unlike most such games, Dragonica Online is not several years old, it’s still in closed beta even there.  What’s even more surprising, it has gameplay that leaves me sorely wondering if we’re far behind them here in American MMORPG game design.

Technology

Though Dragonica Online looks a lot like the cute offspring of Maple Story and World of Warcraft, inheriting the side-scrolling platform from the former and the quest indicator icons from the later, the result feels a lot better than either game.

The gameplay has a lot more in common with Final Fight than EverQuest.   Why not?  We are no longer hamstrung by the Internet connections of 20 years ago – auto-attack generally just gets in the way.

The environments have more in common with Castle Crashers than Super Mario World.  Why not?  With engines such as Gamebryo around, we can do 2D for the sake of the game mechanic while still keeping the graphical appeal of 3D.

Core Mechanic

Personally, I care more about the core mechanic of the gameplay than the technology, and Dragonica Online delivers a solid fare with a fair amount of breadth.

It’s solid in that running and dashing about combat, dodging enemy moves while trying to optimize catching as many as possible in your attack arcs, is a whole lot more interesting than sitting there and soaking damage while waiting for your skills to recharge.

It possesses breadth in the amount of choices it gives the player.  Just how many choices are there?   Well, it’s a good sign that the game features a double-layer hotbar of keys 1-8 and Q,W, E,R, A, S, D, and F for a total of 16 choices immediately accessible.  This is not the total accessible amount, however, as the letter-based hotbar can be swapped for several banks.  Some abilities (such as the Magicians’ Meteor) are implicitly accessible thorough your standard movement and attack combos.

Of course, much of those hotkey contents come from your character.  There’s less flat out abilities per character tree, but each ability has a role in the hybrid RPG/Action game, and rather than grant straight upgrades you can rank up most existing abilities up to five times.

Judging by the base classes alone, you get about a 10-12 skills per skill tree.  An individual character will have access to two or three classes (depending on if they went for the hidden “core specialist” class or not).  Between base, branch, promotion, and hidden classes, there are 24 possible classes.  I’ve seen branched class systems tried and failed elsewhere, but it actually seems to work here.

The rest of the hotkeys are pretty much standard item stuff.  Healing and mana potions are cheap and plentiful, but grant regeneration as opposed to straight out healing so cannot be abused.  There’s a cooking mini-crafting system that involves finding the recipes and completing them via monster components. There are magic scrolls you can purchase for easy travel from city to city.

Equipment is fairly well-featured in that most of it shows up completely visible on your character, right down to the belt.  You can enhance equipment either with enhancement powder loot or by infusing it with “soul power” which comes from breaking down old equipment you chose not to sell.  However, enhancing existing equipment comes with a risk of breakage.  Too risky?  You can also purchase insurance against breakage for upgrading.

A Kid Game, You Say?

Overall, Dragonica Online offers visceral action, diverse skill sets, a well-designed class-based system, a great looking (if heavily chibi) world, and an all around solid game experience.   It’s the kind of game that seems to have undergone a whole lot of intelligent design by people who have played enough games to know what one is.  On top of that, it’s free to play with micropayments.

If these are elements of kids games from Korea, I have to wonder: do American developers simply consider their adult customers too stupid to know a good thing?  Must we remain humbled by uninvolving autoattack mechanics for our own protection, and shell out $15/mo for the privilege?  Or have our developers fallen so far behind the curve of the wired East that it remains technically infeasible to try?

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