MMO Row: Freeware MMO Line-Up Review Series

There are an astounding number of Free MMO games out there on the internet. From the major developers like GPotato and Nexon, to some smaller companies players have never heard of like CyberStep. However, looking out into the sea of games is like looking at a bookshelf of books. There are titles and colors everywhere, but when looking at rows and rows of spines, it's hard to discern quality in all of the quantity. So, in order to arrive at a more conclusive decision, these games will be picked up and thoroughly played.

EDIT: For the sake of clarity, each of these games will be played over the space of a week, with a review going up every Friday, accompanied by the download of a new game. This game will be played until the subsequent Friday, when it will be reviewed, and replaced with another game.

Any readers who want to request a game are free to do so either through PM or on this thread. (Please be aware that the low-content guideline is in effect on this thread, and simply stating a game title with nothing else is likely to be reported. Please exercise caution when posting.) The restrictions are that the game is fully freeware to play. No demo or trial will be allowed, and no more than one game will be played a week.

___ Chapter 1: Dungeon Fighter Online ___

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There a certain childish charm to the old arcade-style brawler. Although archaic, it's easy to remember what's so likable about a screen full of generic bad-guys and two lines of stereotypical dialog. Most 2.5D beat-em ups have very urban settings, with thugs capturing protagonists' girlfriends and flitting away through alleys lined with acrobatic thugs, martial arts punks, and often inexplicably big or fat gangsters. However, Dungeon Fighter Online has managed a fantasy setting, and has managed it... Uh... Passably.

The point of the urban setting is its fitting. There's a reason for a fight-savvy protagonist to go through hoard-after-hoard of mind-numbingly stupid villains is because it make sense for them to do so. There's solid reasoning, a single person affected in a big way, so he does a single thing that has a huge result. A single man facing an entire gang to save his personal girlfriend. It's logically sound, and functional for the setting.

When translated into an online fantasy world, the logic skews a bit. The characters each have their own motivation for going what they're doing, and it seems solid. But there are only only five possible characters. These characters can't be visually customized, which may seem like an aesthetic thing, but break immersion once there are fifty girls with jaded pasts who on eternal quests to become stronger. In the same room. And they all look the same. And fight the same. They are all the same. More to the point, why not send in entire armies to quell the demon uprising, instead of a single priest? It all seems so bizarre.

Excepting that story and premise hiccup, the title feels suitably comfortable. The pixel-based style isn't overly anime or cutesy, sticking to a more familiar style for the brawler. The settings, towns, and fields have enough variety in the long term to look like they belong with the game they're in. This means that while some games have 5 year old teddy bears with purple hair taking on demi-God demons, this game isn't one of them. The characters all look the part. In either cutscene or sprite form.

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Excepting those oddities, the formula works. The same feel for the arcade game is all there, just without the unnecessary amount of change. The RPG elements don't get in the way too much, which is really what the game needs to be successful. Games like Final Fight don't need too much story or too much statistical depth, because that would compromise the simplicity of the game as a whole. Part of what makes it sell is the solidity of the basics.

This button is attack, this one defense, this one does moves, and those things are bad. From there, sword swipes, punches, kicks, throws, and bludgeoning are part of how the game entertains its players. Adding too many stats, too much equipment, too much thought ends up taking away from the simple joys of a brawler. In that way, DFO strikes a solid medium between skill-raising and equipment handling, and the unburdened fun of a quick River City Ransom run.

However, games like those have some strength in their shortness. Just a quick pick-up, the first level takes a short time, there are't too many enemies, and there's a solid variety of moves that makes gameplay uncomplicated, but deep enough to stay engaging for its limited stay. MMO games have never had the "luxury" of being short. They're constantly being patched, lengthened, updated, adjusted, but most of all, played. Games like these don't lend themselves to long-term binges. There's just not enough diversity. Fifteen thousand punches can only stay entertaining when they're thrown differently, do different things, or spray confetti on impact.

Like most MMOs, the level curve is exponentially more difficult. It means that while the first 10 or so levels are littered with incessant skill gains, the next 15 might stay fresh enough, but the next 50 won't. The dungeon's instances will all begin to look a little familiar, or take a little too long between trips back to town to sell spoils or upgrade weapons.

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The game is also browser-based, meaning that it cannot be launched without a browser window open. Not normally a problem, but the game has a client which must be downloaded. Which means the client is on the hard drive, not stored online. But they game still needs a browser window. Not necessarily a fault, more an annoyance. Although the annoyances don't end there.

The game's natural resolution is very low, requiring a command (//window) to open, though no prompt or option in-game to reveal such a feature. It means that the game will automatically launch in full screen with a comically low resolution for modern machines. Furthermore, the game only operates servers in the following places: North America, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China. While the server hosting placement isn't completely unusual, the restrictions are still present. If an Australian or European player tries to load any of the other servers, they'll likely be met with an incurable "Unable to Connect" error.

If the review seems a little nitpicky, its for a good reason. Dungeon Fighter Online is unique among many online games in that it's a unique idea, with good potential and just as good execution. If it weren't for the almost omnipresent plague of little faults, the game could easily be as successful as a single player experience as it could a multiplayer online one. This fault is the game's biggest failing, in that its an online game that doesn't really work as an online game, on a fundamental level. From the restriction to instances to the inflexibility to global market, the game is good, but the online falls a bit short. There was never a need to make a great arcade game into a functional, but only "good" online game.

Bottom Line: When the restrictions and necessities of the online game are taken away, the core would make for a better offline game, and that little bit of squandered potential hurts the whole process in subtle but pivotal ways.

Very cool idea. I've actually never played a freeware MMO. And as you put so eloquently, there are tons of them -- I tried to find a decent one, but it's a bit overwhelming for someone who has no idea what they're looking for. What I'm saying is that these reviews should prove particularly useful to me. And, of course, the writing is great, as we all have come to expect. There are a few tiny nit-picks to be made here and there, but nothing worth mentioning. I'll definitely watch out for the next installments.

___ Chapter 2: Fantasy Tennis 2 ___

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Most MMO games focus on a strict set of guidelines: 3D, fantasy setting, stats, equipment, monsters, and grinding. However, it's not completely unheard of for a game to do something completely different.

Well, maybe completely different would be a stretch. Alaplaya's Fantasy Tennis 2 has turned something almost completely unheard of in MMO gaming, and made it a functional. Instead of Monsters, there are tennis players, and instead of stats and sword-and-horses fantasy, there's multiple rackets and magic tennis rallies. Which breaks up the old system well enough to be genuinely new and exciting, and still have the basic concepts that makes MMO games work.

Although, I confess that "Massively Multiplayer" is a terrible misnomer for the title. Like with all tennis, the most players that can be on court at any given time is four, which makes for a series of wordless skirmishes instead of a more traditional MMO experience. This could have been solved with tennis "lobbies" that allow the players to run around sports clubs or bleachers between matches, offering the familiar settings of country clubs and pro-shops. It instead favors a more lifeless set of menus that power the whole experience from end to end.

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The setup is pretty simple, with a single player mode, online matchmaking mode, a "quest" mode, and a tournament mode. The tennis system itself is pretty basic, for those familiar with tennis, it can be a little confusing. The matches are best two of three games, with third game playing somewhat like a tie-breaker. For those that don't understand tennis, the premise is pretty simple. However, the game doesn't explain it at all, so a quick brush up on tennis's scoring system will be necessary. There's also a battle mode, which is so bizarre that it can only be understood through experience.

The single player is good for getting the ropes of how the game's quirks handle, and earning some items and experience. However, the rewards are minimal at best and painfully slow to achieve, so the single player mode is almost a completely unanimous failure. The online Matchmaking is much more effective, setting up rooms for the players to play tennis against one another in either singles or doubles. The game's unusual "set" size and game setup means that two of the four players in a doubles match will never serve, which is off-putting. Otherwise, the matchmaking system is simple to navigate, and can even separate potential games by difficulty ratings, and game types. This is a good system, and while nothing terribly advanced, is functional and therefore effective.

The biggest issue, play-wise, is simply how unapproachable the game can be at times. Occasionally, the text box will deselect itself, letting the player promote merry havoc by hitting one or two bad hotkeys while they're trying to type a sentence. The battle mode is almost entirely unrelated to how well one plays tennis, and it makes the game's best portion - the action-based tennis - become background to item use and HP-monitoring. It bogs down the game and makes the "set" seem more busy-work than play.

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The problem is worsened by the graphics, which while cutesy and bright, can sometimes overwhelm the important information on-screen. Points will be won and lost on graphical processing ability and players ability to see through anti-aliased light effects, and with the short game setup, that one point could be the very important difference between victory and loss. Add in stages with a large draw distance, or special attacks that are bright and flashy, and the game can sometimes be too overcome with itself to focus on the important physical game the MMO is emulating.

However, for all of its flaws, there's something charming and novel about Fantasy Tennis 2. Like an Alfa Romeo car with all of its quirks, or a an old favorite that is powered more by nostalgia than actual excellence, this game is somehow enduring. Which is a good thing, despite its inherent social ineptitude, the game portion is still fun, and the online mode is actually functional.

Bottom Line: Charming as a button, and cute enough to keep the metaphor going into the wee hours of the night. It's a sort of Mario Power Tennis online, which is fun in a non-serious kind of way. If its your sort of thing, it's worth a play. If not, it probably won't change your mind.

I suggest you give Drift City and Gunz: The Duel a shot. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on both.

Meant to check this out for some time but had a lot of other stuff to do first. I'll comment on the first review (and give this a bump), then comment on the second part later.

Ok, so while a bit more discussion of the way human interactions, a necessary part of the genre, are handled would have been welcome imo, it seems a good review, identifying issues but giving credit where it's due. I don't know what elements of the game ought to be prioritised in an MMO review, and I have no idea how accurate it is but it seemed fair. Oh, and well done on the picture placement. As always it seems to be spot on, I always struggle to get them to align with the text well without horribly distorting the image. Just a shame about the niggly errors.

___ Chapter 3: Grand Chase Online ___

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One of the biggest draws for an MMO is a big world to be able to roam freely, a strong community, and lots of variety. Different classes means more play types, better coordination with players, and an altogether solidity for both game play and game experience. Whenever these points are lacking, a game will have no oomph to it.

That is the largest problem with Grand Chase Online, and everything else about the game just feels like it is done in excess. The fully 3D fantasy characters rendered on a 2D plain, the needless additions to combos and skills in spite of a complete lack of basics. The limited and random item system. The menu interface. There's a lot about Grand Chase that really, really needs a strong looking at before the game can even become remotely approachable.

The game's tutorial is lengthy, introducing the three basic classes - Warrior, Archer, Mage - and setting the player off in a pair of "hold-my-hand" dungeons. The in-game dialog and tutorial quickly explains how the game is played, but despite the cutesy art or the 3D graphics, the game as almost no life to it. The dialog is well-translated, but doesn't feel a part of anything. The graphics aren't dark, the music is ambient and almost entirely unnoticeable. It just feels static, the sort of sterile you only find in hospitals and air locks.

Beyond that, the formulaic gameplay is simple, easy-to-process, but hard to get just right. It means that while it's easy to pick up and go, there's a bit of mastery to getting things right. Every character controls essentially the same, even the later unlockable characters, but they all have little quirks that make them unique in the very technical senses. The differences aren't vast enough to make them all wildly different, just enough to encourage a bit of observation of play style and give room for playable preference.

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The graphics have much the same effect, presenting the odd hybridization of cutesy-anime and 3D. This game doesn't carry itself well, due to the low system requirements, and ends up looking sharp, angular, and at times blocky. Although discounting certain armor sets, the enemies and their respective scenes look smooth. However, because the characters are pre-built, named, and classed, they vary only in what armor they happen to be wearing. It means that any mission with 4 Warrior-class characters is going to look almost - if not - exactly the same.

The game is entirely instance-based, which means the payer is either in a four-person-only dungeon, or they are navigating menus. The lack of world is astoundingly harsh when compared to so many other titles, and it means the game is reduced completely to the grind. The sense of community mirrors this, with players only using other players so long as they can be useful.

Overall, Grand Chase feels like a textbook example of what not to do with an MMO game. The classes are only remotely different from one another, look the same, the atmosphere is ruined by the menu navigation, and too dry in-game to be noteworthy, and it all just feels in excess. The fully-3D appearance accomplishes nothing on the 2D plains that sprites or lower-resolution couldn't have, the character roster would've been great had the character truly had a big variety, and the nuances of the gameplay would've been welcome had the basics had any sort of solidity. The community is also self-important and divided amongst themselves, and everything just feels detached from the whole process.

Bottom Line: There really are so many examples of side-scrollers that have done the same thing, but more approachable, more atmospheric, and just altogether better. LaTale, Maple Story, and Wind Slayer all come to mind.

Do maple story

____ Chapter 4: Drift City ___

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There's something to be said for an open world in gaming. It's part of what made games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Crackdown so wildly successful, and made them seem so functional as a whole. It builds playability, and makes the whole process seem more alive and breathing. This isn't a new property, but it's surprisingly rare. IJJI's Drift City happens to be both an innovative idea for an MMO (racing), and incorporates a free-roaming world available to players from the beginning of the game. This alone is disarming enough to introduce a spark of creativity. As No More Heroes proved, there needs more than just an interesting implementation of free roaming environments to make a solid idea into a successful game. It then comes down to whether or not the game can deliver.

Surprisingly, Drift City handles the idea of an MMO racing game well. Unlike Project Torque which has a slightly stronger emphasis on realism, Drift City encourages completely illogical and impossible maneuvers as part of a successful strategy. The drift elements are quite bizarre, and go beyond most arcade racers into the land of make believe at best, and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift at the worst.

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The over-the-top style of the game pervades not only from gameplay, but the visuals. The cel-shading is graphically minimal, as most free-to-play games are, but the result is surprisingly pretty. The scenery is interesting to look at, and the cel-shaded environments are very easy on the eyes. The car models are the same story, just detailed enough to retain shapeliness and interest but sparse enough to remain uncluttered and free over overburdening distraction.

Despite the gorgeousness of the graphics, the simplicity does play a bit of havoc on the game as a whole. The clear-cut colors and brightness of everything often fails to really capture the speed the game tries to impress on the player. It makes keeping an eternal eye on the speedometer an absolute necessity, and can surprise the players after a straight and make the turn come a lot more violently quickly than it appears it should. As well as that, it also makes distances hard to gauge.

The interface does help by remaining out-of-the-way, as nearly any interface should. This is great for 99% of the game, but means it can be very unpleasant when it comes time to talk with several users at once or maintain a running conversation with players. The game is functional without including the community, but it is more enjoyable when played as an MMO rather than just a racing game.

However, the game is labeled "Drift City," and plays out much like the community in the aforementioned Tokyo Drift did. That means spray-painted flames, loud cars, neon lights, and cheeseball names pervade the community as a whole. There are shady businessmen here and there, lots of self-absorbing racing types, and an outlandish amount of braggarts and "crews." Which while fitting for the streets, feels awkward in an online game. Despite all of that, Drift City is a surprisingly competent game. It plays well, if not occasionally oddly, and manages to be both unique and fun.

Bottom Line: Drift City won't be accomplishing anything completely revolutionary, nor is it anything that's going to change the way the world looks at racers, but it's fun. Which is enough for what it is.

I'm just posting to say "Great thread." Really good info in here.

Nuke, your writing has improved so much since the last time I (have? mind = scrambled) read one. These are some really good reviews. I read the last three and they were very well written. I found a very small amount of nitpicks that just caused me to take a slight pause while reading but they're not worth mentioning. It's nice to see some of your writings again!

Great writing, Newclassic.

Now is there anything out there that'll blow our socks off?

Comments on second review:

As always seems to be the case with your stuff, I enjoyed it. Plenty of things to gripe about (and I'll carry on doing so in the hopes of stumbling on some insight) but there's so much done right that to complain almost seems churlish to do so.

Was I the only one to find a couple of sentences quite puzzling, like the "metaphor" in the final paragraph? I don't know whether to attribute my misunderstanding to the transatlantic gulf or not.

Ok, the third review:

I kinda take issue with the idea of vast open worlds adding "oomph" to these games though, as I would have thought smaller environments would condense the experience. Definitely agree with the rest of the comments on MMOs in general, I'm quite curious as to how the design of the MMO can influence the form that the community takes. This game's one doesn't sound particularly pleasant.

A review of Perfect World International would be interesting, since it's something of an anomaly in the "free MMO" world.

EDIT: Oh, by the way, I'm working on this again.

____ Chapter 5: S4 League ___

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Hyper agility is something not often found in MMO games. Something about "fast movement" and "online" tend to tax bandwidth and hardware enough that no one really tries to push the envelope. There's the ability to run, sometimes jump, and often not much else. This game, S4 League, is an online third person shooter. How it differs from the standard run-around affair is that it's very agile. It's not restricted to just running and jumping, but also wall-jumping, flying, air dodging, grappling hook, and many things between. In a game where you also have many types of guns, customized armor, stats, and a variety of item times, no two fights go the same because of so many different skill and weapon setups. It's a delightful change from the standard first-person slower-paced FPS. Although calling it an MMO might be a bit of a stretch.

The game is capped at 12 persons per battle, and with the exception of two or three maps, it's a reasonable cap. The maps are small, but have enough variety and size to make the action easy-to-find, but possible to avoid for more sneaky kills. The design is good, and the weapons and equipment is quite balanced, and everything reads like a checklist of potential-badass.

Surprisingly, the checklist doesn't steer the player too wrong, either. The game has a brief tutorial to explain the mechanics, which rely on wall-jumping and dodging. The game isn't too hard to understand, since shooters are usually simplistic. The game is paced in such a way that it takes a lot of getting used to in order to keep up. When the rhythm is there, the game is hard and fast, which is a good thing for a game this agile to be.

On top of that, there are (currently) three game modes to play. Team Deathmatch (up to two teams of six), Touch down (two teams, two bases, on flag, capture-the-flag-esque), and Chaser (One enemy 'Chaser' with ridiculous defense. Avoid dying within the time limit, bonus for hurting the Chaser.) Team Deathmatch and Touchdown aren't terrible new, although the execution of Touchdown is unique given the game's speed. The modes aren't terribly interesting, short of how players deal with them given the ability for movement and exploration. Being fired on from a roof, the floor, a window, and from a tree isn't too uncommon. The snipers in the game often find the most interesting perches.

The biggest draw is The Chaser, a mode which emphasizes teamwork with a new team every round. Most players favor the "stand far away and shoot" method, but given how mostly ineffectual that is, it's pretty easy to catch one too many bullets, and given that the HP is stacked considerably for the Chaser, it's often a losing battle. However, when a team effort is made, and since the Chaser can be stunned, there's a lot of strategy in working with the group. Although temporary safety is often more imperative than the long-term safety of risking the now for the definite later.

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The modes all have enough variety in the stages, and each stage has it's own musical track. The music isn't terribly varied, and is occasionally a little too repetitive between stages and game modes, but for the most part fits the style and pacing of the game well, even if the cel-shaded bright anime look doesn't always mesh with the bass-thumping hip-hop and rap the game chooses. It does, however, fit the urban sci-fi design of the stages themselves.

The biggest issue with the game is the competent players. As odd as that sounds, any game that is entirely team reliant (short of Chaser, which can be played solo, though not always effectively), the game has no shortage of team dependability. It's not as apparent in Team Deathmatch, but Touchdown mode is rife with very serious players. Everyone can complete the jumps the stage-makers never intended, anyone can do anything with the various mechanics, and the game often favors high agility to solid defense. It means that nine days out of ten, a good rusher will score on a good defender. Which means everyone is expected to be able to rush, jump, and use the game's abusable mechanics well. It means unless the basics and advanced skills are rock-solid, then the player might as well ignore Touchdown mode completely. Or have thick enough skin to ignore the entire teams calls of "n00b," "fail," and worse.

Beyond that, equipment, weapons, skills, and everything between are on a rental basis. Clothing and appearance items have a 30-day timer, and weapons and skills are sold on a 30-hour-use basis. Which, for clothes, means they expire in 30 days, used or not. If that means only player 2 hours a day on weekends, it means that as much in-game money the player earns will be spent on clothes, forget affording weapons or skills. The weapons themselves have plenty of time before they expire, but since three weapons can be equipped at a time, it costs a lot when all three weapons expire.

Which segues into a larger economy problem. Money doesn't come free, or cheap, or easily. The easiest way to get and keep money is to earn it while playing (which runs down the timer on the weapons. So there's a slowly ticking loss for every gain). The weekly missions also grant a pretty penny, but they come at the cost of odd and restrictive mission parameters. Often times, it will restrict itself to one game mode for 3 missions at a time (the limit, and they can't be skipped), so there's no avoiding a game mode if it's not enjoyable, unless you want to skip those missions, and thusly every mission that week. Well, unless the player purchases Alaplaya Points, and spends their Meat World money for in-game money and boosted-stat rental items. A terrible pyramid scheme, all-in-all.

Bottom Line: It's pretty clear Alaplaya's in it for the money, but it's hard to argue with a game that does everything this well. The truth is, the biggest fault is in the community, not the game, and if avoided, they can be ignored while the game is still enjoyed.

____ Chapter 6: Dragonica Online ____

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Almost all MMO games fall prey to the same problem: which is all work, no reward. Sometimes players earn rare armor (which is in-turn used to go to the next dungeon to get the next bit of rare armor), or in-game money, or something else that is used in the game. It's all circular, because every achievement is tied to more gameplay. Traditional RPG and offline titles have a goal, a finish line. MMOs don't, which tends exhaust the game's gameplay over many days, hours, weeks, and the player just stops. It's games like Dragonica Online that really sell the proverb, "Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity, but in doing it."

Dragonica Online is an online game of Korean-make that is published by THQ-Ice. (Although there are many versions, like IAH Online, who distributes the game for the Pacific Asian islands.) It is a 3D side-scrolling action MMO about light dragons and dark dragons, and the universes they inhabit.

Although the story is very stereotypical - and dry - the real meat of the game comes from the gameplay. Although the side-scroller isn't entirely new and unique, there are very few of them which are 3D, and fewer still which have the translation team and servers of a professional game studio. It means the game is surprisingly well-packaged, very well translated, and altogether enjoyable to play.

Seeing as it's an action game, the gameplay is pretty engaging. Players can't really sit back while combat is going on. The combat itself isn't complex or deep enough to be taxing (and stressing), it's varied enough to genuinely be enjoyable during missions and instances. The action is powered by standard ground attacks, air attacks, and skills between. It means that play styles vary between the classes, all of which have their strengths, and all of which play similarly enough while still staying separate enough to have their place in a party.

Instances are party-based, with a maximum of four party members, and almost punish users for trying to solo. Without friends, the instances rapidly become overbearing. With parties, they are not only manageable, but actually quite fun.

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The graphics and music spur this on, being cute and bright while the game is going on. It's neither too bloom-happy nor is it too dark, so it's pretty easy to keep track of what's going on while staying aesthetically pleasing. (Assuming the player enjoys the anime-cutesy look of games of this type.) The music sets the tone well enough, but can oftentimes be repetitive if in the same area or town for too long.

This is further compounded by the sound effects, which after hearing the same set of skills and enemies for extended periods, they become almost their own unique grind. Although lowering the volume helps, it becomes hard to enjoy the game through the sound effects. Although, admittedly, this is only a problem if the player focuses more on the game than the goings-on. If other players are talking, or there's intense action going on, the manage to fade away suitably enough to not be a nuisance.

However, other nuisances always seem to manifest in certain places. The game doesn't have a lot of variety in animation or enemies, so recolored or retooled monsters appear frequently, and occasionally have distracting attack or death animations. It means that sometimes an enemy will die without visibly doing so. During big groups or busy moments, it could mean constantly running from shadows, dodging impending attacks that aren't coming. This is especially apparent during instances, where mini-bosses, bosses, and certain monsters can be aggravatingly immune to certain classes major attacks and elements.

This is further compounded by certain classes being just unilaterally better than others. Although the balance improves as the classes advance in stages, many classes are just altogether better than their counterparts. For instance, the mage class, after achieving a certain buff and upgrade, can out-damage and out-heal every other class for a period of time. Which it's not game breaking, as every class can function regardless of this, it can be disheartening to feel at a disadvantage for picking a different class.

Despite these problems, the Bottom Line is that no matter how surprisingly unforgiving the game can be in class selection or during solo-play, it still manages to be fun. Any game that is fun despite its flaws is a functional game, and Dragonica Online is one such game.

Oh you did Dragonica, now that is a great piece of freeware goodness, well... until you get to around level 30 when the grind starts to kick in. I don't know why I enjoy reading reviews of games that I have already played, possibly because I can appreciate the insight that has gone into it. And I did enjoy reading this by the way, so good work!

Wow, those two newer reviews were really really informative. The analysis of game elements and their effects all seem fair and comprehensive. The somewhat detached style works, and certainly sounds authoritative, although I preferred the more personal tone in the Heavy Rain piece.

A couple of parts seemed a bit dry. For example:

Dragonica Online is an online game of Korean-make that is published by THQ-Ice. (Although there are many versions, like IAH Online, who distributes the game for the Pacific Asian islands.) It is a 3D side-scrolling action MMO about light dragons and dark dragons, and the universes they inhabit.

That wouldn't sound out of place on the product description page. While the sheer utility of that method of description is incontestable, it read as quite perfunctory to me.

I can't help feeling you're using the word "although" a bit much, especially in the Dragonica review. While I've never seen any stylistic guidelines on its usage, I tend to be wary of it as it usually heralds a slight concession to the preceding point and weakens the impression of a strong writing voice to me.

I also wasn't that keen on how the Bottom Lines ended. The S4 one was good but ended weakly imo with "they can be ignored while the game is still enjoyed." Which put me in mind of a wine critic talking about ignoring his children while savouring some overpriced claret. I suppose the syntax reminds me of self indulgent/pompous wine critics. With the Dragonica review, asserting its functionality didn't quite correspond with my idea of fun, so the final phrase didn't seem so effective due to the trait being lauded.

Urban dead is fun too, free to play zombie mmo

____ Chapter 7: NeoSteam ____

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There's an inherent risk with tapping an already existing fanbase. The audience is already there, which means that it won't be difficult to find a playerbase. The only possible catch is the expectation of the fans themselves. Which is, primarily, NeoSteam's biggest flaw. This is further compounded by being published by media giant Atlus.

Neosteam is the standard click-and-kill MMORPG in a quasi-Fantasy and quasi-Steampunk setting. Games of this type aren't at all unusual for the online game fare, and it manages to hold itself evenly among the hundred others out there. Which is uncomfortable, since the game is so overwhelmingly mediocre.

The problem is that the Steampunk, as much as it's shown in the art and style pictures, isn't played with hardly at all. There's more fantasy than Victorian, and excepting the "Mechanic" class, no classes even use, dress, or approach the Steampunk theme. For a game with it so prevalent in the concept and advertisement, seeing an utter lack of it in-game is almost a terrible flaw in itself. Not to mention the quasi-futuristic sleekness of the interface and decor.

Excepting the theme and atmosphere, the gameplay isn't really all that stellar. Aside from the Realm vs Realm free-world PvP, the game lacks any particular stand-out points. The combat and skills are practically air-lifted from other games of the same fantasy feel. It's reasonably fast-paced for the type, but isn't all that unique. Given how out of left-field the theme is, the gameplay didn't match. Although it's difficult to comment on any flaws. The only flaw the game seems to have is, simply, a lack of anything unique. It's overall very average.

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That, sadly, is more than could be said about the music and graphics, which are average in the best case, and bad in the worst. The music itself is entirely forgettable, and the graphics tend to be average. Even while writing, I'm having difficulty remembering anything terribly remarkable about anything, and nothing is really coming to mind.

Even the character designs feel somewhat throw-away, to the point of the other races being visibly indistinct at a medium distances. Which is even more sad by the fact that the races themselves are often gender-locked.

Given that this genre and feel has been around since both Ultima Online and Everquest, one would think that the formula could be updated, changed, made better, or just played around with. NeoSteam really doesn't, and that's the most supremely disappointing part.

Bottom Line: NeoSteam has an ocean of untapped potential, but is otherwise so overwhelmingly average that it's almost not worth the download. If generic fantasy is appealing, it's worth a look, if not, there's nothing worth trying.

Rather short review there Mr. NewClassic, though I guess you explained why, it did feel a bit lacking as far as information is concerned. What do you actually do in NeoSteam? Is there any kind of story? What types of classes are there? You only mention one.

NewClassic:

That, sadly, is more than could be said about the music and graphics, which are average in the best case, and bad in the worst. The music itself is entirely forgettable, and the graphics tend to be average.

You use the word average slightly too much in this review, I know it may be to hammer the point how of how bland this game is but it can't hurt too much to vary the vocabulary a bit more.

I know I'm hardly a master at writing these things but I'm getting pretty good at reading them.

Otherwise there isn't anything else bad I can say about it, keep 'em coming.

Chapter 8: Spiral Knights

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Polish can often be the making or breaking point of a video game. The simple truth of any medium is that ideas are not created equal, and the only way to apologize for a repeated idea is to hone the craft to such a razor-point that it's impossible not to praise the little perfections rather than dwell endlessly on the mediocrity of an idea as a whole. Put simply, when in absence of a solid idea, good craft can turn an experience from something unenjoyable to something entertaining. If this can be consistently entertaining, then all the better.

Spiral Knights, a free-to-play MMORPG from Three Rings and SEGA, fits this mold wonderfully. Top-down action games of this type have existed in one form or another since the early Atari 2600. Since then, the genre has been done and redone from countless perspectives for every major console, even leading up to the seventh generation. Because of this, it's hard to give Spiral Knights any benefit for the idea. Considering the very saturated field of free to play games, whose options and style number in the several hundreds, and come in styles for every type of player, computer, and aesthetic, it has large shoes to fill.

Spiral Knights pits the player as a knight on an unfamiliar planet, emerging from an escape pod. The knight's task is to make it to an outlying camp, and ultimately "Haven," a town put together from the remains of a crashed ship. The leader of the knights reveals the core of the planet has an untapped, unknown energy source that should be sufficient for recovering the ship to its full glory, and take it and its knights away to their home planet. The challenge to getting to the core is exploring "The Clockworks," a series of ducts and passages that should ultimately lead to the core, and thus, freedom. The above is largely the full depth of the game's story, and feels tacked on rather than made a major part of the experience.

Anyone familiar with top-down action games, especially Zelda: Four Swords Adventure, will be immediately comfortable with the game's mechanics. The gameplay centers around several floors of dungeon, called Depths, which are generated by player input. The generation process is fairly creative if unintuitive, but produces several enemy and zone types. This provides a lot of aesthetic variety to suit a wide range of color palettes and play styles. However a character is equipped, they're rarely worthless in a fight.

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To compliment that, the challenges of the dungeon are pretty merciless. The early depths are more or less filler floors for the first time dungeon crawlers still getting their feet wet, but as the floors grow deeper, the challenges scale much harder. Regardless of the level of equipment, the game will punish mistakes with complete indifference toward the player. Each hit can, and often will, take a significant amount of health. Up to 40% of the player's maximum health per hit. Offset that with a guaranteed heal only every 4 floors, which compound the challenge. These hits stack up very quickly if surrounded, and it means a great many fights will come down to two or fewer hits until death, and several waves of enemies to go. Often times, this task seems impossible without sufficient equipment.

It is fair about its difficulty, though. The game's shield and user interface can both be used to provide the player with solid tools to win most fights without taking damage given good enough equipment and maneuverability. The game shows, with light patterns near the enemies, which way and when an enemy is attacking. Anyone with enough focus can keep track of the enemies, their party, and when an enemy is about to attack. Defending deflects damage, and if used correctly, can also be used to push enemies away. All of this provides a very daunting challenge to the player, but not an insurmountable one. The task provides the player with hard but fair dungeons, and endless hours of replayability.

Which is good news, considering just how polished the play actually is. The controls are adaptable, comfortable, and give the player huge ranges of play styles and equipment choices. The dungeons change with enough frequency but stay just similar enough to not over-complicate the game. It's a comfortable game which is served equally well with long term play for the higher endurance players, but doesn't punish the relaxed players for wanting to take their time, and play only a little each day.

Add to that the game's natural aptitude for co-op play. The dungeons are designed with multiple players in mind. The system for joining, or being joined by, others is an organic and natural process. Although a player can solo, the game generally encourages the players to play together constantly. This process works very naturally in most cases, and seems altogether absent in others. Although, for the most part, the game will have a player playing with at least three others at nearly any point. This, plus the game's simple user interface, helps mitigate any of the most absurd difficulties the game could throw at the player.

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If dungeon crawling was the only mechanic to the game, and everything else was just accruing resources to sell for new equipment, the game would be a testament to just how much a well-polished system could turn a saturated idea and genre into a true gem. However, this is sadly not the case.

To go to each progressive floor in the dungeon, a set amount of energy must be used. Specifically, to activate any elevator in the game, one must insert 10 units of energy. In game, there are two ways to go about acquiring this energy. Mist Energy, a limited amount of energy, refills slowly over the course of time, and will fill up from 0 to 100 every 22 hours. It will never go over the 100, and refills automatically as time passes. The other alternative is crystal energy, which has no upper limit, and can be purchased either from other players in an energy market, or for real-world money. The player run market is a relatively reasonable way to go about this, using in-game currency to purchase sets of 100 Crystal Energy.

At time of writing, it's not too hard to earn enough currency (Crowns) in 10 floors to afford another set of 100 CE, which is good for another 10 floors. As long as the player is careful with their resources, and don't use their energy too frivolously on revivals or optional in-dungeon extras, dungeon crawls can be completed into infinity, providing a very solid dungeon-crawling experience.

This alone wouldn't be a problem, except there just isn't enough material or profit to advance. Once the player's equipment starts to become too obsolete for the mounting challenges, it's fairly certain that they just don't have enough resources to both upgrade their equipment and continue to dungeon crawl. Even if a player used exclusively Mist Energy to crawl, they would need to dump all of their crystal energy into crafting upgrades, and would take literal weeks to be able to bring all of the equipment from Tier 2 to Tier 3 equipment, and longer for Tier 3 to Tier 4, and longer still to Tier 5.

If the economy would be kind enough to produce a consistent profit, or the dungeons a little more forthcoming with materials and wealth, this wouldn't be a problem. However, the game is in the perfect position to not withhold anything from the player, yet still make the real money trading for energy a very, very enticing prospect. It's hard to begrudge the developers stacking the deck in favor of the dealer, and just as hard not to become disheartened at the idea of a solid game open either without upgrade or advancement, or come at some cost to the player, either in time or money.

The alternative to the grind of the Clockworks is to use the mission system, allowing a player to run through predetermined mission depths in order to unlock prestige and equipment. Although this system works perfectly well in theory, it doesn't fair as well in practice. Each mission is scaled to a certain level, making it so that players that predate the mission system have to burn through time and mist energy to catch up to the missions worth their character's level. Assuming a new player is doing the missions from the beginning, there are few opportunities to find other players playing missions around the same rank. So the missions, which play like certain Clockworks depths, will often have to be played solo simply because there are no parties available. Whereas if they did a similarly challenging mission in the Clockworks, there would be several.

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Compromises like these can be quick to drain the fun out of the game, turning it into something of a chore to either grind out the missions in silence, or have to invest long stretches of effort to grind out advancement.

Lastly, there is something of a latency issue. Because nearly everything is stored server-side, rather than client side, it's possible to rubberband around maps and have enemies appear and disappear from range without warning if the player's ping is too high or unsteady. Compounded with a higher difficulty, this could make the game completely unplayable with enough ping, or just too punishing to be enjoyable.

That said, it's harder still to discount the game entirely. The concept is simple, the execution so precisely tuned that gameplay even this old and common is still this good. The problem lies in what has value to the player. If they can't be bothered to wait almost a month to make little, individual upgrades with mind-numbing patience, then their only recourse is to pay for their upgrades out of pocket. The value of playing is a really solid game that is a joy to play, but that value comes with a steep, unavoidable cost. Assuming your internet is even good enough to let you, as sometimes, it may not be.

Bottom Line: It really is a system that does everything right from the gameplay perspective, and everything wrong for the player's comfort. It's fun, brutally so, and refuses to apologize for all of its shortcomings. A brilliant game hidden behind a restrictive system and occasional latency issues.

Score: Four clickable Red Buttons out of Five.
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