As names go, Dofus is not a good one. It's so bad that it suggests government intervention: a product, surely, of a dystopian future where all of mankind's work is arbitrarily assigned a title by an uncaring (and possibly malfunctioning) master computer. Ankama Studios' flagship MMO has style, charm, and an intelligent air - yet while most fantasy games go for names that suggest the promise of elaborate adventure, Dofus, a glamorous blend of both 'oaf' and 'doofus', invokes the kind of person who regularly gets their tongue caught in barbed-wire fences.
You could argue that Dofus is the worst product name ever conceived, were it not for my discovery, years ago in a foreign supermarket, of a breakfast cereal named Crapsy Fruit. Crapsy Fruit was French. So, as it happens, is Dofus. There, luckily, all similarities end.
From the sophisticated art, to the gently cerebral turn-based combat system and elegant in-browser interface, everything about Dofus suggests an MMO that confidently walks its own path. That's certainly true, but unlike Continental curios such as The Saga of Ryzom before it, Dofus doesn't appear to be paying a heavy price for its distinctive personality when it comes to finding an audience. There's a contradiction here: while MMOs like Tabula Rasa ape mainstream genres but struggle to win followers, Dofus is giddily skipping in the opposite direction, and somehow managing to get by. In fact, it's quietly thriving: according to MMOGChart.com, it's the sixth-biggest subscription MMO in the world.
Partly this is down to the ease of discovery: a very small client download, that browser interface, and a relatively large free area of play (the floating tutorial island of Incarnam and the leafy, autumnal village of Astrub) for non-subscribers. But there's more to it than that, because Dofus is a confident blend of genres, and although the results are a slower-paced experience than other titles, they also differentiate the game enough to allow it to sit alongside the giants as a companion piece rather than a direct competitor.
The Dofus themselves are six legendary dragon eggs that arouse greed and covetousness in all who search for them. The story is typical MMO fare, meaning that it's completely surplus to requirements for all but the .0001 per cent of players for which it is, somehow, luminously central to their experience. Whatever your opinion, developers Ankama have done a good job expanding the world's lore (often, cannily, with revenue in mind, as in the case of the Dofus Manga series). The game's elaborate backstory is there for whoever wants to seek it out, and while it's probably not worthwhile doing so if you're just interested in levelling up and scoring some nice clothes, it undoubtedly adds solidity to the player's world.
But Dofus' world is far more than solid - it's genuinely beautiful. The choice of Flash over a 3D engine has allowed the developers to create something uniquely personal, and each new screen presents a vista with at least a few individual touches - a tumbledown wall, a bird's nest clinging to the crags of a cliff, or even just a shapely sprouting of weeds.
For those willing to pay the £3.90 monthly subscription fee, a large and complex continent awaits them beyond the free zone. Although the setting is largely bucolic - fields, cobbled paths and trim cottages - it manages to cram in a fair amount of atmospheric variety along the way, from the threatening half-light of Sidimote Moor and the theme park balloons and sagging tents of Trool Fair, through to the lava-fortified city of Brakmar. Although the term anime is often used to describe Dofus' style, in reality it's anime shot through with a sun-faded Western disposition - its palette of ageing greens and yellows is inexplicably Continental. Dofus' players may speak in text shorthand and emoticons, but the world they traverse has an antique feel - and that's something you won't experience in many other games.
The character designs add to that wilfully different style. Up close they pay due diligence to fantasy archetypes, but from the game's normal,lofty perspective, the large community littering the fields and ridges resembles not the medieval fayre try-hards you may have come to expect, but the crowd left behind in the wake of Woodstock. They're a distinctly hippyish sight, clustered around NPCs in loon pants and beaded jackets, or kneeling (to regain HP) mid-dungeon as if recovering not from a hit from the nearest beer bong. The effect is only emphasised by their long-legged Jackson Five cartoon running as they sprint eagerly towards the next spawn point.
Of course, there's more to Dofus than fancy art and quirky design. The quests, often announced in charmingly hit-and-miss translations, are far from revolutionary in content, but are handled elegantly, with a selectable compass that points the way to the next item on the itinerary. Equally, levelling is a steady and regular process in the early stages, and the pacing of the learner areas provides plenty of ways to gain experience without getting bogged down in endless spawn-camping.
The grind arrives later, and a sometimes cruel difficulty curve makes it likely that few players will see it all the way through to level 200. But the other important elements - items and monsters - are there to step up and take the slack. Consistently pleasing designs, and enough tactical possibilities to provide the necessary depth, keep you clicking. From the temptingly edible Dofus eggs themselves, to the highly personable weapons - like the chunky shovels swung by the summoner-style treasure hunter Enutrof class - the sheer visual charm of Dofus' loot beckons you on to the next drop.
Monsters show the same inventiveness and eye for detail, whether it's the dirty Caspar-like puddle creatures the Mushd, or the padding, shock-maned Boowolves. Although 2D, and with limited animations, they bobble and skitter across the playing field with a real sense of life to them.
While quests and levelling work as expected, the combat provides a genuine surprise. Clicking on an enemy triggers the combat screen, in which the current map is overlaid with grid squares. Both enemy and player are given a choice of starting positions, before the turn-based battles commence. Those expecting an Advance Wars level of depth will be disappointed - the monster AI is tricksy, yet slightly shallow - but the system is still refined, with a good balancing of melee attacks and upgradeable spells, some of which might allow you to lay mines in monster's paths, while others summon beasts to fight alongside you.
A time counter works alongside the action and movement points to keep things ticking, and, although the fifth fight with the same monster can be slightly predictable - and there's no means of fiddling with your inventory mid-battle - there's still plenty of impetus to refine your technique. Tellingly, fresh combinations of old foes can be as tactically interesting as a new beast - a sure sign that Dofus' ecology is well-balanced.
Dungeons, scattered throughout the game, allow the combat to really shine, presenting the player with increasingly complex configurations of enemies, while also highlighting group play. Dofus' community is surprisingly friendly, willing to give advice, party up, and trade items at a moment's notice. Only very rarely do other players start spouting PayPal offers or attacking lower-level adventurers once a fight begins. It's not hard to find real people in Dofus' world, although the crowds do thin out a little the further you get from Incarnam.
The game does have its downsides, however. Its delicate art style is a little fiddly at times, making some of the smaller monsters hard to spot, and occasionally turning the search for the tile that will take you to the next screen into a Where's Wally endurance test. More importantly, character classes can seem unnecessarily mysterious to new players, with needlessly Delphic descriptions that don't always give you a full idea of what you're signing up for.
For example, while it's fairly clear that Srams are assassins, and therefore indirect combat is always going to be the order of the day, the vague text doesn't initially help you a great deal in telling the difference between the warrior Iops and the more berserker-like Sacriers. There's potentially too much nuance in any game where a ‘boozer' class sits alongside the healers and mages - Dofus's inherent quirkiness can very occasionally cross the line into confusion-inducing blockheadedness.
Equally, the profession system, although bountifully stocked with numerous specialisations divided loosely between resource harvesting and crafting, is more of a time-filler than a genuinely rewarding activity in the lower levels. Though it does have great benefits, they often lie out of sight beyond a fair amount of grinding. Far from broken, it still lacks the charm and allure that the rest of the game conjures so easily.
Despite its eccentricities, Dofus remains a solid and occasionally brilliant proposition for those looking for something different in an MMO. Anybody worried that Ankama's forthcoming title Wakfu may lead to Dofus' abandonment can take solace from the developers' continuing focus on the original, with recent tweaks involving an updating - and refining - of the consensual player-vs-player system. As is, Dofus cheerfully conforms to the Russian doll construction that the best games seem to have, with constant layers of fresh discovery available to those who seek them. And that discovery starts at the very beginning: beneath the ugly name lurks a game of surprising beauty; beneath that beauty lies an impressively creative intelligence.
8 / 10