Dragonica

The arcade MMO scales up.

The closed beta for gPotato's free-to-play, arcade-style MMO Dragonica starts today. We've got 500 keys to give away so you can sample its side-scrolling, combo-stacking pleasures for yourself; plus, read on for hands-on impressions from a preview build.

It's important to point out to those of you who might be tempted to dismiss Dragonica as a super-sweet, super-colourful MapleStory clone that this is an MMORPG in which you can summon Bruce Lee to fly-kick a sheep in the tits. You can also click your fingers to get Michael Jackson to moonwalk on a wolf, not to mention call upon a cute girl in a skimpy bathrobe to distract your enemies while you to gad about, bonking them on their heads.

Contrary to the expectations created by its title, Dragonica won't have you summoning dragons to strike fear and fire into the hearts of your foes. Rather, you get to transform your head into a chicken because, quite frankly, after 25 years of facing identikit knock-offs of Tolkien heroes, that's far more likely to mess with the buggers.

Dragonica's breezy humour and fresh ambiance isn't limited to its special move list, either. While it would be impossible to describe any single thing the game does as innovative, its concoction of diverse influences blends together to deliver an experience quite unlike any other.

At its heart, this free-to-play Korean MMO is a side-scrolling action game. The 3D, rustic world stretches back as far as the eye can see, fields of sunflowers painted in over-saturated yellows set against an OutRun-blue sky. But the pastoral draw distance is inaccessible. Instead, you'll be moving left and right along a horizontal axis, granted just a few metres exploration into the screen to allow you to manoeuvre around bosses and obstacles. The effect is similar to that of Namco's platformer Klonoa, or possibly LittleBigPlanet and, indeed, a generous jump move allows your character to scale platforms and explore the game's detailed, interesting scenes in diluted platform-game style.

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Health can be replenished either by eating a restorative item, or, simply by hanging back while the gauge auto-refills, Master Chief-style.

But this classic console-game action is nestled within the giant, groaning superstructure of a traditional MMORPG, stuffed with missions and submissions, player-versus-player, character skill trees, a complex job system and, of course, thousands upon thousands of experience points to collect. While these labyrinthine depths soon reveal their presence, developer Barunson Interactive is clearly eager to ease players in with the promise of a gentle ride.

This accessibility is demonstrated in the choice of control scheme. Played principally with a keyboard, the cursor keys are used to control your character with attacks and skills mapped to the QWER and ADSF keys. Keyboard shortcuts open up your inventory and display the current quest log and, while it's also possible to also use the mouse cursor to select these HUD elements, it's too fussy to be workable in the long-term. Also playable with a gamepad - European publisher gPotato suggests using an Xbox 360 controller or even a SNES pad - the game's legion options have been streamlined as effectively as possible in an effort to appeal to the more casual MMOG player.

Indeed, for the first few hours of play, combat is relentlessly simple, regardless of which of the four starting classes you choose. In many cases simply hammering the ‘X' key in conjunction with directional inputs will unleash mesmerizing strings of combos, enemies flying off in all directions, often slamming into the ‘camera' and momentarily cracking the inside of the screen. It's a riotous spectacle.

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