Playing a game like Dragonica - an unbearably cute, free-to-play, 2.5 dimensional side-scrolling MMO, with strong non-European teen appeal - you don't expect innovative storytelling. You expect fairy tales. Forces of darkness, once-defeated, and regathering power. It's such an over-used theme that it's rocketed past cliché and into Fantasy Truism, from teen-lit like Harry Potter to "adult" fantasy like Dragon Age; somewhere, something evil is bitterly nursing its wounds, and preparing its apocalyptic return. But that's OK - while the dark forces are gathering power, it gives our hero a chance to go through a series of training montages. And what is an MMO, if not an infinite training montage?
Dragonica describes itself as closest in style to MapleStory. Actually, that's selling itself a little short. MapleStory is a 2D platformer at heart, and Dragonica has very little platforming. Some of the later levels have you jumping from one small platform to the next, but the inclusion of an icon on the floor under your character removes any of the guesswork about where you'll land. It's more Golden Axe than Super Mario.
It's also a more fully-realised and good-looking 3D world. It's a bit of an illusion - you're mostly limited to left and right movement, with backwards and forwards adding stripes of literal depth to the combat. Meanwhile, exploration is made a little less linear thanks to the Hyper-Jump pads, which spring you to another horizontal stretch of terrain. It can be briefly disorientating, but it would be desperately boring without them.
The first thing you'll do is to choose a class. There are two ranged fighters (the magician and the ranger) and two melee classes (the fighter and the thief). Customisation options include two genders, 10 hairstyles, 20 hair colours, and 10 faces, but only your class has an effect on the game. That extends to character development, too; levelling up boosts your stats automatically, leaving you with discretion only in how to spend your skill points on your class tree. A positive spin would be to call it accessible and fuss-free, but the truth is it's as shallow a character creation process as Gauntlet.
I keep mentioning eighties arcade games. That's because it's the most powerful vibe Dragonica gives off. If MapleStory was Wonder Boy, Dragonica is a saucer-eyed Renegade. It's a sideways scrolling beat-em-up first, with MMO trappings strapped on as a compulsive second. Right down to the "this way!" icon that flashes at the right of the screen when you've killed all the enemies in a mission zone, it's basically Final Fight with more moves and inventories.
It's such an arcade game that gPotato recommended that I play on a pad. There are tutorials on the official site on how to set it all up, and I'm told that people play the game with SNES, 360 and even Jaguar controllers. When you notice the automatic mappings of your combat fundamentals, it makes perfect sense. Jump, attack, special and air (C, X, A, Z) moves form the basics of all the classes, with typical arcade combos triggering other attacks. Jump-attack triggers your aerial attack (which you can also trigger manually with a hotkey, if you're utterly determined to play in an MMO style) and jump then down-attack triggers your ground attack. Meanwhile, the dash attack is intuitively sparked by double-tapping left or right and quickly attacking. Other skills from the talent tree can be hotkeyed across Q-R and S-F, but you don't really need to use them all - map your most used attacks to the spare buttons on your controller, and you've got an immediately accessible arcade fighter with only a very light RPG element forcing you back to the keyboard.
The combat works simply - enemies are either on the ground, stunned, or flying incapacitated through the air. On the ground, they can be chipped away by your basic, no-mana-cost attack, blasted with a strong attack on cooldown, or launched into the air with your class's special attack. Once you level up, you'd be well advised to invest in an attack designed for enemies in the air; it's a game basic, and will let you decimate the enemies while they're airborne and harmless.
The problem with analogies to games like Double Dragon amd Final Fight is the fundamental shape of Dragonica. Those games started easy, quickly got hard, and you died. But you got better, so every time you played you got a little bit further, and the overall idea was to finish the game. When you take that mechanic and flatten the difficulty curve, remove death and eliminate the end, it robs the gameplay of an important essence. A more serious problem is the repetition of enemy attack styles: the Level 40 zones are split between the same missile and melee monsters as the Level 10 areas, leaving you with a very dim sense of real progress beyond the amount of times you die.
So it's down to the party play to keep your interest. Mission zones are a set of between one and four arcade maps, in which you have to clear each area before taking out the boss. Each zone has four difficulty levels and a heroic party mode, which is book-ended by cut-scenes which advance the storyline, and go some way to explaining why you're spending the first four hours of the game killing wolves, tree stumps and sheep.
Teamwork for the first twenty levels is basically anarchy - although some players will make a show of pulling the boss, the aggro system isn't sophisticated enough to warrant it. Regular mobs will generally stick with the character that triggered their attack radius, and larger characters seem impenetrably fickle about who they attack. I became the sole focus of Vegas, the second boss wolf, despite having not fired a shot for thirty seconds. Fine for me, I was happy dashing around in square circles, but suicidal for the wolf, who was ignoring three wizards hurling fireballs at his arse.
Completing the mission maps gives you one to four items based on how fast and damage-free you completed the map (although the actual rank seems unpredictable - I got an S rank on a mission where I died several times), and of a potential rarity determined by the level at which you played. From an underpowered XP boost to armour and weapons, the lack of elemental or specialist damage means you're just looking for high soul power - the game's arbitrary measure of item power - and a favourable damage-per-second bracket.
At level 20, around eight to ten hours in, you can refine your class. This gives you a choice of two new skill trees to populate. Magician gets the choice of Battle Mage (high ranged area-of-effect damage) and Acolyte (support, healing), for example, while Thief gets the choice of Jester (thick-and-fast novelty melee) and Assassin (melee poisoning). It's at this stage that roles becomes slightly more sophisticated than the "ranged or melee" situation that it's been so far, but the broad similarity of gameplay means that they're always going to be a little interchangeable. You'd be unwise to forget your potions, for example, and rely on there being a healer around.
The quests are much of the traditional muchness - kill, loot, fetch, explore. A quest given to you by a severed dragon's head called "Test Of Love" sounds like it might be something out of the ordinary, but it turns out you have to prove your love of nature by killing 25 animals. Talk about treat-em-mean, keep-em-keen. Other RPG elements are shallow in relation to other games, but cheerful enough distractions. That soul power can be extracted by disassembly and used to upgrade other items. Weapons and armour can be enchanted (with the risk of destroying your item, unless you buy - with real money - an insurance scroll), and cooking recipes can be found and used (once) to make HP-restoring foods from all the disconcerting body parts you've been picking up. It's nicely presented, but nothing too deep.
Free-to-play inevitably means cash shop, so let's have a look at what's in there at the moment. The current exchange rate is 1 Euro to 100 gPotatoes, but I'm not a huge fan of obscuring the real cost with "points" systems, so here's what a few things will cost you. 25 Revive Feathers (removing the penalties for mid-mission death) will set you back an eyebrow-raising £13.75. You can reduce the daily grind - and at level 40, you'll be well over 10,000 kills between levels - by buying 10 1.5x experience multipliers for £1.55. Complete decorative outfits cost between £7 and £15, which is cheap in nobody's book. The most functional and reasonably priced items are the 10,000HP pots that can be bought for just over £1, which allow you to spam self-heals to avoid death and the need for those expensive revive feathers.
Be warned - outfits can be gender specific, so make sure you don't buy the wrong set for your impenetrably androgynous avatar, because living out your fantasies does not include cross-dressing in Dragonica's world. Which is kind of depressing, when women's options include such weary clichés as Cheerleader Outfit, Wedding Dress, and the unhealthy-relationship-with-food-triggering "Skinny" Outfit. Give girls a bit of credit, eh? Some of them might actually want to wear the AC/DC jacket.
A lot of my responsibility as a reviewer has been lifted with Dragonica, because you're able to download and play without having to give up anything that could be described as hard-earned. There's a lot to recommend it on a superficial level - it looks great, is technically accomplished, and is the most chaotic arcade action you'll find in an MMO. If you're one of the seven billion Chinese girls who play MapleStory, this might have some long-term appeal.
Even better, the problems that manifest themselves will become apparent early, giving you the chance to stop playing before you've wasted ten years of your life. Repetitious combat, shallow RPG elements, and imagination-free quests might put you off. But if the basic process of combat and casual partying up for missions a few minutes grabs you, you'll forgive Dragonica a lot.
6 / 10