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