Mabinogi

When Korean MMO and Welsh mythology meet.

Saying that Mabinogi looks like a Korean free-to-play MMORPG from 2004 isn't an elaborate insult, just a statement of fact. It was originally released in its homeland six years ago. The Americans have had it for two years. On the plus side, though, we're theoretically getting an MMORPG already a half-decade into its life, with all that early tweaking and refinement well behind it.

You wouldn't know it from first impressions. Aside from looking ropey, which you can mostly forgive because it's free and designed to run on PCs powered by potatoes with electrodes in them, basic things like path-finding are practically non-existent. It also has an enduring and fairly severe issue with Windows 7 at the moment that requires you to dive in and delete registry entries in order to make it work more than once. It's not unusual for free-to-play games to be a little rough around the edges, but anyone used to good-looking and technically sound MMOs will have to lower their standards from the off.

Mabinogi is loosely - extremely loosely - based on the Mabinogion, or medieval Welsh mythology, an influence that can be seen chiefly in difficult-to-pronounce place names (Tir Chonaill, Taillteann, Sliab Cuilin). It has no classes, employing instead a system that lets players improve the skills they want with practice, levelling them up gradually with AP points.

What makes Mabinogi different is that these skills span a much wider range than magic, melee and ranged combat. There are skills for blacksmithing, tailoring, weaving, wheat-harvesting, music performance and composition, camp-fire-building, cooking, fishing and more. It's possible to level up by chopping wood and shearing sheep around the village rather than by grinding your way through dungeons, and to make money by making and selling your own food, weapons and clothing.

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In theory, then, you can have a character that barely lays hands on a weapon, doing part-time jobs for people instead, but in reality you'll end up with a balance of life and combat talents. After creating your anime-styled character (first-time players get to create a human, but elves and giants become available much later on in the game), Mabinogi drops you into a friendly town and teaches you the basics, giving you a long sequence of quests that yield experience for playing lutes, making flour and collecting firewood before sending you into a few beginner dungeons.

Story quests are delivered automatically by owls that swoop over your player's head and drop a scroll, and you can buy further generic quests from NPCs; go to the restaurateur and she'll sell you cooking quests, whereas the town guard will probably want you to kill ten of something. You can't really fault Mabinogi for lack of content. There's always plenty to do.

There's a part-time job system that works well as an alternative to doing basic hunting quests. Asking NPCs for a job during recruiting hours - between 7 and 9AM in-game time, usually - will give you a timed task to do, like protecting their sheep or gathering eggs from their chickens. You can only do them once a day, and only a certain number of players are allowed to take part, but overcrowding isn't a problem at the moment - Mabinogi's European servers are quite sparsely populated.

You learn about different skills by simply asking about them. Talking to NPCs adds different keywords to your conversational repertoire, letting you ask for specific information about what you need to be a blacksmith, or where you can buy a bait box for fishing, or whom to talk to about tailoring. Skill-hunting by following a trail of suggestions from NPCs is weirdly addictive, and feels a lot more natural than acquiring them from a menu in a level-up screen. Once you've found out that a skill exists, the challenge is finding someone who can teach it to you, after which you can start improving it on your own.

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