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.
Improving it on your own, though, is a slow and boring process, involving huge repetition and vast amounts of materials that aren't always easy to obtain. You'll be making absolutely no money from your crafting efforts for many, many hours.
As an illustration, to improve your Weaving skill so that you can make materials to use for clothing, you need to collect wool and cobwebs to turn into thread. You'll need five for each attempt, and the skill only improves with successful attempts - and you start off with a 20 to 40 per cent success rate. Consequently you'll have to spend 20 minutes shearing sheep in order to collect enough wool for just two or three successfully-crafted spools of thread, which is actually less enjoyable than squashing low-level spiders.
Happily, combat is one of Mabinogi's strengths. It's more skilled than is usual for an MMO, and though you'll certainly face the usual problem of being killed in one shot by the first coyote that sniffs you outside of the starting areas, fighting is about more than just strength in numbers. The basic combat skills all interact with each other in a complex rock-paper-scissors system, and rather than clicking continuously on wolves until they expire, the idea is to use the correct skills with precise timing to avoid getting hit at all.
Getting the timing right requires a lot of practice and trial-and-error experimentation with different enemies, which sadly isn't encouraged by the nasty experience penalties and item losses that Mabinogi punishes you with if you die. The combat's reliance on player skill is likely to turn off a lot of more casual players who'd rather just click their way through dungeons, but it does mean that Mabinogi is practically invulnerable to the bots that plague other games of its sort, particularly MapleStory.
Despite that, you can't ever shake the feeling that the balancing isn't quite right. The main problem is that armour, weapons and almost everything else is vastly expensive: most players, and all beginning ones, have to go without. Even spending hours on part-time jobs doesn't earn you enough to buy decent armour, and making it yourself with the Blacksmithing skill is far beyond any beginning player's abilities. It's not the sweet, cute, accessible game that it first appears to be.
Your chances are vastly improved, of course, if you get some help. Player population appears to be a bit of a problem at the moment. The US servers are full of young Americans prancing about with fishing rods, discussing anime and, unfortunately, role-playing out loud in the chat channel, but although the European servers are mercifully bereft of eleven-year-olds pretending to actually be their cutesy cartoon avatars, there's not all that much else going on at the moment.
Partying up - which is absolutely necessary for most of the dungeon quests that comprise the story threads - is rather difficult to do spontaneously; your best bet is to join a friendly-looking guild, advertised by keystones placed around the inter-town roads, and use its chat-channel to find willing companions. The normal chat channels are full of spam; being free-to-play, the game's largely unmoderated
There's no obligation to pay for anything in Mabinogi - you can't buy in-game currency with real money, nor good items. What you can buy is a Premium Pack that gives you a variety of benefits, removing the experience penalty for dying, giving you extra inventory space on your person and at the in-game banks (which is pretty essential if you want to play seriously) and endowing your character with a 10 per cent experience boost. You also get presents on your character's birthday every Saturday, which sometimes come in the form of enchanted weapons. It also lets you create your own guild and open a shop to sell your own items.
You can pay real money for character cards to make new avatars, or to Rebirth your current one. Mabinogi characters age at the rate of one year a week, and after the ever-so-ancient age of 20 they barely receive any new AP points from ageing to spend on skills. New or rebirthed characters can start from anywhere between age 10 and 17, and Mabinogi's deification of youth dictates that younger is better. Younger characters gain bigger stat bonuses and more AP, so if you don't want your rate of improvement to drop off dramatically, paying for a Rebirth is pretty much necessary.
Pets also cost money - as usual, they can fight with you, or get you around faster. Mabinogi's only other form of fast travel is the Moon Gates, which appear at night and will transport you to somewhere specific. You get no say in where they go, though, so you might have to wait around for a few nights if you want to get to a particular town. It's rather like getting a bus in Eastern Europe.
Mabinogi has novelty on its side, and variety, but it's neither a beautiful game nor a particularly compelling one. Its unusual combat deserves praise for relying more on player intuition and skill than invisible dice rolls, but at heart it's all about the grind, whether you're milking cows, trying to make yourself a hat or just chipping away at the story quests. It's worth remembering that it's essentially free, though, and doesn't cripple players for declining its premium services - a fact that its very young and enthusiastic base of dedicated players seems to really appreciate.
6 / 10