In the merry little avalanche of free-to-play titles that tumble into our inboxes these days, there are several stages of grief I associate with being offered a review. First of all, there's practicality - is there the time? Second, do my pencils need organising? Thirdly, there's acceptance as I'm told that this one is meant to actually be quite good. I'll then assume this look.
In terms of production values, Vindictus is certainly no ordinary free-to-play fantasy MMO. The opening cinematic, which sets the scene of a town under terror as its bestial protector goes mad, attacking people and buildings, is followed up with an incredibly stylish credit reel featuring the kind of silhouetted combat action you'll have enjoyed in Kill Bill.
Entering the game as a rookie amid this chaos, there are three archetype characters to choose from currently: Lann, a fast and furious dual-wielding swordsman; Evie, the magical mischief-maker; and Fiona, who uses swords and shields to block and counter enemy attacks. More are promised for the future, although whether these will be provided as part of the free-to-play model is uncertain.
There's a delightfully camp styling at the core of Vindictus. In the character creation screen, your male heroic character will smile coquettishly at the camera as you rotate and inspect him from afar. Tilt far to the left and he'll twist his hips, giving you the Blue Steel look as he arches his neck to look over his shoulder. He doesn't quite blow a kiss at you, but he's definitely thinking about it, the saucy little scamp.
In structure, Vindictus borrows heavily from the core design of Monster Hunter, its significant departure being the hack-and-slash combat that replaces the tactical preparation and execution that added the meat to its obvious inspiration. The game is heavily hub-based and you'll make your preparations in town before heading out to complete quests in a variety of instanced locations.
In offering up those quests, Nexon has performed an elegant trick for a free-to-play title by rendering the taverns and forges in the world hubs as unexplorable, solo 3D spaces, while the characters of the world take the form of 2D portraits that pop up.
In keeping with the wonderfully daft artistic styling of the game, the majority of the female characters assume poses of the squealing, Playboy set-piece variety - all of which suggest that they'd run out immediately to sponge down the Mondeo in their panties if only they weren't quite so hypnotized by your presence. If heroic men are more your thing, I'm afraid you'll be the ghost at this particular "feast", with a male population that's more commonly Father Jack than George Clooney.
The first instanced area you'll take on gives you the basics of the combat system and, like many of Vindictus' areas, consists of a corridor run, taking on progressively more challenging enemies (in both wave size and strength) until you reach the final, toughest enemy. Amongst the plentiful destructible objects that make up each zone, there are also dynamic obstacles that need to be negotiated: swinging spiked logs, razor sharp wheels flying along tracks and the like.
Combat as you clear out the trash is sharp and very pleasing, but early on I accidentally discovered that there's only one true barometer for the quality of a boss takedown in the game. Amongst all of the battle stats and rankings (damage taken, points earned, bonus objectives achieved and so on) it simply boils down to one core question. Did you manage to inflict the killing blow from distance with a javelin shot to the penis?
Because what happens when you complete a dungeon - to the delight of schoolboys everywhere - is that Vindictus's explosion of kitsch delight bursts into cinematic majesty, with the camera panning around your character and pausing only to take snapshots of both hunter and prey - the latter wailing in outrage with an unfortunately placed spear projecting from its body. It's both incredibly childish and endlessly amusing.
Skill points are awarded based on your performance during battles and can be used to upgrade and unlock combat abilities. Active combat is achieved through mouse-click combos, all of which are lovingly explained with video tutorials, and they allow you to pull off a series of satisfying sweeps, slices and aerial attacks. Combat is enhanced by a targeting and camera system that puts many a mainstream release to shame - although it's also one that's let down slightly by the kind of combat voicing you can imagine all too well if I simply mention the words "HEE!", "HA!" and "YEOW!"
Having bested each instance's end-boss you head back to town to report to your quest-giver and, before you know it, you find yourself having too much to do: the holy grail of free-to-play gaming. For every story quest I complete, I seem to acquire another two side-quests, most of which will require re-running an instance in order to obtain a rare drop of grinding goodness. The pursuit of Vindictus' exquisite armour sets adds further purpose to this hamster-wheel.
It's not all about spearing the genitalia of werewolves though, and the fishing scenario is a welcome take on a tired MMO trope. Departing on a boat to the open seas - solo or in a party - players are required to scout for schools of fish that only occasionally appear in the surrounding waters. They then have to be manually speared with the aim of a harpoon - a refreshing skill-based approach to an MMO staple that typically relies on an invisible digital dice-roll to determine success.
When it comes to partying with other players in combat, Vindictus is again more in line with the spirit of Monster Hunter's collaborative adventures than a fully-fledged MMO, with a focus on small party sizes. While encounters and instance runs rarely take long enough to form any strong social bonds with strangers, it's their brevity that makes them easy to participate in, and the increased rewards from party play on harder modes make for a satisfying victory indeed.
The repetition of instance runs to complete side-quest objectives is enjoyable enough if you have those essential hunter/gatherer bones in your body, but the experience gains are a little meagre unless you purchase progress-enhancing stones from the virtual store. If you're determined to keep the moths in your wallet, it's best enjoyed as a lunchtime filler - with colleagues if you can - as the instances are light and overall progression is based on sheer quantity of gameplay.
This issue of progress leads us inevitably to the cash shop as a whole. At launch, it's largely restricted to finer cosmetic upgrades such as hairstyles, colours and so on. But while you're given a reasonably generous amount of bag space as you level in the game, additional space from the Nexon Depot is rented (in 30 or 90 day stages) rather than purchased outright. A delicate investment hook, and one that leaves me feeling conflicted in the face of the bountiful charms found elsewhere in Vindictus.
Your long-term attachment to the game will also be determined by how much of an experience grind you're prepared to undertake (combined with your attitude towards impermanent purchases), and whether the hack-and-slash combat against somewhat repetitive character models is a meaty enough adventure to keep you satisfied.
As an immediately accessible offering though, Monster Hunter fans - or would-be fans un-tempted by that game's more thoughtful combat mechanics - are encouraged to explore those limits for themselves. It's certainly better than organising your pencils.