Free-to-play MMO's occupy a unique space in the annals of entertainment.

The gaming equivalent of downing a pint of Bacardi, you know your eventual experience will involve regret. Invariably, you'll realise that the hours invested would have been better spent earning the funds required to pay for a subscription to a proper MMO.

Archlord, FLYFF, Priston Tale, Maple Story - just don't do it to yourself. You're better than that.

Dragonica, whilst certainly classified as a free-to-play MMO, differs somewhat from the cookie-cutter crapola that infects download portals worldwide. It's a side-scroller, for a start, and instead of adopting a melodramatic tone by attempting to create extensive fantasy lore, a helping of humour has been injected into the script to keep things entertaining. Refreshingly for an MMO, Dragonica doesn't take itself seriously.

Dragonica's closed beta is well underway, and what we've seen so far hints at a fun, cutesy arcade world spread over the top of a complex and challenging RPG.

You're not really going to find any one overarching concept that the developers have created themselves. The initial stages of the game involve the now standardised selection of character - either Warrior, Magician, Archer or Thief. These choices may appear limited, but happily your character can evolve and specialise further down the line. For example, a Warror's job path can move from Knight to Paladin, and eventually Dragoon. Or perhaps Gladiator, Myrmidon, then Warlord. Along with this you can change your gender, hairstyle, facial features - essentially you can design your favourite anime-esque hero to your hearts content.

Movement is somewhat tempered by the side-scrolling nature of the world, but it's fair to point out that your hero can move up and down along the vertical axis as well. Not to mention jump and move through portals. It's a difficult concept to articulate, but it takes very little practise to get used to, and the keyboard-heavy nature of the game means the camera angles are automated, and automated well. Our client, by default, was set to windowed mode, allowing progress without shutting ourselves off from the outside world.

Questing, again, isn't really anything you won't have seen before. Most involve the typical kill-wolf-fetch-meat-get-reward drudgery that defines the past decade of the genre. But where many other MMO's singularly fail to inspire, Dragonica excels; the combat is fantastic.

Part Street Fighter, part Golden Axe, the entirely arcade attacks will have your hero darting about the screen, chaining together combos and flinging enemy combatants through the air. Each swing of your sword or magical attack you might be capable of can affect multiple enemies at once, and the mechanics are such that your initial attack will stun just long enough to add a combination on top. Hit the sweet spot, and you'll dispatch stacks of multiple targets in short order - additionally, the more flamboyant you make it, the more experience points you'll get. Speed is of the essence, as well as logistics, timing and technique. Sure, there are other MMO's where these talents are desirable, but very few make it as fun as Dragonica.

The loot system is robust, with multiple items to find, trade, repair and equip. Some items are character-specific, but the enchanting system can recycle them for other uses. There certainly doesn't seem to be an abundance of vendor trash either, as you're more likely to pick up copper, silver or gold ahead of the Worthless Boots of Misfortune. And since I've managed several paragraphs without mentioning the elephant in the room, you only need to look at World of Warcraft to see where the equip/inventory system has been lifted from.

Yes, you'll also find guilds, parties, epic items, boss battles, skill trees, experience points and instanced dungeons. The latter being equally fun solo or in a group. Interestingly enough too, the instances we played were timed, so the faster you complete them, the more experience you get. You can repeat them too - they have several different difficulty levels and corresponding loot as rewards. You don't even need to plan your social life around them either, I managed several runs that took less than five minutes each.

To reinforce the arcade element, the developers have included a "monster count" that tracks your kills. At the 100, 300, 500, 700 and 1000 milestones you'll be given rewards, and this acts as an incentive to stay alive, because if you die your count is reset. Other than this, the penalty for dying is low, this again appears to be an attempt to keep gameplay fluid and fun.

There's much to like about Dragonica. To the casual observer it appears angled towards the younger players, and it may well be - but after only a short period of time playing it, you'll look past the stereotypical anime appearance and find an addictive RPG that looks set to compete with the best of them. The only warning here is that MMO's are only ever as good as the content and upkeep afforded to them. If developers Barunson release this into the wild without any ongoing support and content patching then they'll most likely have a spectacular failure on their hands.

Somehow, I doubt that will be the case.


If you'd like to see more of Dragonica, check out the cinematic trailer over at GP Downloads (33MB).