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Mabinogi: Bravely forging the way ahead, four years ago.

Once again thoroughly burned out from City of Heroes, it's time for me to take a serious look at the landscape of MMORPGs. For the most part, this landscape has stayed the same as when I looked just a few months ago. The major projects of the Western world, Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, are not any more released now than they were in January. However, as inevitable as the Pacific tides, a massive deluge of Eastern-made MMORPGs washes up regularly on the shores of the land of the free but financially segregated.

So it is that I found Mabinogi, a free to play game with surprisingly detailed virtual worldly aspects. As far as sandboxes go, Ultima Online may have some competition.

Not too long ago, one of these Korean made monstrosities, Cabal Online, captivated me in rapt fascination by jamming a timing-based minigame in the middle of what's otherwise yet-another-monster-genocide-simulation. My hands, bloodied enough with the pixels of billions of imaginary beasts, shouted with the very cellular membrane between each knuckle, "No more!" That was the end of Cabal Online and back to the arms of the ego-pumping metahuman feats of City of Heroes.

Now, once again bored from my long time relationship with massively multiplayer spandex, I find myself freshly seduced by an interesting game called Mabinogi, marketed by Nexon, produced by DevCat studio, originally released four long years ago only to arrive - tardy but with improvements to show up for it - in Open Beta on American shores two weeks ago.

Picture Caption: The interface (now in English) is actually modeled after the Windows XP interface.

The main reason I decided to even give this a game a chance is because the core gameplay sounds like it could be good. The combat (which I always consider a main activity in a MMORPG) has a tactical element that involves reading your opponents based on how they move an animate. From this, you can execute attacks, blocks, counterattacks, or smashes. The NPCs are advertised as being smarter than most, which confounds bots and keeps the players on their toes. Sounds like there's actual game here.

Virtual World Enabled

However, another draw of the game is that there's more than combat: I'm talking about a virtual world. Virtual worldly games like Ultima Online are much more rare than the total deluge of EverQuest clones. Thus, it is to Mabinogi's benefit that it is a game where you do more than just kill mobs to get level maximum.

Activities outside of combat include fishing, cooking, smithing, tailoring, weaving, herbalism, and more. What sets them apart from other trade skill based games? Apparently, these activities are set up to execute different mini-games (as opposed to the "same mini-game, different buttons" EverQuest 2 or Vanguard approach). There's even the ability to compose actual musical pieces.

The virtual worldly focus is fully supported by the RPG mechanics. Like the Ultima Online of old, advancement is "skill-based," meaning you only gain power by actually practicing the actions you wish to get better at. The actual implementation is a little more complicated. Once practiced, you need to spend advancement points to actually advance (earning new skills) and this determines your specialization. Advancement points are earned through aging, leveling up, or completing quests. Apparently, the use of books and trainers can become a factor as well, which is even more virtual worldly.

Your character's physical appearance and attributes will change as you play. They gain a year of age every real life week. Benefits of aging fall off after they turn 25, but you can "rebirth," which resets them to an earlier age and level 1 while keeping their skills. (Wouldn't that be nice?) Age is not the only way in which your avatar's physical appearance changes, as you can even gain visible weight by overeating and work it off through diet and exercise.

There's also performing jobs, animal taming, and owning a house. However, I've yet to really get into the detail of these activities.

Anime Infected

Developed to strongly appeal to the "anime" (the American word for Eastern animation style) audience, you'll either going to love or hate the artistic style of this game based on your tolerance for characters with corneas the size of saucers. All the characters are portrayed in a very anime fashion and often with a drawn portrait when speaking with them.

Picture Caption: Mabinogi's doe-eyed Firiona Vie equivalent, Nao, is one of the more sexually overcharged mascots I've seen in a long time. Dig that transparent yet opaque dress with the visible slip.

Soon into the game, you get a very personal interview with Nao, the curvaceous mascot of this game, as she gracefully doles out the basics of how to play. Then, in the world proper, Nao's faceless friend Tin grants you a special sword imbued with the spirit of a with a scantly-clad fairy to drag out and ask questions whenever you like. Judging by the heaping helping it gives you up front, it seems to me that the designers were not afraid to show off a bit of anime cheesecake to fish in the adolescent male players.

Oddly enough, your aging-once-a-week character actually begins at age 10-17. The first assumption would be that this is the expected age of the players. However, judging by Eastern media, it could also be because the spastic gyrations of underage anime girls is considered some kind of divine-granted pleasure that sells like hotcakes where this game was built. It's a bit creepy when you're a 31-year-old American drawn by the promise of an interesting virtual world game without absolutely boring combat, only to discover some stranger has stripped his 10-year-old female avatar down to her panties as she bludgeons animals with sticks.

Despite the presence of prepubescent panties and the overbearing sexuality of Nao, this is not a porn game. The actual characters (who aren't played by the rare dirty-minded stranger) conduct themselves in a thoroughly polite manner every bit as innocent as Disney's ToonTown. The monsters and animals are well animated in a way that reminds me a bit of Twinsen's Adventure. So, perhaps the best way is to regard the game is with eyes just as innocent as the dialogue. The stylized execution reminds me of a PS2 game I once played, Radiata Stories.

Conclusion

Between the thought put into the gameplay elements and the virtual worldliness, this could be a very interesting MMORPG to play. However, as they say, "the honeymoon isn't over yet." I've just barely touched this game, and I suspect that if I ever reach the point where the grind bores me (which could be sooner rather than later) then it's on to brighter pastures. Still, the overall production values seem good, and (should it be delivered as promised) combat that requires the player to think puts Mabinogi head and shoulders above most of the competition.

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