The latest arrival in the Korean invasion is “Mabinogi,” a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) from Nexon, the folks behind “Maple Story” and “Kartrider.” These games are built around cute graphics, challenging gameplay and a presumably “free to play” business model. Although they’ve been wildly successful in Asia, they’re struggling to find an audience in North America. With its unforgiving difficulty, unfriendly interface and annoying incentives to make players pay, “Mabinogi” is a perfect example why.
The name “Mabinogi” is drawn from Celtic mythology, but don’t expect anything particularly Irish. This is your typical fantasy world, with fairies and villagers all blandly drawn in simple cheery graphics that would make it easy to mistake for kiddie fare. Anime-style children and cel-shaded artwork reinforces the cartoon vibe. But the dirty little secret about “Mabinogi” (and indeed many Korean games) is that it’s actually hardcore, sometimes to the point of being brutal.
MMOs like “World of Warcraft” and “Lord of the Rings Online” take pains to ease the player into their gameworlds, gradually teaching him or her how to play, gently ramping up the difficulty level, and carefully avoiding any discouragement that might make someone rethink the monthly fee.
“Mabinogi” has no such reservations. It starts out easily enough, but after several hours, the average player will hit a brick wall. A lot of the advanced features, such as aging, rebirth, travel and the economy are poorly explained. There are no methods for players to easily meet and join up in the game’s online world, even though the difficult of many missions demands it.
Without a longer-term idea of how to play or what to do, “Mabinogi” bogs down with tough quests or pointless errands and a general sense of ‘what now?’. It doesn’t help that the interface is terrible, characterized by clunky interactions with computer-controlled characters, a camera that’s so tight it’s impossible for players to get the proper perspective, and an inventory system that requires lots of fastidious management.
Beyond these tribulations, however, “Mabinogi” has a few points in its favor. Fights are a refreshing change of pace from the typical MMO. Combat works according to a simple system of carefully timed trumps and counter-trumps. The skill system is also simple, with character development based on performing a list of actions. For instance, a player who wants a better magic skill has to cast a certain number of spells, whereas a player who wants a better fishing skill has to catch a certain number of fish. The refreshingly simple DIY system is essentially “Do what you want to do and you’ll eventually do it better.”
The alleged beauty of “Mabinogi” is that a prospective player won’t have to pay a cent. The game is ostensibly free to play, but minus a lot of convenience until a monthly fee is forked over. There are various piecemeal features for sale, such as extra inventory space, healing potions, or a less punishing option to recover from death. A package deal for all the conveniences costs $15 a month. Which is exactly what it costs to play one of the many better and more player-friendly MMOs.