After my first brief taste of Nexon’s Dragon Nest at PAX West 2011, I immediately knew I wanted more. The colorful MMORPG offered exactly what I’d been looking for—an addicting mix of the standard MMO tropes: quests, treasure, and friends, combined with an actual battle system. And like all of Nexon’s offerings, the game was free to play. I quickly signed up for the beta test, and once my key arrived I happily spent the next few days ignoring all other real world business and engaging myself in this colorful fantasy world.
Unlike gritty Western games with grey and brown color palates or the off-putting neon light effects present in genre mainstay World of Warcraft, Dragon Nest offers a fun colorful world where even the darkest dungeon has a certain charm to it. The graphics are reminiscent of a children’s storybook, with a bit of classic anime flair used to good effect. The visuals are obviously a bit rough, as would be expected of any game with town areas packed full of player characters. The blocky models have a definite level of charm, harkening back to colorful PS1 classics like Megaman Legends. As a big fan of the low-polygon aesthetic, I found the graphics awesome. All four of the character classes (Warrior, Cleric, Archer and Sorceress) are impressive to look at and smoothly animated, with the same holding true for the various baddies found within the game.
Perhaps the most exciting feature of Dragon Nest is the real-time battle system, which has players frantically hacking and slashing away at enemies with a level of involvement mostly unknown to the genre. The game features no lock-on, Archers and Mages have to actually aim their projectiles, and Warriors and Clerics are forced to dodge enemy attacks lest face defeat. The combat in Dragon Nest is leagues more exciting than the computer-assisted fights of other MMOs, each battle a frantic exchange of blows, a variety of dazzling special attacks taking down the legions of enemy monsters, sometimes twenty or more in number. Though the dungeon areas can be tackled alone, the most fun comes from putting together a full party of four adventurers and plowing through these levels with the murderous fury of a raging bull. In some of the more narrow areas, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the various baddies facing us, as our team mashed away on special attacks that sent our enemies flying around the screen. A definite focus is on the frantic action this brawler-style gameplay offers, with the dungeon areas filled with a variety of destructible environmental objects. There’s no real physics engine to speak of, bookcases or barrels exploding in a similar fashion to the last, though it’s still a visual treat to see the petite anime characters destroying everything in sight. The game’s combo counter is another obvious reminder of the game’s frantic combat system, and it was a thrill to string lines of special attacks together in hopes of a 50+ combo.
Of course, the real addicting factor of all MMOs is the promise of loot, and Dragon Nest has no shortage of items to be plundered. Interesting is how the game distributes items among parties, with a very smart variety of options in regard to this. For most of my time with the beta, we employed the round robin system, where each item picked up was automatically given away in rotation. I’ll admit there was a bit of metagaming here, as I attempted to quickly snatch up useless crystals when it wasn’t my turn for an item, and scampering toward high-powered equipment when my character was due; however, it was definitely a lot more satisfying than the finders-keepers method of old. Additionally, the game was set up so if a truly rare item was found, then each player had the option to roll a 100-sided die, with the item awarded to the player with the highest roll. A bit disappointing to roll a 5 when vying for that Legendary bow, but again, a very smart system.
In addition to finding items within the dungeons, there are of course various sellers in-game, as well as a fun little mini-game following each completed dungeon, players choosing from among up to four treasure chests, with a mystery reward waiting inside. Then there’s Nexon’s cash shop, where players can exchange real currency for in-game items. This is how Nexon manages to offer their games for free, and though players would like to think they can resist the allure of the cash shop, the very impressive-looking armor options leave you drooling. Obviously the free-to-play model benefits Dragon Nest greatly. With a small client download, it’s easy to invite friends to give it a try, with truly dedicated adventurers able to pony up a few bucks to deck out their character properly.
Besides the standard loot collecting and level grinding, there’s an incredible wealth of additional features that complete the robust Dragon Nest experience. Adventurers can try to collect entire sets of armor for additional stat bonuses, improve the power of weapons and armor in the blacksmith’s shop, learn new skills from the training guild, and eventually earn the ability to choose a secondary character class, unlocking the new skills and abilities that come along with it. There’s long been the assumption that free games skimp on the features, but Dragon Nest is proving to be one that breaks the trend. The one true hang-up I had was the lack of character customization. The classes are all gender specific, meaning all Warriors and Clerics are male while all Archers and Sorceresses are female (I guess the term “sorceress” might’ve given that away already). With only a few small character options to choose from, most avatars are indistinguishable from each other, and I ran into exact clones of myself more than a few times. The game obviously hopes players will differentiate themselves from the pack by shelling out some cash for the aforementioned armor sets, but I’d at least hoped to choose some basics, like hair or eye color.
Despite my small reservations, I honestly loved my short time with the game, and though I wasn’t able to grind toward level 16 and earn the special title being offered as part of the beta event, I still had a blast. Definitely keep an eye out for Dragon Nest when it launches sometime this fall.