F2P of the Day: Drakensang Online

Drakensang Online has a distinguished pedigree for a F2P RPG. The game is a continuation of the popular German Drakensang series, which is in turn based on the Dark Eye RPG system, a pen-and-paper methodology that has outsold even the mighty D&D in Germany. The initial installments of the Drakensang series were made by a German developer named Radon Labs, who re-branded themselves as Bigpoint Berlin when they began creating Drakensang Online.

The game is a click-heavy action-RPG in the vein of Torchlight, albeit free-to-play and browser-based. Account creation took only minutes, and I was soon firing up the title and exploring its character-creation options. Only two classes — the Dragonknight and the Spellweaver — are currently available in the open beta, but empty slots on the game’s website suggest that there will soon be more options. Given the limitations of the software, the character variables were limited — gender, hairstyle, and build — but the designs were attractive. I opted for a redheaded female Spellweaver and dropped into the game.

The artistic acumen demonstrated in character creation was represented even more fully in-game. Drakensang Online’s art style is a joy to look at, full of painterly colors, immaculate detail (flitting butterflies; swollen, viney pumpkins), and impressive fidelity for a browser-based game. The lighting effects were of particular note — late in my play session, I ventured into a dungeon, and the way my spells caused light to bloom against the rocky walls belied the fact that I was playing for free in Firefox. Even the rocks themselves had a realistic, variegated texture to them.

Combat is coordinated using a familiar combination of mouse and hotbar. Left and right clicks are mapped to primary and secondary attacks, respectively, and the latter can be switched with the Tab key to access two easily castable spells. The number keys, as if this comes as a surprise, can trigger a further range of abilities, including health and mana potions, which are quaffed at a thirstily Diablo-like clip.

My Spellweaver began with a magic missile that emanated from her staff, before unlocking a more mana-intensive attack that added some splash damage. While taking on gibbering gremlins, lumbering, creepy Bog Monsters, and shambling undead, spells exploded with satisfying impact — the developers have really nailed the gratifying feeling that comes from mowing down a succession of Action-RPG attackers in a flurry of mouse-clicks. They’re also keen to provide you with plenty of randomized loot — a formality, maybe, but one that ought to be mentioned. As I gained levels, I unlocked new spells that consumed a sort of magical ammunition. Essences of Ice, Lightning, Fire, and Arkan are dropped by defeated enemies, and consumed when using particular abilities, augmenting their effects.

The game’s story and setting are extremely archetypal: picturesque village with strange stirrings in the wilderness beyond — you’ve played this starting area a hundred times. Quests, too, were not hugely imaginative: venture to a dangerous area and collect item X; kill X beasts, or kill beasts to collect X number of drops; talk to X. I was a little aggravated by quests that asked me to visit a location, complete a task, turn in the quest in town, and then return to that same area immediately for another challenge.

I hope that these foibles are less evident as players get deeper into the game. What is certain is the prospect of larger areas, collaborative, party-based, PvE, some sort of PVP, and, above all, more intensive challenges — one dungeon I entered had a WoW-inspired “Hard” difficulty, presumably to test higher-level players. Also intriguing is the game’s version of micro-transactions: A magical currency called “Andermant” drops in small amounts in the gameworld, and must be spent to resurrect your body in a convenient location, or to purchase advanced equipment. If you want more Andermant, however, you’re free to buy it for real-world money, a business that Bigpoint no doubt counts on to keep them afloat.

If you’re looking for a free, fun action-RPG to keep you occupied until Diablo III, or just as a low-impact alternative to other gaming pursuits, there’s much to be said for Drakensang Online. The visuals are great, and the gameplay is breezy and effective at scratching that dungeon-crawling itch. The game may not challenge or reinvent the conventions of the genre, but this is likely by design. Moreover, if you decide you don’t like it, there’s nothing to lose!

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