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When I wrote my review for Dungeon Fighter Online (DFO) last year, I was aware that, like many free online (and oftentimes Korean) games, it was still in beta, and, hence, still a work in progress. However, with boundless advertising sprawled across the Internet, as well as income earned from microtransactions, we felt that if Nexon was confident enough to release trailers and charge people for in-game perks, then they were confident enough to be critically praised – or scrutinized. Now that DFO has seen an "official" release, I revisited the game so that I might offer an "official" critique.
Very little has changed. Who would be surprised? Not only did Nexon provide the bare-bones of DFO last year when it went open beta, but it also had some meat on it (hence microtransactions and advertising). However, by "very little has changed," I mean that the game didn't receive much in terms of content or facelifts. Sure, they increased the level cap, released the female gunner, and introduced or improved upon a bevy of other small knickknacks, but, really, nothing monumental happened June 9th. Priests still don't have a fourth sub-class, the Asian servers have a Thief class completely omitted from the US version, and the grind is still there; although the experience requirements were tweaked, leveling and quests still encourage repeated visits to the same place over and over. And over.
I calculated just how long it took to reach a sub-class, and it took me two full days of playing with a friend. That doesn't sound too bad. Well, anyone with MMO experience will tell you that the initial levels are always a breeze, just so you get hooked. Then, all of a sudden, they hit the brakes: a couple levels a day turned into a level a day, which turned into one level every few days. But, hey, we're not playing to level, right? We're playing to have fun! Sure, that'd be nice, if only fun meant fighting the same, uninspired enemies over and over because you don't have access to new content.
So, PvP, ne? Yeah, PvP is just as fun as I initially talked about, except now the game is swarming with veterans (read: addicts) who have started their eighth character which is currently at level 23. A genuinely new player who is level 23 has no chance against this "smurf." Nexon's inability to create interesting end-game content has created problems for new players, but such is the nature of MMOs. Perhaps we're being too hard on Nexon.
One look at the variety of avatars will tell you exactly where Nexon's sights are. This isn't such a bad thing, though, considering that when I initially played the game, avatar variety was lacking. So, now, it's kind of possible to appear unique and original. This should be praised, right? Well, sure, if Nexon made equal strides in other areas of the game seriously needing work, like quest design, writing (they improved on this, but not enough), AI (easily exploitable given the right class and dungeon boss), and fixing the bot system in such a way so that chat and interaction isn't completely crippled.
Nexon got rid of the bots by disallowing global chat unless you buy a megaphone. So, in order to chat with everyone on the server (most likely to advertise rare wares), you have to pay Nexon. Genius! They also added one of those "type out these letters to prove that you're a human" pop-ups that we all know and love – when you can read the damn things. This happened to me once, and it didn't affect my gameplay at all, so I can't complain. However, crippling chat in such a way that the only way to talk to someone is through a text bubble appearing over your head or whispers is short-sighted; though it solved one problem in the form of spam bots, it also took away a vital part of the online gaming experience.
Which brings me to an article that I wrote last year when Nexon advertised the possibility for gamers to write editorials for DFO. I wrote about the value of interaction in MMOs, and how meeting someone online can be a life-changing experience, or just a fun way to dungeon crawl. I thought DFO succeeded in this quite well, mostly because of the community itself – which I still enjoyed after having played again. However, rather than post the article a week, two weeks, a month, or months later, they waited until February to post it, along with some other DFO Corps articles written by other players. Now, all vanity aside, this only bothers me because it's a sign of how long it takes for anything to happen in Nexon's games. Whatever Nexon intends to do, expect it to take a considerably long time to emerge, and maybe not even correctly.
I spent most of this update grilling Nexon, and speaking only of its flaws, when it actually has tried to fix many problems that the community has complained about until they were hoarse. However, points aren't given for effort, and I can't even say that Nexon has taken genuine steps to improve upon the game. In fact, what frustrates me the most is that I really like DFO, and I see so much potential for a flagship title leading the way toward depth in the old arcade-style beat 'em up genre that they've revived with a medicinal dash of RPG.
If you read my review posted last year (see below), then that's still an extremely accurate account of DFO and how Nexon manages it. Obviously, Nexon is a business and has to make money, and Nexon's American branch doesn't have free reign over what happens with DFO. Though, when so much has been added (avatars) to squeeze money out of addicted players, one has to wonder if Nexon is earnestly trying to make DFO the best game it can be, or if they're just trying to get by with the bare minimum rather than adding a few more pieces of flair to their vest.
Nexon, creators of the famed, grind-tastic Maple Story, have recently released Dungeon Fighter Online (DFO) to North America. This game has been released under different names in Korea, its home, and Japan, as well, all with varying versions. Has America's version been graced with advantages over its Korean and Japanese counterparts, or has it been assigned the role of guinea pig?
At its heart, DFO plays like an old school brawler, or beat 'em up. Those reminiscent of Final Fight and Streets of Rage will find that this game not only serves as a reminder of what we loved about brawlers, but shows that the genre is not necessarily dead. Nexon has added a role-playing aspect, however (are you surprised to be reading this here?), that encourages careful planning, and - brace yourselves - grinding.
Finding a strong story element in an MMORPG would be fantastic, but you won't find it here. Initially, players are welcomed with an interesting, well-drawn manga strip, unique to each of the five character classes. Whether you're a priest sent to bring peace back to the land, or a young swordsman whose arm is cursed with a demonic spirit, your goals are the same: go kill A LOT of goblins, and bring collectibles to a bunch of pack rats hanging out in town. Truly, any draw in the storyline ends after the brief introduction is over. Then again, few people start playing an MMO with their friends in search of deep plots and well-constructed dialogue.
This is not to say, however, that there isn't some draw in what attempt is made at an interesting plot. I may be a little generous here, but the game leaves some mysteries for the players that are slightly stimulating. Why are adventurers getting brainwashed, and what's the deal behind Kiri's past? Unfortunately, the musings end here. You won't find yourself hanging out with your friends discussing for hours the intricacies of the storyline, or why your friend relates to x so much, when y was clearly justified in the murder of z. The mysteries are more, "Huh. I wonder what that's about. Oh well, guess I better get the rest of those magical cubes for the alchemist." The game could benefit a great deal from a dedicated writer or two to weave character plots together and make some more interesting quests.
This is why we're here, right? DFO isn't Final Fantasy, so just tell me who I have to kill, and what to get, so I can repeat it all over again. This is what keeps you going. The game calls them quests, but, more often than not, they are uninspired, sorry excuses for defeating the next level on the second difficulty, or to collect twenty of item x, and then doing it again when you reach the next level. And again. And again.
I'm being harsh, though. The reason the game is so successful is not in its motivation for gameplay, but the actual gameplay, itself. As noted above, story is not the draw - the desire to replay the brawlers of our youth with all of the furnishings of modern gaming luxuries is why DFO has made so much money for Nexon, which is shamelessly advertised on a bar to the right on its main page. Remember how while playing Turtles in Time you would just spam the attack button, and occasionally throw a foot soldier into the screen, and just think it was the coolest?! Well, this game goes a step beyond that. Or five steps.
Yes, you could easily play the game by just mashing the attack button, and with a fair understanding of each enemy type's attack pattern, you could do well. However, to get the super-mega-ultra SSS rank, you need a bit of style and technic (technique)! This is extremely important when it comes to dungeon crawling, because the only way to unlock more difficult areas, which many believe yield better and more frequent drops, is to obtain certain letter grades in combat. In order to do this, you usually have to tackle an area with teammates. Unfortunately, this means that solo play is not necessarily the best route to go, but, then, why are you playing an MMO if that was your desire? Additionally, the game does not reward button mashing, which many people think of when they hear "beat 'em up." If you want to earn a high rank, you need a lot of style and technic, which means that you have to work with your team to juggle enemies, get overkill scores, and avoid getting hit, among other feats.
Dungeons are presented through menus: when you leave town, DFO greets you with a map-menu listing areas to fight in. When you click on the rectangle to enter the area, you immediately warp to the dungeon, with enemies abound. Defend yourself, or die (hope I didn't need to point that one out). After clearing out a room, clearly marked on the map, you choose the next room to go into. If you so choose, you can show where the boss is located, and approximate the best method of getting there, or explore on your own. In the beginning, this seems like a fun way of traversing each dungeon, but, really, you'll just want to either clear out the entire dungeon, or get to the boss as soon as possible. The only way to get to the next room is to kill all the enemies, but the gameplay is fun enough that this isn't too much of a bother until a week later.
So, about this gameplay thing I keep talking about. First and foremost, attack makes you punch (or shoot, or whatever), and if you keep hitting said button, you will perform successive hits until you get to the finisher in the series, a la Final Fight. If just punching isn't enough for you, characters earn skill points used to level up class-specific abilities. This is the most impressive part of the game, because every character is truly unique. One has to wonder just how much variety can be found in a brawler, but this is where the RPG aspect shines. Of course, leveling up is a central part of making the gameplay-cogs turn, and with each level comes new abilities. Unfortunately, once players establish which abilities they like most, leveling up degenerates into pumping points into the same special move over and over in order to maintain its strength with increasingly difficult stages. This aside, the game provides plenty of skill points for players to experiment with and use many abilities (the game offers twelve hotkey slots, to give you an idea). The process becomes more complicated at level 18, when players are asked to specialize in a sub-class in their character's overall class (i.e. Priest can become Crusader, Monk, or Exorcist). This is crucial since a player's entire move-set, what they can wear, and their style of combat changes here. Unfortunately, there is no way to discern what a class does without doing outside exploration on the Internet. The game would benefit a great deal with some simple aids to point players in the right direction. This wouldn't be a problem if the process were reversible, or if resetting skill points didn't cost a ridiculous amount of real money.
Most enemies have a unique fighting style that makes them a threat to you and your party in different ways. Some enemies require prioritization, while others require an entirely different moveset to take down. While this does seem appealing and refreshingly innovative in the beat 'em up genre, the core of the gameplay is still the same: hit the enemies a lot until they die.
The bosses are occasionally unique, but nothing too grand has been done to set them apart from the casual enemy, with a few exceptions. For the most part, bosses are either normal enemies with more attack power and HP, or have a gimmicky method of attack that may kill newcomers the first time, but are easy to counter with a little observation. After defeating a boss, players are treated to free items and a rundown of how well they did in the dungeon. Difficulty in the game scales fairly well, but some of the balancing goes askew in the later stages. Players may find themselves struggling with one stage, but once they level up and gain access to the following stage, enemies become fairly simple to vanquish. All things considered, the game offers a nice, newbie-friendly difficulty curve that still manages to challenge more experienced players later on. Of course, this is dependent on the difficulty level and the number of players.
Dying is forgivable in DFO. If a player unfortunately dies in a dungeon, they are given ten seconds to use a token to revive themselves, granting full HP and MP. Additionally, this resets all hits they have taken while in the dungeon, which will grant them a higher rank when the dungeon is complete. New players receive five tokens upon starting their journey, but the maximum amount of tokens for normal players is three. Everyday, a full set of tokens is given to players at no charge. If a player loses all of their tokens, or choose not to use a token, they return to town with a temporary penalty to their stats, which can be removed for a high fee, or the player can simply wait a few minutes to recover completely. Another nice perk is that fellow party members can use tokens to revive their allies.
Item drops are plentiful, but one difference between this version and the Asian versions seems to be the amount of healing items. North American players familiar with the Korean and Japanese versions often complain about the lack of recovery items, comparatively. However, if a player takes care, adapts well, and fights at the appropriate difficulty level, this should not be an issue. If it is an issue, players are welcome to spend real money to buy recovery items from Nexon's special item shop or in-game money to buy from other players at high costs. No, there are no shops that sell recovery items, with the exception of a lone merchant that is difficult to find, but he not only charges higher than the players, he asks for alternative currency earned in the PVP arena.
Nexon has a fatigue system in place to prevent players from binging on the game for fourteen hours a day. Players can still play for a couple hours a day, depending on how quickly and often they adventure, but once the points are gone, they must wait for the next day to use up another bar of points. While this is not novel within the world of MMOs, it helps prevent people from vomiting after seventeen hours of dungeon crawling-induced exhaustion. If this doesn't appeal to gamers, Nexon allows players to work on an entirely different character with a full fatigue bar, and players can wile away the hours in the PVP arena at no cost, as well. Another feature to keep players honest is the Noob-O-Meter, which essentially penalizes players who try to gain levels in a party with much higher-level players. If there's a seven level difference, the lower level player will receive less experience and item drops for a certain amount of time in future endeavors.
While the questing and imaginary monster killing is the initial draw of the game, the real meat and potatoes is the PVP arena. Ordinary monsters on the field don't adapt, and only so much strategy can be used against the limited AI. DFO really lends itself to multiplayer combat, and Nexon offers free-for-all, team battle, and elimination mode style battles. Each room in the PVP arena can have up to eight players, which is plenty, because any more than that would result in chaos and deter from real strategy. The most common modes of combat are team and elimination, making free-for-alls almost impossible to find or host. Elimination mode is essentially team battle, except with a series of one vs. one battles, until one team is wiped out. Upon victory, levels are gained, and victory points awarded. Victory points, as alluded to before, are a form of currency, which can be used to buy high-powered equipment or consumables. Predictably, Nexon assigns different rooms for players based on levels gained. Unfortunately, Nexon has not made rooms for all levels of players, making PVP extremely difficult to partake in once a certain level has been reached, due to the game's present newness. Perhaps this will be remedied in time, but for now Nexon has forgotten their most committed players.
The game's depth in gameplay can be truly appreciated in the PVP arena. A trip to the forums reveals a topic or two claiming that class A is unbalanced, and class B needs buffing. While this is tiresome, it does point out that almost every class can be perceived as "cheap," which means that every class has potential strengths and weaknesses. However, don't be surprised to find a room in the PVP arena that says "No gunners," as many newer players seem to have trouble countering this ranged-specific class. Some minor faults regarding the PVP system include an inability to filter game types and to host games with a specified level requirement.
To the community's credit, however, people tend to pay attention to labels. For example, a room named "Levels 18 to 24 only" often results in the appropriate range of players joining. Also, players tend to be well-mannered, hospitable, and are rarely rude. As the game becomes more popular, we'll see how this evolves (or de-evolves). This applies to partying with random people, as well. I cannot recall how many times a person I partied with for a few runs of a dungeon offered me high level equipment that they couldn't use, simply because we fought well together, or treated each other properly.
About the equipment, players won't find anything new here. Nexon unabashedly uses a system that many others have used, very similar to that found in Diablo. The game hosts magic equipment, set equipment, and unique equipment. There's really not much to say here, since DFO's system is virtually a carbon copy of Diablo's system that has been used and abused by so many games. Don't get me wrong - it works and it's familiar - it just doesn't come off as exciting. To make matters worse, the equipment is improperly priced in-game, so if a player wants to get ahead and find the best equipment, he's often left advertising hopelessly and vigilantly on the forums, or trying to find a place to spam their wares for sale/trade where the bots are not. Of course, this isn't necessary, but higher level PVP competition almost requires it.
I have saved what may be the most important aspect of gameplay for last. You will grind. Yes, there is grinding. This game requires grinding. Did I mention there's grinding? Apparently (I have not personally found this, but it's popular to poke fun at on the forums), Nexon claims this is a unique experience offered to North America. The other versions of the game offer more quests and lower experience requirements to gain levels. This is a double-edged sword because if levels are gained quickly, then maxing out on levels happens too quickly, and the game feels "over." However, if quests are crafted with a little bit of thought, taking a day to level once won't even occur to many players. Instead, players either run out of quests, or endure the drudgery of quests like, "Defeat the boss on Master difficulty." Snore. This absolutely boggles my mind. How can game designers make such a fun and deep battle system, but fall flat on their face when it comes to quests? If immersion were a consideration, players would not even be aware that they're leveling, which, of course, means that they aren't grinding. Don't take my word for it, though. One trip to the forums and browsing members' signatures unveils that everyone seems to stop leveling somewhere in their twenties, and has five or more characters either in their teens or early twenties.
Console and portable RPGs rarely, if ever, get facelifts after their release, unless you're counting remakes. However, when it comes to MMORPGs, a new patch oftentimes becomes one of the most exciting and important parts of the game. Since September, Nexon has hosted events for its users on a semi-regular basis. Although they should definitely be credited for this, Nexon does not do a good job of tackling some of the larger gripes of the community, such as additional content. This would not be such a big issue, since almost everyone wants new content in their online experience, but when other MMOs tackle this problem so well, one must wonder what stops Nexon from doing the same. Adding insult to injury, its Asian sisters have far more content, including a level 60 cap, more quests, and an entire class that has been omitted - just to name a few things.
What's worse, Nexon does a poor job of communicating with its player base, whether it's on the forums, the main page, or in-game. Players constantly gripe about the grind, which inevitably leads to the more addicted players making two, three, or six new characters. Nexon addresses these grave concerns with silence, aside from the rationale of offering the North American players a unique experience. Fortunately, the game is practically bug-free, and almost none of the gameplay elements require additional explanation, so the need for a guide in-game is not necessary.
One final comment about the management: bots cannot be removed from the game. DFO is absolutely smothered by bots spamming advertisements for free gold web businesses - if you can call them businesses. In this sense, an in-game moderator would be helpful, or at least some sort of spam guard. When so many other free games have no problem with this, one has to wonder just how much Nexon cares about the quality of the community's gaming experience. Immersing yourself in the environment or gaming experience is difficult when web sites are clogging chat, making it virtually impossible to have a public chat, or advertise your own wares. Atmosphere is not a chief concern of Nexon's.
I have to applaud Nexon on this. The game feels extremely intuitive, and almost everything happens when and how it's supposed to happen. Anyone experienced with free MMOs or Korean games knows that control can be a crippling factor in games, making some nigh-unplayable. Everything you want to do in the game is doable without a hitch, bug, or unnecessary complication. My only complaint would have to be that sometimes the lag, which is virtually unnoticeable, prevents moves from connecting when they're supposed to; some of the hit detection could be slightly better as well. This is just nitpicking, though. Do not take my claim that lag is sometimes an issue so seriously - it's so minor, you probably won't even notice it. Kudos on this front.
Polished and nostalgic, Nexon's high standard for graphics shines through again. The game not only looks good, but it looks like a brawler. This is important in establishing the right kind of atmosphere, and if Nexon would execute other elements of gameplay and story a little better, this would be clearer. Before you enjoy the icing on the cake, you need the cake itself. Otherwise you're just sitting alone in the dark eating a container of icing. In all seriousness, though, the special moves are beautiful and sharp. The game is fun to look at. This probably helps Nexon hook people, but as with all games with great graphics, the base is necessary to keep people around for the long haul.
DFO's music won't wear on you, and its sound effects are appropriate. That said, the game doesn't host any magical tunes that are catchy or make you download the MP3. The music you hear most of the time is pleasant enough, but forgettable. The voices for the characters are a bit larger-than-life, and can be annoying sometimes. On the forums, people have sort of fallen in love with certain quotes, and enjoy repeating them in the appropriate context. I suppose that's a compliment to the voice acting, but if you want to put the game in window mode and leave it sit in the background, you'll find yourself muting the sounds.
The game's free. That's amazing! A game of this caliber that I don't have to pay for that is without annoying advertisements?! Sign me up! Well, Nexon's getting its revenue from somewhere. Maybe if you like the game enough, you'll buy one of the many things Nexon has set up for you to buy. Now, where was that potion shop...
Nexon does not bother to hide the fact that they made this game with the intent to make money. Like with many free, online games, there are buyables. Are these buyables worth your hard-earned dollars, or can you get by without buying them? What's offered are consumables, reviving tokens, storage upgrades, skill resets, a merchant pass, and avatars. These are not cheap, and if you want to enjoy the game without a few hassles, you may feel obligated to buy them.
As noted above, selling wares is an arduous task when you have to compete with bots to grab the attention of players. Most people decide to ignore chat entirely, and the only way to catch their attention is to open up a private chat, but that's an unnecessary bother. But let's suppose you do buy the merchant pass. What makes your shop stick out from the rest? So many people have shops open, it's virtually impossible to genuinely grab someone's attention. This doesn't even take into account the difficulty of pricing your items correctly, which requires a bit of research. Some people find this fun, and if that's your bag, great. However, for the rest of us, you might just want to give away stuff to be nice, or sell the items to the NPC shops for a couple thousand gold pieces. Why should you sell your wares? It can offer you a lot of spending cash. Unfortunately, due to a failing in-game economy, equipment quickly goes up in price, and if you want to buy things from other players, you need more and more money everyday. What costs 200k today may cost 400k a week from now. Supply and demand - and no sinks. Selling equipment to the NPC shops becomes a huge waste because of this problem.
Avatar items are a nice perk, but the game lacks variety. Each body part offers two different avatar items with various colors. If you're into avatar items to make yourself stand out or look unique, this is a joke. If you want the small stat increases, then you have to decide if the high price is worth it. This has its pros and cons. Many experienced MMO players know how frustrating it is when a game is advertised as free, but absolutely falls apart once the competitive aspect of the game involves the person with the best for-cash-only equipment wins every battle due to ridiculous stat increases. If you don't want to crack open your wallet, fear not; the avatar items don't do that much for people - but they do help. Then again, why buy them if you'll look like everyone else and the stat increases are slim? Fortunately for Nexon, this isn't a problem. People constantly buy these items, which, I might add, are only won through a gumball machine type system. You only choose the body part you want the avatar item for. Everything else is random.
I am absolutely shocked that such a potentially award-winning game falls short in so many ways. The core is there. The gameplay is there. If Nexon cared a bit more about the quality of the experience, this game would have lasting power. All they need to do is make some innovative quests that flesh out the story, localize the game a bit better, and hire a few writers. With these things fixed, the game would be well on its way to stellar success. Unfortunately, Nexon seems to drag their feet with such things, so I do not recommend this game very highly unless you're willing to grind a bit, or only play it for a short time. So, if Nexon ever starts to care a bit more about their dedicated members instead of just leaving people with the initial setup, this is a game that any fan of multiplayer action RPGs should jump at. Otherwise, the game's fun for a while until that empty, purposeless feeling starts to set in.