Posted by Steven Carter at 8:25 pm on 08.26.2012 (9 months ago)
Drakensang Online (DSO) is a free-to-play browser RPG that combines together action RPGs with MMOs. It runs surprisingly well on browsers -- with short loading times, no downloads, and minimal system requirements -- but it's also kind of generic (it didn't remind me anything of the Drakensang games I've played), and the "free-to-play" part should be followed by a great big asterisk, as just about everything in the game costs real money currency. DSO has been out for over a year now, but it only left beta in July, and that's when we decided to take a look.
In DSO you can play one of three character classes: a dragonknight (melee specialist), a ranger (ranged specialist), or a spellweaver (spellcaster). For each character you get to choose a name, a gender, and an appearance (out of a handful of options), and then as you gain levels, you also get to choose talents. Everything else for the character, including skills and attributes, is gained automatically.
The talent system is kind of interesting, although also minimal. Every five levels you get to choose between two different talents. I played a ranger in the game, and at level 15 I got to choose between "longbow veteran," which increases damage with longbows, and "shortbow veteran," which increases damage with shortbows. All of these "experience" talents give bonuses to combat. There aren't any diplomacy or rogue skills.
Along with the experience talents, you can also earn "knowledge" talents (by finding books of ancient wisdom) and "fame" talents (by participating in PvP). The knowledge talents unlock useful non-combat things like a skill you can use to teleport back to town, and a bank vault you can use to supplement your inventory. The fame talents give the same sort of bonuses as experience talents, but they only work against other players.
In total, the talent system means you get to make up to 16 decisions for each character. That's fairly minimal any way you look at it, but it was even worse for me. I only play online RPGs for the co-op aspect, so I didn't earn any fame talents, and for the experience talents, I didn't care which option I took most of the time. For example, as far as I could tell, longbows and shortbows are balanced to do the same amount of damage, so it doesn't really matter which one you specialize in.
Finally, when DSO was released, you were restricted to one character per account, which wasn't exactly convenient. But with the latest patch, you're now allowed to have up to four characters per account. This makes it easier to try out the different classes to see which one you like the best.
DSO, like most point-and-click action RPGs, uses a simple interface. You left click to move, you left click to attack (and holding down the left mouse button causes you to continue to attack), you right click to use a skill, and you press the shift button to attack without moving. The camera automatically follows your character, so you don't need to worry about that. If you've played an action RPG in the last ten years, then these controls should sound familiar, and so it's easy to jump into DSO and start playing.
The one major thing that DSO is missing is a matchmaking service. You can see a list of who is playing, and if they're grouped or not, but the only way to advertise that you're looking for a group, or to try and put a group together, is to spam the global chat channel or issue blind invites. That makes it more troublesome than it should be to find a group, especially since (so far as I could tell) about half the people playing the game are Spanish.
Questing and Grinding
The quests in DSO are of the simple MMO variety. Just about every one is of the form "go to map A and find B copies of item C" or "go to map X and kill Y instances of creature Z." After a while I stopped bothering to read the quest descriptions, since the designers put roughly the same amount of thought into them as they did the objectives. Some of the quests can be repeated as often as you like, while others are a part of a chain. All quests give money and experience as their reward.
In other words, DSO is based on grinding. That's frequently the case with action RPGs, but unfortunately DSO doesn't have enough variety and so the grinding feels like grinding. Whatever level your character is, there are always roughly two maps where you can find enemies of a reasonable difficulty, but the maps aren't very big, and you'll probably get tired of fighting the creatures in your map well before you can move on to the next.
There are about 40 maps in the DSO world, including the newish islands of Atlantis. Some of these maps are open connector zones, where you can run into other people, and others are dungeons, which are instanced to you and your party. If you reach the maximum level of 40, then you can also explore some "parallel worlds," which are more dangerous versions of the lower level maps. I didn't make it to level 40 (my interest waned early, and I only reached level 18), but it seems like sort of a cheap strategy to re-use maps rather than create new ones.
While you're grinding your way through the game, you'll of course find lots of equipment. Items come in a variety of tiers, from normal (white) to improved (green) to magic (blue) to extraordinary (purple) and finally to legendary (orange). I found some extraordinary items while I was playing, but no legendary items. Some items have slots in them that you can fill with gems, and there are also some set items. That is, DSO has all of the equipment bells and whistles that you'd expect from an action RPG.
Some of the more interesting items you can pick up are essences. Essences give nice bonuses to your damage (up to a 300% increase), but they're used up every time you attack, and so they're best saved for tough battles. There are also work benches you can use to create equipment. If you place four unidentified items of the same type on a work bench, then you'll get back an unidentified item from the next tier up, which is a nice way to reward people who are patient (and who have lots of storage space). Finally, you can also make small upgrades to your equipment by paying blacksmiths and armorers
While DSO is listed as free-to-play, that's a bit misleading. The standard currency in the game (gold, silver, bronze) buys you almost nothing. All of the good stuff costs "andermant," which you can purchase using real money. Quests typically reward you with andermant, and you can also find some when killing enemies, but these are minor sources. I only collected 1200 andermant by level 18 (and that was mostly due to starting out with 600). Meanwhile, increasing your inventory size from 21 slots (which is barely big enough for quest items and the things you have to carry) to 28 slots costs 1600 andermant, and identifying a single extraordinary item costs about 400 andermant.
Free-to-play games always have a difficult line to walk. They have to be fun enough to play for free, but better if you pay real money. In DSO, I always felt like I had to protect my wallet more than my character. I couldn't even afford to identify the equipment that I found, let alone buy anything interesting. I suspect that playing DSO to level 40 will cost you more than playing Torchlight II ($20) and perhaps more than even Diablo III ($60), all while offering inferior content. For me, a free-to-play game has to prove that it's worthwhile before I spend any money on it, and DSO didn't even come close to meeting that standard.
Overall, Drakensang Online (DSO) underwhelmed me. The action RPG elements are basic, the MMO elements are basic, and even combining them (which I hadn't seen before) wasn't enough to draw my interest. The game is certainly playable, but between the grinding combat and the nickel and diming costs, I just don't understand how people can spend a long time with it. Originally, I had planned to play DSO until at least level 20, but in the end I just couldn't force myself to do it, and I gave up at level 18.
All that being said, DSO is free-to-play (at least technically), it doesn't have any noticeable bugs or lag issues, and it works in 10-30 minute chunks, which is typically what I look for in a browser game. Plus, the game doesn't require any sort of download, and so you can try it out with the most minimal of investments. Just don't expect anything spectacular when you play.