MMOs are a risky and fickle beast. Plenty have come and gone in the past, disappearing into the ether as their player numbers dwindled, while others have only grown in popularity with each passing year and new expansion. Based on the early returns--at least for its arrival on Western shores--Lost Ark looks like it might settle into the latter category, as its servers are already filled to the brim with eager adventurers. The fact that it's free-to-play is an obvious advantage in this sense, but this stylish Korean hybrid of MMO and action RPG has a lot more going for it, with spectacularly punchy combat and heaps of content to sink your teeth into. It's not without its fair share of faults, both from a design and monetary perspective, but the early signs are certainly encouraging.
Lost Ark's overarching plot adopts a well-worn and stale structure, pitting the mortal world against an invading army of demons. The story primarily focuses on a continent-spanning hunt for the seven eponymous Arks, as possessing these powerful artifacts is essential to humanity's hopes of winning the war against this demonic horde. Further adding to Lost Ark's glaring narrative issue is its one-dimensional cast of characters that fail to wring anything compelling out of this familiar narrative. Hamfisted writing and mediocre voice acting also contribute to an entirely forgettable story where you're better off skipping past most of its dialogue altogether.
Fortunately, the narrative's shortcomings do little to undermine Lost Ark's tremendous sense of scale and penchant for exciting set pieces. Most of the major story beats conclude with large-scale battles that encompass hundreds of warring units at any one time. Much of the early game takes place in the region of West Luterra as you help an errant king regain his throne from a nefarious usurper. The culmination of this questline sees you recruit various factions from across the region until it all coalesces in an immense castle siege that more closely resembles The Lord of the Rings' Battle of Helm's Deep than anything you'd expect to find in an MMO or ARPG. From pounding on a war drum as your siege tower edges closer to the baying enemy swarm, to cleaving your way across the castle's fortifications while flaming rocks and hefty chains penetrate the walls and crash all around you, it's sheer spectacle and more than enough to get the heart pumping.
Part of the reason for this is because Lost Ark's combat provides an excellent foundation for these awe-inspiring moments. You can create a character from one of five distinct classes: Warrior, Gunner, Mage, Martial Artist, and Assassin. Each one is then divided into multiple sub-classes that focus on a specific playstyle and weapon type. A Martial Artist, for instance, can choose to play as a Soulfist, utilizing both melee and ranged attacks, or pick a sub-class like the Wardancer which lets you augment your fighting skills with powerful elemental attacks.
I played through the game as the Assassin's Deathblade, but Lost Ark's class-tester lets you try out as many of the game's classes as you need before finally settling on one. The only downside to character creation is the fact that the majority of classes are gender-locked. There's no valid reason why you can't play as a female Paladin or a male Shadowhunter, and this backwards thinking extends to Lost Ark's portrayal of female characters in general. There's nothing wrong with wearing high heels and revealing clothing, but when these are your only options, it feels like the game is appealing to little more than the male gaze. There are a ton of customization options when it comes to creating a character build, but this level of personalization is severely lacking from a visual standpoint. As a result, Lost Ark feels like a relic from a time when the representation of women in video games was an afterthought.
If you've ever played Diablo 2 or 3, Lost Ark's combat shares more in common with the latter. There's a fast-paced fluidity to its action that's both visually pleasing and satisfyingly tactile. Enemies will swarm towards you in large numbers, and most of your abilities are geared towards scything your way through these bloodthirsty hordes with relative ease. There's such a strong emphasis on these spectacular abilities, in fact, that your standard attack is used for little more than finishing off the leftover stragglers. The hotbar has a set number of skills, all with their own cooldowns, but you're not locked into choosing a particular skill type for a designated slot in your arsenal. You can mix and match with whatever you've unlocked, allowing you to get creative with your character builds.
As a Deathblade, I would often use an ability called Spincutter to cut through a group of enemies and gather them all in one place before using Moonlight Sonic to deal a boatload of damage with its devastating AOE spread. As you level up, you can spend ability points to increase each attack's damage output, too, and once you reach particular thresholds you can also refine these skills with various upgrades. This includes extending the length of an attack, making it faster, or even adding an elemental effect like fire. Some of these skills require you to tap their respective key multiple times to extend a combo or hold it down to power them up before unleashing a powerful strike. These moves tend to be the most explosive, so adding an extra layer of interaction contributes to the gratification of Lost Ark's combat.
[Lost Ark] s not without its fair share of faults, both from a design and monetary perspective, but the early signs are certainly encouraging
Despite this, battles do begin to stagnate after a few hours as the game's difficulty curve flattens. Aside from a few challenging boss fights, you rarely have to think about what you're doing. You have a dash for evading danger, and bosses will telegraph their moves, but most enemies can be dispatched by hitting the same string of abilities over and over again. It starts to feel like you're simply going through the motions, and the only time this changes is when playing through one of the aforementioned large-scale story missions, or when fighting through a dungeon with other players on the hardest difficulty setting.
In between these moments you'll discover Lost Ark's cookie-cutter MMO template for quest design. There's the usual slew of quests to "kill x number of y" or collect a specific item found in a specific area. Other quests revolve around carrying something like a barrel or crate a couple of yards, or relaying conversations between two NPCs that are standing within eyesight of each other. Sometimes you have to wear a disguise to waltz past enemies unnoticed, but this is about as interesting as the quest design gets. Normally, this would come close to being a dealbreaker, but Lost Ark gets away with it due to the efficiency with which you breeze through its zones. The first half of the story campaign is exceedingly linear as you're guided by the hand through multiple zones in a set order. Objectives are snappy and clearly signposted, and you'll regularly complete quests with a different NPC than the one who assigned it, helping to maintain momentum by essentially eliminating the need to backtrack. You're constantly pushing forward, picking up new rewards, and discovering new locations.
Those early hours see you traipsing through your typical high fantasy settings, whether it's a verdant forest, murky swampland, or snow-capped mountain pass. These locales might feel familiar, but there's a surprising amount of detail etched within each one, and this only improves once you set sail on the open sea to visit faraway lands. It's here where Lost Ark finds its creative footing, shrinking you down to the size of Tortoyk's tiny fairies for a particularly memorable questline, where you ride on the backs of ladybugs and fight what are now giant birds. Meanwhile, a visit to Arthetine sees you venture even further from the game's initial medieval setting, as you find yourself in a steampunk-inspired society with running trains and pilotable mechs. Or there's the port city of Changhun, where pagodas and the vibrant pink leaves of king cherry trees provide the backdrop for a martial arts tournament. Including so many vastly different themes and environments isn't the most cohesive world-building, but this impressive variety is one of Lost Ark's strongest aspects, keeping the latter half of the story fresh even when the quests themselves offer more of the same. It does have an adverse effect, however, since it begs the question of why the first half of the game didn't embrace the same kind of creativity?
After all of this--and once you've reached the soft cap of level 50--you can delve into Lost Ark's substantial endgame activities. There are myriad ways to engage with this, whether you just want to sail around the world and explore islands or partake in numerous daily and weekly activities. Chaos Dungeons, for instance, task you with defeating waves of enemies within a set amount of time. These are relatively simple, but the number of enemies on-screen at any one time is significantly increased, so there's an inherent satisfaction that comes from cleaving your way through them, particularly when you earn endgame rewards at the end of it. Guardian Raids, on the other hand, are Monster Hunter-esque battles where you have to find and then defeat a giant magical beast. These fights will test your combat prowess by forcing you to consider your positioning and ability deployment. There are also Abyssal Dungeons, which are more difficult versions of the Dungeons you would've completed during the main story.
All of these endgame activities feed into a loop by rewarding you with loot and upgrade materials that you can then use to improve your gear and unlock harder and more interesting tiers of each activity. This is all fairly standard, but the way Lost Ark has designed the upgrade process will be offputting for many. Each time you upgrade your gear, the next level of upgrades has a progressively higher chance of failing, destroying all of your upgrade materials in the process. This forces you to go back and farm all of these materials again, in the hope that the process won't fail a second time. Since you can only play the main endgame activities twice a day--or weekly in the case of Abyssal Dungeons--this can be especially time-consuming. The reason it's designed like this is presumably because Lost Ark wants to nudge you in the direction of its microtransactions, where you can simply purchase the upgrade materials you need with real money. The whole upgrade loop feels like an intentional timesink geared towards incentivizing you to spend cash and skip the laborious farming process altogether.
It also doesn't help that all of the loot is rather dull. Incremental stat boosts are all you have to look forward to when finding a shiny new weapon. You won't find a gun imbued with elemental power or a sword that changes your regular attack animation, so nothing you find feels distinctive--it just deals slightly more damage. Armor also seems to pull a few variations from the same basic design so there's nothing to get excited about here either.
One of Lost Ark's other issues boils down to its immense popularity. Server queues are a daily occurrence, at least in my experience playing on one of the Central Europe servers. If you're even able to join a queue, it can take a couple of hours before you finally get in, and the situation won't improve until huge swaths of people stop playing the game. Amazon has added more servers, but with no way to transfer characters between them, those that are ram-packed will remain that way.
Its popularity does, however, speak to its quality as a new MMO. There's a sense of scale and spectacle that isn't often seen in the genre, and its fantastic combat is only dampened by some archaic and rudimentary quest design during the main story. Once you reach the endgame, it really comes into its own with some thrilling and challenging encounters, so it's a shame this also devolves into a tedious grind due to an unpleasant emphasis on microtransactions. The excellence of Lost Ark's combat is reason enough to give it a try. It might not match up to the titans of the genre just yet, but it's a solid start, and I'm eager to see how it evolves over time.