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Review: Lost Ark

8 Feb 2022

In the current landscape of online RPGs, it often feels as though developers and publishers aren’t vying for your wallet so much as they’re vying for your time. As the years have passed and free-to-play has asserted itself as the de facto business model for any MMORPG attempting to break into the scene, it’s become increasingly difficult to determine which games are worth the precious free time you have to spend.

The MMOARPG Lost Ark is the latest free-to-play title proffering itself for prospective players to dive into. Developed and launched by Smilegate RPG in November of 2018 in its native Korea, the game is finally heading westward via Amazon Games on February 11th, 2022 for PC. It’s easy to see through trailers and screenshots that it looks solid enough, but discerning the quality of the game on the whole is something that requires a bit more combing through.

Raiders of the Lost MacGuffin

Each selectable class in Lost Ark offers a unique origin and background history, the introduction of which you can watch in full before deciding to commit to a single one. Regardless of your chosen class’s narrative backdrop, however, they find themselves thrown into a prologue in medias res as part of an exploratory island expedition commissioned by a church priest. This section serves as your typical introduction tutorial and ends in the discovery of an ancient scroll that tells of a prophecy, inexorably pulling your character to the town of Prideholme. From there, you become entangled in a sequence of events that sees you globetrotting in pursuit of the titular Lost Ark, an artifact of great power, in the hopes of reaching it before the main antagonist of the game gets to it first.

As you might have pieced together from that initial premise, the story in Lost Ark isn’t what one might call compelling. Regardless of which point in the narrative you’re at, it’s largely a power fantasy used to funnel you from one area to the next, and its featured players are reflective of this as well. It doesn’t exactly need to be more than that, but a few wrenches in the formula would have been welcome.

It’s important to note that Lost Ark does put its best foot forward with regard to the execution of its story, though. It’s very competently told despite the simplicity, and at no point do character motivations come out of nowhere or new information not line up with previously established lore. Although it falls short of the mark, there was an noticeable attempt to make the story an engaging one. I also greatly appreciated smaller dialogue touches such as NPCs referring to your class and weapon choices.

There are binary decisions to make in cutscenes, but they never amount to much more than a slightly different sequence of events following them. There were several instances of these decisions where I wished the game would just get on with it rather than forcing me to hit a button to save or ignore an NPC that I would never see again, more likely than not.

Set ‘Em Up and Knock ‘Em Back

At the outset, Lost Ark has five classes to select from. Each one offers a choice of advanced classes with a different playstyle and, potentially, a different weapon. Certain classes being locked to a specific gender choice is an unfortunate reality, and though there are both male and female options for the Martial Artist and Gunner classes, the advanced classes they have access to are unique to them, thus defeating the purpose a bit.

You immediately select your advanced class, unlike in other games where you switch to it at a certain level milestone. It’s a decision you can’t go back on once you make it, which the game facilitates by giving you as much time as you might want to experiment with each one. You can choose to spawn a pack of regular enemies as well as a boss mob to really get a feel for your initial set of skills and experiment with the control scheme. Skills are carried out through QWERTY/ASDFG while movement is done entirely with left- and right-click. This setup takes some getting used to—particularly when it comes to aiming your abilities—but it feels great once you get over that initial snag.

In true ARPG fashion, most of your time will be spent doling out an onslaught to piles of enemies that have no problem grouping up for you to smash them into oblivion. The most crucial aspect to the success of these games is combat feel, and Lost Ark nails this on most fronts. Everything feels forceful when you strike an enemy and see an explosion of particle effects erupt from their body, and even the simple act of moving to the next pack provides a meaty, satisfying crunch with each footfall.

As fun as it is to brainlessly mow everything down initially, Lost Ark knows that the more time you spend with it, the more you’ll want to be challenged by its gameplay loop. Larger enemies are tuned in such a way that keeps you on your toes with how much damage you’re taking, and many of them have telegraphed AOEs to move out of, similar to those found in Final Fantasy XIV. The progression of difficulty is a smooth one while you rise in levels, and that balance can be hard to come by in online ARPGs.

But successful combat is only at its best when coupled with a progression system that offers depth, and Lost Ark is a bit disappointing in this respect. As you level up, you’re given skill points that you can dump into each individual skill, and reaching certain thresholds gives you access to selectable passives that make it stronger or alter the way it functions. There are a lot of decisions to make, but when those decisions amount to little more than a small power increase or a slightly different hitbox, it sucks a bit of the wind out of the sails of leveling. Thankfully skill points aren’t the only benefit when leveling up (you get plenty of new attacks to play around with), and the options aren’t a huge drawback by any means—they’re just a bit too marginal, too straightforward. At the end of the day, it’s hard to bemoan the skill progression’s simplicity too much once you’re back to turning enemies into gore.

Even though most of the game is centered around combat, there are several other mechanics of substance in Lost Ark: vistas that detach the camera briefly to highlight the features of the area you’re in, an affection minigame revolving around giving gifts to certain NPCs, and even sailing. Fast travel is only available on the continent you’re currently on, so in order to reach other continents, you have physically sail a ship across the waters. This feels like an entire game in and of itself with unique currencies, crew management, diving for resources—the works. My personal favorite part of sailing were the islands you can lay anchor on to explore, gather treasure, and complete unique quests in. It’s very easy to get sidetracked on your way to the next main quest this way, and it makes for a great feeling of adventure.

Collectibles receive a large amount of emphasis in the game as well. They are everywhere, with Mokoko Seeds being a prime example. The game world has over 1,200 of them scattered throughout it to find, and collecting them progresses a reward track that grants the player everything from stat-increasing potions to character titles to skins for their ship. Many other reward tracks exist and eventually lead to tangible rewards like mounts, and the game’s Adventurer’s Tome informs you just how much or how little of the optional items you’ve found thus far. It isn’t a requirement to track down each and every item, but if you wanted to, it’s a completionist’s dream.

With regard to endgame and the business model, Amazon Games has made several blog posts that make it clear the goal is to make spending money feel as optional as possible, instead offering the ability to purchase convenience in avoiding otherwise lengthier grinds and cosmetic items. Time will tell if this holds for the entirety of the game’s life, but for now I can attest that it’s easy (and quite fun) to get to level cap without spending a red cent.

Clear As Crystal

The environments in Lost Ark are gorgeous and thoroughly detailed. Each of them is visually distinct, and no two zones overlap greatly in aesthetics or assets on display. The isometric perspective does have a tendency to force the areas to feel a bit flat, but you go through them at such a pace that it’s difficult to get sick of them. As mentioned before, the particle effects and sound design do the combat a great service, but they lend just as much help to the areas themselves.

Character customization offers a plethora of options, far more than would probably be expected when compared to other MMOARPGs. There are myriad hairstyle, face, and makeup options, including sliders that allow for the meticulous fine-tuning of various aspects of your character. This even extends to the point of deciding how long you want each of your hair colors to extend for, should you opt for multiple.

There are few things more vital to getting into an MMO than enjoying what your character looks like, but it’s still a level of customizability I was confused by given the isometric camera angle. At least, that is, until I realized just how often the camera would detach from that perspective. Cutscenes in Lost Ark rarely use the same top-down angle, fully zooming in and flying around to frame the events in an intentioned way. The presentation works to great effect, and makes it even easier to appreciate the amount of choices available in character creation.

The voiceover work isn’t astounding, but it’s also much better than one would expect from a release like this. The first line of main quest acceptance dialogue is typically voiced, while the rest is silent. Cutscenes themselves are fully voiced, and any dialogue that occurs when you have control of your character is fully voiced too, so you never have to worry about missing anything. NPCs scattered throughout towns also have a lot of dialogue to bring them more to life, although there are some specific areas where too many people talk at once if you’re speeding through on a mount and things get a little frightening.

It’s also worth calling attention to the game’s photosensitivity mode, which reduces the effects of flashing lights in combat and all cutscenes. Accessibility options like this are very much appreciated and should be a standard.

Lost Ark, Found Quality

Despite the lacking narrative and unexcitingly standard progression systems, it’s easy to see people getting completely lost—if you’ll pardon the pun—in Lost Ark. It’s a game packed to the brim with content, collectibles, and systems, but more importantly than that, it’s made certain those systems are fun to go through.

Visible effort went into nearly every avenue of the game, making it an easy recommendation even if it doesn’t bring much innovation to the space. The quality of the combat and the variety of content on offer elevates this ARPG experience to be a cut above the rest. The only thing you can stand to lose in trying out Lost Ark is time, and even in a gaming landscape defined by competition for said time, it’s absolutely worth giving a gander.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Amazon Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Amazon Games.