Seven years ago I sat through an eight-minute trailer for a Korean game I wasn't sure I'd ever get to play. Its centrepiece was a wildly escalating demonstration of each class's attacks. An oversized sword exploded into burning chains, then the burning chains themselves exploded. Monsters were frozen, then shattered by a giant magic foot. There was gun-fu flipping, dragon-riding, and then the damn mech showed up with machineguns for arms. The first time I saw a monk in Diablo 3 materialize a church bell out of the sky then drop it on someone I laughed with glee. Lost Ark promised something like that would be happening once a minute.
Now it's finally coming out in English, and I'm playing a gunslinger in the closed beta. I can throw a spare pistol onto the ground where it flips around in a circle shooting everyone's feet like this is a saloon and I'm hollering at them to dance. Then I pull out a rifle, an anachronistic red-dot sight appearing before it obliterates everything in a straight line from here to the edge of the screen, leaving behind a strip of molten ground like a bowling lane from Hell.
This is why I'm playing Lost Ark, an action-RPG that redefines over-the-top. Every time I fast-travel I pull out an electric guitar and play a sweet lick and I still don't know why. When I hop on my mount I have a choice between a horse and a cloud that can put on a fireworks display. Where Path of Exile looks like it's been cursed by a witch to look drab so a prince won't fall in love with it, everything about Lost Ark is garish, cartoonish, and glorious.
It begins in character creation, where I design a face with sliders for everything from eyebrow opacity to cheekbone protrusion, even though I'll be seeing this character from far above most of the time and every hat I equip completely changes my hair. Still, later on I find myself tempted to use some of the beta's free currency to buy a redesign because I made my blush too intense. And I did actually buy a skin called Mysterious Noble Garb so I wasn't stuck wearing hotpants, which seem to be the main leg armor available to gunslingers.
When Lost Ark launched its classes were gender-locked, in that old school Diablo way. Developers Smilegate started adding "advanced classes" for men and women, so rather than all gunners being dudes and all martial artists being ladies, a gunner in the current version can choose from three male subclasses (artillerist, deadeye, sharpshooter), and one female (gunslinger), while martial artists come in three female varieties (scrapper, soulfist, wardancer), and one male (striker). All warriors are men while assassins and mages are women, though that'll change as more advanced classes are added. It's taken a while to get to this point, presumably because of how long it takes to animate every woman to swing her hips like a GTA streetwalker.
What attracted me to Lost Ark was the promise of a ludicrous action-RPG throwing huge blobs of enemies around to be pulped with your cool powers. That's absolutely here, though to get to it I have to play an MMO as well. That means enemies stand around rather than attacking on sight, the menus are ugly, and most of the XP and loot comes from quests. It's all the wrapping of a traditional fantasy MMO.
Since bashing rando monsters on the world map gives single-digit rewards, I diligently clear every quest I'm given. The plot is generic—demons are returning, there's an ark that can stop them, first we have to find a bunch of seals—and so is the quest design. Fortunately it's streamlined, a rock that's been smoothed flat by seven years of Korean players flowing over it. (And Japanese players, Russian players, and players with VPNs.)
For starters, you begin at level 10. Back in the day there were separate prologues for every class covering the early levels, but they've been scrapped in favor of a whirlwind slideshow that summarizes their events, and then off you go with a hotbar already jam-packed with abilities. It's disorienting.
Though there's a bit much "go talk to this NPC, who will tell you to go somewhere else and talk to another NPC", the quests fly by. I get told to move some objects or put out fires or search containers and expect an activity I'll have to repeat, then after doing it once I'm suddenly finished. Sidequests are conveniently placed so I can complete them on the way to mainline quests, then turn them in nearby. It's painless. This may be faint praise, but when it comes to MMOs it could be worse.
While the quests are quick, leveling is slow. I don't mind since it gives me time to get used to each ability, but it does take a while to unlock all the features. Right now I've got access to a rapport system for building relationships with certain NPCs by playing songs, giving gifts, performing emotes, and doing quests for them, and I've got my first pet, a white rabbit who picks up loot, has separate storage, and provides access to mail and repairs when I'm away from town. At level 23 I've only just learned trade skills like mining and fishing. Further features include a sailing ship, a stronghold, island ownership, and PvP. It's a lot.
Another feature I've unlocked are collectible cards representing various NPCs, some of which can be equipped. The two I've slotted in give me an "8% bonus" according to the menu, though it doesn't explain what that's a bonus to and when I click on "guide" it brings up a video in Korean.
So yeah, there's still some work to do before Lost Ark's release next year, though not as much as I expected. I've hit few bugs, and after a patch for an issue that made CPUs run hot, performance has been solid even with heaps of enemies on-screen. It's a game that's been around for years of course, but one that's regularly updated and has been retooled in various ways for its English-language release.
Lost Ark is free-to-play, and a lot of what's currently in the store seems cosmetic. Smilegate has said it's working with publisher Amazon Games to adapt the business model to suit western players, and, for instance, pet upgrades will be permanent rather than rented as they are in the Korean version. It's already balanced so that spending money won't make you better at PvP, but that won't stop Reddit from accusing it of being "pay to win" because nothing can stop that.
Compared to other free-to-play MMOs I've tried, Lost Ark seems generous. I've got enough space in my inventory without needing to buy extra tabs, and the quest that unlocks mounts gave me a free horse. I can respec skills for free at any time, and have a second preset slot without having to pay for it. It's not the kind of game that won't let you run at the same speed as everyone else unless you spend money. Again, when it comes to MMOs, standards are low.
For the most part, the MMO gets out of the way and lets me enjoy the combat. Lost Ark throws masses of simple enemies at you from early on, and then it's about rounding them up for an area-of-effect attack—swirling trolls and bandits into tightly packed masses like cake batter in a bowl then hitting them with the electric mixer, by which I mean a shotgun blast that turns them into gibs. It's not designed to be super challenging until you're high level and can take part in PvP, the tougher dungeons and wild multi-phase raids, until then it's more about letting you show off your rad abilities.
While fighting alongside other players I see them hurling flocks of birds at ghosts and freezing demons before setting them on fire. Then I shoot my pistols into the air a bunch of times, and the bullets politely gather so I can hurl them to the ground in a single blast. In those moments it's exactly what I want it to be. I've missed the flashy attacks of Marvel Heroes—this is exactly the kind of bonkers cartoon action-RPG I've been waiting for.
Lost Ark is scheduled for release in early 2022.