What is it? A huge fantasy MMO with spectacular combat
Expect to pay Free-to-play
Release date February 11
Developer Smilegate RPG
Publisher Amazon Studios
Reviewed on AMD Ryzen 5 3600, Nvidia GeForce 2080 Super, 32 GB RAM
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
Lost Ark is a game with zero chill. A Korean hybrid of ARPG and MMO, it embodies the best and the worst traits of both genres. Ambitious to a fault, it offers a vast and spectacular fantasy adventure elevated by a stunning combat system and an astonishing sense of scale, but its grand plans are hindered by hackneyed storytelling and a repetitive quest structure. It's a ridiculous, bombastic, often trite and occasionally inspired slab of game design, an especially tricky customer to condense into a review. But to briefly summarise: I kinda dig it.
The broad strokes plot sees your character on a globetrotting MacGuffin hunt searching for the eponymous Arks, seven artefacts of immense power that are crucial in turning the tide of the mortal realms' battle against invading demonic hordes. You create a character from one of five classes: Warrior, Gunner, Mage, Martial Artist and Assassin. Several of them are then divided into more refined sub-classes. Mages are split into musical Bards and elemental Sorceresses, for example, while Warriors get to pick from damage-dealing Berserkers, melee/ranged Gunlancers, and Paladins, who balance swordplay with holy magic.
I spent most of Lost Ark as a Paladin, although I dabbled with various classes in the game's in-built class-tester. Lost Ark's combat is superb, at least at a visual and tactile level. Right from the off, its mantra is "Why fight one enemy when you can fight twenty?" and it gives you the combat skills to facilitate this. You start the game at level 10, with five abilities already unlocked. For the Paladin, this includes powers like and Spin Slash, a powerful one-two punch of an attack that puts a massive dent in enemy health bars, and Light of Judgement, where your Paladin thrusts his hand forward, emitting a beam of searing light that sends enemies flying back in a way that never grows tiring.
Lost Ark is structured heavily around these meaty combat skills, to the point that you'll mostly use your standard attack for mopping up stragglers when the fight's already been won. Your powers only become more impressive as you level up, too. You unlock new combat skills every few levels up to around 40, while each level provides you with ability points used to refine your existing skills, making attacks faster, more powerful or with longer-lasting effects. With higher-level powers unlocked, I liked to open up combat with Wrath of God, a devastating AOE attack sent special delivery from the heavens. Then I'd mop up any remaining foes with the slightly awkwardly-named Flash Slash, where your Paladin moves slowly forward, cutting at the air rapidly like an armoured lawnmower.
The combat is a great foundation for Lost Ark's adventure, although those looking for a challenge may find the game's difficulty curve rather flat. You'll waltz through most fights along the main path, and outside of particularly challenging bosses or dungeons set on hard, you'll rarely have to think too much about things like positioning or how you deploy your powers.
Initially, Lost Ark is a very guided experience. The world is divided into various continents, themselves split into different zones. These zones are designed to be experienced in a specific order, leading you by the nose through a series of main and optional quests.
Lost Ark's approach to questing is like a parody of MMO design. You'll be sent off to kill monsters that respawn so rapidly that it's often quicker to wait for them to reappear rather than explore. The NPCs that populate zones are some of the laziest I've encountered, too, asking you to talk to people they're literally stood next to on their behalf, or move objects like crates or barrels all of 10 yards. The weirdest objectives are those that have you perform an emote to an NPC. I'm not sure how I'd stop an aspiring king from doubting his own legitimacy, but I'm not sure enthusiastically pumping my fist at him would cut it.
It's rudimentary to say the least. But Lost Ark gets away with this approach for two reasons. First, the quests push you through zones with remarkable efficiency. Not only are objectives clear and straightforward, you often complete them with a different NPC from the one who assigned the quest. This helps maintain momentum and minimise backtracking, while also providing a constant stream of rewards like coin and new weapons and armour.
Secondly, these quickfire quests gradually build toward larger story arcs and events. Most zones ultimately lead you to a dungeon—an instanced area that can be explored with up to three other players. These dungeons vary wildly, ranging from ancient ruins to pirate coves to crumbling catacombs filled with heretic priests. They're wonderful spaces to explore, and unlike the more general zones, aren't populated by constantly respawning enemies, which makes combat a bit more satisfying.
Lost Ark's highest highs, however, come with its major story events. The bulk of the early game takes place on the continent of West Luterra, where you attempt to help the errant King Thirain regain his throne from the usurper Lord Scherritt. The story sees you help Thirain gather his forces through multiple zones, culminating in a colossal castle siege that looks more like something out of Total War than an ARPG. Dashing along the castle's fortifications, slaughtering enemies by the dozen while siege engines pummelled the walls with rocks and chains, I was genuinely cackling with glee. Then in East Luterra, Lost Ark does this again, leading you to another battle that is not only bigger, but much, much weirder to boot.
When Lost Ark goes big, it's impossible not to get swept up by the momentous events playing out before you. And what I've mentioned here is only the start of what the game contains. Once you reach the end of East Luterra, the game gives you a ship, letting you set off to explore the rest of Lost Ark's massive world. There's a huge number of new places to explore, from quirky little islands filled with talking animals and other oddities, to whole new zones where you can continue your search for the remaining arks. Some of these places are truly strange. For example, your first port of call away from the mainland is an island populated by pixie-like creatures who tend ladybird farms in the undergrowth.
Lost Ark can be a captivating adventure, which makes it a shame that the main story is simply not that compelling. The central cast of characters are a largely one-dimensional carousel of exhaustingly noble heroes and villains who look like they stumbled through the local S&M club on the way to battle. The only character with any real nuance is the priest Armen, who is quite literally two-dimensional—half-human, half-demon. The way the game cherishes this idea of duality like a baby faun gives you some clue as to the level the story functions at.
I have one further gripe with Lost Ark, which is that the loot sucks. It's nearly all geared toward incremental stat-upgrades, with precious little that is unique or distinctive, at least along the main story path. This is partly because the game's upgrade systems go way beyond loot, with a whole suite of arcane mechanics dedicated toward activities like faceting gems and collecting cards, all contributing to your character stats. More MMO-oriented players may get a buzz out of crafting their own upgrades, but to me, none of Lost Ark's metagame scaffolding is as fun as finding a big ol' sword that shoots lightning, and it's a shame the game so dilutes the core pleasure of collecting cool gear vomited at high-velocity out of oversized treasure chests.
Yet every time I started to brush against Lost Ark's shallower edges, the game would throw some wild scenario at me to reel me back into its depths. It's hard to be mad at a game where one of the bosses is a pirate's parrot who you fight on a tabletop, after having shrunk yourself with a magic potion. The combat alone is reason enough to give Lost Ark a go, and its ridiculous scale and many weird tangents succeed in overcoming its flat storytelling and by-the-numbers quests. It's not quite a classic, but I've had a lot of fun watching it try to be one.