[This article contains spoilers for Lost Ark's main story.]
For its first ten-to-fifteen hours, Lost Ark (opens in new tab)is a typical fantasy ARPG. It spins a classic tale of good versus evil featuring errant kings, undead scourges, and Helm's Deep-style castle sieges. All of this is presented in the game's enjoyably spectacular, over-the-top fashion. But while visually impressive, it's not especially original, with little to separate it from your Diablos and Path of Exiles.
Once you've completed the continent of West Luterra, however, Lost Ark begins to reveal the weirder sides of its personality. After West Luterra's traditional fantasy vibes, East Luterra pitches you against an altogether stranger foe, culminating in what can only be described as a massive clown battle.
The antagonist in question is Kakul Saydon, a ludicrous trickster demon who makes the Joker look about as eccentric as a middle-manager in an IT firm. Kakul Saydon is one of a conclave of demons who you'll sporadically encounter during the remainder of your adventures across Lost Ark's vast world, and the first among his brood to take the fight directly to you.
Kakul Saydon begins his crusade against humanity in traditional clown-demon fashion, namely by driving the inhabitants of East Luterra insane. After the first couple of zones, where you help reconcile two estranged brothers and, er, ruthlessly put down a pumpkin-themed peasant's revolt (Lost Ark's binary view of good and evil sometimes leads it into ethically questionable waters), you enter a zone where many NPCs have descended into violent frenzy due to strange, ambient music playing through the area.
This zone sees your first proper encounter with the motley minions of Kakul-Saydon, known in-game as 'Mayhem Demons'. These nasty critters have set-up an evil circus across the river from the main settlements in the zone. This quickly leads to one of my favourite side-quests in Lost Ark, where a researcher named Cyrun asks you to 'infiltrate' Kakul Saydon's dark carnival. You do this by stealing a 'clown trumpet' from one of the clown mobs waddling around, and then blowing it, after which Cyrun utters what is probably the best single line in the entire game:
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The quest is mechanically simplistic, like nearly all quests in Lost Ark. But it's a well-established fact that pretending to be an evil clown will immediately improve anything, be it Hallowe'en, Stephen King novels, or children's birthday parties. MMO questing is no different. While skulking around the circus, you talk to other evil clowns, check the evil clown noticeboard (they're very organised, these evil clowns), and perform a couple of other clown-adjacent activities.
It's a delightfully silly taste of what's to come. Following this, Lost Ark goes back to being a mostly normal fantasy RPG for a couple of zones, with heretical cults and riffs on Robin Hood dominating the next hour or two. Then you reach a zone called Borea's Domain, and it's here, among the zone's cracked plains and lava-strewn chasms, where shit goes down to clown town.
The focal point in this zone is a tumbledown fortress in the bottom-right corner, the garrison of which is led by a man named Harlock. Initially, Harlock is incredulous to learn that his fortress is about to be assaulted by a huge army of clowns – the sensible and appropriate response to receiving that news. But your raw charisma overwhelms the rational part of his brain, and you spend the rest of the zone preparing for human-on-clown warfare.
Once you've gathered your forces and followed all the obligatory breadcrumbs Lost Ark lays out, you return to the fortress and a cutscene plays. As a lone watchman overlooks the Rift of Mayhem from the fortress' battlements, purple portals begins to appear in the sky, and the heavens start raining clowns. I'm not talking about a drizzle or a summer shower here, either. I'm talking a full-on, category-five clown typhoon.
Soon, the fortress walls are overrun with Kakul Saydon's minions, from the scuttling, trumpet-wielding dudes you masqueraded as, to fat mace-wielding jesters, to spiderlike harlequins with spikes for legs, all swarming around several massive demons that could almost stride over the walls if the mood took them. You desperately carve your way through these carnivalesque hordes, manning giant cannons that can take out dozens of clowns in a single shot as you try in vain to hold back the tide.
The whole sequence encapsulates Lost Ark at its best, that combination of massive scale, ridiculous spectacle and just throwing bizarre scenarios out there and seeing what sticks. It's reminiscent of the Yakuza series in some ways. Mechanically the game is fairly simple, and on the face of it takes itself quite seriously. At the same time, however, it's constantly throwing tongue-in-cheek curveballs at you that build up to these utterly wild moments, and you can't help but smile as the game endlessly seeks to one-up its own silliness.
This isn't to say the game is as good at this as Yakuza, at least not when it comes to storytelling. For one, Lost Ark's character work is nowhere near as strong, and that lack of a core cast of likeable or dislikeable individuals undermines many of its bigger moments. Kakul-Saydon is a fun enough foe, but he's also a one-dimensional archetype, an unsubtle Joker rip-off without the years of backstory which make that character interesting. And while the clown battle will grip through its sheer absurdity, it's hard not to wonder how many of Lost Ark's other major set-pieces would be more impactful had Smilegate not cut down the main game's story and questing (opens in new tab) to accelerate players' journey toward level 50.
Nonetheless, Lost Ark's massive clown battle is a significant moment in the game (as a massive clown battle would be in any game). It's the point at which Lost Ark shows how it isn't just Diablo on an MMO scale, that it has the capacity to surprise you in seriously big ways. It's also far from the last moment like this. Going forward, every new continent has its own theme and structure and unique events, many pushing far beyond the western fantasy tropes the game starts out aping. It's a hard game to pin down in terms of personality, and often feels like it's outright making stuff up as it goes. But that's also what makes it fascinating and, above all, fun.