If you asked somebody to look at five minutes of Lost Ark footage and then pigeonhole it into a genre, the one they’d probably pick is the ARPG. This would be an entirely reasonable choice, as Lost Ark certainly heavily resembles an ARPG, with a fixed isometric camera and punchy hotkeyed combat abilities that tear apart vast swarms of dozens of monsters all in one go. I don’t think it’s the correct one, though, since the core loop of kill monsters -> get loot -> kill bigger monsters that underpins the entire ARPG genre just isn’t here.
If you asked somebody to look at five hours of Lost Ark footage and then pigeonhole it into genre, the one they’d probably pick the MMORPG. This, again, would be an entirely reasonable choice. Once you’re out of the tutorial zone, no matter where you go in Lost Ark, you’ll be constantly surrounded by other players. A lot of them will be bots. Even more of them will be morons. But there’s very little overlap between you and them; pretty much the entire game can be played solo if you want, with interactions with other players mostly being entirely optional. And the group content that Lost Ark does have hasn’t exactly impressed me. No, I don’t think Lost Ark is a particularly good MMORPG either.
It’s only now, fifty hours in, that I’m realising that what Lost Ark actually is, the thing it has most in common with, is a clicker game. A massive, sprawling, incredibly good-looking and incredibly complicated clicker game. I know that’s hardly an original observation and that people have been comparing both ARPGs and MMORPGs to clicker games for years. All three genres are focused around a certain amount of grinding to increase the size of certain numbers representing the player’s power level. However, where a true ARPG or MMORPG would offer the player some other gameplay elements to flesh things out and prevent the game from becoming entirely about the grind — a good ARPG has some wonderfully kinetic combat that’s largely driven by the player’s equipment and itemisation, while the better MMORPGs present a whole host of social distractions that aren’t necessarily related to the player’s gearscore — Lost Ark’s single-minded obsession with the continual dopamine hit of Number Go Up is tied into literally everything that it does, to a frankly unsettling degree.
Lost Ark has a story. It puts a significant amount of time and effort into telling this story. The story may even make a modicum of sense in the original Korean. Unfortunately I cannot understand the original Korean, and so I have been forced to experience the story via its brand-new English localisation. I have some sympathy for the localisation team, as the Korean version of Lost Ark has been around for two and a half years and there’s a truly ridiculous amount of text that has to be translated — dialogue, tooltips, quest descriptions, area descriptions, help boxes, the list goes on and on because, as we shall shortly discover, Lost Ark is an incredibly systems-heavy game and all of those systems need to be explained to the player. The part of me that has spent a bit of time in game development, and which is still involved in software development, is somewhat impressed that they managed to produce a working localisation at all.
However, that part of me is almost entirely drowned out by the objections from the rest of me, which had to sit through line after line of shoddy, transliterated dialogue read by voice actors who are not only utterly disinterested in what they are saying but also might actually be aliens who are only encountering the human concept of language for the first time in their Lost Ark line readings. Lost Ark’s story is absolutely terrible both in terms of content and the delivery, and this is a huge problem for the game both because there’s just so much of it — mashing the G key to skip through dialogue as quickly as possible has become a meme in the Lost Ark community because you’ll find yourself doing it so much that you get RSI on your left index finger — and because every single interesting feature Lost Ark has is gated behind hours and hours of story progress.
This gating is one of the primary reasons that Lost Ark is not an ARPG, even if it controls and plays in a largely identical fashion. If it were a real ARPG I would be able to ignore the story, or at least skip every cutscene in favour of punching the bosses, and that’s because modern ARPGs have recognised that a fast levelling curve that enables iterative experimentation with character builds and equipment itemisation is much more interesting as a long-term prospect. At this point a story would just get in the way of that, which is why games like Diablo 3 eventually jettisoned the story entirely and focused entirely on the hitting-monsters part of the game. By contrast the first 15-20 hours of Lost Ark are nothing but story. You can’t even grind monsters for XP in this game! You have to get it all from story quests instead, and even if you hit the soft level cap of 50 early via sidequests you still can’t start doing things like Chaos Dungeons and Guardian Raids until you’ve hit a certain point in the story. For me, this point didn’t come until around 25 hours in. All there is to do in Lost Ark before then is progress through the entirely linear (and let us not forget, utterly awful) story, which features the occasional dungeon that you can matchmake into but which offer no good item drops or XP rewards, meaning there’s no reason to do them more than once.
That’s a long time to wait to get to the good stuff. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a game do this since Final Fantasy 14 also pulled the same stunt with A Realm Reborn — which also proves it’s not necessarily the end of the world if the payoff is worth it, as FF14 is now one of my favourite games thanks to its expansions. However, there’s two key differences. First is that FF14 locks a lot of stuff to players who are level 50 plus, but not everything. A level 20 player can do dungeon roulettes (for meaningful rewards), participate in PvP, go to the Gold Saucer, do the Deep Dungeon… in terms of systems there’s a lot for an early player to do, even if it’s not the main hook for the game. By contrast there is nothing a Lost Ark player who hasn’t finished the Vern part of the storyline can do aside from picking up collectibles, and this is particularly baffling when the game is so system-heavy; it just decides to put them all at the “end” of the story, making those first 25 hours feel even more one-dimensional than the game already is. And the second key difference is that while I spent quite a bit of time in my Realm Reborn review slagging off the story (and all of that criticism is still very justified), Lost Ark’s story is so much worse, in so many ways. It’s actually made me reevaluate my opinion of Realm Reborn a little, as playing through Lost Ark has made me very aware that I didn’t know how good I had it at the time.
So, if Lost Ark requires me to bulldoze my way through 25 hours of some of the worst writing and voice acting I’ve ever experienced, why stick around even for that long? Well, part of the reason is that Lost Ark does do something Realm Reborn didn’t, which is actually invest resources in some story set-pieces worth a damn. The dungeons are all fairly elaborate and well-themed — much more so than most examples of the genre I’ve seen, anyway, which makes it even more of a shame that most players will only ever see them once — some of the areas of the world you visit have more interesting ideas behind them than “the desert zone” or “the jungle zone”, and while Lost Ark is massively overfond of instanced solo encounters where you fight a boss it occasionally leverages them for something far more ambitious, like riding a siege tower to a castle where you then proceed to smash your way through waves of hundreds of troops. Lost Ark’s story missions certainly have a decent eye for spectacle, if nothing else.
The main reason I kept playing Lost Ark, though, is because the basic gameplay is fun. Really fun. This is possibly not unexpected given how ARPG it all is, but while Lost Ark itself may not be an ARPG it certainly does understand how the basic combat mechanics are supposed to work. It’s not shy about throwing dozens of monsters at you, and then having you effortlessly body them with a variety of suitably cataclysmic abilities. I picked a Striker as my character class (the martial arts archetype) and nearly every attack combo feels like it hits with the force of a small nuclear weapon. Elemental effects like fire and lightning crackle around my character’s fists and feet, and when he lands a crescent kick there’s a sonic boom accompanied by enemies flying backwards. And that’s just a basic attack skill; he also has a special meter he can charge up to fire off attacks that will obliterate twenty or thirty enemies in one go. There’s a pseudo-rune system in place that lets you change the characteristics of each ability according to your liking, perhaps adding additional explosions or a charge-up time in exchange for even more damage, and the skill system is one of the very few areas where Lost Ark is unexpectedly generous since it lets you reallocate your skill points at any time for free, allowing you to try out all of these abilities and settle on a build that suits you. I hope that the developers of Diablo 4 and Path of Exile 2 are looking at Lost Ark’s combat and taking notes, because it really is excellent and if the supposed genre leaders can’t at least match this free-to-play not-MMO then what are they even doing here?
While the basics of the combat are great, though, the metagame structure in which it is framed is most decidedly not. Lost Ark has a standard MMO structure where you’re running around an overworld punching mobs while doing tedious fedex quests or killing X of a particular monster type, and unlike most modern MMOs the monsters populating this overworld have quite ridiculous aggro ranges and absurdly short respawn times. This is great if you’re looking for the last one you need to finish a quest, but considerably less so when you’re just trying to get back on your damn horse but you can’t because enemies keep spawning in and attacking you. They don’t drop anything good and yield insultingly low XP rewards — 2XP per kill, in a game where you need tens or hundreds of thousands of XP to level — and they don’t even pose any threat since a single enemy strike will deduct less than 1% of your total health bar. Even the Elite-type enemies get melted in seconds without putting up any kind of fight at all.
This is where the clicker part of the game starts to emerge, as ultimately the overworld combat is even more mindless than your typical ARPG or MMO; you could kill a million enemies and it wouldn’t help you at all in terms of character progression. All the enemies are is a speedbump that slows you down as you move to your next quest objective, things that you simply click on and watch explode with no long-term payoff — and while Lost Ark executes on this well enough to sustain the early part of the game, sooner or later satisfaction will give way to ennui and you’ll become sufficiently tired of it all that you sigh resignedly as yet another horde of thirty enemies charges you only to be mulched into a fine paste.
Still, let’s say that this moment doesn’t arrive until after, or at least close to, the point where those “endgame” activities unlock, and that you make it far enough to actually start engaging with them. “Endgame” is in quotes there because Lost Ark is designed around the obsolete idea that the real game doesn’t start until you hit level cap; the twenty-five hours it takes to get there might sound like a lot of content, but it is nothing compared to what’s waiting for you after you hit level 50. As expected, this is the point where the traditional RPG levels fall off and are replaced by Item Level. Well, that’s not quite true, Item Level is present from the very start and is the sole factor governing what you’ll have equipped at any one time; the skill system allows for a moderate amount of build-crafting but the equipment system allows for none. There is no scenario in which you’ll ever want to equip a piece of armour with a lower Item Level but better attributes because all weapons and armour for your class will have the same stats attached to them, and those stats will scale with your Item Level, so your equipment progression through the story is a simple matter of scanning your inventory for any new pieces of armour with the helpful “this has a bigger number” arrow attached to it and right-clicking to swap them with your equipped stuff.
Even this one-dimensional equipment progression is too much for Lost Ark’s endgame, though. First, as if to underline that what you’ve been doing in the story so far is baby mode, it immediately hands you a complete set of endgame equipment that’s a full 50 points better than the stuff you’ve scraped together through all of those story quests. Then it sets you a new goal: to progress further with the game and unlock new content, you need to upgrade this equipment from item level 302 all the way to 460. You do this via a process called Honing, where you first invest one type of currency into a piece of equipment to get it ready for upgrading, and then you spend two more types of currency to do the actual upgrade. Each upgrade boosts the Item Level of the equipment by 20 points, so you need to do this 8 times per piece of equipment to get to 460 — or 40 times for the full equipment set. And I should stress that you will never pick up another piece of equipment once the Honing interface has been introduced to you; after this point your progression consists solely of upgrading what you’ve already got via Honing.
Lost Ark is sensible enough (or predatory enough, if you’re feeling cynical) to hook the player into this system by making it very quick and easy to start with. It hands you a fair amount of the required upgrade currencies and materials, makes the initial upgrades very cheap, and gives the upgrade process a 100% chance of success. You’ll progress through the first three or four upgrade steps very quickly, and since each upgrade represents a meaty power boost the difference in your ability to kill things pre- and post-upgrade is very visible. However, as you progress through successive levels of upgrades you’ll begin to notice a few rather unsettling things:
- Upgrade costs spiral with each successive upgrade. Upgrading your armour from +1 to +2 takes a few dozen shards and fragments out of the hundreds the game gives you. Upgrading from +14 to +15 takes thousands.
- The stat increases attached to each upgrade diminish with each successive level purchased, so you’re paying more resources for smaller increases in power.
- At some point (I think it’s around the +4 or +5 step) your odds of success on an upgrade attempt will drop from 100% to 90%. Then it goes to 80%, and then to 70%. If your upgrade attempt fails, then you lose all of the materials you spent on it for no return. And since at this point you’re talking about hundreds or thousands of shards rather than a few dozen, having those resources simply vanish in a puff of smoke hurts.
So the further you get into this progression system the more time you’ll have to spend acquiring the resources required to upgrade, both because of the spiralling upgrade costs themselves and because any given upgrade attempt has a sizable chance of failing and flushing those resources straight down the toilet for no return. You acquire upgrade resources by running the endgame content that has now become available to you; there’s a thing called a Chaos Dungeon which is essentially a clunkier version of Diablo 3’s Rifts, Guardian Raids, which are Monster Hunter-esque bossfights, and Abyss Dungeons, which are your classic MMO raids.
The Chaos Dungeons are the friendliest example of Lost Ark endgame content so let’s deal with those first. You spawn into a dungeon, and after about two seconds a hundred enemies will suddenly appear around you. You kill them. A hundred more enemies appear. You kill them. Occasionally a boss enemy will appear. You kill that too. As you carve your way through these huge crowds of enemies you’ll see upgrade materials fountaining out of their corpses — finally, finally, Lost Ark is doing something that I recognise as being ARPG-like, as I’m killing monsters to get items that will increase my power. Unfortunately you’re on a time limit, both literally (there’s a big timer at the top of the screen that will presumably kick you out if it runs down to zero) and figuratively, since each monster you kill increments a completion counter and once you get to 100% the Chaos Dungeon ends. You come out of it with a fair number of upgrade materials, and there are different levels of Chaos Dungeon with the higher-level ones providing more upgrade shards. This is a game mode that focuses on the thing that Lost Ark does best — killing monsters — and which gives you meaningful rewards for doing so. What’s not to like?
Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. The catch here is that Lost Ark is a free-to-play game, and since this is where the real grind starts it’s also where it starts putting arbitrary barriers in the way of your progress. In the case of Chaos Dungeons you can only get the full set of rewards from two runs per day. You can run more if you want, but after you’ve done your two dailies you’ll get yet another form of currency in lieu of getting upgrade materials directly; this then has to be exchanged for the upgrade materials at a shop, but the exchange rate is 1) utterly miserly and 2) also limited so that you can only buy a certain number of materials per week. And while the rewards from your “proper” runs might scale with the difficulty you pick, they don’t scale at the same pace as your upgrade costs, so you end up in a place where both runs don’t even give you enough materials to upgrade a single piece of equipment.
Then there’s Guardian Raids, which I am incredibly unimpressed by. Instead of fighting hordes of monsters, a Guardian Raid has you fighting a single superboss monster so that you can extract its soul and render it down for those juicy upgrade materials. There is a twenty minute time limit on a Guardian Raid, and these fights go on for so long that you’ll likely need the entire thing; this is why Guardian Raids are the first part of Lost Ark where I felt compelled to group up with other people otherwise there’d be no chance of killing the boss before the timer expires. The boss fights themselves range from “inoffensive” to “buggy and massively overtuned”, and it’s this latter category that I take exception with. Guardian Raids lock out your standard selection of healing items, you see; you can only take five of a specific type of healing potion in with you, and the boss fights are tuned so that you have to use them. (This is because there are game systems that are almost entirely focused around producing these special healing potions as another time/money sink, as I’ll explain in a moment.) Except because Lost Ark has only just released, and because it’s terrible at actually explaining this to the player, and also because your average Lost Ark player is an idiot1, nobody actually knows this and so nearly every single one of the harder Guardian Raids that I have done has ended in failure thanks to slow attrition. It doesn’t help that the boss attack tells are really bad and their attack range appears to be slightly larger than the AoE marker, making it very difficult to dodge consistently. Anyway, assuming you manage to complete it you can extract the Guardian Soul for the upgrade materials — but getting the soul is subject to the same two-per-day limit as Chaos Dungeons.
(And then there’s the Abyss Dungeon raids, which I have much less to say about because I’ve only done part of one. Given what I just said about Guardian Raids you can probably imagine why: they’re even harder than Guardian Raids and the average skill/knowledge level of matchmade parties in Lost Ark right now meant we got obliterated at the second boss. I didn’t go back, but I do know that Abyss Dungeons limit you to three runs per week.)
So, even in the unlikely eventuality that you find all of these activities fun you’ll find yourself time-gated on how much you can engage with them for meaningful rewards. Running through a full set of Chaos Dungeons and Guardian Raids would likely take over an hour, and would probably only net you enough materials to do one or two Honing upgrade steps (once failure chance is taken into account). Not to worry, though, because once you’ve done your dailies Lost Ark would very much like you to play the entire rest of the game! All that stuff I just described? That’s just the matchmade group content. I haven’t even started describing the world systems yet, all of which feed in to secondary or tertiary mechanics that contribute to acquiring Honing materials:
- About halfway through the main story you get a personal island stronghold, which sounds cool, but what it actually is is a collection of Facebook game timers where you spend gold (a semi-premium currency) and gathered resources to produce those special healing potions required to survive Guardian Raids. For some reason there’s also a mobile-game style energy bar that limits the amount of stuff you can do in the stronghold per day; I haven’t looked in the shop, but I’m sure that somewhere in there is the ability to buy an item that refills the energy bar.
- The standard set of MMO gathering activities like mining, logging, fishing etc. This is how you get the resources to make those healing potions in the stronghold. Also gated by an energy bar — you only get so many gathering attempts per day, and you have to pay if you want to do more.
- Island quests. Lost Ark’s overworld has you sailing around an ocean dotted with small islands that you can land at to do some surprisingly in-depth quest chains that often involve visiting several different locations in sequence. I actually quite liked these, since 1) the islands were all pretty imaginative, 2) none of them were gated by timers or energy bars or any of that bullshit, and 3) they reward a fairly hefty number of upgrade materials with no strings attached. If I had to go back to Lost Ark I’d probably spend most of my time doing the island quests.
- World events. Lost Ark is full of timed world events that pop up every hour, or every three hours, or every day. I’d be here forever if I explained them all since there’s just so many of them — fights against big PvE bosses, scavenger hunts, PvP battles, hunting down ghost ships, a thing called a Chaos Rift that I absolutely did not understand. Most of them reward upgrade materials, and in general I endorse the idea of dynamic world events that get players to work together in an informal fashion, even if Lost Ark’s implementation is a little uneven and more than a little bit cynical2.
This review is already getting much longer than I wanted a review of Lost Ark to be so I’ll stop there. There’s even more that I haven’t described, but the key thing I want you to take away is this: Lost Ark has a lot for a player to get stuck into, and if you were intended to enjoy all of this content for its own sake I’d be a lot more positive about the game than I am. Unfortunately you are not, as the specific subset of activities you can engage in is gated by your Item Level, and so you constantly have to be thinking about improving your Item Level. And the game encourages and enables this by linking everything back to acquiring these Honing materials, while making the eventual costs of upgrading so swingeing that you feel like you have to spend more and more time doing all of these things in order to progress at anything more than a snail’s pace. It’s not like Lost Ark is asking you to get to just one Item Level breakpoint, either; after you get to 460 it then moves the goalposts to 600, after 600 you progress to Tier 2 with a new set of upgrade materials, then there’s 900, then 1320… this is a grind that could easily take years if you wanted to go all the way. Weirdly I’m not actually sure spending money on the game would speed it up all that much either as I can’t see an option to directly buy upgrade materials in the shop, but I think that’s a calculated decision: you probably get more money from somebody who diligently logs in to grind for three years than somebody who spends a lot to powerlevel themselves over a couple of weeks and then quits the game once they’ve gotten to the “end”
A couple of things before I wrap up, which don’t fall neatly into descriptions of gameplay but do count as some not-so-positive observations worth making. First, I don’t know what exactly is going on in Korea right now with respect to gender relations, but the portrayal of every single female character in Lost Ark, including the player characters, is prompting me to ask if the developers of the game are feeling entirely okay. Male characters get hulking armour straight out of Warhammer 40k, or cool gunslinging duster coats, or sleek, flowing martial arts attire. Meanwhile, and almost without exception, the female NPCs get high heels and pretty dresses that expose as much skin as possible. There’s three princess/queen NPCs in this game and all of them have dresses slit open down to the navel showing off a lot of gratuitous sideboob. The female player characters look like somebody took the Sexy Halloween Costumes parody comic and used it as a blueprint for class outfits. The really baffling thing about Lost Ark is that the classes are all gender-locked, meaning that if you want to play a magic user you have to put up with the Sorceress, whose class gear consists of high heels (sigh), insubstantial dresses with very short hemlines, and a run animation that looks like she’s terrified of breaking a nail. I don’t want to be puritanical about this and I think it’s broadly fine to have these as options for your character look, as Final Fantasy 14 does3, but when you have them as the only option I think it’s fairly safe to say what your general opinion of women is.
And then there’s the involvement of Amazon Games, who haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory during the launch of Lost Ark. As usual for any publisher launching a big online product they hugely underestimated the amount of interest in the game and didn’t provision anywhere near enough servers for it, resulting in massive multi-hour login queues over the launch period. That much I expected, but what I didn’t expect was the network infrastructure for Lost Ark being so poorly designed that certain game features that are sat behind single-point-of-failure bottlenecks simply stop working if there’s too many people logged into a data center at once. Queuing for Chaos Dungeons and Guardian Raids was impossible during peak hours on EU Central for several weeks (since all world servers on a data center use a single matchmaking server), and even now it’s essentially a coin flip as to whether your matchmaking attempt will time out before everyone can click the “Accept” button. Let me restate that for emphasis: this is a massively-multiplayer game whose major multiplayer features literally do not work when running at maximum capacity. Interestingly another network bottleneck appears to be the in-game store, which randomly stops working at peak hours — normally I’d find this quite funny, but some genius had the bright idea of linking a player’s paid-for content not to their player account on the server, but to the store server. So if the store is down, which it has been for approximately 50% of the time that I have been playing it, Lost Ark’s paid-for subscription equivalent — the Crystalline Aura — will stop working. This is kind of a big deal for something operating in the MMO space, the sort of thing that prompts other MMOs to make fulsome apology posts and offer free subscription time by way of compensating for the lost period, but Amazon Games’ approach has been to say and do absolutely nothing4 in the hope that the problem will eventually sort itself out. I do not think this behaviour bodes well for their future management of the game.
So, my calling Lost Ark a clicker game is slightly facetious, and not entirely meant to be an insult. I’ve dumped more time than I care to admit into games like Cookie Clicker, SPACEPLAN, Universal Paperclip and some weird thing that turned up on Steam last year called Cell to Singularity, and the fact that I keep doing it probably means I don’t entirely dislike them. But while Lost Ark is obviously not a clicker game in form and function, I think it hooks into the same parts of the brain and that it does so in a far more targeted fashion — and far more effectively — than any comparable MMO. Everything it does is designed to hook you in, to keep you playing with the promise that the next thing you do in the game might potentially increase that all-important Number, which will in turn eventually unlock more things that you can do to increase Number. And, just like a clicker game, Lost Ark can and will devour dozens of hours of your free time until, one day, you suddenly come to your senses and wonder what the fuck you are doing with your life.
- I include myself in that description, if only because it took Elden Ring to make me stop playing Lost Ark and reconsider what the hell I was doing with my time. ↩
- The thing that makes me say this is the set of timers in the top left hand corner of the screen that’s constantly counting down to the next set of world events, which strikes me as an attempt to leverage FOMO to keep players logged in. ↩
- I’m not wild about the way FF14 handles this either — the armour designers are obsessed with thigh-high leggings on women — but the game is at least much more equal-opportunity in its pandering since you’re almost as likely to load into a raid with a hulking orc-man wearing nothing but leopard-print speedos and a pair of flip-flops as you are a half-naked catgirl. ↩
- Okay, this isn’t quite true. They actually spun up a whole second data center for EU in a matter of days, which is a technically impressive achievement. Unfortunately this second data center turned out to be about as useful as a chocolate kettle because Lost Ark doesn’t have server transfers for characters, and so the only way to move across to it was to start a new character from scratch. The predictable result was that pretty much nobody did – understandable given the massive time investment that people had already made by that point — and EU Central continued to be absolutely rammed. ↩