Whenever a game like Lost Ark comes out, it shows the public is still hungry for something that looks and sounds and plays even a tiny bit like Diablo. Lost Ark does provide what is the crudest part of the appeal of something like Diablo - i.e. a thousand chittering enemies flying at you at once as you vaporise them with minimal clicking - but I wouldn't say it's a lovingly crafted version of it. Like the difference between the Wicked Witch in Snow White and a Halloween costume in a plastic bag labelled Legally Distinct Evil Magic Stepmother. But there are also things I appreciate about Lost Ark in general, and its version of [flaps hands] whatever this is.
In the spirit of Lost Ark's slightly older (one might even say dated?) sensibilities, I'm going to break it down like I'm reviewing the game in a 90s game mag, separating the game into its constituent parts - just as one can remove the egg from a cake after baking it. Although I should make it clear I'm not doing our proper Lost Ark review. That honour falls to Ed, who is more plugged in to modern MMORPGs than I am. I'm just here to talk about how Lost Ark does and does not compare to Diablo - specifically Diablo II, because that's the best one.
The premise of Lost Ark is basically the same as Diablo. That is, follow a demon through several different areas, deal with chaos, and eventually kill the demon. Except in Lost Ark there is a lot of fluff and it feels like everyone is trying a teeny bit too hard. The story goes that a long time ago, there were some demons, and the demons got beaten and chained up in an ark, and you're racing to get to the ark before a hot lil devil boy does. Each area is full of monsters and madness caused by a sub-demon (plague, bandits, etc.) and you have to get an orb or a bit of rock to stop them.
All that is fine, except the free-to-play nature of Lost Ark means there's a lot of obvious padding that's also trying a bit too hard to sound legitimate. Every character's dialogue is a melange, a collage, a blended milkshake of words pulled from the Big Fantasy Reference Book Of Useful Terms. Giving it all "the light of destiny" this and "the orb of some dickhead" that. I cannot remember the names of any characters apart from Arthan, a blonde angsty priest boy/exposition engine, and that's only because he's always just hanging around, asking me to do big battles and then taking all the credit.
On the other hand, you don't actually need to remember the names of any characters. None of them are of any importance whatsoever, and the game doesn't really bother to pretend they are, either. There are very, very few NPCs you will need to speak to more than once, especially once you get out of the tutorialising and into the swing of things. So I have to respect that. Like, if you can't just write, "Just go and collect six lizard bums, I dunno, you'll never see me again," you might as well go all the way in the other direction. Diablo II has way less lizard-bum wrangling, and actually way less quest-giving in general, so you don't feel the weight of destiny in the dialogue very much at all. Find demon, kill demon. Bada-bing, bada-boom.
I genuinely have very few complaints about how Lost Ark looks. The character creator is extremely detailed for a game where you will never see your character's face in close-up again, but it's fun having purple hair! The monster design is actually really cool, so it's a shame that you never really pause to look at them as about a million razor-chickens or sentient fartsacks swarm you.
Lost Ark seems to be following a similar template to Diablo II in the broad strokes of the area design: moist grass areas gradually moving into caves with zombies and a haunted monastery, and then a desert that's so bright it almost hurts to look at. The dungeons and ruins are all very dungeony and ruiny, but honestly I think Lost Ark is winning in the area design.
The salt flat desert in particular, on a continent that I have chosen to forget the name of, is a really interesting place, full of giant blue mineral crystals and salt fields, and thin pools of bright blue water. It's full of weird monsters that look like cacti and stuff. I love it! It's honestly much more memorable than a lot of the repeating floor tiles and different coloured yetis of Diablo II (which was, in fairness, hampered by the technology of its time). Even Diablo III was a bit, you know, gothic magician's castle for a lot of it.
The sound design in the Diablo series is one of my favourite things about it. The NPCs aren't fully voiced, but they say some key lines when you interact with them. I can't even imagine how many t-shirts with 'Stay awhile, and listen!' on the front exist in the world today. The beast noises in Diablo II are great as well, and are a blend of women screaming orgasmically and cows screaming like they've been punched in the throat.
Lost Ark is notable in comparison because its NPCs aren't fully voiced either, and yet somehow never shut the hell up. Many will say their idle character barks if you pass within two feet of them, particularly in the starting town Prideholme. There's always a dude in the local shop either complaining about the weight of an item, or that it's too expensive. People will say "Where are you from, adventurer?" in a vaguely flirty way. One guard later on constantly complains about "some of those guards" having the plague as if to distance himself from being one, somehow. Monsters, especially the birds, are very clearly just a person going "rrrrr" - and I know on some level that a lot of monster noises are a person going "rrrrr" with skill, but you can really see the person in the recording booth having to go "rrrrr" in Lost Ark.
Bonus points for having to play an awesome guitar riff to fast travel, though.
I was pleasantly surprised by the different class options in Lost Ark (although unpleasantly surprised that some advanced classes are gender-locked, which seems unfair for all players). I'm still really enjoying the combat style of my gunslinger - who, by the way, has now dinged Level 20 and is still Peter Pantsless (although it's way less funny in a desert where she is kind of dressed apprpriately for the heat, I guess?). I particularly like how she can can switch between ranged and slightly-less ranged attack styles.
Lost Ark, on the other hand, feels like you could punch a hole through God by idly right-clicking enough times.
In this sense, Lost Ark is easier to play than Diablo II. In the latter, there's always the nagging sense that you really should be in a team with four people due to the balancing of Diablo's combat. Lost Ark, on the other hand, feels like you could punch a hole through God by idly right-clicking enough times. In some ways, it dosen't really matter what class you choose. It's just a game where you explode things by looking at them, and the exploding is pretty fun.
Diablo and Lost Ark are both ideally played with friends, sometimes almost as an afterthought while you're chatting about other stuff. But you could also invest in your character and the cool gear you got. Lost Ark is weightless, in a way that works for and against it. You'll frequently pick up quests that are to destroy a food store or free a prisoner from a cage, but you only have to do one or two of them to ding the quest. It is quite funny when you free your fourth villager, and then turn to the three still in cages going "Help! Is there someone there?!" and shrug because you've done your to-do list. Each new area you reach, the quest hand-ins will all cluster in and around the next milestone. Lost Ark is constantly keeping you in motion, in quite a clever way, so you don't stop and think about the game you're playing too hard.
I invested time and care into my characters in Diablo II. In Lost Ark I've not come across any interesting weapons dropped in-game. The best gear is stuff I've had to pay for. Which is the point, right? I've got no reason to keep playing this game unless I start putting money into it, and I don't really want to do that. I prefer buying a game up front that I know is quality, not paying to make bits of a game less shit. It's easy to get sucked in to Lost Ark because it doesn't ask you to care. But then that also means... I don't.