In last year's hands-on with free-to-play action RPG-inspired MMO Lost Ark last year, I thought it had potential if you could survive the early slow burn. Having since returned to it for a few weeks, my thoughts remain largely the same. For all its flashy combat and fun moments, the sheer grind to reach its promised endgame may prove too much for many.
As much as Lost Ark looks like Diablo, let me assure you that its only similarity lies in its combat. Otherwise, they're rather different, really. At its heart, Lost Ark is a classically trained MMORPG more like World Of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV. You start off as a lowly level one with a dream: reach level 60 and unlock the endgame, a.k.a, the end of the rainbow. Here lies a pot of gold filled with Guardian Raids! Dungeons! Strongholds! What a treat, I hear you say.
It's just, getting there could be an issue. The journey to the end of the rainbow isn't so much a happy skip, as it is a long-distance hike. One where you'll find yourself setting up camp and toasting marshmallows on the reg. Regular breaks are needed, you see, as the grind never abates. That's because the game follows a strict MMORPG template that's overly familiar and a bit dated.
Levelling in Lost Ark involves following the main quest as it takes you across the land of Arkesia in search of the Ark, a magical item capable of driving out the demons. The story isn't too shabby, with some well-presented cutscenes and decent voice acting. The occasional set-piece, like a town being eviscerated by a demon army or an exotic dungeon populated by enormous clay warriors, work to hold your attention. But then you're pulled into menial objectives and side quests as you bounce your way between towns.
"Go fetch me some herbs, go set fire to these barrels, and while you're at it, destroy seven bad mushrooms for me, would you?" Getting that sweet, sweet EXP means you must embrace the clipboard life. Some may relish the chores, the gradual progress of the EXP bar, and the allure of shiny loot rewards. Here and there, I do as well. Yet, there's nothing I've seen so far in the game's questing and progression that makes it stand out from the competition. Where WoW's seamless world stuns and FF14's story shines, Lost Ark's levelling process feels a bit archaic.
The game's biggest draw is its combat, which borrows from Diablo and other top-down ARPGs. In essence, you pound buttons and your character cleaves through waves of enemies with chops and blasts. Depending on which class you choose – assassin, mage, warrior, gunslinger, and the like – said cleaving varies wildly. My paladin delivers heavy blows with large sword swipes and bathes nasties in holy magic, burning them to a crisp. My gunslinger opts for three different barrels: dual pistols, a shotgun, and a sniper rifle. This makes them far more complex, as you’re able to swap between these weapons on the fly, spraying, praying, and blasting hordes of imps into oblivion.
Combat is crunchy and satisfying. There’s a lovely dynamism to moves and the game accommodates veterans and newbies alike when it comes to stringing together combos. You’ll look good no matter if you’re button mashing or thinking critically, basically, especially as the characters look like they're taking a trip to the goth anime convention very seriously. And it becomes more engaging as you level and unlock lots of snazzy new abilities to mangle more demanding baddies with.
Co-op elevates the game too, as dungeoneering doesn’t seem quite right on your own. Yes, it’s perfectly doable, but the good vibes aren't there. It’s all a bit silent, like you’re the chef of an empty kitchen, slamming your great sword through fish heads at great speeds. Sous chefs make the experience far more enjoyable, as you can see how they add some flavour to the kitchen. A sprinkle of napalm, a dash of demonic flair, a "What the heck was that Steve?", as your mate flies into the fray spinning his big honkin' hammer.
And as you earn EXP and level up, you can bung skill points into your abilities to make them even more powerful - for instance, I made one of my paladin’s swingy slashes far slower but able to mince anything in sight. Like I said in my earlier hands-on, they aren’t the most thrilling upgrades to begin with, serving as more of an incremental stat boost than a powerful augmentation. Later down the line this does change a bit, though. You can turn AoE blasts into long-range delayed bombs or turn your plasma bullets into magnetic orbs that suck enemies into its embrace.
More and more bits unlock as you go. Horses and tigers serve as mounts. Cute pets hoover up loot automatically. Romanceable NPCs give you gifts in exchange for biscuits. Your UI bursts to life when achievements unlock, or pings ring when there’s a collectible card waiting to be claimed. Currencies bury themselves in different sections of your inventory: gems and shards and coins and different gems. So, while the game's combat may progress nicely, its tendency to cram your pockets with thousands of different dollary-doos can overwhelm rather than excite.
These currencies likely come into their own later down the line, though. I was able to test-drive some endgame characters, albeit without a great deal of context. I participated in a Guardian Raid where I felled an armoured bear within a time limit and got lots of glowing rocks in exchange. I spoke to a blacksmith about Facets and min-maxed some gear in some dizzying game of chance. I mined a Platinum ore deposit and got more rocks. There was a whole sailing mini-game, with spearfishing and pirate crews. I was on a vast tropical island and played some bongos for EXP. Again, all very overwhelming, but there are clearly plenty of endgame shenanigans to be cracking on with when you get there.
Thing is, I can't pass judgment on Lost Ark until I've reached the endgame myself. Otherwise, it's a jarring party of blinged out pauldrons and alien map markers. The trouble with that is whether I've got it in me to cross the finish line. The grind and the game's aged MMORPG template refuse to budge, and I'm not sure it's something even its excellent combat can varnish over. Some may adore the EXP churn and relish the comfort of an MMO with familiar trappings, but if you're after an MMO that does something truly different, I remain uncertain. The endgame certainly seems filled with menial and moreish pastimes, but whether you've got the patience to get there is another matter entirely. I'm not sure I've got it in me, honestly.