Lost Ark review in progress - Addictively fun combat is its biggest strength

Lost Ark’s western launch has arrived after several years of the game’s meteoric rise in Korea, Russia and Japan. Until now, most of the western world has only ever heard tales of the game, its bountiful amount of classes and its Korean grind fest with its incredibly satisfying reward system. But now, it is in our hands, and we can confirm it is what it says it is on the tin.

Smilegate Studios has taken the MMO staples by the horns, twisted them and reimagined what MMOs can look like. The result is that Smilegate has made one of the most interesting gameplay experiences in the MMO genre, probably one of the first revolutionary MMOs in quite some time.

Below you will find our Lost Ark review in progress. We have given this a score, but since it is a live service game we have not got the full picture of, we may need to change things as we go. One area we have not looked at for now is PvP, although we are aware it is generally considered a largely fun, good and balanced feature for example. We have also not touched features like the Stronghold all too much, along with the end game systems in a live setting.

Satisfying combo combat

If you were to take a first glance at any video or screenshot promotional material, or even a YouTube gameplay playthrough, you would think this is an ARPG, aka Diablo or Path of Exile. However, that first impression is entirely wrong. Unlike other MMOs, this game relies on an ARPG style gameplay experience, except it uses combos to make the classes work. Sure, its 2.5D style and its similar movement mechanics, potion reliance, and more are definitely fitting, but it is an MMO. Let us make that clear.

In an ARPG, the core gameplay is all about finding certain skills and buffing your favourites into omnipotence, allowing you to become that hellish creature that even the demons and undead are afraid of. While there are aspects of skill leveling and buffing on Lost Ark, it is not exactly the case. 

Every class in Lost Ark uses some combo system, and perhaps even a rotation in some instances. Some classes opt for continuously knocking enemies in the air for big damage. On the other hand, some classes want enemies to stay as far back as possible, pushing enemies back with some skills and blasting them with spells, bombs or massive melee swings. Alternatively, some classes like locking enemies in positions, scorching the very earth under them. It feels good to annihilate countless enemies you methodically set up with combos.

All classes are fun!

Lost Ark has over 15 classes at launch, with even more available in the Korean region. For an MMO launch, 15 is actually an incredible amount. The best bit is that every one of these classes feels unique, thanks to their distinct playstyle. Each class has an identity skill, thematics, and party buffs. Yes, every class has an identity meter with skills that their class centres around. Moreso, each class can provide buffs, like increased crit, damage reduction, healing, shields, and more. The game does really well at giving every class its own identity and making them all feel like the best class at something. 

Before the launch of the game, we did research on the game. At one point, I was so convinced that I was going to play Deadeye that I even asked for a boost on the PTR to test the end game on it. But here I am on the Slem, running around as a Gunlancer The two classes are so far apart that the distance between the North and South pole looks shorter. It is a good sign that all the classes are incredible, and there is always something drawing you to play them from an entirely different perspective.

If you ever feel like you have class envy and want to play something else, don’t worry; you likely didn’t make a mistake. In fact, nearly everyone in the community agrees there are so many classes that it is generally hard to keep your feet planted for long. If there is another class you desperately want to play, then the game’s alt friendly aspects will treat your soon to be altaholic tendencies. And the bonus is the game encourages plenty of alts to help you farm your end game resources, scratching that itch in the process.

Breaking down the staples of MMORPG game design

In addition, the game takes old school MMORPG game design and adds it to its classes. While the game does not do a good job of telling you classes are support classes, they do exist. 

Take the Bard, for example. It is the ultimate example of a support, buffing her allies to get bonus damage, debuffing enemies to make them take more damage, or even using a healing skill.

Meanwhile, the Paladin appears to be a DPS. Still, its damage reduction, healing and damage buff capabilities make it more of a support. The same goes for the Gunlancer, with its team-wide reduction, ally shielding and even a taunt skill, but, all of these can still be DPS classes if you wanted them to be.

As you might gather, this makes Lost Ark a game that does not use the holy trinity: Tank, Healer and DPS playstyle. It gives players the freedom to define their own path in this world (for the most part), which is great for experimentalists. It also means that every class offers something to the party, making your build and choice both offensive and supportive, offering players an equal shot of finding a group in no time. The benefit is players don’t need to sit there in long queues for dungeons as there are no roles to queue for. If queues have put you off MMO end games previously, Lost Ark covers that to an extent.

There’s also a nice spin on the game’s map design. Meet ships and sailing. All that dead space in the game is actually filled with coop events. Go ahead and fight pirates with other players, visit islands for rewards and more. If you like collectables and getting vanity items, then this method of exploring the open world in a new way is extremely refreshing to the genre. You’ll also need to learn to sail to other continents too, rather than instantly teleporting to the locations as seen in other games.

A disjointed story experience

Sadly, not everything in a game can be perfect. The early level experience can be somewhat disappointing, with a few strengths dotted here or there. The main story thread is certainly a weakness. It feels like the devs liked the Warrior of Light aspect of FFXIV, except they wanted a six-pack demon pulled straight from Devil May Cry, who is obnoxiously comically cringey and evil. 

The environmental storytelling does a good job of keeping you in the loop through the dungeons and level design if you lose interest in the story. All you need to know is an artefact called the Ark that repels Demonic invasions, and we need it. Let the game’s dungeons and levels tell you the rest, which is decent, as we can still engage with the story while not actively investing ourselves in the forced leveling narrative.

Saying that every area of the game feels like it goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of quests. One minute I was at Pridehome, the starting city, and the next I was saving residents from an onslaught of demons. The next minute our characters go to another area of the zone that’s fine one minute, but then it is filled with the undead, demons, and parasites the next. Move away from that, and then I’m helping a Prince looking to reclaim his kingdom. Take a chill pill or something, please.

Despite the story’s weirdness, it does give some incredible set pieces. The game does a good job of using enticing incidents, a feature of novel writing designed to grip the reader. Once you make it to the third dungeon, that Thanatos fight is amazing for its first big storytelling and a mechanical boss fight. There are also some incredible set pieces like the Thirain storyline. So, there’s some good, and some bad to the story of the game.

If you recall the history of MMOs, social experiences have always been one of the leading facets of the genre. Over time, the MMORPG has forgotten that, but Lost Ark does an amazing job of encouraging its players to communicate straight away. You will stumble upon world bosses as you level up, which require parties to form organically. You want to do these thanks to the first time kill rewards you can earn. However, tackling them alone is impossible. If you happen to see a world boss, let players know that it is up on your current channel (server layer). Sit back and watch as the armies gather to vanquish the foe. Alternatively, you can keep an eye on the area chat and see what channel you can visit to rendezvous with your newfound allies.

World Bosses are not the only aspect of community cohesion. There are so many collectables in Lost Ark that rewards you with player power, vanity items, or more. Most of these are Mokoko seeds. In one instance, players wanted to enlist the help of the server’s denizens to beat a barricade up. Yes, a barricade; it was rather sturdy, okay. So, several of us signed up to whack, crack and frack at the barricade until it lay in pieces before us. It felt great when it shattered, and we got our Mokoko seeds and bid farewell, with their names remembered after talking about nonsense as we beat the barricade up for several minutes.

On the other hand, these collectables give players a reason to stick around in matchmaking dungeons. Perhaps you found a Mokoko seed other players may have ran past? Let your allies know, and maybe, you’re speaking about finding collectables as well as beating baddies up. It led to an enjoyable experience every time this happened. However, I couldn’t add the players I enjoyed creating this story with, since they were on different servers. It stings a little knowing I would likely never see these players I enjoyed playing with again, which is something that I wouldn’t find in other MMOs thanks to communities or some form of cross-server friend feature. There’s still room to improve here Smilegate.

Time to grind harder than Tony Hawk in his heyday

Every MMO has some form of grind fest at the end game, and Lost Ark is no different. Making it to the end game on your character opens up a whole new world of activities. Most of these are in the form of dailies and weeklies. For example, you can get sent to a Chaos Dungeon, which is slightly like a rift or a map from ARPGs that work to gear your character with currencies and extra gear. On the other hand, you may need to form a party and go take on a World boss or an Abyssal dungeon, a challenging four-player dungeon.

The rewards grant you stronger gear that you will progress your character. On the other hand, you may get currencies that you can later suspend on new gear, vanity items or other aspects of the game. The more alts you have, the better the chances you can pump more resources into your main character. How’s that for the alt friendly gameplay loop we mentioned earlier?

The good news is that once you don’t need more gear, you can relax, or start dedicating yourself to funnelling the alts you want to make stronger. Also, some players find they don’t need to do dailies, as killing raid bosses is one of the best ways to get your higher-end currencies, like Gold. If you want to take part in end-game PvE, then this game will be one you need to commit to for some time. 

There’s also solo content like the Tower, similar to the Tower of the Dead or Toghast in other MMOs. Each floor has a different challenge. You may fight a rare monster, fight off hordes, or even solve puzzles in a three-minute time frame. The higher your climb, the better your rewards when you fail or leave by choice, respecting player power and your time.

A questionable cash shop

And here we have the icing on the cake, or rather a bitter icing, depending on your perspective. Before launch, players debated whether Lost Ark is pay to win, one that is not yet put to bed. The cash shop certainly has pay to grind less systems, or pay for convenience, designed to target players who don’t have much time to play and don’t want to feel overwhelmingly behind. However, some players are entirely free to play, and they get on just fine with it.

One of the controversial aspects of the cash shop is the ability to skip your dailies with premium currency. Alternatively, you can buy these with gold, which you will earn by playing the game anyway. You can also buy a premium currency and convert it to gold which you can buy your end game progression items with. It sounds rather dirty, but, it is only the same as trading Crowns in Elder Scrolls Online or buying a WoW Token.

Although, If paying for services like these exist, it leads to questioning the viability of the dev’s end game design philosophy. We have seen examples like this in the west before. Remember Shadow of War which wanted you to spend money to bypass their artificially designed end game dross? How about the recent Halo Infinite MX cosmetics conundrum? If Western gamers think this is a bad cash shop, Amazon Games and Smilegate will find out sooner than later.

Some things were massively changed before launch, like the pet rental system and there are more open loot box results. But, it seems like there is more room to be done. Amazon Games did say there were working with Smilegate to westernize their cash shop. Right now, these concerns are simple fears, but, when the honeymoon period of the new MMO comes to an end, we may start seeing how tempting or potentially damaging these systems are to a Western player base. When the community at large gets to the end game, we’ll soon see how the opinions and attitudes of the game shift. But for now, this may just be some early concerns that may turn into nothing.

Lost Ark review conclusion

At the time of writing, the new MMO honeymoon period is certainly strong, but that’s also because the charm of it is largely satisfying. The game has fantastic combat, with a great community to match. There’s nothing more satisfying than gathering the crew together at all stages of the game, learning a fight and getting those sweet reards, whether that is in the open world, or in instanced content. There are also plenty of systems to enjoy, whether that is your characters’ end game vertical progression, or getting involved with the sideway progression collectables, rapport system and more.

However, there are some minor flaws to the game, but no MMO will ever hit all aspects it touches on correctly. All we can say for certain is that this game so far feels great. But again, we will save our reservation when the honeymoon period is over, and how acceptable the end game system is. After all, MMOs are broken on two things, its community and its end game content. Right now, this game is a 4/5 star, but, that could swing higher or lower depending on our opinion in a short matter of time.

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