Developed by Smilegate and released in Korea back in 2019, Lost Ark is the latest free-to-play MMORPG to hit US/EU and by all accounts has already been a massive success. What makes Lost Ark different from other games of its ilk is that it masquerades as an ARPG viewed from a top-down isometric, fixed camera perspective. If you’re a fan of games like Diablo, Grim Dawn, or Path of Exile, you may immediately find comfort with the look and feel of Lost Ark despite the clear differences from those games.
The first thing you’ll experience in Lost Ark is of course picking your class. Lost Ark has at launch 15 distinct advanced classes spread across 5 primary archetypes: Warrior, Martial Artist, Mage, Assassin, and Gunner. Each of the 15 classes have their own distinct abilities you’ll unlock as you progress and there’s a very helpful training room that lets you test each of the advanced classes from the primary one you’ve chosen before committing fully. I chose to start as Warrior and spent almost an hour agonizing over my decision between Paladin, Gunlancer, and Berserker. All 3 felt different and responsive, with skills worthy of being in an anime movie. I ended up choosing Paladin because I liked the combat support playstyle that involves shielding and healing allies through the use of my abilities but I can already tell this will be a game I have several alts in.
To say that Lost Ark makes you feel powerful is an understatement. It’s combat design can best be described as making you feel like Sauron from Lord of the Rings, stunning and sending flying enemies in an explosion of gore and visual effects. Every button on your hotbar satisfies both visually and aurally. Monsters get knocked back, thrown up in the air, and stunned leaving room to combo your abilities. The impact of every skill and the effect it has on what you’re fighting gives the combat an incredible weight that ends up elevating it above even Diablo 3. The combat is an early and lasting draw and after dozens of hours, I still haven’t tired of it.
Aside from the combat, the opening hours of Lost Ark are a mix of highs and lows. After a prologue that has your character get boosted to Level 10, you’ll be dumped into a city and given several tutorial quests that are as overwhelming as they are dull. The story is your boilerplate good vs evil tale filled with McGuffins in the form of Ark shards you must find to assemble the titular Lost Ark, which is an object that is able to control creation and destruction itself. It puts a lot of dialogue and cutscenes in front of you and certainly tries to be interesting with high production value, but the best that can be said of the story you go through on your route to the Level 50 soft cap is that it ferries you from location to location with great speed and the quest design is simple and not grindy. Most quests take only a couple minutes to complete so this is an MMO that wants you to get to its endgame and get there quickly, so much that the campaign can almost be considered a tutorial. The lone exception to this is when the game puts you into instanced single-player events or 4-player group dungeons. These are easily the highlight of the leveling experience and I can confidently say that there are moments peppered throughout the campaign that make up the most epic set pieces I’ve ever encountered in an isometric perspective game, with dramatic camera shifts and hundreds-of-enemies scale. Seeing what Lost Ark is capable of in these moments was the motivation for me to want to continue to see what the game had in store.
As you move through the campaign, you’ll unlock many ways to customize your character and roster, the latter of which is Lost Ark’s way of adding shared progression across alts. Character levels give you access to new skills and skill points, but you will also accumulate roster experience which at new levels will grant stats to all characters in your roster. You will have access to far more skills than you can fit on your hotbar on each character, so you must choose which 8 skills you want as part of your loadout and which of those to invest your limited points into. Ranking up a skill to Level 4, 7, and then 10 with your points will unlock new tiers of Tripods, which are perks that allow you to enhance or modify a skill’s behavior. Some Tripods can add additional debuffs on monsters or movement utility. Others can change its attack type altogether, unlocking combo potential or a timing window for extra benefit. It’s an elegant system with a lot of depth and it’s made all the better by allowing you to respec at will and giving you the ability to store several loadouts of skill trees you can change to on the fly. I constantly toggle between support and solo skill builds on my Paladin depending on the content I’m doing and it’s as easy as clicking a button.
If the skill system is deep and customizable, the same unfortunately cannot be said of gear. Aside from a few exceptions in the form of jewelry which gives you access to additional character-altering perks called Engravings, the gear is almost entirely just stat boosts that keep the progression treadmill rolling toward new and more exciting content. ARPGs have historically showered you with loot in ways where getting that legendary or unique armor changes your build, but this element is almost entirely absent here. In Lost Ark, the carrot on the stick is not the gear. Gear is simply how you will become strong enough to enter the next bit of content. This is theme park MMO design through and through, so anyone coming from Path of Exile or Diablo 3 expecting anything different may be disappointed.
What won’t be disappointing is the content that is unlocked by raising your gear score past level 50 and into the endgame. Completing the campaign content grants you access to so many new endgame activities, it’s honestly a bit overwhelming. Chaos Dungeons let you smash through a series of enemy-filled levels not unlike Diablo 3’s Greater Rifts. Guardian Raids turn Monster Hunter into an ARPG where you load into a map and hunt and kill a giant boss with difficult mechanics, limited revives, and a 20-minute timer. Abyssal Dungeons provide difficult, 4-player party dungeons with a series of bosses that each have raid mechanics out of WoW or FF14 where communication and strategy is key. There’s your daily or weekly quests, world bosses and events that spawn at least every hour, a roguelike dungeon called the “cube”, single-player 50-floor towers with floor completion rewards, and much, much more. On the horizon are 8-player Legion Raids that promise to be the most challenging group content in the game. The endgame of Lost Ark is quite literally a buffet of activities where literally everything rewards you with the upgrade materials for your gear that you need to do the next bit of each type of content. This kind of vertical progression as you move through the endgame tiers is very thoughtful, not least because Lost Ark does an excellent job of not invalidating its own content. This is not a case where a new patch or content drop renders everything you’ve done before meaningless because the first item that drops is better than your raid-level gear you spent dozens of hours acquiring. In Lost Ark, moving through the content allows you to get to the next tier of content. When new tiers are added, you still have to move through the previous ones in that linear fashion. It all contributes to a very satisfying feeling of progression that never feels like you’re outright wasting your efforts, despite the grind still being there. The alt-friendly nature of the game also means that there will always be an active player base engaging with all tiers of the endgame content.
But what’s possibly most impressive with Lost Ark is how much it caters to both grind-focused and casual players. People who enjoy hunting for collectables will find their efforts rewarded by roster-wide stat boosts, additional skill points, rare consumables, and more. There’s an NPC Rapport system that acts like a more individual reputation system from many other MMOs, but has you doing quests, giving gifts, playing songs, or just chatting up NPCs to gain favor. This also can provide you with specific rewards for each level obtained with that NPC, and many of those rewards are also shared with every character in your roster. You even get your own ship and crew to manage with which you can sail and explore the nearly 100 different islands in the game, each with their own quest chains, story, and roster-level rewards. Speaking of your roster, each account also gets a Stronghold where you can customize your own personal base, unlock crafting recipes, or shop at visiting rare merchants. This is almost a whole management sim game in itself, where you spend time researching further account upgrades and benefits, acquire and send out crew members on missions for resources, or just spend time customizing the look of your home with cosmetic items. The stronghold is enormous and grows even larger as you unlock content, with multiple buildings, islands, and caves to add. Players can spend dozens of hours on this aspect of the game alone.
This all coincides with trade skills that come mostly in the form of gathering professions such as mining, logging, fishing, hunting and archeology. They all have their own skill progressions and even mini games and provide a nice diversion from combat while you run around the open world. It’s a small thing, but the gathering has a nice feel to it with small touches abound. The sound of a pickaxe hitting a copper vein. The feedback that happens when you acquire a rare material. Or even the way that a second person can help you chop down a tree faster and the animation turns into a two-person saw instead of chopping axes – they even get their own rewards instead of having to split them. I’ve had multiple times where I ended up buddying up with a random person as we scoured a zone for trees to harvest because we were able to team up to accomplish the task faster.
Lost Ark does not have a deep gear crafting system, but that does not mean you won’t be putting all of this gathering to use. Instead, you will unlock a ton of recipes for your stronghold. Ore and lumber get funneled into improving your roster of ships so they can withstand hazards in the ocean and sail much faster. Herbs and flowers you gather get turned into useful battle items like HP potions. Campfires, flares, and grenades get crafted and are very useful in Abyssal Dungeons and Guardian Raids, allowing you to find the hidden Guardian on the map faster or provide a mobile healing spot for allies. As someone who doesn’t typically engage heavily into the crafting elements of most modern MMO’s, I found what’s provided in Lost Ark to be immediately engaging and useful. Since the majority of what you can craft are consumable items, there is also always a market for what you produce at the auction house, allowing you to make a good bit of coin with any extras you produce.
If you’re the type of person who enjoys PVP, there is the Proving Grounds that unlocks at Level 26, which allows you to choose one of several game modes such as 3v3 Deathmatch or 1v1 Team Elimination all using a normalized version of your character. Prior to entering a PVP match, you’re told to fill out your characters’ Book of Coordination. This is effectively a screen where you are allowed to allocate a maxed-out character’s worth of stat points and skill Tripods, ensuring a completely fair and balanced match, one where optimizing your PVP build and knowing how to play it is more important than who has all the powerful gear. In my few hours playing PVP, I found it chaotic and thrilling, a game of cat and mouse where baiting out big attacks and countering with stun-locking and juggling combos will take you far. It has the feel and depth of a fighting game played out in top-down view and matches are short enough to be very addicting.
It’s a good thing the PVP modes are normalized because being a free-to-play game, Lost Ark chooses to monetize with a model that is indisputably pay-to-win. There’s a cash shop where players can purchase Royal Crystals for cosmetic items, but also exchange those Royal Crystals for actual in-game currency. This exchange allows players to progress faster by purchasing their upgrade materials on the marketplace to improve gear instead of playing the game. The question is whether this hampers the experience of players who choose not to pay anything. There’s a fair amount of RNG in its upgrade systems with gear having a lower percentage chance of a successful upgrade at each successive level. At the end of tier 1 (think of tiers almost as expansions), I have only a 40% chance of successfully upgrading a piece of armor. If you fail an upgrade, the materials are lost and you must reacquire them and try again, but this time with a pity system that increases the odds after each failure. Fail enough times and you will eventually get a 100% chance, but it can be frustrating if all you want to do is push through the last bit of gear score to unlock the new content you want to play. On the flipside, hitting an upgrade when you only had a hope and a prayer is awesome and in general, progress has been steady and well-paced for my liking. Future tiers I know get stingier with upgrades, but if the worry is that the game will eventually force you to pay, I have seen enough evidence in both my play and community opinion that it isn’t the case. Whales are simply paying money to skip good content for no real reason given that PVP is balanced separately from PVE progression. This is definitely a grindy game, but one that never has you doing any one thing for long and as such, I still look forward to logging in each day to play and engaging in the type of content I want during that session.
With all that said, who exactly is Lost Ark for? If you’re looking for the next Diablo game, you won’t necessarily find it here. The combat and perspective may fool you initially, but this is a theme park MMO with all the good and the bad. If you’re willing to put in the effort and sink potentially hundreds of hours into a game, you will find that Lost Ark has almost too much content, and more importantly, loads of content still to come that hasn’t been released from the Korean version. It’s hard to ignore the mediocre early game content that isn’t done any favors by the lackluster story and characters but anyone willing to stick around for the 15-20 hours required to reach the endgame will find genuinely one of the most fun and addictive MMOs to hit the market in years.
A Steam code for a Platinum Founder’s Key was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes