Firstly – yes, two hours isn’t really enough to say much about the game. Yet, here I am, and I do have a set of opinions forming around the western release of SmileGate’s Lost Ark, published by Amazon Games for those of us outside of Asia.
Lost Ark aims to combine two genre styles into a unique take on them, using ARPG core gameplay with MMO-styled progression – leveling, caps, gear levels, more stringent gear drops, professions, and the like. Lost Ark has been out in Korea since 2018, with developer SmileGate supporting the title in most of Asia and with Russian servers before Amazon swept in for the rights to the title in the US and EU. The release for us this week, then, reflects a game that has been out nearly 4 years in some form or fashion already, with changes and tweaks made to the flow of things to better capture new players.
I will be the first to admit I didn’t follow this one very much at all prior to this week. I knew about it, I’d read some of what Naithin had written on the game over at TimeToLoot, and I know a couple of guildies were pretty stoked on it, after spending the closed beta window last fall playing it non-stop for days. I’ve tried a handful of Asian-market ARPGs before – I was a Diablo fiend as a teenager – and I’ve just always bounced off of them. Lost Ark, on first inspection, had the stink of those games on it – so I put it aside in my mind.
But there was enough hype and excitement to merit at least trying it, and with a Bronze founder pack only costing $15 for the early access and various in-game perks, I decided it was worth a try.
So what are my impressions? Well…there’s something there that I like. I’m definitely keeping arm’s length after Amazon got me with New World, but this isn’t made by that team. At the same time, it has the stink of Amazon marketing – Twitch drops, every major influencer deciding to try it, and a measure of over-hype in the online gaming space for it. I’ll break down a few things I like and don’t like about my experience with it so far.
The Combat: Lost Ark has very good ARPG combat systems, including a high measure of skillshots and a learning process for how each ability aims and hits. There’s some tactical depth there that I can see and the gameplay is mostly quite smooth. It goes straight for the pleasure center of ARPG gameplay, as most early fights are 1v20s where you smash 20 enemies in seconds flat, and starting at level 10 (which is arbitrary and somewhat weird, but okay!) means that you have a smattering of skills already unlocked and usable, so there’s no early-MMO stage of gameplay where you have one spell you spam over and over again (and that in and of itself is a revelation).
The Classes: The game’s systems make use of a base class and an advanced class, so you pick a base and then build on it. However, the naming is deceiving – you aren’t really picking a base class to play for any length of time, because starting at level 10 (where you get your advanced class) means you just…are the advanced class.
On the good side, the advanced classes all have a fairly good flavor so far and seem distinct in reasonable ways (I’ve heard that some are less unique, but haven’t gone the full breadth of the class options yet). I’ve been playing Soulfist, which is branched from the base Martial Artist class, and it adds a lot of ranged attacks and ki blasts, including ultimate skills that are almost direct Dragon Ball Z ripoffs – a Spirit Bomb or a version of the Kamehameha blast that ended the Cell saga in that show/manga (it includes a helper spirit channeling into you, which is either an intentional direct reference or a big whoopsie-uh-oh). Things feel pretty well developed, which is perhaps less of a wonder given that the game has been out for nearly 4 years and so if it wasn’t, that would be a big red flag flying!
Sense of Scale: The world of Arkesia feels pretty huge, even though the regions are quite small, but there are a lot of them and the way gameplay guides you around each adds to the feeling of size and scale. To be honest, open-world sprawls don’t really suit an ARPG (in my opinion) because of the roaming around for stuff to do. Lost Ark’s world feels carefully constructed this early in to funnel you towards the good stuff – enemies, combat, dynamic quest pops and your actual main story objectives.
The Technical Aspects of the Game: Lost Ark runs well, although I am still a poor barometer of this with my specs – the game’s max settings look good and run reasonably well, and it doesn’t seem to push hardware too hard. What I appreciate is that it is a rare breed of isometric game that has figured out ultrawide support, and was good with my 3440×1440 monitor immediately without reconfig or excessive pillarboxing. Despite high server traffic, the game didn’t feel like it was unresponsive or laggy, and that helps the very-action-focused gameplay take center stage in a satisfying way.
Character Customization Options: The game is ripe with customization options for a character, which was a little confusing to me at first for an isometric game, but I realized that a lot of cinematics do zoom in on your character, which makes the focus on them logical. That gave me the rationale for how much control you do have (eye colors including uniquely colored ones!) and pulled things together. There was one option that threw me for a loop – character shininess, which wasn’t clear from the menu but the right piece of gear made it abundantly clear…
Early Gameplay Flow: Not counting the prologue bits, the early game is pretty straightforward and simple, but it starts you off strong. You get a ton of abilities immediately, making combat varied and interesting, there’s little bits of story peppered in as you move between quest hubs smashing enemies on the way, and there are a lot of gameplay-focused quest tutorials like the Rapport quests in Prideholme. The game is very aware of why we’re here and it delivers a mostly-good experience.
Weird Genderlock Options: Some classes can only be one gender or the other, no customization options for male mages or female warrior class options, among other cases. It is odd in 2022, would have still been odd in 2018 when the game first launched, and while I know it is something of a cultural thing with a lot of games from Korea (and Japan, just see the genderlocked races in FFXIV and how that was changed over time), it still just seems limiting. You could make a development time argument (making skins work across the board for a class is work) but I think it would have been worthwhile work, at least in my opinion.\
The Story: I don’t have a nice way to put this, so, uh…Lost Ark has a story, but it is pretty dreadful early on. There’s a priest who is Evil, Actually, there’s a lot of universe-specific verbiage that is just told to you (I’ll definitely remember the good priest guy is a half-demon because you told me without doing anything to show that in game), there’s all sorts of mixed up threats early on (I’ve been introduced to a plague, to township woes, to a demonic invasion, and to a societal reconsideration of religion and I’m not even level 20 yet), and the game keeps pushing me to new zones with fairly flimsy reasoning why. I don’t need an ARPG to even explain this stuff to me, frankly – just push me at the enemies and give me a framing device that ties it all together! What makes it hurt is that there is a clear effort to try and get the story across – there are cinematics, but they use in-game character models and the animations are janky for this purpose, and they have voice acting, but…
The Voice Acting Is Awful: The voice acting in the English dub of the game is abysmally bad, there’s no real way around it. Nothing ends up being so bad it’s good (no Tommy Wiseau here) so it all just ends up being noticeably bad. Characters have no clear direction, so people just read the lines with whatever underlying emotion they want and no one yet has done so in an amusing way. In a couple cases, I swear I’ve heard quality issues too – there’s one voice about 90 minutes in that I swear sounded like someone recorded it on a gaming headset in a normal bedroom – it just had a weird, static flatness in the actual audio of it. I would rather they just didn’t voice act much of it, to be honest – a game pushed by Amazon shouldn’t sound like it hired its voice cast from Fiverr and the director was just a random employee who got pulled in to supervise.
There Are A Lot Of Poorly Explained/Unexplained Systems: The core gameplay is great, love it. But there’s a welcome challenge, and Roster XP versus Character, card collection, Crystalline Aura, multi-level founder’s packs that you can buy one of each to have the bonuses multiple times, daily login bonuses, an adventurer’s tome, and multiple types of quests with no clear explanation of what they are or what the icons mean. The game has a decent prologue whose story is…well, the game’s story…but the gameplay direction is well-built and it gives you a clear sense of what’s what. There is so much the game just has in it and it doesn’t make a really good effort to integrate that in gameplay. There’s mail but you get mail for login rewards and even just for joining a guild, there are all sorts of currencies and collectibles just brimming from UI elements, and so I do find those aspects overwhelmingly complicated for now. Luckily, they’re not base gameplay stuff, so you can safely disregard them until you learn naturally (I think, at least) because the core gameplay is clear enough, even when it intersects these systems (I’ve added stuff to my Adventurer’s Tome because of prompts, although what that does for me or why I’m doing it is…questionable). Skill builds are reconfigurable, which is great, because there is a lot going on when I level and it isn’t fully clear what is happening or why I can (or cannot) spend points on certain skills. If I had read about the game for weeks beforehand or played beta, I probably would be fine – my guildies who were the early ins on this one seem to have their heads above water, but I’m just confused about much of it (and frankly, I shouldn’t need to follow outside sites for that information in any game and a game that expects me to research it outside the gameplay itself is perhaps not well designed!).
I’m Not Sure About The Community Yet: The in-game community, for the hours I’ve been putting into FFXIV as of late, is worse than that game’s, but by how much remains to be seen. I’ve found global chat channels to be annoying messes not worth leaving open, so I’ve already built a tab for what is actually useful chat. Making matters worse (for those global channels), there are stickers akin to Facebook Messenger, so you can just go into a city chat and drop weird emotes. There’s a ton of self-promotion for Twitch channels and nuisances, mostly – it’s not as bad as WoW trade chat could be yet, but it definitely hammers on my “filter this now for an ideal experience” buttons.
The Game Takes Fucking Forever To Load: From clicking play in Steam to the game’s Amazon splash screen takes over a full minute on a modern PC, loading from a PCIE Gen 4 NVME SSD with 7 GB/s read speeds. What in the actual hell is taking it that long? All my friends with all sorts of loading scenarios have reported similar waits as well, so it’s not just a unique bug on my end. I wrote a whole section of this post tonight waiting for the game to launch, no joke!
Freemium Looms Heavily: I haven’t read about what comes at endgame and what I might need to shell out actual cash for (if anything) but boy does the game have the feel of a cash-shop-focused experience. The first menu option in the corner menu is the cash shop, and there’s clear visual distinction of the haves and the have-nots. The good news is that the core gameplay, as I have seen it so far (and what little I have read) seems to be accessible without paying (short of the early access boost that is letting me write this), and so I think this is largely fine (for now). I have my hackles up for predatory monetization, but so far it seems like the formula is a mix of “look cool for $3.99” and “level faster and easier for a monthly subscription” and neither of those bothers me that much.
In spite of the longer list of cons, I do like the core game of Lost Ark a lot so far. I’ve been definitely cruising through it casually in between Savage pulls in FFXIV, but it lends itself well to that kind of gameplay – do an hour, knock out a few quests and gain a couple of levels, and log out. For no-lifing, it’s pretty good – leveling is fast and at least one of my guildies is already 50 and cruising towards the tier 3 level 60 cap.
It’s an enjoyable enough experience this early for me to say that the free launch this Friday is at least worth a look.