There’s never been an isometric action RPG quite so expansive or adventurous as Lost Ark. This stylistic, free-to-play MMO is finally about to launch for western audiences after taking South Korea by storm in 2019, and having played a few dozen hours in the test server, it’s not hard to see why it’s been so popular overseas. Its story may be generic fantasy, but there’s a surprising degree of depth to Lost Ark and each of its sprawling systems, and most of its content is accessible to play through by yourself or with friends. It’s the kind of game that’s easy to lose hours in even without spending any money, especially once you get your very own ship and set sail to pave your own path through its mysterious world.
The story of Lost Ark boils down to the now overdone “Humans and Angels team up to fight Demons and save the world” structure, and it suffers from some pretty ham-fisted writing and voice acting that can make the tone and pacing come across awkwardly at times. Action-packed cutscenes often help tell that story, and they tend to be a visual treat, but it’s unfortunate that characters’ emotions are poorly conveyed at basically all times. Character voices can be prone to either exaggerating or ignoring the importance of the moment. This results in them coming across as dull and repetitive, rather than being unique and interesting. Emotional moments are difficult to find.
Screenshots of Lost Ark
The great action sequences are what save it. They are well written and extremely creative enough that they do the bulk of the work for the story. There’s an excellent segment where your character runs through a king’s tomb while being chased by an otherworldly, fire-breathing dragon as the firmaments crumble around you. You’re eventually forced to face it down in a climactic final confrontation, which is equally difficult and satisfying, and even looks great by modern standards – so good, in fact, that it was surprising to learn that Lost Ark is still using Unreal Engine 3.
Each of Lost Ark’s five classes and numerous subclasses have special abilities that define their playstyles. The Assassin can subclass as a demonic Shadowhunter. He is one of the best melee classes in any action-RPG. It’s deeply satisfying to power up the Shadowhunter’s invulnerable Hell Knight form (which you do by consuming the blood of your enemies, naturally) and rip and tear your way through anything that gets in your way. The Striker is another favorite, who builds up a resource and can unleash powerful martial arts-inspired moves. One of these transforms them to a tornado that lifts whole crowds of enemies in the air at once. It is both effective stun power, and fun to see in action.
There’s a slickness to the flow of Lost Ark’s combat that feels more in line with Diablo 3 than games like Diablo 2, Path of Exile, or Grim Dawn. Your hotbar has a set number of skills and special attacks that each have their own cooldowns, but there’s no enforced “type” of skill that needs to go in any one slot. Instead, Lost Ark allows you to mix and match to your heart’s content, which lets you get creative with your character builds. For example, the Striker’s arsenal is mashed up between skills that build its Esoteric Bubble resource and skills that expend that resource to deal incredible bursts of damage. It is possible to ignore the Esoteric Bulge resource and equip yourself with DPS skills with shorter cooldowns that deal more damage quickly. The reverse can be done. You could choose to have more skills that take longer to power up, but pay a higher payout.
Despite the possibility of customization, all classes have a set of mechanical roles. The Bard is a support class, while the Striker is a DPS class and the Gunlancer a tank. However, it’s nice to be able to swap out or respecialize your skills on the fly, and if you’d like to make your fighting style even more dynamic, you can always store grenades and other useful items on your hotbar to supplement your skill loadout even further.
You’ll generally need to fight many enemies at once, and some of your skills require you to hold their respective key down in order to power them up or keep them rolling in a combo, which usually feels good to do since those moves often have the most explosive effects. Another nod to Diablo 3 (the console version, specifically) is that Lost Ark lets you use a limited rolling dodge ability to quickly get out of harm’s way every few seconds, and some battles absolutely require you to make good use of that ability. Red areas (cones or circles) are used to telegraph bosses' attacks. on the floor, giving you a short window of time to leap out of harm’s way.
However, fights begin to stagnate once you’ve bashed your way through swarms of enemies for a few hours. Most enemies rush you in groups that you can easily dispatch by spamming your hotkeys in a steady rotation, and it’s easy to tune out unless you’re specifically fighting a boss with unique mechanics, such as Rekiel of Despair (who’s protected by a special shield that makes his attacks hit harder and make him impervious to being Staggered until you break it by using a Destruction Bomb) or Jagan, the giant dragon demon guarding King Luterra’s Tomb that you need to kill several times as you venture through that dungeon.
What makes Jagan especially interesting is that he rips apart the walls and staircases as you move through the environment, which is impressive, but by comparison it makes normal fights feel like you’re just bashing apart the same identical exploding sacks of gore. You also have to keep in mind that enemies can respawn quickly when you walk through the open world. It would be much more rewarding if they dropped significant amounts of experience points or better loot. But they don't. You can only hope for a piece that gives you a slight boost in stat points, but not visual variation.
Once you’ve finished the short tutorial you can choose to forge ahead into the story content alone or in a party of up to four players. In fact, the only content that absolutely requires you to join a party are the Guardian Raids and Void Dungeons that begin to appear after level 50, and those are largely considered part of Lost Ark’s open-ended endgame – you never have to do them at all if you don’t want to.
The first 10 hours or so are entirely linear, but once you unlock your first ship and head out to the open seas you can theoretically go in any direction you’d like to (but you may want to stick to the upper right side of the map until you reach level 50 because things can get rough out there). Sailing is simpler yet more enjoyable than Pillars of Eternity 2’s, which is my closest point of comparison for what Lost Ark is trying to accomplish as an open-world isometric RPG. Both games give you a ship and say “you can do anything you want as long as you don’t crash it,” but Lost Ark cuts everything that made sailing a boring or trifling experience in Pillars. You may run headfirst into sandstorms or ghost ships which can add tension and risk to your travels. You can also go fishing and find treasure. Your ship needs regular maintenance, compelling you to dock and since you’re limited to teleportation across the continent you’re currently on, you’re provided a real motivation to explore your immediate surroundings whenever you go on shore leave. It’s already great fun to chart a course across the high seas, but I’m extremely excited to see how that system evolves over time.
But if sailing isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways to spend your time. If you’d prefer to run off and try to impress every NPC through the excellent Rapport system, which allows you to use emotes or exchange gift items for rewards, you can do that. Or (after reaching level 26 and unlocking the Luterra Castle zone) you can focus on PvP – though I haven’t been able to do much of that yet due to a tiny population on the test server. Or you can focus on building up your personal stronghold through the decent crafting and gathering systems, which are pretty standard if you’ve played other MMORPGs apart from a few twists of their own, like being able to team up with other players to gather large trees faster. It’s worth mentioning that Lost Ark also conveniently lets any character chop every log and mine every ore node as long as you’ve equipped the right gathering tools and have sufficiently leveled up your respective gathering skills.
Your stronghold is essentially your base of operations after you’ve reached a specific point in the story. You can build and upgrade buildings, place requisitions orders to craft goods, entertain luxury merchants, and assign missions. It’s a cool idea on paper, but I rarely felt a need to ever go back to after a certain point. For me, the deterrent was that stronghold actions require a limited resource to speed things up. That resource is also available for sale for real cash. It feels very much like a Farmville-style mobile game mechanic that shatters the otherwise successful illusion that Lost Ark isn’t out to wring cash out of us. Granted, it’s not essential to engage with your stronghold in order to enjoy the rest of what Lost Ark offers, but it’s the one thing that I might have felt tempted to spend real-world currency on had I invested myself deeper into the crafting systems, which of course, I ended up choosing to avoid.
It is still quite cool to share the gathering skills that fuel them across characters on your accounts. The account-wide Roster level raises the standard for how powerful each character on your account. That means starting a new class doesn’t feel like going all the way back to square one. When I put aside my Striker main and started a Shadowhunter alt, the leveling process was far speedier than I’d remembered it, and I also achieved some extra progress for my Striker, who became more powerful simply because the Roster level went up a few notches in his absence. The only annoyance is that Lost Ark doesn’t apply Roster level rewards automatically, so if you aren’t paying attention, you might just miss the menu where you need to claim the Roster level rewards for the individual character you’re currently playing as.
Most of the meat of Lost Ark’s story unfolds in instanced dungeons and events, which feature tons of elaborate cutscenes that fit seamlessly with all the hacking and slashing you spend much of your time on. Some of these moments are absolutely breathtaking, such as the aforementioned King’s Tomb, or the battle of the Glorious Wall wherein you climb atop a siege tower and bang on a war drum, rallying your troops before landing on the battlements of the castle you and your NPC buds (and your real buds, if you bring any) are sieging. It was a great feeling to be dropped directly into the thick of combat as the camera panned around the battlefield from above, and it sticks in my head as not just a standout moment of Lost Ark but one of the more memorable highlights of any video game I’ve ever played.
The other thing that’s stood out most about Lost Ark thus far is its impressive range of interesting locations. In my travels I’ve discovered a remote library filled with talking books, the far-flung futuristic continent of Arthetine, and an island populated by pixie-esque creatures called Mokokos. Sailing from continent to continent is similar to sailing between the various Disney worlds of Kingdom Hearts in that they’re all completely different and fully realized, and the stark contrast between zones is really that pronounced in Lost Ark. It feels like if you sail in a direction — any direction at all — you might very well find something unexpected and cool. More importantly, the story actually makes use of these different settings to present something new on screen, like the giant salt worm of Yudia.
In order to fully experience what Lost Ark can offer as an MMORPG, I’ll be jumping in to spend more time with it now that other players are running around on the public servers (I’ve only played it solo up to this point) before settling on a final score. Unfortunately, this means that I’ll need to start my progress over from scratch. Sorry folks, it’s New World all over again (sorta). In my favor, I don’t expect Lost Ark to eat up nearly as much of my time as Amazon’s MMO, and since I have less extraneous work on my plate this go-around, I don’t expect to be writing six of these before the end.
All that said, Lost Ark takes a genuinely impressive stab at the isometric action RPG genre, and its integration into a perpetually online world hasn’t seemed too invasive from what I’ve seen so far. It’s expansive and deep, capable of scratching the itch for a new Diablo-like action RPG that is potentially filled with other players to meet and team up with. The excellent and flexible combat system channels the best of its ARPG forebears, but it can start to wear out after you’ve slaughtered your way through enough lower-tier enemies. Lost Ark’s most prominent fault right now, though, is that its generic story can be cheesy due to awkward writing and voice work. But there are other things. Lots of interesting locations to discover as you sail your ship around the open seas, and at the end of the day, this is a world that’s certainly worth the time to explore, even if you never pay a cent for its optional premium boosts.