Lost Ark is a bit of a strange case: it’s new in the global market, but has been one of the most-played games on earth for several years. Developed by a somewhat experienced Korean studio called Gamesmile and distributed worldwide by Amazon, Lost Ark is unique in the sense that it’s new, but proven – a rising star, but also an established hit, with a fanbase dedicated enough to commit identity theft just to play it on Korean servers.
Now that Lost Ark is officially available in North America, Latin America, and Europe, it’s gaining runaway popularity and new critical attention. As a game, Lost Ark is uniquely brilliant at insinuating a kind of cruel optimism in the player, seducing you into desiring something you can never have, while teasing you for your futile devotion to the pursuit. The temptation starts early: as soon as you select a character, you’re given a chance to test different classes using high-level abilities and armour. From this first taste of power, you then set off on a journey of potentially many thousands of hours.
In Lost Ark, you are an adventurer who arrives in the land of Arkesia to find an Ark, a long-lost powerful relic. For reasons barely explained, you – and the million adventurers just like you – are the only one powerful enough to defeat the demons keeping you from finding the Ark, but without the Ark, you can never defeat them once and for all. It’s a narrative tautology: you need the Ark because you don’t have the Ark, and if you had the Ark you wouldn’t need the Ark. The same is basically true of the loot, which is the real star of the show. You need stronger gear to defeat stronger monsters to get stronger gear. There’s a vague power cap in the ‘i-level’ of gear you can equip, but that’s not really the point. The point is the pursuit of power, not the power itself, and the story reflects that.
The plot of Lost Ark is disposable, which is one of its greatest strengths. Unlike its competitors – even those with the most rudimentary plots – no one, to my knowledge, plays Lost Ark for the story. There certainly is a long-running soap opera here, with a bunch of sexy, pale, skinny magical heroes fighting over arbitrarily magical artifacts. There are plot twists, if you can call them that, but the story’s true purpose is to deliver you to the next set piece, and these are absolutely worth the time investment. In the dungeons, bosses, and raids of Lost Ark, there aren’t many original ideas, and that’s absolutely fine because what’s there is absolutely brilliant.
In one early dungeon, you’ll swing through Maya-inspired ruins that could come straight from Uncharted. In a later area, your character will fight seemingly giant ants and crows after shrinking down to miniature size, like Alice in Wonderland. In one raid, a sorceress changes the seasons under your feet, spreading a snowfield beneath you as you wind up an attack. Moments like these are where Lost Ark thrives and outshines the competition. In terms of spectacle and visual design, this is the absolute cutting edge.
Underneath that flash and flair, there’s a substantive action-RPG with compelling mechanics that demand and deserve your attention. Lost Ark signals this early: in a boss fight during the tutorial, I missed a roll and found myself launched into the air by a massive insect that proceeded to take half my life bar with a combo of bites and slashes. Despite its MMO sensibilities, combat in Lost Ark is far more than a game of numbers; it takes skill, awareness, and positioning.
Over the course of the 30 or so hours of the main campaign, Lost Ark ramps up the difficulty in a subtle, masterfully paced process. As you explore each new area, you’ll gradually come across new mechanics, new trap designs, new enemy types boasting new attacks, and a hundred other devious contrivances all designed to part you from your health potions and extra lives. Each area culminates in a dungeon that ties all this together, like a classic Mario level introducing a new complication and then ramping up the complexity, slowly at first, and then very quickly.
The same applies to the various systems at play in Lost Ark. At first you have your character, a few abilities, and a couple of items. Before long you’ll have a pet, ability loadouts, crafting, gathering, hunting, guilds, collectibles, PvP, account levels, seafaring, mounts, and an array of other puzzle boxes to play with. But somehow I never felt overwhelmed. Playing through the early game, I often found myself craving more complexity at the exact moment that a new wrinkle was introduced to me. Like any MMO, the leveling process is really a tutorial for the endgame, and here, that tutorial is mostly subtle and engaging.
It’s a great source of relief in this process that you can play through almost all of it with a friend, right from the start. Making characters and joining a party together is relatively seamless, even – or maybe especially – when compared to other MMOs or dungeon crawlers that somehow make the act of playing with your friends a chore. New World’s unpredictable starting locations and Diablo 2 Resurrected’s unstable lobbies both come to mind. Even if you don’t care about raiding, guilds, PvP, or any of the MMO features, Lost Ark offers one of the best co-op dungeon crawling experiences in recent memory.
The honest joy of teaming up with other players to blast through hordes of enemies is sweet enough for me to swallow the bitter pill of the cash shop monetisation, and accept it as a simple fact of the times. When I die in a dungeon and I’m asked to burn a revive, which I can buy in the cash shop for a modest fee, it’s pretty easy to compare that to just putting a quarter in an arcade machine. Then you push a little bit farther and Lost Ark looks less like an arcade machine and more like a slot machine.
The main offender is the honing system, which will be familiar if you’ve played free MMOs from Korea or China, and possibly shocking if you haven’t. To access Tier 2 content – currently the ‘endgame’ in the global release of Lost Ark – you need to have six pieces of equipment upgraded 15 times each, which is 90 upgrades in total. To complete each upgrade, you need a series of materials gathered from time-gated daily and weekly activities, and each upgrade has a chance to fail. The first tier of upgrades has a 90% success rate, gradually falling to 40% for the 15th and final upgrade level needed to advance to Tier 2 content. Your odds of completing all your upgrades with no repeats are not good, even with a ‘pity’ system that gradually improves your chance of success the more you fail.
The result is a roulette that forces you to grind another day or week’s worth of materials. For most players, this grind to the next tier basically is the content of Lost Ark, and if you want to skip it, you can buy many of the materials you need in the cash shop, or buy an item that reduces the failure rate of upgrades.
For most players, this will be experienced as a low level annoyance, and especially in my home country of the US, many will dutifully grind their way past the RNG check and insist that they did all of this without resorting to the corrupt cash shop, and I am sure they will have a great time. Fortunately, the range of raids, chaos dungeons, treasure maps, and monster hunts keeps the grind from becoming tedious.
For another subset of players, they will feel compelled to pay. This will be felt most especially among those with executive dysfunction, whales who absolutely need to be the first in their server to reach the maximum power level, and those with gambling addictions, which is where the concern arises.
It’s easy to say that people with gambling addictions should avoid Lost Ark, and freemium games in general, but my concern is that Lost Ark will turn many of its players into gambling addicts. As I said earlier: Lost Ark teaches you cruel optimism. It’s like you go to the fair at the boardwalk, and you see all of the giant stuffed animals and fancy prizes with extraordinary ticket prices. That’s the taste of power you get at the start of Lost Ark, which gradually diminishes as your enemies grow in strength relatively faster than you do. To get the prize, you spend more and more on the carnival games, hoping for a jackpot. Lost Ark softens the bargain by using pity systems, and by letting you pay with your time instead of your money, but is that any better?
For my time with Lost Ark, it turned me into a hamster on a wheel, and I absolutely loved every second of it. To look at the mechanics of it, Lost Ark is nearly perfect: the dungeon crawling is rewarding, the PvP is nuanced and dynamic, the raids are inspired, the designs are enticing, the monetisation – however powerful – is unobtrusive. Every cog and gear is masterfully crafted, even the ones designed to extract thousands of hours and hundreds of dollars on punishing, greed- and guilt-driven grinds in the middle of an otherwise splendid game. The brilliance of its design takes an insidious sheen when it comes to its monetisation, yet brilliant it remains.
Lost Ark review
A superb dungeon crawler that’s held back from perfection by some crude monetisation practises and half-baked dialogue.