If you mixed together Disney's "It's a Small World" theme park ride with Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings, you might end up with something resembling the dungeons of Lost Ark. It's a game punctuated by set pieces where players roll through enemies like butter, gliding from one room to the next, all with gorgeous special effects and slick combat.
There's nothing subtle or particularly original about Lost Ark's settings - it combines nearly every MMO and fantasy trope into one leviathan campaign - but that's not the point. It's a game about flashy action, power fantasies, and stomping on dozens of enemies.
First released in Korea in 2019, Lost Ark is an isometric MMO-ARPG that has already made a splash since its American and European release on 11th February. It's rocketed towards the top of the Steam charts, reaching a huge peak concurrent player count of over 1.3m. As a glossy free-to-play game, perhaps this popularity isn't totally surprising, but it's also a credit to Lost Ark's early stages and onboarding that so many players are giving it a try. It's an MMO that, unusually, isn't afraid to make you feel powerful from the start - and as a result the first few hours are a real blast.
From the outset, Lost Ark gives you the option to pick between seven different base classes, ranging from beefy warriors to deadly assassins, before immediately getting down to business and asking you to choose a subclass. Handily, you're given the option to take these subclasses for a spin before making a final decision. You're then unleashed into the world with a generous set of combat abilities that you'd typically expect to see mid-way through an MMO. It's a refreshing approach that allows you to immediately get stuck into the action.
Playing as a Bard, I was a little concerned that my (predominantly support-class) choice would make progression difficult through the world of Lost Ark. To my surprise, I found myself instantly mashing enemies by layering area-of-effect spells from a distance. Each combat ability feels unique, with spectacular visual effects that make your rampages look rather gorgeous. Every ability also has its own skill tree, allowing for some in-depth tinkering and customisation of your build. Crowd control is one of the most satisfying elements of Lost Ark's combat, particularly when you land a spell over a group of enemies to neatly clean them up. Certain classes can get away with spell-spamming, but others require a slightly more careful approach. The Gunslinger, for instance, can rotate between three different types of gun depending on the situation. Landing a devastating sniper attack on a boss can feel supremely satisfying, providing you can also dodge the monster's follow-up attacks.
Now, if you're looking for a highly developed and nuanced storyline, you're probably not going to find it here. Lost Ark's greatest strength is its combat, with the storyline mainly functioning as a way to pull you from area to area. In other words: the story is a little bland. Lost Ark immediately sets up an overarching plot of mortals versus demons, which requires a grand quest through the world of Arkesia to collect powerful artefacts. A handful of characters reappear throughout the story, but due to the fairly stilted and uninspiring dialogue, it's difficult to truly connect with any of them.
With this vast campaign rumbling on in the background, the game is then divided into smaller regional plotlines. Lost Ark cleverly structures its main and side quests so that the player has to do very little retreading - quests can usually be handed in at the next location, so players can simply steam through each of the game's varied environments. As you'd expect from an MMO, there's a fair bit of padding in Lost Ark to stretch out the content. Many of the early-game quests are quite basic, requiring you to talk to NPCs, interact with objects, or kill low-level mobs. These smaller quests keep you running through the main world until it's finally time to take on one of the highlights of Lost Ark's main questline: an instanced event or dungeon. Some of these are solo events, while others can be completed in a group - and both are absolutely brilliant.
These action sequences see you running through rooms while clearing hordes of enemies, allowing you to use the full extent of your abilities. Explosions and stunts make these events feel like Hollywood sets. One group dungeon took us through an ancient abandoned city, requiring us to avoid traps and to zip-line over rivers. In another dungeon, we had to collectively fight a demon inside a collapsing old castle (basically, the Balrog sequence from The Fellowship of the Ring). My personal favourite was a solo event in which I had to almost single-handedly take down a fortress, riding a siege tower into battle before clearing the walls of enemies, and then taking part in a throne-room showdown.
These set pieces function as climaxes in Lost Ark's story, and when they arrive, they're absolutely fantastic. The problem, however, is just how much padding you have to wade through to get to these moments. The main questline has some real pacing issues, and I often felt like a poltergeist in Lost Ark's world. I was merely floating between missions, moving barrels or killing bandits as required, and not making much of an impact on the story. Killing low-level mobs isn't the most challenging in terms of gameplay, and eventually, the combat began to feel stale. The downside to giving players access to a bunch of combat skills at the start is that it doesn't leave a lot of room for progression. While I noticed the occasional change to my combat abilities, the rate of progress felt very slow. I was hoping Lost Ark would leave a breadcrumb trail of loot to convince me to grind on, but the rewards were rather stingy (with, dare I say it, some pretty ugly armour designs).
Unfortunately, I'm also going to have to dedicate a portion of this review to address the antiquated gender stereotypes that are hard-baked into seemingly every aspect of the game. Certain classes are gender-locked so that you can only play a warrior as a man, or a mage as a woman - playing into some old gender roles and limiting roleplaying options. Femme characters have massively exaggerated walking animations which look ridiculous in serious cutscenes. As a bard, I found my initial outfits to be on the skimpy side, and things only got worse as I progressed further into the game. My trousers went from booty shorts to lace panties as I levelled up - and apparently I have more (or rather, less) to look forward to in future.
Lost Ark has some fantastically silly combat, but without a real hook or motivation to grind - like a compelling story, challenging gameplay or good loot - the main quest does turn into a real slog.
There are annoyances, too, in the way Lost Ark is written. For at least the first thirty levels all the main characters are male (such as Armen, Kharmine and Thirain), aside from the brief appearance of a Galadriel-like figure at the start of the game. Women mostly feature as static quest-giving NPCs, and only the player-character has any real agency - thanks in part to everyone in the world treating you like a straight man, regardless of your chosen gender. In some cutscenes, characters will incorrectly refer to you as "he" even when playing as a woman. Perhaps the most embarrassing part of the game, however, was when I unlocked strongholds (player islands) and was greeted by a maid who wouldn't stop simpering about how much she wanted to serve and please me. It felt like I'd accidentally clicked on one of those "play now, my lord" game ads.
Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting to dress your character in skimpy clothing, or wanting to play as an ultra-feminine fairy princess. But Lost Ark gives you so little choice over clothing that you're forced into being heavily sexualised, whether that suits your character or not. The writing sometimes made me feel completely alienated from the game, like I was an unwelcome guest peering into someone else's power fantasy. For an MMORPG where players should feel empowered to carve out their own paths, I think that's a real failing.
It's unusual for an MMO to launch without any technical issues, and although Lost Ark's rollout has been better than most, I should also mention that there have been problems with queue times for Europe Central servers, along with gold spammers in the game's chat (an MMO classic). The game's shop still feels pretty barren, with a surprising lack of skins compared to the Korean version. Some of these issues should be ironed out with time, but it's worth being aware of them... and choosing a Europe West region server if you want to avoid massive queues.
From reading other players' accounts of the game, I have heard that Lost Ark's endgame, which begins at level 50, does broaden out your gameplay options. Having played until level 33 on my main character, I'm a little reluctant to continue pushing through to that level. Lost Ark has some fantastically silly combat, but without a real hook or motivation to grind - like a compelling story, challenging gameplay or good loot - the main quest does turn into a real slog. If you can bring yourself to grind through the questline, you'll eventually be rewarded with some truly impressive action sequences. And if you're just looking for a free game where you can shut your brain off and mindlessly blast through waves of enemies, well, you could do a hell of a lot worse.