Lost Ark Review – Free-To-Play Brilliance
Overall - 95%
Despite its brilliance, Lost Ark's ARPG nature won't be for everyone. However, if you've been yearning for a new free-to-play experience to explore, you won't get much better than this. The combat is exciting, the progression is quick and accessible, everything about Lost Ark screams a level of quality we've not seen in an MMO for many years.
Originally released in South Korea back in 2019, Lost Ark is a free-to-play isometric ARPG developed by Tripod Studio and Smilegate RPG. After a successful launch in the East, Amazon Games looks to continue that success, publishing the game for Western audiences via Steam.
It’s been many years since anything took the free-to-play genre by storm. A genre all too frequently victim to games that lack imagination and innovation, trading quality for quantity, all looking to become the next big thing by standing on the shoulders of giants, and more often than not, they fall short.
However, some look to brave new grounds, raise the bar, bring the free-to-play genre back to the forefront of the MMO space. Lost Ark is one such game.
Lost Ark Review
If I’m being honest, I didn’t dive into Lost Ark with very high expectations. I knew I’d enjoy the game, I’m a big fan of ARPG’s when done correctly, but I wasn’t expecting much more than that. It took about 30 minutes before I realized this is not your average free-to-play cash-in ARPG (I’m looking at you Magic: Legends).
Lost Ark begins with a brief prologue that wastes little time impressing and dazzling with gorgeously rendered cutscenes, fantastic graphics, and beautiful environments. The game looks mesmerizing, something infinitely more impressive when it’s in the free-to-play space. Every single picture in this article was taken in-game of either gameplay or cutscenes; it looks that good.
Feelings and emotions I usually only experience in big AAA releases or indie darlings with creative art styles are felt in abundance. Pausing to admire a sprawling view, backtracking to check out the horizon after a tense battle, feeling somber after a particularly hard-hitting bit of story, Lost Ark has it all.
While the story itself feels somewhat familiar, the end of the world is nigh and you’re the only one that can stop it, it’s as deep and engaging as any full-priced title in the modern space. I don’t recall the last time I even remotely cared about a story in an online game. Final Fantasy XIV, while boasting a fantastic story, delivers it at such a slow pace, I get bored reading the dialogue. Lost Ark combines voiced-over content with fantastic cut-scenes and anime-style NPC showdowns to deliver a story that I would fully appreciate and enjoy if that was all the game had to offer but boy, there’s more.
The core mechanics of Lost Ark will immediately feel familiar to anyone with experience in the ARPG space. With the isometric viewpoint, the clanging of excessive loot as it drops to the floor, the sometimes endless waves of enemies that get blown to every corner of the screen; Lost Ark takes the very best of the ARPG genre and delivers it to near-perfect execution.
Lost Ark’s combat features five unique classes (there’s more to come), with each class including two to four advanced classes. While there are different archetypes, the holy trinity of tank, DPS, and healer doesn’t play a huge role. Every class can be devastating in combat, completely self-sufficient, and powerful in its own right. For my first playthrough, I played a Warrior Berserker, wielding over-the-top huge armor and a humongous great sword. While basic in execution, it focuses on herding up enemies into a single location before unleashing massive AoE (area of effect) attacks, its destructive power and visual splendor kept it exciting with every single swing. I’ve not had this much fun playing a single class in an MMO since my Champion days in Lord of the Rings Online.
As you would expect with any ARPG, especially one that has had several years of development in another region, the game is awash with features within features and mechanics within mechanics. It can be overwhelming at first, akin to returning to an old MMO after a huge new update has been released, but once you get to grips with it, the level of depth in the customization and progression systems is inspiring. You’re not tied into your classes progression path, you can freely respec and experiment whenever you please. The same can be said with much of the game’s design, play how you want to play.
Lost Ark features relatively quick progression. A new player can easily max out a single class in 20-30 hours, allows players to approach the game from multiple perspectives. If you’re a typical MMO game and want to plow your way through to the end game as quickly as possible, everything has been designed to allow that. You arrive at a hub, scoop up all the quests, follow simple objective markers, and move on to the next hub. It sounds mundane, but it works together so effortlessly, you never stop. You’re constantly completing quests, constantly getting rewards, and always moving forward.
However, if you prefer a more casual and healthier approach to gaming, you can pick up the game for a few hours here and there and still reach the end-game before too long. Never once did the journey to maximum level feel like grinding or hard work, and enjoying the story at a steady pace is more than worth the time, and we’ve not even gotten to the good stuff yet.
Two main features in Lost Ark completely blew me away: The Stronghold system and having your very own ship. Even without these elements, as a free-to-play game Lost Ark is one of the best to hit the market in a decade but combining these elements with everything else the game has to offer, I get excited just writing about it.
The Stronghold system, which you unlock about halfway through the main story, sees your character rewarded with a stronghold after aiding the king. This isn’t some lazy attempt at player housing, you get a series of huge islands that you can customize, decorate, and build on as you progress through the game. It functions much like a traditional city building game on mobile, except without the typical garbage mechanics. You get limited energy per day and can use that energy to send sailors that you’ve hired on adventurers across the high seas, research new upgrades, sign contracts with traveling merchants for goods and supplies, craft consumables for the next big boss fight. It’s an immersive gameplay loop.
You head out and do some quests, get a few levels, earn some new gear, then receive a notification that your newest rare sailor you’ve hired has returned from his quest. You make sure the research is ticking over, craft some potions, it’s a great slowing of pace that complements the typically fast-paced nature of Lost Ark.
Toward the end of the main story, you get given your ship, and then this massive game world just unrolls at your feet. To put it into perspective, the 20-30 hours it took me to reach the max level were spent on Luterra, the landmass to the South. The world is filled with other regions even bigger than Luterra, and the open seas come complete with hazards, bounties, challenges, small islands you can explore, it’s mind-blowing.
I visited one island that was filled with passive animals that were all able to speak. The next region I visited swapped the typical high fantasy setting of Luterra for the more steampunk-themed world of Arthetine. I was riding a hoverboard through a dungeon avoiding lasers and deadly cutting discs, fighting massive robots using a huge mech suit. It all sounds a bit ridiculous, but the production value of the entire experience truly delivers. I lost count of the times I finished a new segment and just thought to myself, that was awesome; I have no idea how they top that.
Despite its brilliance, Lost Ark’s ARPG nature won’t be for everyone. However, if you’ve been yearning for a new free-to-play experience to explore, you won’t get much better than this. The combat is exciting, the progression is quick and accessible, everything about Lost Ark screams a level of quality we’ve not seen in an MMO for many years.
Lost Ark is the best free-to-play game to launch in the last 10 years, and I cannot wait to dive in at full release.
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