If you mix Disney’s “It’s a Small World” theme park ride with Indiana Jones and The Lord of the Rings, you might end up with something akin to the dungeons of the Lost Ark. It’s a game where players zip through enemies like butter, sliding from room to room, all with gorgeous special effects and smooth combat.
There’s nothing subtle or particularly original about Lost Ark’s setting—it combines nearly every MMO and fantasy trope into a single Leviathan campaign—but that’s not the point. It’s a game about flashy action, fantasy of power and stomping through dozens of enemies.
First released in South Korea in 2019, Lost Ark is an isometric MMO-ARPG that has become a hit since its February 11 release in the US and Europe. It soared to the top of the Steam charts, reaching a peak concurrent player count of over 1.3 million. As a glossy free-to-play game, this popularity may not be entirely surprising, but it’s also due to the early stages of Lost Ark and the new players that many players are trying out. It’s an MMO that, unusually, isn’t afraid to make you feel powerful from the start – so the first few hours are a real blast.
From the outset, Lost Ark lets you choose between seven different base classes, from strong warrior to deadly assassin, and then immediately gets to work and asks you to choose a subclass. Conveniently, you can choose to try out these subclasses before making a final decision. You’ll then be released into the world with a ton of combat abilities you’d normally expect to see midway through an MMO. It’s a refreshing way to get you into action right away.
As a bard, I’m a little concerned that my (mostly support class) choices will make my progression in the Lost Ark world difficult. To my surprise, I found myself passing from a distance. Each combat ability feels unique, with spectacular visuals that make your rampage look pretty gorgeous. Each skill has its own skill tree, allowing for some deep tinkering and customization of your build. Crowd control is one of the most satisfying elements of Lost Ark combat, especially when you cast spells on groups of enemies to clean them up neatly. Some courses can get away with spelling spam, but others require a slightly more cautious approach. For example, the Gunslinger can rotate between three different types of guns depending on the situation. A devastating sniper attack on a boss can be very satisfying if you can also dodge the monster’s follow-up attacks.
Now, if you’re looking for a highly developed and nuanced storyline, you probably won’t find it here. The biggest strength of Lost Ark is its combat, the main role of the storyline is to pull you from one area to another. In other words: the story is a bit bland. The Lost Ark immediately sets up an overarching plot of mortals versus demons, which requires a grand quest in the world of Arkesia to collect powerful artifacts. A handful of characters reappear throughout the story, but it’s hard to really connect with any of them because the dialogue is rather blunt and bland.
As this sprawling campaign rumbles in the background, the game is then divided into smaller regional plotlines. The Lost Ark has cleverly structured the main and side quests to allow players to do very little refurbishment – quests can often be turned in at the next location, allowing players to easily traverse the game’s various environments. As you’d expect from an MMO, Lost Ark has quite a bit of filler to expand the content. Many of the early game missions are very basic, requiring you to talk to NPCs, interact with objects, or kill low-level monsters. These smaller quests have you running around the overworld until you finally get to one of the highlights of The Lost Ark’s main questline: instance events or dungeons. Some of these are individual activities, while others can be done in a group – both are excellent.
These action sequences let you move through the room while clearing hordes of enemies, letting you use your abilities to the fullest. The explosions and stunts make these events feel like Hollywood sets. A set of dungeons took us through an old abandoned city, requiring us to avoid traps and zipline the river. In another dungeon, we had to collectively fight demons (basically the Balrog sequence from Lord of the Rings) in a crumbling ancient castle. My personal favorite is the solo event, where I have to almost single-handedly take down a fort, mount a siege tower into battle, clear enemy walls, and then engage in a duel of thrones.
The sets play a climax to the Lost Ark story, and when they arrive, they’re absolutely fantastic. The question, however, is how much padding you have to go through to get to these moments. The main questline has some real pacing issues, and I often feel like a prankster in the world of Lost Ark. I just floated between missions, moving barrels or killing bandits as needed, and it didn’t affect the story much. Killing low-level mobs isn’t the most challenging gameplay-wise, and eventually, combat starts to get stale. The downside of giving players a ton of combat skills at the outset is that it doesn’t leave much room for improvement. While I noticed occasional changes in my combat abilities, the rate of progress felt very slow. I was hoping Lost Ark would leave some trail of loot to convince me to keep trying, but the payoff was pretty stingy (dare I say, some pretty ugly armor designs).
Unfortunately, I’m also going to have to use part of this review to address outdated gender stereotypes that seem to be ingrained in every aspect of the game. Some classes are gender-locked, so you can only play fighter male, or mage female – playing some old gender roles and limiting role-playing options. The female characters have tons of exaggerated walking animations that look ridiculous in serious cutscenes. As a bard, I found my initial outfits to be rudimentary, and things only got worse as the game progressed. When I upgraded, my pants went from booty shorts to lace panties – obviously I had more (or rather, less) to look forward to the future.
Lost Ark has some pretty silly fights, but with no real hooks or motivations — like a compelling story, challenging gameplay, or good loot — the main mission does turn into a real tough one.
There’s also something troubling about the way The Lost Ark is written. In at least the first 30 levels, all of the main characters are male (eg Armen, Kharmine, and Thirain), except for a Galadriel-like character who briefly appears at the beginning of the game. The women are mostly characterized by NPCs with static missions, and only the player characters have any real agency – thanks in part to the fact that everyone in the world treats you like a straight man, no matter what gender you choose. In some cutscenes, the character mistakenly refers to you as “him” even though you’re playing a female character. However, perhaps the most embarrassing part of the game was when I unlocked the stronghold (player island), a maid would giggle nonstop and she wanted to serve and please me. It feels like I accidentally clicked on one of the “play now, my lord” game ads.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to dress your character in skimpy clothing, or wanting to play a super feminine fairy princess. But The Lost Ark gives you so few costume choices that you have to be seriously sexualized, whether or not that suits your character. Writing sometimes makes me feel totally alienated from the game, like I’m an unwanted guest snooping on other people’s power fantasies. For an MMORPG where players should feel empowered to carve their own path, I think this is a real failure.
It’s unusual for an MMO to launch without any technical issues, and while The Lost Ark launched better than most, I should also mention the issue of queue times on central European servers, and gold in game chat Spammers (an MMO classic). The game’s store still feels pretty barren, and the lack of skins is surprising compared to the Korean version. Some of these issues should be resolved over time, but it’s worth knowing about them… If you want to avoid a lot of queues, go for a server in Western Europe.
From reading other players’ descriptions of the game, I’ve heard that Lost Ark’s endgame starting at level 50 really broadens your game options. After I got to level 33 on my protagonist, I was a little reluctant to move on to that level. Lost Ark has some pretty silly fights, but with no real hooks or motivations — like a compelling story, challenging gameplay, or good loot — the main mission does turn into a real tough one.If you were able Bring yourself to complete the questline, and you’ll end up with some truly impressive action sequences. And if you’re just looking for a free game where you can shut down your brain and unwittingly blast waves of enemies, you’re probably going to do worse.