Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Lost Ark: The Story So Far

To listen to me, you'd think I really didn't like Lost Ark at all but, if that was true, I'd have to be some kind of masochist. I downloaded it on Friday morning and by the middle of Tuesday afternoon I'd played for more than fourteen hours. There are mmorpgs I've praised that never saw that much of me.

Since I installed it I have, in fact, played far more Lost Ark than anything else. I've done my dailies in Guild Wars 2, I logged into EverQuest II on Saturday for about half an hour to look at the Erolisi day stuff and I pottered around a bit in Chimeraland but apart from that it's been Lost Ark all the way. 

Clearly I can't be having such a bad time as I've been making out, can I? So what is it that keeps me logging in? Perhaps its about time I made a list of the things I like about the game. There must be something.

And there is but I warn you, it's a controversial pick. I like the questing. And not just the Main Story Quest, either. I enjoy the side quests, too.

The general consensus seems to be that Lost Ark barely pays lip service to narrative. Kaylriene called the story "pretty dreadful". He also described the voice acting as "abysmally bad". Wilhelm was a little more generous. He thought the story was "kind of goofy", something that sounds vaguely acceptable, at least in my book but, like Kaylriene, he also had issues with the voice acting, which he found "stilted and awkward". 

Even Naithin, almost certainly Lost Ark's strongest advocate in this corner of the blogosphere, couldn't offer much in the way of praise for the game's story, settling for an eminently neutral "It exists. It’s… there. Doing vaguely story-like things from time to time."

If only the whole game was in Selfie Mode.

I have seen a couple of people stand up for Lost Ark's quest content, one of them being Aywren. She ends her First Impressions post with a lengthy section on "Story" and I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything she says, for example

"Lost Ark is a good few steps above many translated games that I’ve played in terms of localization."

"Lost Ark’s localization is fairly well done."

"The story has recurring characters that I remember when I see them."

Then there was Krikket, who had some positive thoughts to offer on Lost Ark's side quests:

"Lost Ark does have some pretty compelling zone stories"

I realize that amounts to some fairly faint and qualified praise so I'll elaborate just a little. I'd like to take on the question of the voice acting and whether it's any good or not first.

I've played a lot of localized, translated, imported mmorpgs. Not infrequently the words spoken by the actors do not match those on screen. Sometimes they don't even mean the same thing. It's not at all unusual for the line readings to emphasize the wrong words and sometimes it feels like the actors don't even understand what the words mean.

In a disturbing number of these kinds of titles it's all too easy to believe the voice work was given to unpaid interns, devs who didn't have anything else to do that day or pretty much anyone who happened to walk past the sound studio on the day of recording. Lost Ark doesn't suffer from any of these shortcomings.

I'll say it. If there are dwarves in the game, why can't I be one?
It's true that many of the performances are quite "back". Everyone underacts to a degree, even when the events are supposed to be momentous. I consider that a strength. Not to have to listen to actors who apparently inhale from helium balloons or gargle with broken glass before yodelling every line is a positive pleasure.

Best of all, so far not one single actor has tried out their famous "Scottish" accent, the one that goes down so well at parties after a few drinks and everyone says sounds just like Sean Connery - or is it Sean Bean? Not even the guy playing the Dwarven blacksmith. That alone should win Lost Ark's sound director some kind of award.

Lost Ark does do that thing where only the first line in every dialog gets a sound clip, something I always find distracting, but that seems to be industry standard these days. Voice work is famously expensive so you can see why it happens. I'd prefer either to hear the speech in full or not hear it at all but no-one's asking me what I want. 

So much for the acting. How about the script?

I thought about this one quite a lot. Naithin and I have been having something of a cross-blog conversation about whether or not Lost Ark looks prettier than most games or just pretty enough to get the job done. I said, and I quote, "I think Lost Ark is graphically functional for what it needs to be but to me it very much has the feel of an assembly-line construction, produced to a good standard following very specific, commercial directions."

The quest summaries are worth reading. Some nice lore and scene-setting in there, sometimes.

I do recognize the irony, having used those words to express just how unimpressed I am with what Lost Ark looks like, when I then turn up here trying to explain what's good about the game's writing by using much the same language. The writing in Lost Ark strikes me as solid, professional, commercial work. It's the equivalent of a decent press release or a filler article in a magazine. 

That's not nothing. Plenty of games wish they were that written that well.

It's nothing original, of course. The central plot is eerily similar to the plots of half a dozen imported mmorpgs I've played over the last few years. It's almost spooky how they all follow the same pattern. About the only significant difference this time is that my character doesn't wake up on a beach somewhere with no memory of who they are or how they got there. That probably got left on the cutting room floor with the missing ten levels, as Tyler explained in the comments last time.

Where Lost Ark wins out over several of those, however, is in its admirable clarity of purpose. Some of those other games undoubtedly have more intriguing set-ups with gnarlier plot twists and more surprising reveals but few of them are as clear and easy to follow. At level twenty-eight I can still remember who all the significant characters are, what they're trying to do and why. That's not something I could often say, this far into the story.

I particularly like the end-of-region wrap-ups that send you to say goodbye to some of the people you've helped. I think that might even be an original idea.

What's more, I even care a little. Not a lot, obviously. About as much as I might care about the current story arc in a soap opera I was only watching because I was stuck at home with my leg in a cast. Just enough, in other words, to keep watching to find out if what I think is going to happen next really does.

It's all good, colorful fantasy stuff, too: demons, half-demons, priests, princes, barons and wise women. Now I know there are dwarves in the game it can only be a few more set pieces before a dragon turns up. I could do without all the fights inbetween the speeches but the parts where I just have to go from one person to another passing messages, then sit back and watch some cut scenes, make for some very passable entertainment.

There's a little more to the writing than that, though. So far, at least, it's tonally appropriate to my own sensibilities, something I find more than a tad surprising given some of the observations I was making yesterday about the game's dubious gender politics. 

There's considerably less heroic posturing than I'd have expected, with the two main protagonists being more prone to self-doubt than would usually be the case. It's not just adolescent angst, either, even if both of them do look like they've come straight from an audition for the latest KPop boy band. 

The Nuremberg Defence.

The sequence when the would-be prince refuses to accept the "I was only following orders" defence from the man who just tried to slaughter a whole village worked partiularly well, I thought, especially when he goes on to send the man away for a proper trial to shouts of "Don't let him live!" from the crowd. 

A later sequence, when the prince, accompanied by my character, arrives too late to save the elderly knight, who raised him after his father died and who was "like a grandfather" to him, is unusually moving. Unusually, because the emotional weight is carried not by the dialog (There is none.) but by the animations. The prince stops to look at the body, then walks away, sits down and puts his head in his hands. It's solid writing and it has the intended effect.

There's a lot like this, not just in the main story but in the side quests. As Krikket says, the mechanics of those are very basic; "go here, talk to this guy, kill some beasties" but the quests somehow manage to convey a sense of the character's lives in one or two lines. 

Not going to work here either, buster.

I have a strong aversion to fantasy blockbuster prose, which is one of the reasons I always struggle with the idea that Elder Scrolls Online represents any kind of "good "writing, even for the genre. Lost Ark is much more terse and that suits my taste. 

It's also more demotic. Minor characters sound more like regular people than fantasy archetypes, although it's probably fair to say they still sound like tropes as often as not. I'm not claiming there's much depth but at least the surface is a little scuffed.

At the start, I did say it was the questing I liked, not just the quest writing. When it comes to gameplay, I almost always prefer tasks to quests, so all that going here, talking to this guy, killing some beasties Krikket called out suits me very well. Even better, in Lost Ark it's usually "talk to that guy just over there - he's about fifty yards away" or "kill some beasties, two or three will do. You'll find them about fity yards beyond that guy I asked you to talk to a minute ago".

That's a rhetorical question, right?

When I'm out doing quests like those, Lost Ark does feel like an mmorpg. The fights are small-scale, the mobs are tough enough to take a few hits, I have time to think about what I'm doing, pick my attacks instead of button-mashing and generally play the way I normally like to play. 

Similarly, when I'm doing the various quests that attempt to explain some of the game's myriad systems, I find I'm having a fairly good time. I don't want to learn how to use the systems - God forbid! I just like going from NPC to NPC clicking on things and reading the dialog.

The world of Lost Ark is very compact and very safe. The zones are tiny, there's no fog of war, everything you need is marked on the map, which even comes with a see-through version you can use as a kind of visual Sat-Nav. Even though most mobs are aggressive in theory, in practice you can stand within inches of them without them paying any attention and you can run faster than they can, even on foot. It's supremely easy to just ride through everything in your way, do the quest stuff, then ride back without anything interrupting the flow.

All of this makes for very easy gaming. The story parts are just about interesting enough to keep me awake and the task parts give me something to do with my hands. If Lost Ark was a regular 3D mmorpg, even one with action combat, I'd be saying some quite complimentary things about it instead of sniping and snarking about its flaws.

An unsettlingly moving moment. You had to be there, I guess.

For the sake of journalistic integrity, I should probably also confirm that I'm finding it less boring than I was. It's still not exactly what you call exciting but I will admit that so long as I can find quests to do it passes the time adequately. 

Given that the questing seems to me to be the best thing about Lost Ark, I'm very curious to know what the supposed endgame is, considering every levelling guide I've looked at advises people to do as few quests as possible outside the MSQ and to get through even that as fast as possible. Why? What's waiting at the end that's so great?

I suspect I will never find out. I might make it to the end but I wouldn't count on it. I'm determined to get my boat, at least. I might even want to finish the story to see how it all turns out for the half-demon priest and the diffident prince. And who knows, maybe by then the rest of the game will have grown on me and I won't be able to remember why I ever found it boring in the first place.

I'm getting that damn boat, anyway. After that, we'll see.


  1. The odd thing about Lost Ark zones is that they don't really feel like zones, more like a connected series of event locations, with some dungeons along the way. It isn't bad, but it has a world the way Diablo III has a world, at least as far as I have gotten. But these aren't EQ zones... or WoW or even EQII zones.

    The voice acting has grown on me in a perverse sort of way. The reads are pretty funny at times, but even better can be the transcription above the NPCs, which often include the emotive sounds, like "sigh" or "ha ha" that don't really match what has been said. My favorite NPC is the nameless woman in Neria's Inn who actually has multiple lines about getting drunk.

    1. To me, the "zones" feel like dungeon levels, only outdoors. They're a series of rooms separated by corridors. The first version of FFXIV worked the same way and people complained about it bitterlly at the time but Lost Ark seems to be attracting a very different audience.

      Most of my comments on the voice acting are based on the quest NPCs. I haven't really paid much attention to the incidental, ambient background conversations. I'm going to have to take a closer look and listen to them. I know the drunk woman but I haven't spent long enough in the inn to hear her say more than one thing.

  2. Interestingly, since that three days in post you quoted, I've become significantly more invested in the story. I'm now curious whether that bodes well for your interest in these later segments or not. Hah.

    I have some hope that our views may still align in this case though actually, as what I like are mostly elements Krikket and yourself have highlighted around the strong zone stories and the people there.

    I also really like the 'Alright, I'm mostly done- but time to say goodbye and otherwise get some closure' questlines too. I also enjoy that there is often a reason to go back and revisit past areas and the events that took place are for the most part acknowledged (implicitly at least) to have actually happened.

    1. I'm fairly sure that if Lost Ark was a regular, imported, translated, localized 3D mmorpg like so many others, I'd be the one talking it up and everyone else would be shaking their heads. It's pretty much identical in that respect to maybe a dozen or more titles I've played, better than some, worse than others. My take is that it's purely the ARPG elements that have turned it into a huge hit with people who'd never dream of playing Blade and Soul or Revelation Online. I imagine most of that audience would be just as happy to see the mmo trappings ditched altogether in favor of the kind of content they prefer as the game develops.

      I genuinely have no idea what the endgame content that everyone's racing towards even is. In an mmorpg it would usually be raiding and in cash-shop games it's often cosmetics and ways to show off but in an ARPG I don't have a clue, never having played one that far. And even in all the many blog posts I've read about ARPGs, all people seem to do is follow the story, then do it again on harder difficulty or with a different class. In Lost Ark the story seems to be of no interest to anyone much and everyone I hear talking about the leveling process just wants to get it out of the way as fast as possible. What comes after that I literally have no idea.

      I don't think I'll ever get past the combination of isometric pov and fixed camera. That's just too restrictive for me, no matter how much I might end up liking the actual content. It feels like trying to take a pleasant stroll in the countryside while wearing a nineteenth century diving suit with lead boots and a full face helmet.

  3. I never tire of your views on different video games. Many I will never play because I just don't make time for them. However, I often feel like I've played them at least partly because of your experiences. I've tried multiple games because of your blog and have never been disappointed.

    I don't always agree, I found Elder Scrolls Online worth a few months of play but I respect your opinions on it. I still go back to Everquest II every so often in no small part because of your blog (also it's just a great game).

    Lost Ark sounds like something I want to try if only to see if I have the same experience. Thanks for testing the waters on so many games.


    1. Thanks so much for that comment! I write mostly for my own entertainment but it's great to know that some of it also entertains others. I've discovered and tried plenty of games thanks to the enthusiastic reporting of others so it's nice to be able to pay some of that back.


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