Monday, February 21, 2022

Journey's End or Are We Nearly There Yet?

I'm going to begin with a quote from Kaylriene's excellent post entitled "Losing My Way With Lost Ark", in which he nails a number of reasons why the game just isn't working for him the way it seems to be working for others.

"...I can only play for an hour before feeling a sense of ennui and aimlessness..."

Me too. It's a strange sensation. I find myself wanting to play but when I do I find it hard to remember why. Being bored while playing a game I chose to play is a very unusual sensation for me, possibly a unique one. I'm generally very good at knowing when I'm having a good time. When I'm not, I stop.

With Lost Ark, for some reason, I don't. I keep going. I've only played for six hours so far but I know I'll play some more today after I finish writing this. I'll probably play at least one session every day this week. There's an odd pull to the game that I can't figure out and that I don't much like. It almost feels like an unhealthy compulsion.

Partly it's that, as Kaylriene says, people who like the game a lot more than I do keep saying it gets much better, later. But how much later? Certainly not at level fifteen or eighteen or whatever my character's at right now. That mere fact that I can't even remember what level it is speaks to my lack of engagement. 

Really? Maybe you'd let the rest of us in on it, then.


Isn't it a lot to ask, that a player trudge through thirty or forty levels of tedium before the game gets good? Well, yes, but it's a demand many mmorpgs make. It would be unfair to single Lost Ark out for particular opprobrium on that score alone.

Kaylriene, at least, has the comfort of thoroughly enjoying the combat, which he believes has plenty to teach its supposed role-model and progenitor, Diablo. I don't have that lifebelt to cling to. 

I loathe the combat in Lost Ark. I have never liked ARPG combat since the first time I encountered it in Dungeon Siege, one of the most disappointing purchases I have ever made, so I wasn't expecting to but it's even worse than I imagined it would be. If I already objected to the fundemental concept of ARPG combat, the implementation here just gives me more reason to dislike it.

My starting point is that ARPG combat is infantile and inane. It's mechanical to a disturbing degree: faceless, souless mobs feeding themselves into the maw of your whirling weapons or blazing spells, like cattle mindlessly charging towards the abattoir gates. Making that process, as Kaylriene puts it, skill-dense, really doesn't improve matters. It just makes it annoying and fiddly as well as stupid. 

Listen kid, don't start complaining. At leas she lets you wear flats.

The odd thing about the way Lost Ark plays, though, is that during the side quests, when NPCs ask for the usual help with things they should be sorting out for themselves, the ARPG combat almost goes away. Instead of a counter that asks you to kill eighty or a hundred mobs, you're tasked with killing three or five. You fight them individually and it feels like any other mmorpg.

When Lost Ark is like that I quite enjoy it. There are still many reasons why I enjoy it less than most other mmorpgs doing the same thing but it is at least tolerable, sometimes even fun, for a short while. 

It's better still, when there's no combat at all. The best time I had with the game on Saturday, the last time I played, (I was working all day Sunday and then writing a blog post in the evening.) was when I was sent all over the first town to talk to various NPCs in order to learn about some of the game's many systems.

That, however, only happened after a bizarre and extremely unpleasant Main Quest sequence, involving a truly ridiculous amount of slaughter. The entire town was invaded by an army of demons and put to the torch. Literally the whole town was ablaze. The streets were full of demons and the buildings were all on fire. The townsfolk were cowering in terror as well they should have been. There was a face-off in the cathedral between the forces of Evil and Maybe-Going-To-Be-Evil-Later and then... 

I can't help but imagine a couple of seven-year olds gripping those characters, yelling "Pew! Pew! You're dead!", "No I'm not. You are!"

...and then it all stopped. The town was back to normal as if nothing had happened. To be strictly fair, there was some ambient dialog that referred to the events but there was no damage to the buildings, no-one seemed to have died. All the markets and the bars were open and it was business as usual.

The emotional effect that had on me was exceptionally confusing. I was very pleased the town was back to what it was. I had been expecting to emerge from the cathedral to a smoking ruin and the prospect was seriously pissing me off, so the relief was palpable.

On the other hand, I'd hated the whole event as it was happening. I found the fighting onerous and dull and it took far too long. Having gone through all that just for the whole thing to be wiped away as if it had never happened made me feel, even more intensely than while it was happening, that I'd wasted twenty minutes of my life, time I could more valuably have spent doing just about anything else. 

Would that be "hottest" as in "charred by hell-fire"? Or do you mean... wait, I don't think I want to know.


These are not the kinds of feelings for which I come to video games in general or mmorpgs in particular. In the case of Lost Ark, I feel the core problem is that it's two entirely different genres, roughly and thoughtlessly hammered together.

As Kaylriene says, that is "not a model for sustainable gameplay." He would like to get rid of all the mmorpg trappings and turn Lost Ark into a pure ARPG. I feel just the opposite. It seems to me that there might be a half-way decent mmorpg in there, somewhere, although I wouldn't go much further than that. I'd quite like to see it given the chance to breathe, without the ARPG combat buggering everything up at every turn.

Even then, though, I very much doubt it would be an mmorpg I'd want to play for long. I have almost as much of a problem with the graphics as I do the combat. I don't believe 2.5D isometric graphics are the best choice for mmorpg gameplay but given free camera movement I can just about get past that. With a fixed camera, though, it's really not a tenable proposition. 

Like almost every screenshot I've taken, this is from a cut scene. It's about the only time I can really see what I'm looking at.


There's an opinion I've seen expressed that Lost Ark is a beautiful game. Is it, though? I find it hard to say because I can't see most of it. It's too small to make out the details when you're fighing or travelling but if you stop and pull in the focus for a close look you can only see what's directly in front of you. 

About the only time I get any real idea what I'm looking it at is when I click on one of the Vistas, which work exactly like their namesakes in Guild Wars 2. Then the camera spirals and swoops and behaves like a normal camera should, adding insult to injury for a few seconds. For some reason, those panoramic views are always slightly blurred, possibly to obfuscate the generic and bland scenery they reveal.

I've also noticed already that there's some heavy reuse of art assets in the set design. I know all mmorpgs do it but it usually takes a lot longer than this before I notice. I suspect Lost Ark's no worse in that respect than, say, Black Desert or Bless Unleashed, or any of the other worlds where oil paintings lean in stacks against the walls of every market town but the lack of any opportunity to swivel the camera up, down or around to look at the environment as a whole only serves to emphasize the repetition. 

Okay, that's an art asset I can really appreciate.


The maps I've seen so far are also extremely linear. They remind me very much of the ones from the first iteration of Final Fantasy XIV, before it was re-tooled into A Realm Revisited. They're all mazes with hard walls to stop you straying. They might as well be dungeons with the roofs taken off. If this is supposed to be a world it definitely doesn't feel like one, more like a series of outdoor rooms.

It's true you are free to explore. I tried dropping the main quest and wandering around a few times. It's unrewarding. There's little to see and even less to do. Except for the NPCs offering quests there are no interactables in the environment. I understand gathering plays a part eventually but at this stage there are no nodes to cause the kinds of distraction Kaylriene complains of.

Other things he has bad things to say about include the community and the character animations. I can't comment on the first for the simple reason that virtually the only "conversation" I've seen since the moment I set foot in the game has been a seamless scroll of gold spam. Very occasionally a single sentence about something other than selling silver or gold will bob to the surface for a moment, before being swept away on the tide of illegal currency trading.

As for the animations, I quite liked the way my character moved until watched her walk away. At first I almost laughed. It was so outrageously camp. When you appreciate the context, however, as Kaylriene points out in some detail, it really isn't funny at all. It is indeed a "completely unrealistic, objectified, and very odd way to walk." Even if you don't find it subjectively offensive or gender-politically unacceptable, both of which I do, the fact that it's the only option available most definitely makes it objectively terrible game design.

All of these factors and many more make it seem extremely unlikely that, even if the game does ever, as promised, open out into some kind of free-roaming, gathering-focused sandbox, it would be one I'd choose to spend much time with. I already have a game that does all of that, but it also lets me choose from dozens more different body-types, decide freely on my own gender identity, walk how I please, including skipping, all while I swing the camera every which way so I can fully appreciate the beautiful world around me. How Lost Ark is meant to compete with all of that I can't imagine.

As for the seemingly never-ending torrent of systems and mechanics that Kaylriene describes as "incredibly overwhelming" and "a bit too much", I'm not quite so bothered about them. For my own tastes I'd separate those into categories of desire or disdain. 

The combat-related ones I find largely unappealing and unwelcome in their complexity but then I rarely find combat skill trees interesting in any mmorpg. The currencies are mildly annoying but I've seen much worse. Ditto the login rewards. The rest of the plethora of systems as outlined at some length in Kaylriene's post seem to me to be very much on a par with just about every other imported mmorpg I've played in the last few years. That's the genre, like it or not.

I don't even find the systems to be particularly poorly explained. Lost Ark probably does as good a job of it as most games of this ilk. The difference, from my perspective, is that whereas I've found the same things fascinating in other games, food for thought and the basis for numerous lengthy blog posts picking apart their complexities, in Lost Ark I can't seem to summon up anything like the same degree of enthusiasm. It has a lot of systems but so what? If I'm not engaged with the game in the first place, why do I care?

Lack of engagement and boredom, those seem to be the key identifiers. And yet I haven't stopped playing. Then again, looking back as I was yesterday, it's clear it generally takes more than a couple of sessions before I give up on an mmorpg altogether. I'm not sure Lost Ark is any more mysteriously tempting than any of those. It's just new and people are talking about it so it has a potency that doesn't relate all that specifically to its own merits.  

Based on prior experience, I'd say for me the tipping point lies some way ahead. I can be stubborn about these things so if I want to see whether the game really does change character once you can sail a boat and the world supposedly opens up, I'll most likely keep playing until I get there, if only out of sheer bloody-mindedness. I do feel, from what other people whose opinions I respect have said, that it would be unfair to come to a judgment before then.

I'd be happy to get to that point and find they were right.  It would be great if Lost Ark were to turn into a game I could really appreciate and enjoy. To arrive at a destination like that would go some way to justifying the hours I'd spent getting there. 

I'm as guilty as anyone for trotting out the old saw about the journey being more important than the destination but that does rely on the journey not being a crashing bore from start to finish. Sometimes its only the prospect of what might come when the journey's over at last that keeps you going to the end.


  1. I found out that you get a boat at level 35, so I am going to stick around until I at least find out what that is about.

    1. That's my target, too. If things don't pick up markedly after that I don't imagine I'll stick around for much longer.

    2. The level you get your boat will vary somewhat depending on how much of the side content you do. For myself, it was Stronghold around level 30 and boat around level 41ish.

      From your experience so far -- in particular if the combat is showing no sign of engaging you whatsoever, I think it'd be difficult to justify the time investment required even that far.

      I was wondering whether the skill points starting to open up more tripod options might make the combat a little better for you, but if you're around the attack on Prideholm section I think that's still at least a little ways off before you can get even to your first Lv 7 skill / 2nd tier tripod.

      As with many ARPGs though, those tripods (or Runes in D3, or whatever else mechanics the game in question may have) can in some cases quite significantly affect how a skill plays.

      One other thing I'll note though, I took upon a challenge to grab some screenshots of Lost Ark not in cutscenes (or even Vistas) to (hopefully!) show how the game can look. The only concession I've made for these challenge shots is to turn the UI off. Probably have that post out soon. :)

    3. As of last night I'm in the mid-20s and just into some zone beginning with Z. I did the sunken city instance and then a bit more. I've not only done every side quest available so far, I also explored every map on the first two (three?) continents and opend all the teleports. It seems as though almost all side quests ar gated by either progress in the MSQ or level, not sure which, because apart from a couple here and there I wasn't offered anything in any of the later zones. I did get the Sudden quests, though.

      I have finally been forced to pay a small amount of attention to the actual combat skills in some of the instanced content, although button mashing still gets most thngs done. If I said I hated the mindless zerg mobs, I hate the Kill Me Eight Times bosses a thousanfd times more. Who ever thought that was a good mechanic? Just give the damn things all the hit points and one bar, for god's sake!

      Anyway, probably should save that for another post, not a comment reply. I am going to get that boat, though. Sunk cost and all that...

  2. The thing I've observed in the Lost Ark posts that you and others have provided is that the graphics remind me of those in cheap hentai/dating sims, and that leaves an uncomfortable taste in my mouth.

    1. The problem isn't so much the look itself as that its the only look you can have. Every new piece of gear I've equipped so far has looked pretty much exactly the same, other than one that was a different color and I did get a choice of hats. I don't really care if other people want to go around looking like you describe so long as I get other options, which so far I haven't.

    2. That was a complaint a friend of mine had about some of the clothing choices in WoW Classic. If you wanted to go with a vixen look, fine, but she wanted the option to not go that route. And too many MMOs just don't do that. I guess you could point to the destructive influence of certain personnel at Blizz for WoW/WoW Classic's issues, but not every dev team had to do that. I mean, TERA (and a lot of other Korean MMO-esque games) makes WoW look like a prude by comparison.

  3. I'm not surprised you don't enjoy Lost Ark's core gameplay. Never really thought it would be for you. What does surprise me is you're not at least getting some joy from the Adventure Tome. Perhaps I don't know your tastes as well as I think, but I did feel like that part of the game would tickle your inner explorer at least.

    I'm similarly surprised by your opinion that the world lacks opportunities for interaction. It may not be quite as rich as something like GW2, but Lost Ark's world definitely feels more rich than many other MMOs I could name. There's Mokoko seeds, specialty dishes/ingredients, hidden stories, secret areas, world bosses, rare spawns... There's so much more to do in each zone than just quests.


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