Black Desert Online Review: a True “Next-Gen” MMORPG that Makes You Feel Small
The MMORPG genre is tired. Since the times of Ultima Online, and even before on the text-only precursors named Multi User Dungeons (yes, I’m old), I have lived through countless adventurers. I have slain an enormous number of monsters, dragons, demons, and all kinds of nasty critters. I have gathered, crafted and traded. I have wielded magical swords and beam sabers. I have loved, hated, persevered, cringed in defeat and exulted in triumph.
In the first fifteen years or so, everything was incredibly impactful. The experience of living in a virtual world so far from our reality, and sharing with so many others like me the experience of braving the unknown, exploring dark dungeons and fighting terrible enemies, was breathtaking. Almost every night I sat at my PC, savoring those fantastic worlds pixel by pixel, and I couldn’t get enough of them.
In the past few years, that sense of adventure and discovery faded. Regardless of their size, those worlds started to feel small and constricted. They felt less like actual worlds, and more like theme parks offering a sequence of rides engineered to provide a certain amount of fun, but they had lost their magic.
I still enjoyed MMORPGs, to an extent, but they simply felt less engaging and immersive. That’s also the main reason why I haven’t been reviewing any for quite a while. Writing reviews for me isn’t much of a matter of providing a judgement or a score, but it’s more a chance to share my experience. Given that the experience had lost part of its meaning, I simply didn’t feel like sharing as much as I used to.
Ultimately, with almost every new game feeling like a fantasy or sci-fi version of Disneyland, and their NPCs looking more and more like costumed characters ready to hand me a balloon, take a picture with me, and politely usher me towards the next ride, those worlds didn’t make me feel small anymore.
Black Desert Online is different.
The story starts a bit on the weird side: your character is woken up by a really, really creepy entity named the Black Spirit, who is somehow fused with your soul, and will act as a sarcastic and pretty nasty guide through your adventures.
The western part of the continent has just come out of a war for supremacy, with the powerful nation of Calpheon having pretty much swallowed all of its neighbors, while mysterious powers stir to the east, in the realms of Mediah and Valencia.
The war left many with a bitter taste in their mouths, and while Calpheon itself is trying to stabilize its power after an apparently peaceful passage from a monarchy to a democracy that feels a lot more like an oligarchy where the oppressive church of Elion seems to have a bit too much power for comfort, the flames of rebellion threaten to burn again in the conquered nation of Serendia.
Add to that your friendly neighborhood evil cult wanting to resurrect a very unfriendly demonic overlord by taking advantage of the political instability, and you have the perfect recipe for trouble.
Needless to say, you’re going to be right in the middle of it all.
Storytelling in Black Desert Online has highs and lows. Most of its main story quests are narrated through cutscenes that range from the quite good to the quite bad, but the main story is actually not as interesting as the story of the world, and the focus on the world is a very relevant and central theme to this game.
While not apparent at first sight, the world of Black Desert is built over an absolutely enormous amount of lore, that you will discover bit by bit via a mechanic named Kowledge. You’ll gain knowledge and and the relative pieces of lore just by poking around a lot and by speaking to a veritable myriad of NPC (those who provide knowledge are normally indicated by an icon, so you won’t need to speak with everyone, even if it’s still fun to do).
Once you acquire knowledge on a topic, it will be available for consultation in a dedicated menu classified by topic, and there are a gazillion of topics, ranging from ecology to academics, characters, topography and many more.
Knowledge also has a gameplay effect: the more knowledge you earn, the more your Energy pool raises. Hold your thought on Energy, because we’ll get back to it later in the review.
The knowledge mechanic also implies that there’s an enormous amount of actually meaningful NPCs, each with his or her own spoken lines, interests and personality. Of course some are more fleshed out than others, but discovering all the little nuances is a pleasure, and it will take you tens of hours.
There are thousands of voice acted lines in the game, but unfortunately the quality isn’t very high, paired with a localization that at times feels a bit shaky. Like cutscenes, delivery has highs and lows, even if some ideas are interesting, like giving different races different accents (and the Scottish accent given to dwarfs is absolutely adorable).
NPCs have proximity lines, that they will say when you’re close by. The basic idea behind this was probably to make the world feel more lively (and it does, but for other reasons entirely). Unfortunately, those lines loop way too fast, and when you’ll hear the midget near Velia’s storage scream “do it better!” for the twentieth time in a few minutes while sorting out your inventory, you’ll want to drown her and her whole midget race (which is named Shai, isn’t playable, and has the absolute power to be irritating across the board).
The soundtrack is quite good, with a variety of tunes from the epic to the somber that underline the various environments very well. Sound effects also do their job nicely, even when combat is involved, contributing to the solid sensation of impacts. Yet, environmental effects are what really shine, providing an ambiance that really brings the world to life.
Mind you, the English voice acting isn’t worse than the original, but that’s mostly because the Korean voices are close to terrible. Unfortunately we don’t have access to the Japanese voice overs, which is a pity because the Japanese publisher used a star-spangled cast there, and the quality is very high across the board.
Of course, the first impact you’ll have with Black Desert Online is the character creation, and here we find ourselves faced with a bit of a conflict between bad and good.
Let’s start with the problem: the game is extremely restrictive on what kind of characters you can create. Classes are race and gender-locked (while some classes have a male and female version, they’re slightly different in their abilities, like Wizard and Witch), so if you want to create a male elven sorcerer… tough luck.
What’s even worse is that some classes are also pretty much age-locked. The wizard character creation is strongly unbalanced towards old men, catering to the Gandalf trope. On the other hand, tamers are all loli-locked. If you want to give your tamer some actual breasts and a more mature look, well… good luck with that.
If your character idea is outside of the parameters set by the game, you’re pretty much out of luck. On the other hand, if it fits those parameters, you’re in for the alter-ego creation of your life.
The character customization suite is the deepest I have ever seen. You can radicaly change pretty much everything, from the bone structure to the size and shape of basically every lock of hair. I spent about two hours to create my own character, and players other managed to come up with extremely impressive celebrity lookalikes or very unique avatars, from beautiful to freaky.
It’s the closest thing to an actual (limited, of course) 3D sculpting program that I have seen within a MMORPG, and it even comes with a built-in poser which has absolutely no utility in game, if not to make your character look good in screenshots.
The character creation will give you the first glimpse on the fact that the game is absolutely gorgeous. Not only characters are beautiful and super-detailed, but environments and lighting are also a joy for the eyes.
The developers at Pearl Abyss actually created a whole new engine for Black Desert Online, in order to make sure that it perfectly fits their needs. The result is that there’s absolutely no other MMORPG currently on the market or coming in the foreseeable future that looks even close to this good.
Strangely, hardware requirements aren’t even that demanding. I have a good PC, but it’s definitely not exceptional with its GTX 970, and this game runs like a dream even in crowded situations, forcing me to drop level of detail from the very best only during world boss fights, when there are hundreds of characters around me.
Lighting and weather effects are two prominent highlights of the graphics, especially in combination with each other. When it rains, water actually accumulates on the ground gradually (and dynamically dries up as it stops raining), on characters and objects, and it looks absolutely stunning. Add a sunset bathing everything in shiny red light, and you’ll instinctively start taking pictures.
One thing is fore sure: there’s no other MMORPG in which a storm looks this good, and the fury of the elements in Black Desert Online would compare favorably even with most modern single player games.
The art style is also absolutely lovely. While most fantasy MMORPG developers err on the side of trying too hard to create environments that look grandiose and exotic, Black Desert is more restrained, portraying cities, forests and mountains that simply make sense. They’re very close to the styles that really existed in Europe and in the Middle East during the middle ages, resulting in a much more coherent world that I personally find very enjoyable.
Speaking of the world, it’s absolutely enormous and completely seamless. Once you load into your character, you won’t see a single loading screen until you log off, no matter where you go. On top of that, at least until you reach the borders of the map, there’s absolutely no limit to the places you can reach.
Black Desert Online has a simple but effective parkhour system, meaning that your character can easily climb over obstacles and reach higher places. While most MMORPG developers try to keep you on the ground and limit your movements as much as possible, Pearl Abyss encourages you to go as high as you can. You can reach the roofs and explore a city from above. If you see a tower, there is a way to climb all the way to the top. If you see a mountain, you can conquer it.
Masterful use of elevation and tall structures creates a wonderful sense of verticality. Not only the areas you can explore are extremely extensive horizontally, but the sky is the limit, almost literally.
The sense of size of the world is enhanced by the fact that the developers made a definitely gutsy move: they did away with fast travel. You read it right, my lovely modern MMO carebears used to trade off immersion for convenience: in Black Desert Online if you want to go somewhere, you have to walk (or ride, or sail) there.
The world feels even larger and more “real” exactly because you actually have to travel. It’s absolutely refreshing because it makes you feel small. That’s one of the sensations that had gone missing in MMORPGs, and now it’s back thanks to Pearl Abyss’ bold bet.
To be fair, there’s a way to “teleport” from one city to the other, but it requires the character to be offline for 60 minutes (which is more than it would take you to walk the same distance). If you need to log off and have something to do elsewhere in the world, this is a handy little shortcut, but otherwise, actually traveling is the way to go. And it’s great.
Incidentally, since we talked about parkhour, animations are another high point of this MMORPG. They look gorgeous in basically every situation, from climbing a wall to fighting. Even idle poses are great, and the developers went as far as implementing little delightful details like the ability to naturally lean against a wall simply by pushing back against it.
Another element that makes the world feel lively and beautiful is the absolutely enormous amount of NPCs walking the streets, conducting business, talking to each other, or simply doing their own stuff. In most MMOs, non player characters are very sparse to save resources. On the other hand, Pearl Abyss went all out in populating cities and villages as much as possible, creating scenes that you would expect in real urban environments, but that you normally don’t get to see within this genre. Again, it’s a joy for the eyes, and it goes a very long way in creating immersion.
For crying out loud, by exploring the world you’ll even end up finding full fledged field battles and sieges between NPCs and monsters, which are absolutely spectacular and contribute to the world’s atmosphere.
All this visual glitz comes with a bit of a price: there is a whole lot of pop-in going on all over the screen. The world is so dense that the engine simply cannot handle streaming everything before it comes into view, with the result that many objects simply appear when they’re already in your field of vision, and this can be distracting.
That said, if I have to choose between a dense, lively and completely seamless world with some pop-in, and the generally dead, dull and constricting environments I see in most other modern MMOs, I’ll choose the former every day of the week and twice on Sundays, without even needing to think about it for more than half a second.
Combat gameplay is certainly one of the most visible selling points of the game. It’s fully action-based, so you can forget the tedious sequence of selecting enemies and then do the same rotation of abilities over and over.
What is truly revolutionary, is the way your keyboard is utilized in battle (controller input is also available for those who prefer that). Forget hotbars and pressing keys from 1 to 0 in order to activate your abilities. There’s a hotbar, but it’s so unnecessary that mine is mostly used for potions and selecting gathering tools on the fly.
Combat actions are activated by combinations of WASD, the surrounding keys and shift, in a way that feels extremely intuitive, quick and technical pretty much like playing a third-person fighting game. Elements like the ability to exploit animation cancels to attack even quicker make that vibe even more solid.
Moves are flashy and extremely well animated, creating a battle system that is impactful, spectacular, and very, very fast. It also feels a bit like a Musou game, as you’ll often find yourself grouping up large numbers of enemies and then obliterating them with powerful area moves.
This is hands-down the most satisfying and interesting combat system that I have seen in a MMORPG, ever. And this isn’t something I say lightly.
Black Desert Online mostly does away with the holy trinity. While some classes are more tanky than others, there are no dedicated healers, and everyone is very capable of dishing out considerable damage. That said, classes have a large variety of moves and differ a lot in terms of gameplay, with the exception of wizard and witch, that are almost the same, even if not completely identical.
Progression is another element that makes the game rather unique. There’s no hard level cap, even if a soft cap currently at level 55 makes leveling much slower after that threshold. This means that you never really stop moving forward, but without the compulsion to churn several levels a day.
As a matter of fact, you don’t even need to fight. Absolutely everything you do in Black Desert online contributes to your progression. Crafting levels you up. Gathering does as well. Talking to NPCs and hunting for lore to gain new knowledge increases your Energy. Even just walking around levels up your Breath stats (which increases your stamina), and doing so with a backpack full of good increases your Strenght (which influences the weight you can carry).
Basically, as long as you’re doing something in Black Desert Online, you’re still contributing to grow your character in one way or another. This has the extremely relaxing effect of mitigating that sense of frantic compulsion to “reach the endgame” that plagues most MMORPGs. You can kick back and enjoy the trip to the top, because you’re never really wasting your time. And the “top” doesn’t really exist anyway.
The game actually puts to good use even the time in which you’re not at the computer at all. You can leave your character to fish automatically, which levels you up and provides you with lots of seafood that you can then process, cook or sell. You can also set a looping path for your fantasy alter-ego to walk or ride around to level up his breath, his strength or his horses.
Thanks to the fact that you can set waypoints on the map and have your character follow them automatically, there are also activities that require very little input, perfect for when you’re busy. As I’m writing this review, my warrior is happily making money for me by trading between cities. All I have to do is to ALT-Tab back into the game to sell and purchase goods once he has reached each destination.
Basically, Black Desert Online is the perfect game for busy people. Of course you can do the same activities faster and better when you’re actually at the controls, but if you have long periods in which you can’t be, the game grants you options that make you feel like you’re using the time constructively and you’re not being left behind.
Black Desert doesn’t really have an “endgame” like most MMORPG players intend it. There are no instanced dungeons or raids. This doesn’t mean that there are no activities to do when you’re at or past the soft cap: they’re just different.
First of all, due to the very nature of the game’s progression, the activities that you’ve done since the very start don’t really end when you reach the soft cap, but they continue pretty much indefinitely. Then there are tons of daily quests, guild wars, summonable group-based bosses and world bosses to fight.
One of the most revolutionary aspects of Black Desert Online is paradoxically that it goes back to something close to the roots of the genre. The gameplay is fun and fullfilling from level one onwards. Leveling up isn’t just a mean to an end, but it’s the bulk of the experience, and since there’s no hard cap, there’s no real end to it.
There are simply so many things to do, that there’s something for everyone, regardless of level.
Even gear progression is quite peculiar. Every piece of gear can be worn at any level, so progression isn’t focused on on getting increasingly powerful new pieces of armor and equipment, but on finding the best fit for your class and then enchanting an d enhancing it over and over, making it grow with you.
Since that’s something that you can do from the very start, and materials from enchanting can be found since early levels, this aspect that is normally limited to the endgame in other MMOs, is more evenly distributed through your whole time within the game.
Speaking of many things to do, Black Desert Online has a veritable myriad of non-combat activities, that are fully fleshed out and extremely satisfying.
You can gather materials, which combined with the beautiful world of the game, feels extremely rewarding, as it encourages exploration. You can process said materials. You can engage in cooking, alchemy, fishing, trading, farming and more.
Each of those activities adds a very sizable layer of depth to the game, and I could spend hours explaining them in detail. They’re also deeply interconnected with each other in a very coherent and interesting way.
For instance trading allows you to purchase goods from NPC traders all over the world, and sell them elsewhere. The farther away it is, the higher the gains. You can also find or create items to trade yourself via various crafting, processing and gathering skills, increasing your earnings even more. Crafting also allows you to build several kinds of different wagons, that can be used to carry more goods faster.
Vehicles are one of the highlights of the game, and besides the wagons mentioned above, you can also build boats. All can be deeply customized with a variety of accessories that change their looks and performance. The attention to detail is so deep, that wear and tear is actually visible, showing weathering and damage on your vehicle as durability drops.
The display of damage isn’t just limited to vehicles, as it also extend to equipment and horse armor. The items worn by you or your mount will show scratches, ripped cloth, notches, dirt and damage as they loose durability, while repairing them restores their original look.
Speaking of horses, they have a whole gameplay system of their own. They’re divided in tiers from 1 to 6 (tiers 7 and 8 still aren’t available in the western version of the game), with increasing speed and stats.
You can find and tame wild horses from tier 1 to 3 in the wilds via a little and enjoyable minigame. Then the real fun starts: as you ride your horses (or attach them to a wagon, which allows you to train up to four horses at the same time, depending on the size of the vehicle), they level up, earning a variety of skills and increasing their stats.
The skill system is extremely satisfying. Since the abilities learned by each horse are random, no two mounts are the same. Some skills make them faster, other allows them to fight, you can even get a rare ability that lets them carry a passenger. Working on creating the perfect steed is a lot of fun.
The fact that horses in Black Desert Online also look awesome and are animated masterfully is certainly an additional bonus.
Leveling up your horses isn’t even the end of the story: once you have leveled them up enough, you can breed them. The higher the combined level of the stud and mare that you’ll use, the higher the chance to get a foal of a higher tier and with better stats. The road to the ultimate steed is long and laborious, but it’s certainly a lot of fun.
Besides your level, there are also three further ways of progression. Skill Points, Energy, that I mentioned above, and Contribution.
Skill points are pretty straightforward, and they are gained by killing monsters and completing certain quests. They allow you to fully customize the abilities at your character’s disposal, and it’s where the lack of a hard level cap comes in. You can basically keep earning skill points with no real end in sight, developing your character horizontally and making him more flexible.
Your energy cap is raised by finding new knowledge, and you spend energy basically every time you perform a crafting or gathering action, on top of other uses which turn it into a valuable currency. It recharges with time, faster if you’re online, and slower if you are offline.
Contribution is another element that makes Black Desert Online really unique: most quests in the game don’t provide leveling experience, but they give you contribution experience. It basically portrays how much influence you have in the world, and can be spent in several ways.
The most basic way is to ask NPCs to lend you items. They can give you useful tools, fences to create your own little garden, or even matchlocks to raise your hunting skill.
Another relevant use is investing into nodes. The whole map of Black Desert Online features a myriad of nodes representing locations of interest or resources. By investing into those nodes, you have two main effects: firstly, that node becomes a link for your personal trade routes. Linking two locations allows you to trade between them with no penalty to your income.
Secondly, investing into a node allows you to send NPC workers to gather resources for you there. Workers are actual NPCs that you can hire and that you actually see walking around and laboring in the world. They’re basically your little servants that amplify your production capabilities tenfold.
Contribution also allows you to acquire houses within cities. Houses can be used as residences, various kinds of workshops (where your workers can create vehicles, furniture, armor, weapons or other items), lodging that allow you to hire even more workers, or storage.
By earning and investing contribution points you can basically extend your grasp on the game’s world, creating trading or manufacturing empires in a surprisingly deep management simulation game within the game, earning you money and commodities in a way that is extremely satisfying and fun to play.
A couple of paragraphs above I mentioned residences, which are Black Desert‘s player housing. You can purchase them in any city via contribution points and you can freely decorate them with a wide variety of crafted and purchased furniture items.
While each residence has many instances in order to accommodate everyone, they actually have a physical location in the city, and gaining access is as easy as opening the door and walking inside. The transition is seamless, and there’s no loading screen. Incidentally, you need a residence to install tools for cooking, alchemy and repairing, and you can have up to five in any city or village that you happen to like.
Another interesting system is the Amity mechanic. Each relevant NPC (and there are hundreds), has an amity gauge that you can increase via a complex conversation minigame. During the minigame you select a sequence of various topics of knowledge that you gained during your travels to spark the interest of the NPC, increasing his or her interest in you.
Increasing an NPC’s amity can bring many rewards like additional quests, the ability to purchase special items, buffs, or even further knowledge that they wouldn’t share with just anyone.
Since, as you may have noticed by now, Black Desert is definitely a game that leans towards a sandbox setup, there’s also plenty PvP to be had, enriched by the action combat that feels really great against other players.
If you’re over level 45, you can attack anyone in the world outside of safe zones (which normally correspond to cities and villages), but the Karma system definitely discourages attacking others without a reason. If you go overboard, you can get to the point in which you won’t be welcome in cities, and guards will take steps to beat you to a pulp. Dying with low karma also determines much steeper penalties, so player killing is allowed but not encouraged.
On the other hand, guild wars allow people to bash each other’s faces in without any penalties. There are also arenas that can be used for duels, and an instanced 40 versus 40 battlefield (which is basically the only place that you’ll access through a loading screen).
The Korean version of the game also has castle sieges and wars for the control of nodes, but those will be introduced in North America and Europe down the line.
The game’s economy is certainly peculiar. Besides for very basic items like potions and low level food, there’s no direct trading between players. If you get a spiffy sword that you don’t need, you won’t be able to give it to a friend, but you’ll have to sell it to others via the game’s marketplace.
Prices are also controlled, with a minimum and maximum price, so you won’t be able to ask an unreasonable amount of money for an item, nor to undercut others too much.
Basically the game is a MMORPG, with an economy that is more similar to a single player game. This caused very vocal protests among part of the playerbase, and it’s still a source of endless controversy.
While the approach may seem very strange for a game that otherwise goes out of its way to be a freeform sandbox and to encourage player freedom, this does have its merits paired with the obvious cons.
This kind of controlled economy completely obliterates the risk of inflation. No one can gouge prices, so no matter how much money enters the system, prices of basically every item will remain forever accessible and relatively proportional to its power and utility.
Considering that rampant inflation is one of the elements that can and often does completely screw up otherwise great MMORPGs, I feel that this kind of setup has value. Your mileage may vary, but for now it seems to be working well.
Another interesting aspect of Black Desert Online is that it encourages the creation of alts much more than any other MMORPG I know. You can share basically every item and piece of equipment with your alts simply by leaving it in the account-wide storage. Knowledge, workers, housing and nodes are also common.
The same goes for your contribution and your energy cap. Since energy recharges (slowly) while offline, this means that any further character will effectively double the amount of energy you can use.
The shared equipment also makes leveling up further characters easier, as you can simply have them wear your fully enchanted and upgraded armor from your main character, and swap it around freely any time you want.
Ultimately, Black Desert Online is so much more than meets the eye. At first sight, it’s a gorgeous MMORPG with a great character creation and an extremely satisfying action combat. Beyond the surface, it comes with an incredible depth of systems and features that is almost difficult to grasp in its entirety.
In fact, one rather relevant problem is that there aren’t enough in-game tutorials to explain it all. This is partly justified by the fact that there is simply too much to explain (as you may have noticed by the size of this review), but more development efforts on this front would have helped.
To put it down simply, there are so many things to do in Black Desert Online, that its longevity is virtually infinite. There’s truly something for everyone, and if the game clicks with you, it’ll easily bring you thousands of hours of fun. And no, I’m not exaggerating.
One last note should be made about the game’s business model. Black Desert Online is buy to play, which means that once you spend the 30 bucks for your initial purchase (or 50 if you want a few more goodies), you’re set for life. No further expense is necessary, and all expansions will be free.
This is very relevant, because there’s a lot of content in store. After a month from release Daum Games Europe released the Mediah expansion that increased the game’s content considerably, and the size of the map by 30%. The Valencia expansions are also coming, promising to effectively double the explorable areas, and there’s even more down the line.
The downside is that there is a cash shop, mostly populated with costumes, pets and utility items that increase your inventory space or your carried weight limit. Daum has done a pretty good job of avoiding “pay to win” items, and while some of the items do provide very limited advantage, the influence they have on your ability to be competitive is negligible. There’s absolutely nothing in the cash shop that I would consider indispensable to fully enjoy the game.
On the other hand, the prices are very steep, especially for costumes. Asking $29 for a full set certainly feels a bit unfair, when you look at it from a costumer’s point of view (even if the design of the costumes is absolutely fantastic, with an incredible level of detail).
Looking at it with the cold eye of business, though, makes it easier to understand the reason behind the apparently steep prices. The Buy to Play business model combined with the free expansions effectively means that the game would provide no further revenue besides what is brought in by new players, and an operation of this size probably can’t survive on that alone, especially after the player base becomes established and the influx of newcomers slows down.
One could argue that it would possibly be more profitable to sell more items at a lower price, but that would probably increase the level of risk for the publisher. That said, the fact that you absolutely don’t need to even open that cash shop, makes the pill easier to swallow.
Without a doubt, Black Desert Online provides enormous value for its price. It comes with very high production values, combined with great gameplay, a metric ton of content, an extremely deep suite of features within which basically everyone can find his niche, and more.
Black Desert Online isn’t perfect, but when Daum Games claimed that it is a “next-gen MMORPG,” they weren’t joking. Visuals are only a small part of that definition. It feels like the beginning of a new generation because it takes the trite and tired tropes of the genre, which many have come to take for granted, and throws them into the recycle bin, replacing them with a much wider and more “massive” concept
It doesn’t hold your hand, nor it tries to constrict you onto a tedious predetermined path from level one to the cap. On the contrary, it sets you free into its enormous, beautiful world and tells you “go forth and conquer.”
And conquer I shall, even if for the first time in so many years, a MMORPG finally restored that sense of awe and adventure that I thought irremediably lost. For the first time in almost a decade, the world of a game finally managed to make me feel small again, and boy, this feels so good.