Grind on, you crazy diamond.
The first thing you in Black Desert do is choose your family name. It’s what binds your characters together and allows them to share things across your characters, like knowledge. See, the more of a certain enemy – say, goblins – you kill in Black Desert, the better you get at killing that enemy. Neat perk, huh? Most of the obvious choices are taken, so you’ll have to be creative.
Once there, you’ll be dropped into Black Desert’s character creator. Character creators are pretty impressive in most games nowadays, but Black Desert’s is absolutely nuts. You can change quite literally everything in Black Desert. There’s an enormous amount of depth here, and it would be easy to spend hours stuck here, playing with every slider, making your characters as beautiful or hideous as you like. It’s mostly for you. This is an MMO; you’re not gonna spend a lot of time getting close ups, but it’s a neat system with a lot of options – which makes it very odd that the classes are gender restricted. Warrior, berserker, and wizard are your options for the men; ladies can be rangers, sorceresses, and witches.
"You wake up with amnesia (of course!) in a small encampment with a Black Spirit (naturally) who has given you some of its power and it totally not manipulating you for its own ends haha why you even say that?"
Black Desert pairs an incredible character creator with a gorgeous game. This is easily one of the best looking MMOs on the market. The world is bright and colorful, and everything, from the characters, attacks, and particle effects to the water, textures, and animations looks really good… until it doesn’t. Go long enough, and you’ll notice that a character’s mouth doesn’t move quite properly, that a certain animation looks awkward, that some textures that don’t look like they are texturing the right buildings. Most of the time, you’ll ignore this because it’s an MMO and its big and most of it looks good. But the longer and closer you look, the more cracks you’ll see in this beautiful façade. It still looks good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nowhere near perfect.
The story is straight out of an anime, so stop me if you’ve heard this before. You wake up with amnesia (of course!) in a small encampment with a Black Spirit(naturally) who has given you some of its power and it totally not manipulating you for its own ends haha why you even say that? Anyway, people who get possessed by Black Spirits tend to turn evil, lose their minds, and Hulk out, but your character (and every other character; this is an MMO) just so happens to be immune, so you’re getting enormous power with, like, zero drawbacks. Anyway, you’d better figure out what’s going on with you, and the world’s political situation, and the approaching evil, and… look, you’ve heard all of this before, and heard it better. The story and lore here are just good enough to interest you every now and then (and boy, is there a lot of it), but mostly you’ll probably skip it as you search for the quest that will point you in the direction of the next thing to kill.
This is good, because killing things is by far the high point of Black Desert. Unlike most MMOs, which base much of their combat on hotkeys and cooldowns, Black Desert’s combat is action-based, and it feels really, really good. Attacks are performed be pressing a button, or a couple buttons, and a direction on the right stick. As a ranger, I had access to my bow, knife, and several kicks. Each move has pop and impact and is fun to use. Better yet, the game’s Flow system lets you easily chain them together to make combinations, should you know which moves chain into each other. This generally lets you skip an attack’s start-up animation and go straight to the next attack, allowing you to build chains and do a lot of damage very quickly. You might chain two kicks together, for instance, then launch an enemy into the air with a third and follow up with a series of attacks from your boy. Best of all, this combat works very well with a controller.
"The issue is the missions themselves, which are exceptionally repetitive, even by MMO standards. Mostly, they’ll send you to a place and task you with killing a bunch of mobs, and I mean a bunch. It was not uncommon to be asked to kill 50 things in an area."
Unfortunately, the game is really bad at teaching you how to play it. After a very brief tutorial that acquaints you with your basic moves, the game sends you out to go kill things. The game does have a skill list that will tell you the inputs for certain moves and show you what they look like, but much of what you’ll learn comes from trial and error, and little else. The issue isn’t the combat; the game gives you a lot of your moves out of the gate and lets you go nuts. The issue is the missions themselves, which are exceptionally repetitive, even by MMO standards. Mostly, they’ll send you to a place and task you with killing a bunch of mobs, and I mean a bunch. It was not uncommon to be asked to kill 50 things in an area. To spice things up, the game might also ask you to talk to someone, deliver something, or kill mobs and then take specific items off their corpses. Every now and then, you’ll summon a big enemy, who is usually fun to fight, but that’s about all. There are no instances or dungeons.
The issue with making the combat work so well on a controller is that Pearl Abyss seems to have sacrificed the rest of their interface to do it. Want to open your inventory? You have to press up on the d-pad, use the right analog stick to select it in the radial menu, and then select the item, or enter a huge menu that takes up the entire screen. Accessing your mount is even more complicated, requiring you to hold down a trigger while opening the radial menu. Cycling through multiple menu options requires pressing the “use the thing” button, but don’t hold it! That will confirm you want to use the current thing. Everything about this interface feels designed for a keyboard and mouse, and like putting it on a controller was an afterthought.
This wouldn’t be a big deal if the game’s UI wasn’t a cluttered mess, but it is. Every time something goes up on the auction house, an enormous notification takes up the top middle of your screen. This is also around the place where the game will inform you that a guild is doing something, that you’ve completed a quest, or that you’ve entered a combat area. To make matters worse, the chat takes up most of the left side of your screen. You can turn it off, thankfully – you have a controller, anyway; you’re not gonna use it – but this is one of the busiest, least intuitive UIs I’ve ever seen in an MMO, and I’ve played a lot of them. These problems even extend to the inventory. You can’t even tell which sockets on your character’s armor correspond to what kind of gear. And all of this is made worse by the fact that you’re sitting a few feet away from a TV, rather than right in front of a monitor, so everything is hard to read. None of this is gamebreaking; you can navigate around it and play, but it was a constant annoyance to the point that I put off equipping new gear as long as I could.
"These include new clothes, pets that boost your stats and gather loot for you, and items that temporarily give buffs or boost the number of available slots in your inventory."
At higher levels, the game tends to be heavily focused on PVP, but there are skills like fishing, cooking, and more than a few kinds of crafting, as well as a node system to play around with. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t explain this very well either, and it’s very easy to miss it entirely or, if you don’t, not really understand what you’re supposed to do. You can get your own horse, boat, and house, too, but again, these tasks are rote in nature. The game does its best to spice things up; your horse, for instance, can be killed by mobs, so you can’t just barrel into a group of baddies, leap off, and start swinging. It adds a little depth, but none of this really stands out. There’s a lot to do in Black Desert; it all just seems very repetitive.
As this is a modern game, there are a ton of ways to spend money on microtransactions. These include new clothes, pets that boost your stats and gather loot for you, and items that temporarily give buffs or boost the number of available slots in your inventory. The game gives you money pretty freely, but once you realize how much everything costs, it quickly becomes clear that getting what you want will require an immense amount of grinding or spending real money. I don’t want to so far as to say that the game is pay-to-win since I didn’t experience high level PVP, but it becomes clear very quickly that the game is designed to get you to open your wallet.
Black Desert also features several visual bugs. Characters get stuck in objects, glitch across rooms, stand on top of one another, etc. The game also features frame tearing and other performance issues. Most of these errors were minor – even the frame tearing never rose about the level of annoyance – and given the level of in-game communication Pearl Abyss engages in (you see messages from the studio at the top of the screen if something is going wrong), I imagine most of this will be fixed. But it’s still worth noting.
" Black Desert has great combat, and I had a lot of fun with it for the first few hours. But then the fatigue and repetition set in."
Ultimately, Black Desert proves what many of us have been saying for a long time: most MMOs simply don’t work on controllers. However, Pearl Abyss deserves credit for making this playable on a gamepad, which is more than most studios have been able to do. Black Desert has great combat, and I had a lot of fun with it for the first few hours. But then the fatigue and repetition set in. It’s easy to get attached to Black Desert because of its character customization, beautiful world, and great combat, and if you can deal with its flaws, it’s got enough content to keep you playing for a long time. But I think I’ve about had my fill of it. I’m headed back to the desert of the real.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
An in-depth character creator that lets you customize everything. Fantastic, action-oriented combat. A gorgeous game world.
Repetitive quest structure. Poor tutorials. A very messy UI. Navigating menus on a controller is a pain. Lots of microtransactions. Visual bugs.
If you can get past its flaws, Black Desert will reward you with a gorgeous game world and some incredible combat, but poor tutorials, repetitive missions, a messy interface, and the odd set of bugs stop it from being anything more than average.