Black Desert Online Review

From the MMORPGs of old, such as Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, and EverQuest, all the way up to recent entries such as Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy XIV, and Star Wars: The Old Republic, MMORPGs have been the go-to genre for the bevy of things to do, people to see and talk to, and the ability to earn recognition amongst your peers.

Black Desert Online is no different in this regard. From the ability to build things such as tents all the way up to mansions, engage in mounted combat, and be a part of guild-wide quests and wars, the game gives you ample to do, and a detailed world to do it in.

Impressive character creation options mean that you too can make your very own freak show!

The game starts with allowing you to create your own personalized hero. After choosing one of eight classes (with more supposedly to be added later), you’re thrown into the most acclaimed feature in Black Desert Online, the character customization. The detail in which you can modify aspects of your physical appearance overshadows almost every other game. By being able to create an asymmetrical face, stretching and contracting limbs, and even scale how well-defined your muscles and your wrinkles are, it’s easy to see why everyone is talking about it.

Once you get into the game, you’re given a narration of the goings-on in the world by, oddly enough, Tay Zonday of “Chocolate Rain” fame. We’ll get back to the voice acting later. Immediately after you’re given a brief back story, a smoky black creature named the “Black Spirit” with glowing red eyes speaking a language that only Midna from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess could interpret pops into view and suggests helping each other out.

After (another) brief explanation as to why he chose you, the camera pans down to show you lying on the ground unconscious for some unknown reason. The creature possesses your body and you begin the arduous process of going through a long tutorial, going over everything from how to move, how to fight, and ultimately how to progress in the game.

This is one in a string of problems with this game. For one thing, you can’t get the Black Spirit to shut up. Not only does it pop up on your screen whenever it wants to talk to you, but a message flashes every second telling you that it wants to speak with you until you talk to it and get it to stop. Not even Navi from Ocarina of Time annoyed me as much as this.

Please, someone, save me from the tutorials!

That, of course, ties into the user interface. I’ve never seen such a busy interface outside of a World of Warcraft raid. This ranges from video guides popping up to chat bubbles showing tutorial messages. Every contextual action you can take is spelled out in mouse and keyboard imagery, a message popping up when you enter a different location, the mini-map, the chat, and the hotbars.

The only saving grace is the option to “Simplify UI”, which only gives you important information as well as options to disable things such as the Black Spirit’s notifications. This tells you that they know how overwhelming their interface is and that they’re not able to streamline things effectively. If I can give a new player a piece of advice, it would be to find this option in the settings and turn it on immediately.

Speaking of which, while the visuals of the game are pretty nice, the actual engine seems to have trouble keeping up with it. This can be seen in the sweeping panorama shot shown in the opening cutscene of the game where you see some horrendous pop-in of objects, especially trees, and slow-down in certain parts.

As I got my first taste of combat in the game, I noticed that the game loves shaking the camera from every strike, even down to simply jumping. There is a slider to tone it down, but one wonders if the designers had seen too many shaky cam movies and thought they’d incorporate it into the game.

Aside from that, there was much to enjoy in the combat, a real-time affair with an emphasis on positioning, maneuverability, and chains of combination attacks. Keeping your front towards the enemy is a must, as you receive extra damage from back attacks which can result in your health quickly dropping. Due to the nature of the class I chose, the powerhouse Berserker, I drank so many HP potions I may as well have hooked myself up to a blood transfusion machine and filled it with the stuff.


Another problem happens to show up. When starting out the game, you’re quickly taking out enemies left and right with barely any noticeable health lost. In fact, you are not even half an hour in and the player is already nearing level 10, something that almost every other game makes you work a lot harder for. This all changes once you reach the teenage levels.

You begin coming across more and more enemies that will kill you fast if you’re not chugging those health potions; staying out of the way or blocking every incoming strike; and keeping an eye on your surroundings. This drastic upswing in difficulty contributes to an exasperating experience that can quickly drive away any casual player, or those that can’t handle constantly dying.

Now, let's talk about the voice acting. It is passable at best, atrocious at worst. From the wooden delivery by every NPC you come across, the old people with inexplicably young voices, the poor audio mixing, and the women doing their best childish impression, you’ll quickly find yourself looking up vocal mods online, if not disabling vocal dialog altogether.

The music, nice at first, becomes quite repetitive. After ten hours of hearing the same short soundtrack, you’ll probably mute it like I have and switch over to something a bit more tolerable. This also goes for the sound effects. Every enemy in the game seems to want to make itself heard, and that can quickly drive you crazy when you’re just trying to gather resources or on your way to the next area.

The game offers useful control tooltips, but is inconsistent in how and when it does so.

The controls are something I had several issues with. Due to the nature of my setup (sitting on the couch with my TV as a computer monitor), most of the time I tend to play games with a gamepad. What’s easy to tell is that the game doesn’t so much as integrate the gamepad as it uses some form of emulation software to replace keys with button presses.

There is an inability to navigate menus with the gamepad (instead having to use the left thumbstick to move the mouse cursor); the oddly placed default keybindings (X is left-click, left trigger is right-click); and barely any acknowledgement that you’re using a gamepad according to the game.

It all felt like this was probably a last-minute design decision that led to gamepad support, rather than any concerted effort to implement it. This stands in sharp contrast to a game like Final Fantasy XIV, which is perhaps the best PC MMORPG to date to implement gamepad support and gives you an experience on par with a keyboard and mouse user.

All of this combines to give the player an experience that seems pleasant at first but quickly becomes frustrating. Having to deal with the sharp swing in difficulty, the mediocre-at-best sound design, and the overcrowded UI really tests you at times to see if you want to keep playing.

I hardly scratched the surface of the sandbox aspects of the game because of these roadblocks, so I won’t cover them but instead encourage those that are reading up on this game to see if it’s worth the price of admission.

Self-awareness doesn't work so well if you're guilty of it.

Speaking of price, the game, while free-to-play in its native Korea, is buy-to-play in the West. The problem of this is that many of its design choices follow a free-to-play model. There is a limitation on how you can perform certain actions every day (such as gathering resources) and certain items in the cash shop give you an unfair advantage (such as the infamous ghillie suit that hides your name in PVP from other players).

It’s very odd that Daum Games would choose to go for a buy-to-play model, especially since it hasn’t seemed to curtail the chat bots. All of this would limit the appeal when there are games just as good as Black Desert Online out there that don’t require a cover charge to enjoy them.

The result of all these little caveats is that I can’t easily recommend Black Desert Online to all as it is right now. While I would absolutely suggest you give it a try if it were free as it is in some other regions, those not already hugely interested would be well served to wait for a free trial or a free-to-play option, and giving its impressive character creation tool a try in its free version also comes recommended. The game itself is solid, but just not quite there enough to be a strong recommendation as of this publishing. MMOs do evolve, however, so it'll be interesting to see where this one goes.