Developed by Pearl Abyss. Published by Daum Games. Released on March 3, 2016 (North America). Available on PC. Review code provided by publisher.
The golden age of MMORPGs is over. World of Warcraft is on the decline and no other title has ever been able to pull in its numbers--or even get remotely close to doing so. EverQuest Next is cancelled, and WildStar developers Carbine Studio announced another round of lay-offs. In spite of the genre's diminishing popularity, a few studios are still attempting to reinvigorate it with new entries.
Black Desert Online is one such game. Its developer Pearl Abyss is trying to find success through innovation. Billing itself as a "next generation MMORPG," Black Desert Online attempts to defy convention and push boundaries through a variety of its core systems, which greatly differ from how other games in the genre do it.
Like many other Korean games, it took a while for Black Desert Online to find a publisher in the West. First released to Korean audiences in 2014, the game has seen multiple content additions and patches, much of which have yet to make their way over to the new international version. It's as polished as any game with two years of constant iteration and updates can be expected to be, but a lot of the content Korean gamers have had for a while is only going to make its way in some months from now.
Unlike its original release, which was designed as a free-to-play title, the Western version of Black Desert Online was retooled towards a Guild Wars-like subscription-free model. You pay once for the game and have access to play it forever.
Unfortunately, some of its free-to-play systems still exist, albeit in a scaled back form. This is no more evident than in the energy system. You have an energy meter that depletes each time you speak or interact with an NPC. Gathering and crafting also uses energy, and so does chatting in the General chat. Once it's drained, you have to wait for energy to recharge over time or complete quests, which sometimes reward energy. It's identical to how free-to-play mobile games like Farmville handle the resource and it feels very out of place in a game like Black Desert Online. All it does is hinder progress and force you to spend time waiting for energy to recharge.
This isn't helped by the game's dialog system, which plays out like an RNG-based minigame. In order to unlock certain quests, you have to interact with NPCs a certain amount of times and earn affinity points with them so that they "like" you enough to share a quest with you. It's very easy to fail the minigame, so you usually end up spending a lot of energy just to pick up new quests.
There are similar issues with the game's itemization system, which feels bare compared to other MMORPGs. Finding a new piece of loot is always something to look forward to in these types of games. It serves as a visual representation of time you've invested into the game and a reflection of your overall skill level. That isn't the case in Black Desert Online. The appearance of gear you can equip is generic and rarely changes despite any stat differences. Meanwhile, the only cool outfits you can wear are those you have to pay for with cash. The vanity outfits overwrite whatever generic piece of armor you have on. At the game's launch, there are roughly four purchasable costumes per character class, so there isn't even much variation in how characters appear apart from using dyes. Which also cost money. Outfitting is nowhere as fun as it should be.