Black Desert is a Beautiful Grind Festival

Diablo meets Dynasty Warriors, and a complex pricing model

I made a new character to try out the Kunoichi class, which just launched on Xbox. Screenshot taken by Alex Rowe.

When I’m between “big” games, or when I want to catch up on podcast episodes, I boot up a loot-based video game and grind out a few levels. For a couple of years, my go-to titles for this were Diablo III and Dynasty Warriors 9, but these days I’m filling that time with Black Desert.

Featuring a mixture of hard-hitting action combat and open world adventuring, Black Desert is out on the PC, Xbox, PS4, and also mobile platforms. The mobile game crams an impressive amount of artwork from the bigger versions onto phones, but has an original story and tweaked game play systems that are simplified for touch-screen control. The game receives regular content updates and is in a different state on all platforms, with PC the furthest along in content.

Black Desert is completely filled to the brim with bars to fill, daily challenges, rewards meters, and other dopamine-inducing things. It also has a prominent cash shop, filled with useful in-game items and a bevy of cosmetics. That’d be fine with me in theory, but outside the mobile platform, Black Desert isn’t technically a free-to-play game. And that’s where things are muddled, a little.

Much of the online discussion around Black Desert centers on its ever-evolving monetization model, and that’s a bit frustrating as someone who enjoys the fun parts where you actually play the game. It has had different pricing options with each new console release. On most systems it uses the “fee-to-play” price concept where you have to pay a reduced price for the game, and then there are additional things available. Currently, it’s free on Xbox if you have Game Pass, free on mobile, and $30 to start on PS4…unless it’s on sale.

I’ve spent a total of ten dollars on the game so far, because that’s what it used to cost to start out on Xbox, and what it still costs to start the game if you’re a Steam user and…

Oh no I’ve fallen asleep.

The complex sales model and giant cash shop are unfortunate, because they’re stacked on top of a game that’s fun and breezy to play, and that’s not hard to make progress in without spending a cent on all the tempting shiny things.

Granted, I’m not trying to rise to the top of its in-game PVP standings or become the richest champion in the entire world, but I’ve had hours and hours of fun with the game without spending an additional cent beyond that first ten bucks. I’ve tried out all the different character classes. I’ve collected lots of free bonuses. I’ve conquered my way across its vast land with relative ease.

At its core, underneath all the money muck, Black Desert is a brilliantly-paced action RPG with a whole pile of depth to its combat system. Pushing different directions on the analog stick or keyboard in conjunction with your attack buttons makes different moves come out, and there are also different attacks that rely on multi-button combos. It’s far beyond the simple “mash-one-button” system featured in some other games of this type, and the sheer variety of stuff your character can do helps mask the fact that 90 percent of the game is about bashing different things.

I can only level one real complaint against the gameplay. As you’re first getting used to the controls, the combat display can be overwhelming, with effects and animations and particles flying around, obscuring your character. But it’s pretty easy to get used to and figure out what feedback to pay attention to…even though it won’t be as coherent for anyone who happens to be in the room with you watching.

The combat is just as fun to play as any of the Dynasty Warriors titles, and it’s one of the most solid-feeling action MMO games I’ve played not called Warframe or Skyforge.

The story line doesn’t fare as well as the combat, but I’d argue that’s just as much about knowing what the MMO audience wants as it is a “flaw” in the game. Dialog sequences are quick and largely inconsequential, serving as short steps on your way to fighting the next big monster. The translation of the game into English is coherent enough to be understandable, and the NPC character models look nice enough that I wish they had some voiced dialog and facial animation to go along with their gorgeous models.

The speed and pacing are lightning-fast compared to Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet, which I revisited recently.

Graphics are the main feature that sets Black Desert apart from its MMO competition, even five years after its original release. Aside from some environmental pop-in that’s no doubt the result of the era of CPU hardware this was first built to run on, Black Desert looks astounding.

The character models and enemies are supremely detailed, even when a hundred of them are on-screen. The character creator is famous for its flexibility, allowing you to replicate yourself, make a terrifying nightmare, or anything in-between. The environments are vast and teem with life and color. It all looks great even compared to present-day standards. If you have a PC or one of the enhanced consoles, you’ll get the most impact out of these visuals, while the base consoles have a little bit of blur and smudge going on.

Surprisingly, the mobile version retains much of the fun combat and graphical quality. The pop-in is more severe and the environments are reduced in complexity, but other than that it’s recognizable as a Black Desert product. The ubiquity of powerful mobile hardware makes me wonder if that’ll be the new lead version of the game as far as player base and development effort before long.

I only wish that the “Big” versions of the game used a traditional free-to-play model. I have no idea why it sells for a different base price on every single platform its available on. That’s baffling.

Still, If you’re looking for a fun online action game to pour some time into, you could do a lot worse than Black Desert. You’ll have to figure out where the game is cheapest for your personal hardware, and you’ll have to close a few cash shop pop-ups during each session. But the core gameplay, graphics, and feel of the whole thing still make it worth checking out.

It nails the fundamentals of the genre well enough and is paced just right to be the perfect podcast/background/take-a-break game, and although it’s not quite elaborate enough for me to personally become a hardcore fan, I totally understand why it has a large fan base.

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