All jokes aside, Black Desert is a pretty popular MMO that has been around since 2015, making its way from Korea (where developer Pearl Abyss is based) to several regions around the world. Just in the past year, Black Desert has made its way to consoles, hitting the Xbox first and launching for PlayStation 4 this summer. While I’ve been aware of Black Desert for some time, especially its famous character customization suite, it wasn’t until I got to spend some time with the PS4 version that I was able to dive in. Black Desert’s appeal is immediately apparent, as the legends of its customization depth are mostly true. Being an action-based MMO also helps it stand out among its genre peers. However, general performance issues, bland storytelling, and bizarre limitations make Black Desert more of a curiosity than a priority.
Looking the Part
Black Desert has a lot going for it. This game looks and feels like a big deal, and it presents itself as such. The title screen is accompanied by a booming, high fantasy-flavored score that lets you know people have been spending money on this bad boy for years. Once you jump in, there are a few red flags. The whole UI feels creaky and dated, with text and iconography that are way too small to easily digest, a running theme throughout Black Desert. It is also, at least on a standard, launch PS4, a little sluggish to navigate. Of course, these issues take a brief backseat when you start to create a character, although they are replaced by a new issue that’s a bit more awkward than some game jank.
Despite how customizable your character’s body, face, and hair are, their actual class is restricted by gender. This is odd for several reasons, besides the obvious. One, it totally contradicts what is ostensibly one of Black Desert‘s key features. It’s great that I can mess with multiple sets of hair sliders, but when the options for things like base appearance and body type are cut so drastically compared to nearly any other game with a character creation suite, it stands out. Plus, the way the classes are divided is based on some pretty outdated RPG stereotypes, so being unable to give a dude a bow or a lady a sword is like when your grandpa starts yearning for the “good old days” because he saw a woman driving a car. Just sayin’.
Going Through the Motions
Once you get dropped down into the Black Desert world, it doesn’t take long to realize storytelling isn’t going to be a focus here. There is a story, something about warring factions, a strange supernatural resource, and your character being possessed by an evil cloud with red eyes and sharp teeth. Most of the story is told via blocks of tiny text crammed into small spaces, and I found myself clicking through it without really reading or trying to retain it before long. There’s only so many hours you can spend caring about why you’re committing goblin genocide when it’s clear the people writing didn’t care much either. There are cutscenes, but they’re as muddled and janky as the rest of the game.
Despite all the jank, which shows in your character’s weird, jerky running animations, regular frame rate dips, and fuzzy textures, Black Desert does have a fascinating core gameplay system. The loop is what you’d expect for a MMO that is free to play in most regions–although it is “buy to play” here–so don’t expect more than chasing waypoints, running errands for NPCs, and slaughtering dozens of weak mobs for not enough experience points. While that part is as boilerplate as it comes (and frankly that’s what you sign up for most of the time with MMOs, even the good ones), Black Desert’s combat rejects the usual MMO style of managing skill bars and cooldowns, in favor of real-time, combo-oriented action. There are still some cooldowns, though; just not for everything.
Devil May Grind Skill Points
Black Desert handles like a third-person shooter, with the right stick moving the camera and your aim, even when you’re swinging a melee weapon around. Attacking involves various combinations of triggers and bumpers, directional inputs, and sometimes the occasional circle button. As a warrior, I used various kinds of sword swings, but also utilized my shield and even some kicks and grappling. Everything seems to bleed together as long as you have the meter you need for the juicier skills, and there’s even a dodge roll with invincibility frames. When you hit enemies they even have hitstun-like animations, although they still seem to operate on a timer for attacks.
That said it seems like you can cancel basic moves into dodge rolls, so it’s pretty easy to stay out of trouble if you’re comfortable with action games, as long as the frame rate behaves. Naturally, it behaves the least during boss fights, which are already designed to soak up tons of damage. Since on paper Black Desert seems more skill-based than it may actually be, having to guzzle healing potions when I don’t feel like I’m really messing up much is more frustrating than it should be. While it was fun to mindlessly try out all my moves on mobs, I had a much harder time enjoying boss encounters. To be fair, there is text to suggest partying up is the ideal way to take bosses on, and that follows considering the genre here. But the UI is just a pain to mess around with and navigate that I was more interested in grinding ahead a few more levels to outpace the boss instead. Especially since there were already performance issues playing by myself.
To its credit, Black Desert has plenty of content baked in. There’s PVP, which makes a ton of sense for such an active combat system. A shop full of cosmetics fuels the free to play (ish) aspect of the title, but it’s all stuff you sort of paste over your regular equipment so it doesn’t intrude on the gameplay. You’re essentially paying for skins, which seems reasonable enough. You can also buy pets, which provide passive boosts. But they have to be fed and can die, which seems a lot less consumer-friendly compared to the costumes. The boosts are marginal however, and I never felt pressured to have one (although I was able to start with a couple thanks to preorder bonuses).
That last paragraph was messy on purpose, because it represents what it feels like to engage with Black Desert. There are neat bits and pieces here, but it all feels messy and undercooked, especially on my current hardware. Perhaps Black Desert looks and runs better on beefier hardware, but on my standard PS4 it neither looked good nor ran smoothly. I found a lot to like about the combat, especially since learning new skills had an immediate impact on the play. But due to the jank and unavoidable MMO-ness of everything, the action ultimately felt more shallow than it was presented. As someone who generally enjoys mindless grinding, there was some comfort in making my way through Black Desert’s massive landscape. But when there are other options that feel more polished, thoughtful, and creative, it’s hard to recommend Black Desert unless the absence of a subscription fee is a key factor.
Black Desert review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.