A few weeks ago I was chatting with a friend about my desire to find a game to play which has a social aspect to it but is more or less free of the kind of negativity, stress, and sense of obligation I have experienced in the other MMOs I’ve dabbled in (Age of Conan, EQII, and most particularly, EVE Online). I wanted something I could have fun with but not feel chained to if I didn’t log in for a while. She recommended Black Desert Online (BDO) as an alternative and gave me a guest pass.

BDO is described on Wikipedia as “a sandbox-oriented massively multiplayer online role-playing game by Korean video game developer Pearl Abyss”. It’s had a staggered world-wide release: Korea in 2014; Japan and Russia in 2015; North America and Europe just this year. In NA and EU it’s buy-to-play while the other markets are free-to-play.

I like that it doesn’t have a subscription model. I don’t mind that there’s a cash shop for stuff that can then be sold by players on the in-game market to earn them in-game money. So far to me it feels more like a solo-player game that has other people in it who I can play with if I choose to. I like that I’m protected from PVP encounters until I’m higher level and more familiar with the game.

I spent five days playing quite heavily on the pass, then took a week off my PC to go camping. When I got back I bought the game. Here are my first impressions and early experiences!

A Different Kind of Fantasy

First and foremost, I’m having fun—the kind of fun I haven’t had in an online game in a long time, so that’s a major plus right there. If I hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed myself while playing on the guest pass I wouldn’t have bought the game at all.

The Black Spirit.

The Black Spirit.

BDO being a sandbox is good. In this case I wasn’t looking for something that would funnel me into any kind of linear path of progression like a solo-player game does. Even so, players do get a ‘guide’ called the Black Spirit which accompanies them and acts partially as tutor and partially as…well, I won’t spoil the story. Yes, there is a solo story to follow, if you choose. The game has a plot and rich lore background to it (over 2.8 million words in-game, with more to come). You can totally ignore the Black Spirit if you want.

BDO has a high fantasy setting but it’s not strictly warriors, thieves, mages, dwarves, giants, imps, and elves (though those are present and I hear there will be a playable dark elf class in the future). The setting is familiar enough to satisfy one’s interest in the traditional fantasy tropes but different enough to pique curiosity and avoid seeming like just another rehash of Final Fantasy.

A huge, seamless world to explore.

A huge, seamless world to explore.

I don’t mind that it’s not a single shard game like EVE Online—it’s actually nice to know the assholes in this world (because, let’s face it, there will always be some) aren’t all crammed into the same playing space as me. There are servers for different regions of the real world (NA, EU, KR, RU, etc), and each one has multiple instances. Moving from one instance to another within a server is easy. And, just because a person might live in a given region doesn’t mean not being able to play with friends elsewhere. I already sucked in one of my EVE Online buddies from the UK and we’re playing together on the NA server.

Something amazing about the game is that its world is seamless. The only loading screen players encounter comes up when choosing which character to load onto the map. After that, traveling from one area to another area to yet another area, or entering/exiting buildings, happens no differently than it does in the real world: you simply go there, over hill and dale, and eventually arrive at your destination, or open a door. No transitions, no watching progress bars. Given the size of this world, I don’t know how Pearl Abyss managed it but it’s pretty fantastic. People coming from other games which have fast travel options might find this a bit tedious and even aggravating at first. If you want to get from one side of the map to the other, yes, you really do have to walk, run, or ride the entire length of the map to get there. There are a few ways to ‘cheat’ and perform various kinds of fast travel but these methods are expensive or have certain downsides. The developer wants you to experience the world rather than skipping over it.

Players can choose from a variety of classes to play, which is where the differences in the fantasy setting are most apparent up front: berserker, kunoichi, maehwa, musa, ninja, ranger, sorceress, tamer, valkyrie, warrior, witch, and wizard. Some familiar ones, and some not so much. These classes are all gender-locked but a few have a similar choice for the opposite sex (warrior and valkyrie, maehwa and musa, ninja and kunoichi, wizard and witch). Choosing the opposite gender’s class will generally mean a slightly different style of play, different skills, and overall feel. When I play fantasy games I tend to enjoy casters most so I chose a witch to start with, as I wanted something that would feel familiar while I learned the UI and other unique aspects of BDO. Eventually I want to roll a sorceress and a maehwa, and I might one day try a valkyrie too.

Beautiful Characters

My witch, Nalaiah.

My witch, Nalaiah.

The character creator is pretty slick and offers quite a lot of customization, but not as much as it could. When I created my witch, there were several different face shapes to choose from which could then be sculpted to create a more unique look. As far as I can tell, the pre-rendered faces are specific to the witch class to give all witches a certain similar style overall, while I assume the other female classes have their own sets unique to them.

I actually found this a bit limiting and disappointing, as I couldn’t push the sculpting far enough to get the look I had envisioned at the outset. Having said this, I do like the end result. My witch is cute and youthful!

Too cute to be ferocious.

Too cute to be ferocious.

Where the creator really shines is with skin tone, hair styles, and color selection.

There are a lot of hair styles to choose from, and many aspects of those styles can be sculpted, such as for length, curliness, positioning of the part, etc. I got lost in this aspect of the UI and so far haven’t managed to figure out a good portion of how it works. Choosing hair color was a riot though; the potential combinations are many and varied. I had a hard time settling on the colors I eventually chose.

Skin tone was another area I agonized over. There are so many choices, from the darkest black to the very palest white, and even a few that would result in something a bit…alien. Choice! So much choice. And if your character ends up looking a bit…bizarre or unusual…well, I guess the developer is okay with that if you’re okay with that.

Did I mention that some types of gear (for yourself, and for your mount) can also be dyed different colors to personalize them? Then there are the costumes (also for you or your mount), and the…lingerie…

There’s A Learning Cliff

Nalaiah is pretty uneducated so far.

Nalaiah is pretty uneducated so far.

One thing that hit me right off the bat: BDO is very in-depth, almost overwhelmingly so. There’s a huge amount of stuff to learn about the characters, ecology, and other topics within the game, as well as how the mechanics of the game itself work.

There are in-game tutorials and guides that pop up to assist players with the mechanics but I found some of it goes by too quickly or wasn’t presented well, so I have felt bewildered. For example, on loading the game for the first time I saw that the UI is fantastically minimalistic (a very huge difference for me after EVE’s crowded UI), but at the same time, it took me a frustrating amount of effort to figure out how to toggle the mouse cursor so I could actually click on those bits of the UI that are visible, while a tutorial video that I couldn’t pause whizzed by trying to explain something else that I needed to know. Another example: the tutorials that came up for spell combos progressed in such a way that when they were done I felt like I hadn’t actually learned what I was supposed to learn even though I had passed the tutorials. I passed most of the required steps by accident and never really saw or understood what the advantage of the combos is, and the required controls to achieve them didn’t sink in, so I’m probably not successfully using any of them. I can reasonably deduce that spell combos do enhanced damage, but I feel like the game should actually tell me that and also tell me how I can repeat the tutorial or where I can reference my spell combos later. (I have since learned how to repeat the guide stuff but, jeez.)

Additionally, I’ll admit that the opening cinematic for the game, while interesting, mostly went over my head and didn’t seem altogether relevant immediately after I took control of my character. Now that I’ve progressed through some of the in-game lore a bit I think I need to watch it again so all the bits will click together.

This bewilderment is reminiscent of the bewilderment I remember feeling years ago when I first came up against EVE Online’s learning cliff but in this case is thankfully not as stressful. The pressure to learn in BDO seems different: if I don’t really learn that thing right now it doesn’t seem to be a big deal; I can return to it later, still have a fulfilling play experience in the meantime, and not end up frustrated because I was killed every other time I turned around simply because I don’t quite ‘get it’ yet.

BDO’s fighting system in particular is different to what I’ve encountered before: unlike other MMOs where you can tab or click to target your enemy, and once targeted, that lock sticks unless the target moves out of range, BDO requires you to always pay attention to the direction you’re facing and whether the aiming reticule is red, just like in an FPS. If your target moves, you have to move with it and stay in range. Not every spell or ability can be slotted to a quick key or mouse button either; there are actual key combinations you have to learn (not the same as spell combos) in order to master your class and do good damage (I will admit to having resorted to simply mashing my keyboard a few times). When I was first told about this I wasn’t sure it would be a style of play I would enjoy for this kind of game, as compared to an actual FPS, but now that I’m in it I’m enjoying it a lot more than the old-style tab-targeting systems. It feels more active and involved, totally in a good way.

I’m also told that, as a caster, I have to learn how to dodge and teleport properly in order to avoid the stronger baddies mopping the floor with me if I just stand still. I like that idea a lot too, though so far I’m really bad at actually doing it. It means I have to actually pay attention, even in PVE, which is more realistic to how combat would be if it weren’t a game—which adds to my immersion. On the other hand, it’s a bit challenging and means being able to dance my fingers across a lot of the right keys at the right moment. It means putting more effort into my gameplay like I would have to in an FPS. Too often, PVE in fantasy games simply becomes a mind-numbing click grind. In BDO so far I’ve actually had to think about strategy (where should I aim the spell for maximum effect?)…without it actually being a strategy game.

Because of BDO’s learning cliff, having a knowledgeable buddy to ask questions to has been invaluable to get me started. Thankfully, since the only way to trial the game is to get a guest pass from someone already playing (pass giveaways notwithstanding), new players coming into the game on trials will generally already have someone they know that they can ask to help them through these hurdles too, so I think that’s good for new player retention. The Black Desert Tome, Black Desert Database, and Dulfy’s Black Desert Master Guide List have also been useful resources for me so far.

One last note on this topic:

Gamers would be lost without their spreadsheets.

Gamers would be lost without their spreadsheets.

Just like EVE, BDO is also ‘Spreadsheets Online’. Depending on which activities you engage in, you’re going to need at least one spreadsheet, and maybe more than one, to help you keep track of your stuff. I started building my first spreadsheet within a day of buying the game.

Do All the Things—If You Want

There are a wide variety of activities a person can do beyond questing or PVP, like cooking, building furniture (for your house(s)), building ships, fishing, breeding mounts and pets, hunting, exploration, trading, enhancing gear, crop farming, and who knows what else I don’t know about yet. Compared to other games I know, these activities seem to have been implemented extremely well, particularly when it comes time to make money off your efforts.

So far I’ve encountered four in-game markets: NPC vendors to sell loot trash to; NPC traders to sell trade items to (very much not the same as loot trash, as you have to build and maintain a trade network for this to be at all profitable); the player horse market; and the player item market. The player markets are the only way to move certain items between players, as trading directly between player characters who do not belong to the same family (account) is not allowed (to discourage loot farming). However, you have no idea who is selling on the market and no idea who is buying. Items that can be sold on the player item market are sold based on a floating floor and cap model which prevents price gouging and discourages inflation (as a poor newbie I have very good feelings about this).

This is the sandbox aspect of the game and the amount of choice is fantastic. I have spent entire play sessions dabbling in things that had nothing to do with running to NPCs for quests, like fishing. Just standing along a shoreline and fishing… There are fishing-specific quests too, but you can just fish for yourself as a personal pastime if you want.

Beached and dead.

Beached and dead.

I come from a family that hunts deer, elk, etc in real life for food so I don’t really subscribe to the rhetoric some people spew about hunting, but even so I’m not sure yet how I feel about BDO including whaling as one of the hunting activities. One of the species that can be hunted in BDO is the humpback and that does bother me. I was surprised the first time I saw the in-game broadcast about a blue whale having been spotted, and more than a little sad when I came across a dead humpback on the beach.

Mostly I think I just wasn’t expecting to see hunting represented on such a large scale like this. There’s a difference between a mob of wolves, foxes, bears, or other creatures that will attack your character and fight back when you come around to kill them, and a whale just cruising along in the ocean minding its own business. Just like in real life, BDO whales don’t fight back and the worst thing that can happen to the player is to fall overboard and drown, so in some ways this seems to lean closer to hunting for sport or pleasure, which as a real life activity I don’t agree with.

On the other hand, I get that it’s just a game and these are just pixels. Hunting pixel whales is infinitely better than hunting the real thing. Players (including me!) spend hours in the game slaughtering pixels that represent many other animals and creatures, and even pixels that look like human beings, so ultimately it should all be the same and carry the same amount of discomfort. Somehow it doesn’t; somehow, the idea of whaling seems more horrific than any of the other activities. From what I’ve read, other people are sensitive about engaging in whaling too. Possibly I would feel less unsettled about it if the whales were not so specifically real life species, as compared to the more generic “fox”, “wolf”, “boar”, “deer”, etc. (You know the game developer has done a good job if something in the game touches a moral or ethical nerve in the players.)

From what I understand, hunting the blue whale is an activity that can take an hour or more to complete and requires groups of players to accomplish, so it’s a pretty big investment that fulfills the social aspect of the game and seems similar to participating in a raid or world boss event. Some of the best items in the game can be crafted from things obtained from the whales, and only the top five groups who contributed to the whale kill get to gather resources from the carcass, so it does have its purpose in-game beyond simply being there for a thrill.

I’m not sure yet if whaling is something I’ll ever do. As with everything else in BDO, you don’t have to do any activity if you don’t want to.

My Little Pony

An activity I have found great pleasure in so far is horse breeding. There is some “science” to it (hence my spreadsheet). There are numerous tiers of horses (a tier could be looked at sort of like a breed I guess) and higher tiers are more valuable, faster, have fancier appearances, etc. Nothing wrong with the lower tiers though; they’ll get you by as a traveling companion well enough if that’s all you’re looking for.

If you’re rich you can buy a top-tier horse off the horse market if someone is selling one, but otherwise you’ll have to breed up to it yourself. Unlike other games where mounts are generally locked out from low-level players, BDO lets you get a mount like a donkey very early depending on which quests you do first. After that, once your training skill is sufficiently progressed (took me no time at all), getting your first horse only requires a simple investment in capturing ropes and lumps of sugar—because there are wild horses out there, and you can catch and tame them yourself.

So far I’ve had quite a lot of good luck with my first taming forays, coming away with several wild T1 and T2 stallions and a whack of wild T1, T2, and T3 mares. Apparently this is extraordinary because mares are supposed to be much rarer than stallions in the wild, but mine outnumbered my stallions three to one when I was finished taming after a single day. No, I won’t tell you my secret.

Horses shouldn’t be bred immediately (you can if you want, but as I mentioned, there’s some “science” involved so without that the foal wouldn’t be the best it could be) and while there is also some color theory that can be applied to try to get a particular appearance in the offspring, you still have to pray to the RNG god to give you a good result. My first foals were bred from T1 parents of the same color (light grey body, dark grey manes) with optimized levels. For my effort I received Dijon, an ugly mustard yellow T3 mare with a dark grey mane and roan tail, and Oreo, also a T3 mare with a Holstein-type patterned body, cream mane and tail, and feathered feet.

Foals grow up fast!

Foals grow up fast!

Horses require proper stabling, must be taken care of regarding their tack, health, and stamina (this isn’t as tedious as it sounds), and they can be killed by monsters or other players if you’re not careful where you leave them. They also have skills they can learn (skills must be practiced if they didn’t learn them perfectly the first time, if you care about using them). Best of all, it’s possible to engage in combat while mounted, so long as you have the right tack equipped.

There are other mounts in BDO too: camels and elephants.

I shall call him Dumbo and he shall be mine and he shall be my Dumbo.

I shall call him Dumbo and he shall be mine and he shall be my Dumbo.

I can’t wait to get myself an elephant, just because it’s so small and adorable and OMG I died of the cuteness.

AFK Is Okay

Sometimes, people have time available to play their games but no opportunity to dedicate their full attention to it, and in BDO that’s just fine. What this means is, you can afk certain aspects of the game and nobody will grouch at you for doing so. Actually, I have never before played a game that so intentionally incorporated mechanics that actually help players be afk like BDO does.

Being the complex game it is, you gain experience for doing just about everything including simply walking around, and your progress is displayed in your character’s profile window:

(Darkened areas are not relevant to experience gain.)

(Darkened areas are not relevant to experience gain.)

The uppermost training section with the bars for breath, strength, and health is for your character personally. Breath relates to exercise, which you get just by moving around the world, and increases your available stamina (stamina is used up while sprinting or swimming. For swimming, the more stamina you have, the less likely you are to drown). Strength relates to how much gear, money, and inventory you can carry around with you at one time, which you improve by intentionally lugging around heavy backpacks. Health relates to how much extra HP you have, which you get by eating food (based on the screenshot above, I obviously don’t eat a lot. Hey! Just like real life!). The other bars are for the in-game professions; the lower training bar refers to animal training (taming horses, riding mounts, etc).

In BDO, you can’t afk activities like quests, gathering, etc, which is good. You should be at your computer actually paying attention while those things are going on. However, gaining experience with other things to progress can be a real drag. Nobody likes grinding.

Take fishing, for example. I picked up an Apprentice Fisher’s Uniform as a quest reward very early on. The uniform has a +1 bonus for the fishing ability (shown as 0 Level in the darkened area of the screenshot) which increases the chances of catching better fish when actually fishing. Unfortunately it requires Fishing Beginner 10 to wear, and the screenshot above shows I’m only 19% of the way into Fishing Beginner 8 on this character. So, what to do? I could spend some hours actively fishing along riverbanks and the beach to increase my fishing level. While I do enjoy it as an activity, fishing for too long in one stretch could be super boring and burn me out on it, so an alternative is to afk fish instead. It’s slower, but if there are other things I have to do in the meantime, I can let the game sit open in the background and it will go through all the motions of fishing for me. All I have to do is check periodically to make sure my inventory isn’t full and that my fishing rod’s durability hasn’t been expended. (Gear and other things wear out over time from being used. Your clothing starts to look ragged and even gets holes, tears, etc if you don’t maintain it. Thankfully, stuff doesn’t seem to wear out too quickly.)

Horse training and strength training is another afk boon. The only way to level your horse is to ride it, and the only way to increase your strength is to drag stuff around on your back. BDO lets you set something called an “auto loop”, where you designate a series of waypoints on the map in a complete loop and then set your character to auto run along that path. So long as it’s a proper loop and you don’t get a hiccup in your connection (or, I assume, get attacked; it hasn’t happened to me…yet), your character will continue going around and around on that loop until you tell it to stop. Set it up and put the computer aside, then watch a movie, cook dinner, do housework, read a book, crochet, blog, whatever. Come back to a stronger character or a higher level horse!

I’m not sure yet if there are any other ways to afk in the game like this but even if there aren’t, this is pretty cool to me.

What A Wonderful World

The launch trailer for BDO quotes VG24/7 as saying Black Desert Online is “drop-dead gorgeous”. I am still more or less hanging around in the “starter” areas so I’m not sure about the ‘drop-dead’ part yet but yes, it is very pretty. Just look at these screenshots:

Sunset at the Coastal Cave.

Sunset at the Coastal Cave.

Lumbering by moonlight with the fireflies.

Lumbering by moonlight with the fireflies.

Standing in light and shadow.

Standing in light and shadow.

The golden hour.

The golden hour.

Dashing home before dark.

Dashing home before dark.

Naturally, sunset and sunrise tend to provide the most dramatic screenshots so far. The day/night cycle in the game is done really well, to the point that some NPCs actually go home in the evenings (so are unavailable to access) while others only come out at night. Monsters get stronger and more numerous after dark too. Dark really does mean dark. Depending on where you are, you need a lantern to have any hope of seeing anything unless you have a personal ability that naturally lights up your surroundings. I got stuck in a cellar because it was nighttime, pitch black, and I couldn’t see my way out. I had no lantern so had to wait for the sun to rise and cast some light in. Yep.

The world has weather too, including fog, gentle rain, downpours, and all-out thunder/lightning storms. The weather is localized, meaning it can be raining in one town but sunny if you ride out into the hills. When it’s raining, you get wet, your horse gets wet, everything gets wet—and looks it. Your defense is less effective in bad weather, maybe because you’re shivering and feeling miserable, and there are certain things you can’t do (like drying fish, which is logical). Wikipedia indicates there can (or will) be large scale weather events like typhoons which will influence gameplay, so that’s interesting. I haven’t been anywhere with snow yet but I’ve seen screenshots so maybe there can be blizzards. There’s a desert in the world somewhere too so I also wonder about sandstorms. I’ve been told that traveling in the desert comes with its own set of perils based on the daytime and nighttime temperatures, like dehydration or hypothermia. I did climb to the top of a mountain and it sure was windy up there!

All in all, a good buy that I’m looking forward to spending more time on!