PixARK makes a strong case that developers should start with a tutorial. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive – games can have layered systems, and it’s fine for players to be learning new things right up until the credits roll. However, if they can’t explain how to get through the first couple of hours of their game, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.
This voxel-based version of the game ARK: Survival Evolved follows a similar premise to its predecessor – players are dropped into a lush world filled with dinosaurs and dodos, and expected to do the standard survival/crafting thing. Punch down some trees, build a hut, gradually work their way up to being a dino-riding, laser-wielding warlord. Having played a little bit of ARK, I thought I knew what to expect going in, but for some reason I just couldn’t get things started. I trundled around, knocking over trees, building wooden tools, running away from monsters and digging out shelter caves. Still, without clothes or the materials necessary to build a house, I was freezing during the night and baking during the day. I was slowly starving and dying of thirst, because I couldn’t find fruit to eat, or the materials necessary to make a fire.
After many, many deaths – mostly at the hands of roaming dinosaurs, naturally – I finally resorted to checking the internet to see what I was doing wrong. It turns out the game had neglected to mention that there were two different systems of collecting items in the game. Most resources are obtained in the standard way – hitting something until it becomes a smaller version of itself, then walking over it. Natural resources, however – grass, fruit, and the like, is obtained by emptying the avatar’s hands and holding down the Y button to go into a ‘gathering’ mode. Which would be something that one would expect to show up on the controller map that otherwise does a great job of informing players of what all the buttons are for. But no.
Once I’d gotten my hands on a bunch of dried grass and started building out my character and homestead, I found PixARK to be a much more visually attractive version of the base game. The bright, primary-coloured voxels give the game a lightness that the thuddingly realistic ARK lacks. Beyond the graphics, though, the game commits most of its inspiration’s sins, offering some of the most convoluted menus I’ve ever encountered. It’s just page after page of inventories, skills, and character sheets, built without consideration for how a player was going to navigate them with a controller, as opposed to a mouse and keyboard. I spent a surprisingly large amount of time just trying to navigate the menus, which pretty frequently precipitated a dinosaur attack since the game does not pause while the player is browsing tabs trying to figure out how to spend level up points and technology engrams.
The core survival experience, played solo or with others, is still fundamentally pleasant. Taming and training animals is rewarding, and ARK‘s most intriguing selling-point, going from a caveman to a futuristic soldier in a few dozen hours of crafting and grinding, is just as compelling here as it was there. Players who’ve never wanted to try ARK because it seemed too huge and daunting – don’t be tricked by the graphics, this isn’t simplified in any meaningful way. Players looking for a diabolically complex survival sim, but found themselves hesitating because ARK just wasn’t adorable enough, well, your very specific prayers have been answered.