by Tom Mackey
reviewed on PC
Sometimes, just sometimes, a game surprises me. It creeps up, all unassuming and sneaky-like and blindsides you with a dose of awesomeness. Now before I get ahead of myself, AR-K: The Great Escape doesn't quite blindside you with awesomeness, but it certainly surprised me, and it definitely snuck up on me. AR-K: The Great Escape is not a long game; all in all it took me about four hours to complete. But this starts to make more sense when you take into account that it is the third episode of a series. Adding that information to the picture makes it actually look like a decently sized chunk of game compared to most episodic titles. It does however raise the question of why the developers decided to release this third episode as a separate game. Neither the first two episodes or this third one are priced too highly, so you don’t feel like you're paying for a complete game all over again. But in this episodic format it only makes sense to make sure each episode is released into the same game. There is a recap at the beginning of this episode but it’s not particularly clear for somebody who hasn't played the first two episodes and is a poor introduction to the world. Releasing the third episode in this way, the developers must have known they were going to get new players joining at this stage. For this reason, getting the setup and introduction to the world takes on a lot more importance, and unfortunately I felt none the wiser after the initial recap.
After its weak opening, AR-K begins its gradual revival. Though the backstory is a little blurred and is never fully explored or revealed during this episode, you do begin to pick up little snippets here and there. These bite-sized pieces of information prove effective at giving you all you need to progress with the story. This is helped significantly by the fact that the main objective during the episode is a very simple one; escape. All you need to know is, you are Alicia Van Volish, you got on the wrong side of some chaps after stealing a Golden Sphere, you fell down a hole and now you need to get back where you came from. This simple objective leaves you time to get on with the rest of the game, exploring the environment, talking to characters and solving puzzles. The first element of the game that starts its revival is the solid point and click mechanics.
Nothing is overly complicated when it comes to exploring your environment and the set camera angles serve to make sure you can see no more than is necessary to progress. As long as you are thorough, it isn't too difficult to find everything you can interact with in each level, and the game map isn't so large that getting around becomes complicated. As you explore you collect various items that, as is the standard now for point and click adventure games, you can combine to complete puzzles. The inventory menu isn't particularly inspiring, but it sticks rigorously to the same simplicity found in the rest of the game mechanics, and it’s no bad thing in this case. The puzzles in AR-K are varied enough, and challenging in a way that never leaves you feeling too lost or frustrated. There may be occasions where you desperately backtrack through areas scouring them for something you missed, but these don't detract from the overall experience.
What does stand out a little is the games approach to dialogue trees. Rather than having a list of possible responses to choose from, you are given a list of images that represent what you can say. For example, when addressing a new character, your first option is generally a block of ice that gets chipped away at the more you select it, i.e. an ice-breaker. Little visual cues like this are a nice feature that serve to differentiate the game from other point and click adventures.
DEPTH IN SIMPLICITY
The world itself is one of the strong points of AR-K. The environments you explore are not overly complicated, but they still have a good level of depth to them and feel lived in rather than sterile. The same can be said for the characters, who have individual personality traits and backgrounds that come across well thanks to some decent writing and voice acting. There were actually a couple of moments where I was struck by some unexpectedly touching revelations from certain characters, and that only helped to strengthen the world they inhabit. Visually the game maintains the trend of simplicity with hidden depth.
The episode’s environments, though not large in scale or complexity, maintain a bleak yet surprisingly deep colour palette. Their design is good enough to make you believe in the world and leave you intrigued to find out more about it. Despite the episode only taking place in one area, there is also plenty of variety between the places you explore. Each space feels unique yet like it still belongs to the same overall environment. Characters are also well designed, each standing out in their own way, and the level of animation isn't too bad either. All in all, AR-K is definitely pleasing to the eye and despite not going all out in the visuals department, as well as managing to not feel dated.
A FULFILLING CHAPTER
So AR-K: The Great Escape is an interesting one. Despite its lackluster opening and questionable delivery, it manages to grow on you. Through a combination of simple gameplay mechanics and solid world buiding, the episode draws you into its story without you really noticing. By the time I reached the end of the episode I found myself actually invested in the characters and wanting to know where they were headed. If the remaining episodes continue where this one left off, then AR-K could really be a game to watch.
Solid world building, characters and mechanics, intriguing story
Slow start, questionable delivery