By Tom Tolios / October 29th, 2015
|Title||AR-K: The Great Escape|
|Developer||Gato Salvaje Studios|
|Publisher||Gato Salvaje Studios|
|Release Date||July 14, 2015|
|Age Rating||ESRB – Everyone|
There’s something to be said for a well-designed point-and-click adventure game. When the objects can easily identified and the dialogue and clues are written just right, this kind of game can be beguiling, enticing one to explore the environments and mine every last detail they can. When done well, the player will want to find every last thing they can interact with on the screen. They know that they’ll have to solve a lot of different puzzles along the way and they don’t want to miss any possible clue or item. It also helps when the game has a good story with compelling characters and mysteries they want to solve. It’s potent; something that can captivate even the most unlikely of audiences and get them to dive deeper into a game’s mysteries. I am not a point-and-click kinda guy. I prefer games either with twitch gameplay, crazy combos or deep and complex menu and system driven mechanics. But I’m not immune to the charms of a good point-and-click romp. Let’s find out if AR-K: The Great Escape has what it takes to captivate the uninitiated.
AR-K: The Great Escape is actually the third chapter in Spanish indie group Gato Salvaje Studio’s ongoing saga of a spaceship carrying the last survivors of planet Earth on a sojourn through the universe. The mammoth vessel is divided into seven different sectors, each one responsible for a different function to ensure the ‘AR-K’ continues to sustain its space-faring citizens. There’s a city inside and a thriving society. But there is also commerce, intrigue and politics. Ultimately, it’s an Orwellian tale about a dystopian world that looks nice on the surface, but its continued existence is tenuous, hanging on by a thread woven of corruption and deceit.
There was a digest recap at the beginning of the game which covers the previous two entries, but it was presented in vague fashion, through a distorted computer display in a disjointed presentation that made absolutely no sense to me at all. I barely got the gist of the earlier chapters by watching it and would rather a narrator just told me what was going on as it would have been less confusing. I didn’t play the previous episodes and had no understanding of the story to this point, but I gradually came to grasp the plot developments and the character relationships just by playing The Great Escape in its entirety. But I soldiered on, figuring that if there are three chapters so far, Gato Salvaje Studios must be doing something right.
The game starts out with the heroine, Alicia, suffering a broken leg from a fall she took at the end of the second chapter, whereupon she ended up in a trash unit very deep within the AR-K. She eventually finds herself in the care of a physician who sets her up with a brace that will allow her regular mobility while she heals and informs her that she’s now a laborer in the previously unknown Sector 8. Alicia is surprised to find out such a place even exists and mortified to discover that it’s practically a slave labor camp where its denizens work 12-hour shifts and live in cutthroat squalor, have shorter life spans than normal and no hope of ever elevating beyond their station because there’s no way out. So, Alicia’s goal is clear: get her possessions back and escape Sector 8.
The game is a mouse-controlled point-and-click adventure, so you can expect a lot of item gathering and crafting, interactions with the environment and its people, puzzle solving and exploration. All of this is well and good for the genre, but the mechanics are poorly handled here. The most glaring issue is the fact that there is no clear indication of which details you can interact with in the pre-rendered areas you explore. Nothing important stands out, which means you have to move the cursor over every last square millimeter of the game screen. I found this time consuming and needlessly frustrating, and, in a genre where progression creates engagement and puzzle solving advances the story, those are two flaws AR-K: The Great Escape can ill afford to have.
AR-K: The Great Escape is troubled by more than just finding the things you need to click on to advance the game. Once you’ve discovered them, it’s difficult to understand exactly how to use them to solve the puzzles. Luckily, there’s a map that allows for fast travel between zones once you’ve visited them, so experimenting isn’t as time consuming as it could have been, but there were times I couldn’t find where to click to go from one zone to the other due to poor visuals and implementation, and, without clear paths to travel from one unlocked area to another, I found myself retracing steps far too often. And, once I did find those areas, the clues provided by the dialogue and item inspection oftentimes did little to help me understand what I needed to do to move forward. It always seemed like a case of either too much help from the game’s descriptions or too little. Some solutions made absolutely no sense to me at all and all too often, upon discovering the way forward through copious amounts of trial and error, I scratched my head and wondered why the hints were so poor. An NPC ally named Franky could be clicked on to provide help now and again, but he was all but useless in most cases, with his clues being far too vague to be of much value. In short, the game’s too opaque and could use a few rewrites to help the player understand what they need to do next. I understand it’s a careful balancing act: the devs don’t want to give too much away. I just wonder if there was a language barrier here or if the Gato Salvaje Studio just doesn’t have a handle on vocabulary usage and constructing in-game conversations to provide adequate hints while still challenging the player to figure things out on their own.
The graphics are pure mid-90s CD-ROM era, with very little in the way of animation or liveliness. The characters all move in very stiff fashion, and traversing a particular environment is slow and frustrating. They were going for Monkey Island-type involvement here, but this game doesn’t have any spark in its visual presentation. The zones are dank, dark and drab, and that is a nearly lethal combination for a game that relies on visual engagement to arrest the player’s senses. The story does its best to make up for this with humor, character exposition and world building, but the graphics remained a weak spot throughout. The same for the sound design which is boring and ambient. This is an industrial space where people are made to work all day long, but I never heard the monotonous droning of machinery, the pumping of pistons or the jetting of foul air through rattling vents that this game needed to help establish its mood. And the soundtrack is so dull and uninspired that it barely merits a mention.
AR-K: The Great Escape does a few things well, if none of it has to do with the actual gameplay. The characters are lively and charismatic, and the story does a good job of helping you care about their relationships and struggles. There’s something to be said for this game’s better qualities when I found the puzzle solving thoroughly irritating but kept wanting to play to hear what these people were going to say to each other next. The narrative could be remarkably empathetic at times, and I found myself legitimately caring whether or not Alicia and her pals got out of Sector 8 because, at the end of the day, I liked them and didn’t want them to stay down there. I can’t help but think I would really enjoy this if it were a visual novel series and not a point-and-click adventure series. It was interesting enough that it even overcame frequent instances of clumsy voice acting. We’re talking Windows 3.1 era bad. Night Trap bad. Original Resident Evil bad. Which is particularly maddening, because, at other times, the voice acting was quite good, and nothing frustrated me more than hearing the same voice actors sound both fantastic and terrible, sometimes during the same conversation. Pronunciations of original terms, such as ‘Valerians’ to describe a race of minotaurs, was inconsistent. At times, the actors would call them ‘Valerians’ and, at other times, ‘Varelians.’ It took me out of the game every time.
It needs to be said that AR-K: The Great Escape does not end with the third chapter, but promises more to follow. I think I’m going to take a pass, personally. As I said at the beginning of the review, I am not an enthusiast of this particular genre, and this one didn’t convert me. Even at the affordable price of $7.99 on Steam, I didn’t feel the game was strong enough overall to get me to buy into the saga as a whole. That is not to say that there aren’t good games of this type, but AR-K doesn’t do anything to push point-and-click games forward, although there are a number of strong elements for even the uninitiated fan to appreciate. I also think that, had the game been more technically sound and well written, I could give it a better review. It’s a shame, really. There’s just enough to like that I want to know what happens next, but I wouldn’t be interested in paying for it or playing through it.
Review copy provided by publisher
AR-K: The Great EscapeGato Salvaje StudioSteamWindows PC