Given some of its backstory and the people behind it, the episodic point-and-click adventure game AR-K sounds pretty promising at first glance. With an ongoing story told through four individual installments, a successful Kickstarter campaign, plus recognizable writing and voice acting talent, it sounds like a surefire success on paper. Unfortunately, the final product isn’t exactly that, as good dialog and acting can’t save the game from lackluster visual presentation and near-nonsensical puzzle logic.
Players assume control of Alicia, a college student who is down on her luck due to an unfortunate incident during her past attempt to follow in her father’s footsteps as a successful cop. When the game starts up, Alicia wakes up from a one-night stand with a massive hangover and no memory of the man she hooked up with, and efforts to piece together the previous night end up dragging her into a greater mystery that ties back to her termination from the force.
All this takes place on the AR-K colony, home to various alien species besides humans, though for some reason, a lot of the aliens we see seem heavily inspired by Earth animals. Franky, a close friend of Alicia’s who runs a nearby restaurant, is very bull-like, while the receptionist at her school resembles a walrus, and so on. I couldn’t help but wonder why the character designers didn’t try to be more outlandish and creative with some of their alien designs as a result.
The visual problems don’t end there, either. AR-K was made on a small budget, even when compared to other indie adventure games on Kickstarter (Compare its $10,000 Kickstarter funding to Broken Age‘s $3 million), and the graphical presentation definitely feels like it suffered as a result. There’s very little in the way of unique motions and mouth movements for its characters, who are often low-quality and occasionally off-putting. The static environments fare better, but never come off as impressive, either.
Thankfully, the game’s strongest aspects are its writing and dialogue delivery, the latter of which is helped by the casting of Ash Sroka as Alicia’s voice. Sroka, who is best known to gamers for her role as Tali in the Mass Effect trilogy, puts a good amount of sass, humor, and personality into her line delivery, reminding me of such classic female adventure game protagonists as April Ryan from The Longest Journey. None of the other voice actors stand out quite as much, but they all do a serviceable job.
If only the same could be said for the puzzles. While more prominent games in this vein, namely Telltale’s recent work like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, revolve more around branching dialogue and story paths in conjunction with quick-time event action sequences, longtime adventure game fans know that the genre was actually founded on environmental puzzles. Going further, it’s also true that they often revolved around picking the right choices in conversation or making use of a particular item to overcome obstacles.
AR-K does follow in these footsteps, but it often does so in a very vague and illogical manner. I found myself stumped and without an idea of how to progress within a half-hour of playing, and had to resort to tracking down a walkthrough to make further progress. I might have been a bit more forgiving towards the trickier puzzles if they had appeared later, because it’s only natural for a game to gradually ramp up in difficulty after easing you into its mechanics, but this starts throwing tricky puzzles at you almost immediately.
How was I supposed to figure out that getting and combining two separate drinks from a vending machine meant I needed to spill that specific mixture on the floor to make a cleaning robot malfunction? And how was I supposed to figure out that, in order to get an item I needed from a grouchy neighbor, I was supposed to stick another soda can down a sewer grate that for some reason sets off an underground explosion loud enough to make him throw the object from his door in rage? Most of all, how was I supposed to know that the only way to trigger a certain action was to click a tiny statue way off in the distance that looked like a standard background decoration, then mention it to another character so they would do something completely unrelated?
While I normally aim to play everything I review to completion, I’m going to come clean with AR-K. Despite having two individual episodes to play through, after getting a good portion into the first episode, I had to throw in the towel – not just so I could get this review up in a timely manner, but because I had spent over an hour trying every dialog and item-mixing option I could think of and was still getting nowhere. The walkthrough I found ended up being worthless after a certain point, too, as the developer has gone back and retooled certain puzzles and mechanics for the game’s release on Steam.
Don’t get me wrong, I admire certain aspects of AR-K, mainly its lead heroine’s voice acting and dialogue. But as a whole, the game did very little for me. The visual style is as bland as can be, and the logic behind most of the puzzles never felt right. Though two more episodes are on the way as free DLC, I doubt I’ll ever get to playing them.
As far as Kickstarted classical adventure games go, you’re better off checking out the likes of Broken Age, because this is a flawed and forgettable attempt in almost every way.
This review is based on the PC exclusive, which was provided to us.
Despite boasting a likable and well-written lead, AR-K's gameplay and presentation leave a lot to be desired, making for an adventure game that's difficult to recommend.