Premature Evaluation: Cryptark

Cryptark’s title is a bit of etymological fun, as both syllables can mean the same thing. Presumably, the sense they are going for is an ark of the Noachian kind - a ship of biblical proportions, but one which, instead of containing animals two-by-two, has become a burial chamber for its unhappy inhabitants. But the meaning of “crypt” did not always assume it contained dead things - that’s as recent as the mid-18th century. Previously it meant a vault or cavern beneath the ground, bouncing back through Latin to the Greek, kryptos, meaning, simply, “hidden”.

Each week Marsh Davies attempts to retrieve some sort of thematically appropriate salvage metaphor from the Early Access game he’s been playing – which is perhaps too easy when the theme of that game IS salvage. But Cryptark is no stricken husk: it’s already proving to be a truly excellent roguelike shmup. In it, you’re dispatched to disable the security systems of derelict alien space-hulks so that they can be stripped for scrap, one after the other, until you locate the eponymous prize itself, a gigantic vessel chock-full of precious alien tech.

Derelict is apparently a relative term, however. The hulks are still occupied by swarms of drones, seemingly constructed out of metal and horse skeletons, which will viciously punish your trespass. Still happily throbbing, too, is the ship’s giant pink brain, which is your mission’s goal: destroy that and all the ship’s other systems will shut down, leaving it vulnerable to your fellow salvagers.

Ark, in both the Ark of the Covenant (which is a box) and Noah’s Ark (which is a vessel), derives originally from a pre-Indo-European usage meaning to hold or contain. From there the connotations spread: a place of refuge, in some instances, or something kept safe, or secret… or indeed hidden. Hence “arcane”. However, I don’t know if a game called Secretsecret would do quite as well on the Steam Store.

So far, so shmup – but Cryptark makes this strategically interesting by protecting the core with a number of other interrelated systems that you can choose to take down first. The core may have a shield for instance, or an alarm system that will alert all the ship’s drones to your position. And these drones may be endlessly resupplied by a drone factory which can build and teleport them to your location. And any of these – the core, the shield generator, alarm system or drone factory – might be secured by the door locking system, which, once disabled, might be then quickly repaired by the ship’s repair system unless you choose to destroy that first.

Brilliantly, each of these systems is a mini-boss in itself, with bespoke tactics required for its destruction. The shield generator is encased by what might be rotating radioactive broccoli, which deflect incoming fire right back at you, forcing you to perform synchronised strafing runs, or spend valuable time waiting for openings before unleashing volleys of fire – all while fending off the attacks of drones. The repair system will, unsurprisingly, repair itself while distracting you with a buzzing cloud of bots. They’re easily destroyed, but while your attention is turned, the system’s health pool has all but replenished. The door locking system requires you to key in a series of increasingly complicated D-pad instructions. The gimmicks of each are perfectly gauged to be challenging under time pressure, but trivial enough that their repeated encounter on each new ship is not a chore.

The etymological origin of the word ark, meaning to hold or contain - and thus covering everything from boats to baskets, has recently turned out to be rather more apt a term for Noah’s ark than was previously thought. In 2009, a Babylonian tablet came to light which (after years of analysis) unexpectedly provided not just the account of the biblical flood, complete with the detail of animals going in two-by-two, but also detailed instructions on how to build the ark itself. The image of the ark as it prevails today is that of a doughty timber ship, wide and long, with a little roofed house on the top. This has little foundation - even in the biblical account itself, where the meaning of the words describing the vessel are lost to time. However, the Babylonian version is unequivocal: the ark was to be circular.

And so you plot a winding route through the procedurally generated ship’s interior, balancing the threat of each system against your dwindling ammunition, your gun-suit’s hull integrity, the potential for resupply while on the mission and the ticking clock. Each hulk needs to be disabled in a meagre handful of minutes, after which your reward quickly reduces. This is extremely significant, not to the success of the mission you’re on, but to your campaign as a whole. Your intent is to reach the Cryptark itself, but the game’s central contrivance is that the information of its whereabouts can only be found by salvaging other ships in the dead alien flotilla first, each successful mission advancing you through one of the six tiers of difficulty until you reach your target. Salvaging these early ships, however, only just covers costs. You have a starting budget of 500k for the entire campaign, and, even in the early stages, a failed salvage operation will easily dock 100k from that total. And so the campaign level strategy influences not just the mission level strategy, by forcing you to ignore dangerous systems in the hope of a quickly lucrative smash-and-grab, but also your moment-to-moment tactics, as you scrimp on the weapons at your disposal.

The developer’s previous game, the Greek-themed side-scrolling combat adventure Apotheon, relied heavily on a procedural animation and physics system which occasionally made your character feel like an ineptly rigged puppet. There are no such problems here: Cryptark’s combat abilities have been as well considered as the layers of strategy that inform it. Gunfire is abrupt and kinetic, some weapons sending both your enemy and yourself skittering back through the vacuum as you fire.

The account goes so far as to recommend placing a peg in the centre, attaching a rope to it and drawing the base of the ark by walking the perimeter the rope permits. The material of the boat is to be palm fibre, woven into rope which is used to construct, in effect, a gigantic basket, sealed with bitumen. This form of boat construction would not have been unfamiliar: it is a coracle, a style of boat-building that spans the globe, from Wales to Tibet. Admittedly, rarely are they quite as large: the one described in the Babylonian tablet encloses about an acre of space.

Avoiding gunfire proves just as fun. The enemies you are pitted against come in many forms, each with their own attack patterns and weaknesses – the tactics required to neutralise them shifting in exciting ways as your armoury develops. Enemies with powerful frontal shields must be effectively strafed, the nose-dive attacks of other drones timed and avoided. Laser sights track you before unleashing devastating missiles, while other enemies deploy energy vortices that explode after a time. Juggling your dash move and your ram attack can get you out of the line of fire at critical moments, allowing you to pop a few grenades over the shields of a heavily defended core system, before zipping back out of the killzone, kiting a swarm of enemies into a narrow corridor where they can be easily dispatched.

There are many, many different weapons and tools to be fitted to your gunsuit – though the cost-benefit of these is both quite critical and hard to parse. Mounting a cheap machine gun as both primary and secondary does the job on the early missions (and has the added advantage of feeling amazing, tearing through the weaker enemies like paper), but the threat quickly outmatches them. Indeed, I suspect the threat quickly outmatches me, too. Right now the game’s escalation of challenge is unforgiving, to say the least, and, if you take a few losses, it seems pretty tricky to pull yourself out of that nose-dive.

Given that this tablet predates the Hebrew Old Testament by 1000 years, it’s perhaps not surprising that the flood that the tablet describes is not the flood of the bible - not exactly. The god in question is Enki, of Sumerian mythology, later called Ea, and the boat-builder here is a man called Atra-Hasis. But the account is close enough to be reasonably sure that the bible’s account derives from this tale of a Babylonian flood - the “two-by-two” detail being clinching proof.

At each stage of the campaign’s advancement, you are given a selection of ships to choose for your next mission, each with a different security set-up, time-requirement and difficulty rating. Sub-missions may award you a bonus for completing extra objectives, like capturing the hulk without using any resupply modules or while leaving the door-locking system in place. But after a successful completion you don’t get to investigate the other ships in this cluster – instead, you are immediately advanced to a higher difficulty. Failure, and the destruction of your gunsuit during a mission, meanwhile, only means lost money: you are left to select another mission among ships of an equivalent difficulty. However, if campaign funds go into the red, the entire thing is scrubbed and it’s back to the start screen. I do like that this two tiered failure state exists, but in my experience, a couple of knock-backs ends up costing so much money that you sow the seeds of the campaign’s failure anyway.

One solution would be to allow the player to advance through the difficulty at a speed of their choice, but I can see why the devs might be reluctant to allow this: turtling players might end up investing so much in a single campaign run that they end up truly resenting its eventual failure. Roguelike games have to walk a fine line: keeping the player keenly incentivised on reaching that final goal while making each attempt feel relatively throwaway. Too much commitment to the former is unwise in a game where it’s still possible to encounter ship builds that are, I suspect, nearly impossible to defeat: gamepads will be launched at monitors, for sure.

Is this proof of an actual flood, of an actual ark? That would be hasty. Excavations and geological studies of several archaeological sites in Iraq have produced interesting results, however: a thick, three-metre layer of mud, below which further human evidence can be found. As for the proliferation of the myth, most societies of the ancient world would have been dependent on rivers for growing food and flooding would have been a widely recognised hazard, making it easy for the myth to transfer between cultures with similar stories of deluge. As for the ark’s location today, the mount Ararat described as its resting place by the bible is claimed variously by Turkey, Iraq and places even further afield. It’s likely it’ll remain a subject fit only for speculation and pseudo-historical tourist brochures for the time being - but perhaps it’s only appropriate, given the other connotations of “ark”, that it remains a secret.

As it is, Cryptark is one of the most confident entries to Early Access I’ve seen – a few bugs aside, this is robust, generously featured and unusually convincing in its design. In fact, I might well be tempted to use Cryptark as a case study of how to take a simple, hoary old game conceit, like the shmup, and have it transcend into something richly strategic, by ensuring the player has interesting things to consider at every strata of interaction. How you move and what you shoot might occupy you in the moment, but these choices must be folded into your larger plan for the mission, and that, too, into the tricky economics of your campaign. Rarely is good design so easily transparent. Were all Early Access games this competent and complete, I might have to retire the salvage metaphors altogether.

Cryptark is available from Steam for £10. I played Update 0.261 on 07/11/2015.

26 Comments

  1. Tacroy says:

    This is definitely a roguelike I wish wasn’t a roguelike; I’d be much happier if it was more open, and didn’t have the timer.

    • Rhodokasaurus says:

      I completely agree with this sentiment. The game feels really good to play, I wish it had a more traditional progression that gave me time to enjoy myself or at least make me feel like there’s some kind of progress to losing, as opposed to “Oh well, start the whole game over.” I agree about the timer as well, which is completely arbitrary and doesn’t have any game world reason to exist. The timer only affects your bonus pay, but even so it looms there trying to squelch my fun.

      Everything else: excellent.

      • Ancha says:

        The dev’s have already said that they will release an arcade mode which does away with the timer as many people feel the same way you do. I look forward to arcade mode as I too am one of those people.

        • DrollRemark says:

          an arcade mode which does away with the timer

          *scratches head*

    • trashmyego says:

      I’d have nothing against an open/free mode. But no. The timer and it being rogue-like are what makes it work. The limitations that arise are the meat of this game’s strategic components. They’re at the root of its entire design.

      • Tacroy says:

        I understand that, and I wish they hadn’t balanced the game around the timer; I prefer to play this kind of game slowly and thoroughly, but the timer almost enforces a seat-of-your-pants, as fast as you can playstyle. It’s not even particularly well supported in-game.

    • Nevard says:

      That’s definitely what I was worried about when the game was first mentioned on RPS a while ago, shame.

  2. bouchacha says:

    I really loved the image alt-text on this post!

  3. vahnn says:

    I loved this game big time from the start. The action is fast and absolutely furious.

    There is one particular issue that plagues me, though: mouse lag. I can’t figure it out. There’s easily a 1/4 to 1/2 second delay on my mouse inputs. I’ve tried 2 different mices (Razer Imperator and Logitech G402), both with firmware and software fully up to date, tweaking the hell out of the graphics, forcing vsync, mouse smoothing, and mouse accel off, as well as searching through game files in hopes of stumbling upon a variable to tweak (I’m no coder)… Nothing.

    Most disheartening is that I’ve opened a thread on the forums the second day after purchasing the game, and soon after sent an email, and no response from the devs. I forgot about the issue for a few days and now it’s too late for a refund, and still no word from the devs.

    It’s really a terrific game, but I can’t enjoy it since anything beyond a Difficulty 3 ship is just too difficult to fight through with laggy mouse inputs. Has anyone else had this problem?

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      Phasma Felis says:

      Steam will sometimes give you a refund outside of the 2 hours/2 weeks period if you’ve got a good reason. (Like “mouse support is broken,” not “I had to play it for 7 hours before deciding I hated it,” as one gentleman posted an angry screed about recently.)

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    Ericusson says:

    I for one would wish to stop the obsession of Indie developers for Rogue like games.
    Looking at Steam right now is Rogue like everywhere and it is boring. Let me arm my character to the teeth and be gone with the easy shallowness of rogue like mechanisms as an answer for your lack of budget and/or ideas.

    • Cloudiest Nights says:

      To a degree, it is probably because it’s much more simple and timely to program procedural generation for levels, but it is almost more difficult to get right than making traditional levels. Look at Spelunky, which has a fabulous breakdown somewhere on the internet of how fabulously designed it is.

      As a developer myself, one draw to the roguelike genre is that it is more fun for the developer to play. It leaves you, the designer, with unexpected gameplay. If the devs are making a game because they think it’s fun, then more power to them if they want it to be a roguelike.

      • McGibs says:

        As the developer of Cryptark, this is pretty agreeable. Seeing as our last game was a giant narrative action rpg that took us almost 4 years to make, I’d say we earned ourselves a rouge!

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          Ericusson says:

          Most of all, as a gamer, I am tired of having everything teared down after dying.
          I think Binding of Isaac made it cleverly with lots of unlocks whenever you play, from a limited number of items possible during your first gameplay to a massive collection, challenges, alternate endings etc.

          Resetting all sense of progress at player loss has gotten tiresome now that every single game does it or so it seems. Let us play with your games and guns ! Let us have fun !
          Don’t know how. Probably mixing what was done with all the persistant worlds with rogue mechanics. Allow for some story driven rogue experience with permadeath in level progressions but in an open world where we can build and have fun within the procedurally generated worlds.

          There had been this fashion of Terrarias and Minecraft clones, and now is the fashion of Rogues cooked at every sauce. How about mixing it up and introducing some variety in the genres ? Or something like that. Point taken, it means thing risks and probably more budget and time than a rogue like where no balance has to be devised for the end game beyond a controlled limited setting.

          To tell the truth, Cryptark has been in my steam cart for a week now though the time constraints and apparent issues with laptops stopped me from purchasing it. Also as someone who spent a lot of time with Nuclear Throne and disagrees with the choices made by its developper and the shallowness of it after 2 years of development, I am wary of buying more rogue like yet again.

          • trashmyego says:

            “Resetting all sense of progress at player loss has gotten tiresome now that every single game does it or so it seems.”

            Every game doesn’t do this, that statement’s just… short sighted and kinda insane. And it’s not a barrier to playing the game or having fun. You’re the barrier. You’re the one demanding a game that Cryptark isn’t.

            “How about mixing it up and introducing some variety in the genres ?”

            I’ll take that you have very little context on what Rogues are and have been if you don’t think Cryptark is adding a great amount of variety to a genre. You’re missing the forest for the trees, among other things.

          • Darloth says:

            I’d like to point out I’ve died in every single successful run of Cryptark I’ve yet completed. It’s certainly by no means a failure state if you don’t do it too often and if you have a bankroll to fall back on, especially since the current score mechanics go by gross revenue not total profit.

            Three times on one of them – one particularly memorable instance was because I needed literally just a single additional shot in my flak cannon thing to destroy the brain and win the stage… but I’d not bought that much ammo. I enjoyed it a lot.

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          Ericusson says:

          Good luck with the game McGibs !

        • alphagator says:

          Congrats! It seems very cool and I’ll be picking it up as soon as it comes out of EA :D

      • Chaoslord AJ says:

        Easier to make something looking like a game but hard to get right. The classic roguelikes have been in dev. for ages and yet everyone tries to make quick cash out of the hype.
        I’d rather take one great game like BoI than 100 cash-ins per month but well it doesn’t really hurt me either (beside me buying half-a-dozen mediocres the last year).
        Also developement has shifted away from the fear of dying and exploration of unknown artefacts and dungeons to games that start artificially hard, getting you unlocks with dying making the game easy and winable -that formula gets old quick.

  5. vahnn says:

    If there were fewer roguelikes, there would just be fewer games. Just skip over them. =D

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    Bluerps says:

    I read about the story of Atra-Hasis and the flood, though that was quite some time ago.

    If I remember correctly, the flood was not the first cataclysm the gods sent to the world. Also, their reasons were slightly different than the reasons of the biblical god: They were annoyed. The problem was that, back then, humans were partly immortal. They could be killed by violence or accident, but not by old age.

    After some time this lead to a world full of an enormous number of people, which were very loud. They were so loud that the gods could constantly hear them, until they just couldn’t take it anymore. So they sent a giant earthquake, a firestorm, or some other catastrophe. A few humans always survived this, so the problem came back after a while. This repeated a couple of times.

    Finally some gods decided that it was enough, that this time they would send a huge flood and kill all the humans. One god wasn’t behind that idea. He instructed one of his followers – Atra-Hasis – to build a boat and save some humans. The plan worked, and once again some people were left after the great catastrophe. To prevent the other gods from simply killing those last survivors, the god came up with an alternative plan: Just take immortality away from the humans. People die from old age, problem solved. The other gods agreed.

    Note that this only meant the descendants of the flood survivors. The people that were on the boat stayed immortal. The well known hero Gilgamesh even meets Atra-Hasis much later and asks him for the secret of immortality.

  7. Chaoslord AJ says:

    There aren’t many roguelikes they are mostly roguelites anyway.
    Time limit is a different thing again – I don’t like it. It’s ok with games like ADOM where time passing makes the game harder and I never expected to win it anyway but here it sounds like they just take your ressources away and that’s not fun for me leading to a hectic playstyle making bad decisions.
    Also I played a lot of roguelikes involving grinding like Zangband or the elder Tome with no time limit – they are still good fun and when you die it’s over, no unlocks and easifiers.
    There is no need to hurry players through the content in order to not frustrate them upon dying… that’s the usual paternalizing of modern gaming.
    Everthing else in this game is right up my alley so I hope this “arcade mode” will end up good. Kinda like a Binding of Metroid with spaceships.

  8. Rumpelstiltskin says:

    I think the title’s uncomfortably similar to Crytek

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    heretic says:

    Really interesting alt-text, thanks Marsh! Oh and nice game preview too :)

  10. Cronstintein says:

    I think this game looks really promising. It had the unfortunate fortune of hitting Steam almost simultaneously with Galak-Z. And since Cryptark is still in EA the choice was fairly easy for me. But I 100% plan to pick this up at some point either when on sale or after a nice update in the next couple months.