I only lasted two hours on Mars. I didn’t die of radiation sickness, nor did I succumb to thirst or hunger. I didn’t get struck down by a wayward meteorite, or run out of oxygen and suffocate in my own spacesuit. All of these things are possible in this crafting-heavy survive-em-up. But my time on the red planet was brought to an end by a much more ordinary killer: tedium. Rokh is an absolute masterclass in how NOT to do survival games.
The set-up is familiar. You’ve landed in an inhospitable environment and you’ve got to get cracking. Meters tick down on the glass of your helmet – oxygen, water, food. Temperature and radiation also play a part in survival. If your radiation meter gets too high, for example, you’ll have to apply radiation shields as a consumable, as if these metallic shields are magic pills you are glugging down with precious H2O. But never mind, that’s the least of Rokh’s problems.
There are some boxes scattered around, containing materials to get you started. Look inside to find find an emergency screwdriver and some ‘rods’, ‘spikes’ and ‘bars’. Now open the crafting menu by using the screwdriver. Congratulations, you are about to discover a new type of mental anguish. For these crafting menus are some of the most unintuitive and clunky screens ever to grace the genre. And this is a genre which includes No Man’s Sky.
First, let’s provide some context. Examine the above trailer for the game. Danger awaits, but so does creativity and control. Build incredible structures, it says, the timelapse construction of skyscrapers suggesting a game of efficient astronaut-like workmanship. Now examine the following screenshot.
This took me two hours to make.
Struggling to create a new home in a game about “getting by” is not, in theory, a bad thing – plenty of survival games take the piss with their resource-to-item ratio, and nobody said survival on another planet was going to be easy. But nobody said that it involved cycling through ceaseless poorly-made menus and item interfaces either. I’m sad that I have to describe this facet of the game, because even talking about badly-designed user interfaces is as dull as a blunt mallet. Yet when this irritable faffing about takes up 75% of your in-game time, I’m left with no choice but to explore just why it is so heinous.
Firstly, there is no single uniform crafting menu. Instead, each tool has its own collection of things to build. You whip out the screwdriver and left-click to open a menu which can make other tools. Let’s say you build a hammer, because hammers are useful. Now you must assign the hammer to your tool bar by dragging it there and then switch to it (but use the number keys to do this because scrolling the mouse wheel would be too straightforward). Left-click with the hammer out to bring up a new menu, which is identical in layout as the old menu but with a load of new items listed on the left. Maybe now you make a soldering iron, because this is what you’ll need to make other stuff down the line. Now you have to put that in your toolbar, switch to it and left-click to open another samey-looking menu with different items.
This multiplicity of instruments continues far past the point of annoyance. You need to constantly switch between tools to make different materials and components, where a single menu would have sufficed. Even if you just need to check what “ingredients” are needed for something, you’ll need to navigate back and forth. Even purifying water from ice, or repairing one of your tools requires a separate tool and separate menu. It’s overcomplicated and fiddly and is not helped by the fact that you only have 5 spaces on your toolbar to work with. Because of this you are repeatedly opening your inventory (another mess of badly stacked and unfilterable items) and dragging things to and from your toolbar. You also need that toolbar space to place and use consumables like water, food and radiation shields. You can’t just eat these from the inventory menu.
All this creates a terrible crafting system as elaborate as any Rube Goldberg machine, and not nearly as entertaining. If you were looking at a human being working in this fashion, you’d see them picking up a hammer, looking at it closely and thinking for a long time, then putting it into a box and picking up an soldering iron, looking at that for a few minutes with a disgruntled and confused expression because they’ve naturally forgotten whether they needed a bar [M] or a bar [S]. Why the developers felt the need to include variable sizes of “ingredients” in an already-flustered collection of recipes, is anyone’s guess. In this real life example, the human would remember what they are doing, take a screwdriver off their toolbelt, put a juicebox onto their toolbelt, then take the juicebox off the toolbelt once again, in order to drink from it, before throwing the carton away and finally putting the screwdriver back on their toolbelt. Then they use the hammer to make one more rod and, oh good, now it’s broken.
There is much more to moan about when it comes to this interface (the way it prompts you to enter the amount of ingredients every time you fill a slot, the lack of any helpful sorting functions, the “delete materials?” prompt that appears if you drag an item even slightly outside of the designated drop zones) but I’m going to have to move on and examine the rest of the Martian experience. I’m sorry, it is also very bad.
If there is one glimmer of decency in Rokh, it’s that Mars looks very good. The sun shines down, casting blue or orange hues at different times of the day. Dust whips up in red canyons. Flat rocks pepper the surface like the flakes from some distant geological era. And the ruins of previous expeditions litter the landscape – long gas pipelines and abandoned habitats half-buried in the terrain or nestled against cliffsides.
But while these derelict habitats offer a higher frequency of supply crates to plunder, there is no other use for them. You can’t dismantle these buildings for parts, you can’t break open the doors and have a peak around, and you certainly can’t convert one into a home for yourself. It’s a bit strange that, as a struggling astronaut, there are all these useful buildings and shelters scattered around, yet you are expected to make your own half-assed shack out of tiny square sheets of zinc or “nvizzium” – a fictional metal named after the developers in another example of unnecessary obfuscation.
And the square tiles you make are minuscule. It takes hundreds of units of metal to create just a handful of tiles, repeating the usual sin of crafting games but adding the additional sin of forcing you to use the awful menus to make these tiles. So off you go to chip away at a metal or mineral deposit, by way of a sticky animation where the clinking sound effects and the sparks of your mining are wildly out of sync with the animation of your pickaxe. Where your mouse cursor becomes frozen and unfrozen with every muted blow. By itself this is a small problem, but it is characteristic of the whole game. Even the most basic task – mining a hunk of rock – has been somehow made less enjoyable than every preceding game of the genre. And this particular task – punching a tree – was rarely ever fun to begin with.
All these problems and more smack you in the visor within minutes of starting your new Martian life. Even putting aside the server crashes and bugs, and accounting for the scaffolding of early access, this is a poor example of the form. There is nothing novel or interesting, aside from the frequent meteor showers, and it isn’t so much “half-baked” as it is “still defrosting on the counter top”. Compare this with Empyrion, where crafting is fast, understandable and hugely generous. Or Astroneer, where mining the landscape away becomes as fluid as stroking the world with a paintbrush. Compare it with Osiris: New Dawn even, which I thought was a grind-heavy, badly-balanced slog, but which at least had an intuitive modular habitat design and also a giant worm. If you’ve come here to get away from monsters, Take On Mars, while also imperfect, will let you quietly make plenty of space potatoes. My point is that the digital storefronts are flooding over with games of this type, and all of them more polished and more interesting than this.
For a time, I worried that two hours was not enough to get an impression of what Rokh was offering. Then I remembered that I found this small ruin in the red dust nearby my own unfinished space hut.
Six tiles. That’s how long it seems to have taken the last person on this server to make up their own mind about life on the red planet. At 40 tiles, a door and a soldering iron, I’m ready to go. Bring me home.
Rokh is £19.99/$24.99 on Steam. But don’t. These impressions are based on build 1834660