Raid cyborg-infested space hulks in Cryptark

Cryptark [official site] is a side-on shmup that pits a mech with a gun for a head against derelict spaceships filled with monstrous drones made out of bone and steel. It’s all for a good cause: earning cash to fund more space pirate adventures. It also looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s left early access and is out now.

While a shmup full of hideous cyborgs and decaying, procedurally-generated space hulks sounds very much like my thing, it’s the striking art that immediately caught my attention. Alientrap’s creative director, Jesse McGibney, has shared an imgur album that shows how its distinct style was developed.

But what’s with all this cool 3D looking jazz you ask? I’ve always believed in pushing 2D game art forward using modern technology and techniques, rather than trying to recreate retro art styles. What if the 3D revolution didn’t happen in the 1990s? What might 2D games look like nowadays?

We used a technology called Normal mapping, which is common in 3D games to make things look more detailed than the models really are, but not used that often for 2D sprites. There’s ways to automate the process a bit, but we found out that there weren’t really any shortcuts. We basically had to hand paint each and every piece of art multiple times. Once, for the base detail, then from 4 different lighting directions. Doing it manually was a LOT of work, but it gave the best results. The crazy rainbow colour is all the lighting combined into a normal map that the game can use to figure out how the ingame lighting works.

The result is a game that’s entirely 2D, despite appearances.

Way back in 2015, Marsh took the Early Access version for a spin and came away pretty impressed.

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.

Cryptark is available from Steam and Humble now.


  1. cosmitz says:

    Tried it out a while back and maybe i’m just a pleb but i found it to be excruciatingly punishing. A single mistake in the later levels could mean backtracking and re-doing entire sections.

    • haldolium says:

      I played the release version now for a few hours and in the campaign mode I found the difficulty curve too steep as well. I think a few more easier levels in-between could do the trick.

      Rogue mode works a bit better for me due to the absence of time pressure.

      However it is a remarkable well polished game that is spot on in its action design and I can really recommend it even with the RNG problems that often lead to these kind of balance issues.

      • Snidesworth says:

        I had the same experience back in January. The difficulty ramped up quite quickly once you were past the first level or two and, despite really enjoying the aesthetic, I found it too much of a slog to stick with.

        I also ran into performance issues on the larger levels. I’ve upgraded my graphics card from the GTX670 it used to be, so maybe that will help, but problems usually occurred when alarms sounded and large numbers of enemies became active.

        • McGibs says:

          Dev here,
          We did quite a lot of performance optimizations in the last few months of EA, so if you were having troubles they might be resolved with the release version.
          We did some difficulty balancing as well to even out some curves, though I’ll admit it’s still a very challenging game. If you go into a mission without making a solid plan of attack, things are going to go badly.

          • Ghostwise says:

            If reasonable feasible, you might consider some options for a more accessible difficulty level. Speaking as an older half-cripple who likes games. :-p

          • barelyhomosapien says:

            Hey Devs,

            Really love your game, combat feels great and the pressure some of the design decisions generate :D

            One request though, multiple way points, maybe marked numerically? I always forget my plans after harrowing fights.

          • Premium User Badge

            Phasma Felis says:

            > *If you go into a mission without making a solid plan of attack, things are going to go badly.*

            I just realized that I can’t remember the last time I played a single-unit action game where I actually had to make a plan beyond “move forward until shit hits the fan”.

            I might have to try this.

        • vahnn says:

          I enjoyed a solid 10 hours from this game when I picked it up sometime last year, great fun overall. But these performance issues are why I gave it up as well. Too many hitches in fps causing my death. Time for a replay!

      • Herring says:

        I thought it was way to hard at the start but a little knowledge and experience goes a long way. I’m an old dude with with an increasingly slow reaction speed and I managed to complete it after a few goes.


        Have a plan. Take down repair facilities first but remember they always swap to repairing the last thing damaged…
        Abuse nukes. You can fire and forget to take out any facility and use the nuke facility to make exploding facilities clear the board.
        Always have an escape route; normally death is caused by being hemmed in. Running into space gives you time to breath.
        Don’t get too ambitious with the optional objectives; just completing fast gives you lots of money.
        Take time to get the upgrades in the earlier ships; nukes and smart-guns help loads.

    • Ericusson says:

      I used to think the game was too punishing a while back and then after some rebalancing from the devs, i tried to focus on the game little bit and managed to beat the campaign a few times.

      And I am really the kind of experienced but sloppy player who lacks focus so beating the game is really feasible.

      I think there are still some bothersome objectives that one has to learn to avoid to really enjoy the game (all the objectives limiting your budget/armor). And I don’t understand the stubbornness of leaving them in the game at all but eh.

      I had a really enjoyable 30 hours of the game so far and will probably plunge in it for a while now that it has exited early access.
      All the graphical glitches were solved for a 1080 and no slowdowns encountered.

      Mostly, take it slow, learn the strategy around the ship systems to optimize one raid and remember that the game has objectives for each wreck which is not always to try to fight everything.

      Also, don’t hesitate to invest in good weapons setup and lots of ammo so as to manage to fulfill all objectives and get some bonus bucks.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    That might just be the best-looking flamethrower I’ve ever seen in a video game.