Premature Evaluation is the weekly column in which we explore the wilds of early access. This week, Fraser's lost in PixArk, the Minecraft-inspired Ark: Survival Evolved spin-off. It's colourful, whimsical and it's made him extremely grumpy.
PixArk feels like the result of an algorithm designed to pick bits from popular games and Frankenstein them into something new. This is nothing new - trying to capture the zeitgeist can lead to fun places, and great successes. PixArk, however, is not a game that captures the zeitgeist, but rather something hollow, stitched together out of disparate parts seemingly without proper consideration for how they fit together or what made them work originally.
Blocky Zombies and dinosaurs wander around aimlessly, you can use magic or craft weapons, and yes you can still tame beasties as in Ark, but only if you’ve reached the appropriate level. If you can do something in either Minecraft or Ark, then there’s an extremely high chance you’ll be able to do it here.
This isn’t Ark as envisioned through the lens of Minecraft though, nor Minecraft through Ark, but rather a haphazard melting pot where seemingly every element of each has just been flung into the mix. It’s cluttered, packing in all these ideas from its parent games, and even after wandering around for hours I don’t really know what it really is in and of itself, or indeed why it is, beyond the fact that it is already selling based on the brand and bricky appeal alone.
After making my moustachioed avatar - whose blocky, modular design evokes the delightful BUD from Grow Home and Grow Up - I was deposited in the skies above my randomly-generated world, gently floating down while hanging onto some balloons. Within minutes I’d been eaten by a giant bird. Then a wolf. Then a fish. And finally a T-Rex.
Hitting up other spawn locations yielded similar results. While Ark places you on a relatively safe beach where you can slowly learn how to survive, PixArk’s randomness means that you can land in all sorts of messes instantly. There's not much you can really do when you land right next to a hungry T-Rex and you're wearing nothing but a grass skirt and carrying no weapons. Outrunning it isn't an option either. And with a single bite, you're toast. Delicious toast.
The prevalence of experience points meant that, despite the dangers all around me, I was able to level up fast, unlocking crafting recipes along with points to spend on my abilities, like strength and stamina. I even managed to tame my first dino buddy, which seemed to happen quite a bit quicker than in Ark. I fed him some berries, fashioned a little saddle, and within a few minutes I had a friend for life. He was eaten by a zombie the next night.
The number of aggressive beasties is comically high, to the point where there’s no tension whatsoever, just the expectation of yet another pointless, nearly unavoidable death. And there isn’t a combat system to really support this much action. There’s just a lot of flailing and frantic clicking until something dies. Usually me, since every dinosaur, werewolf and mummy is absurdly strong.
Eventually I found a spot that seemed relatively peaceful. A pteranodon made its home nearby, but it left me alone. I spotted some direwolves eyeing me from the cliffs above, but they didn’t seem too keen to make the climb down to gnaw on me. So I started building a home. Crafting and construction in PixArk are considerably easier than in Ark - aside from the dodgy combat and Hulk-strong creatures its an easier game in general - and it’s a lot more flexible. Compared to Minecraft, however, it’s restrictive.
I tried to make a quick wood and dirt house to start with, but PixArk is pretty strict about how you go about putting together buildings and what materials can be used. So while you can stack up dirt like a wall, you can’t make a roof out of it and you can’t build on top of it. So I needed to create foundations first, then build on top of that using walls and roof slots that I’d crafted. All the building pieces are the same size and shape, too, limiting what you can build. Even when I embarked upon some pretty conservative renovations, I found that I couldn’t do a lot more than make an ugly, boxy cabin.
After that, I lost all sense of time, retreating inside myself as I chopped down trees, beat up dodos, picked plants and made more crafting tables. That PixArk so slavishly adheres to the humdrum routine of the mountain of sandboxes that have come before it isn’t a surprise, but it’s especially dull. There’s plenty to craft, but there’s no real sense of discovery. You muck about, get experience, unlock blueprints and that’s that. It feels like a bunch of tools are just being chucked at you without much context.
The structure of the blueprint trees doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. Sure, you start off with basic wooden tools and building materials, but then you’re unlocking the ability to create a hat out of a T-Rex when all you’ve got is a stone spear and you haven’t even discovered the bow. I couldn’t even kill a wolf. Admittedly, that’s not unusual for me.
There was nothing egging me forward. The threat of all the bloodthirsty dinosaurs out in the wilderness kept me from straying too far at first, but I didn’t really need to go far afield to survive and continue working on my very plain cabin. I did look around for quests, but when they all ended up just telling me to gather things I didn’t need, I wandered back to the safety of my miserable home.
After putting up some decorations to spice my cabin up, I started work on my first candle, which I absolutely didn’t need. Or indeed want. I was just filling up the time. This is what life was like before books. You get eaten by wolves or you spend your day making a candle. Fearing another sandbox-induced existential crisis, I left the land that time forgot.
PixArk doesn’t have an identity of its own, but it doesn’t do a great job of impersonating Minecraft or Ark either. It’s managed to capture just about every feature, good and bad, but there’s not a lick of cohesion; even the art style frequently ditches cubes. Pick a style! I take 20 minutes to fill up a bag of Pick 'n' Mix, so the hypocrisy isn’t lost on me, but sometimes a choice has to be made. And it should probably be fizzy cola bottles.
PixArk is out now on Steam for £19.49/$24.99/€22.99.