Well, I never really thought I would see the day where I’m the go-to reviewer for the latest buzz-worthy Steam game, but as the summer sun beats down and marginal unemployment continues to stretch its vast reach across the landscape of my life, I thought I’d take to the Steam store to see what’s hubbin’ and bubbin’ in the world of video games. The answer to my inquiry re: hubbin’ and bubbin’ is none other than CRYPTARK, which we gave cautious coverage to back during IndieCade 2016. Somewhat wary over Jimmy’s concerns, I booted up the 2D roguelike and was at least initially impressed: light, cartoon-like presentation, an easy-to-understand gaming mechanic, and low levels of intellectual stimulation. In short, a good ol’ fashioned frenzied shooting spree, and one that promised to not require the avid touch of a “gamer” to enjoy. Unfortunately, my first takes were ultimately proven incorrect as time wore on. CRYPTARK is fun . . . for a bit. But there’s no way around the fact that the cold shock of the game’s difficulty curve and repetitive structure can’t help but render things tiresome more than a few hours in.
The “plot,” in true roguelike tradition, borders on non-existent. You’re a nameless space privateer seeking to make a quick buck for Uncle Sam (a bunch of reptilian aliens, in this case) by boarding old alien space-hulks, neutralizing any threats and security systems they may harbor, and getting valuable alien technology to sell to arms dealers (which in turn unlocks more goodies for you to use for all of the above). And that’s all there is to it! If you suck (which many people will), Uncle Sam gets cross and stops funding your little excursions, booting you back to the start menu. Typically if you fail two levels in a row, you get the axe. Of course, there’s plenty of anxiety to be had over technically succeeding by destroying the “cores” of the ship, only to have not completed enough of the sub-requirements given to you, barely staying even in terms of finance as the baddies get bigger and the levels much more difficult.
Obama, is that you?
Speaking of difficulty, the biggest mark against CRYPTARK is its Everest slope of a challenge curve after the tutorial. Here’s the thing; after a mere two hours or so you realize that the game doesn’t ever really make any attempts to shake up its formula. The procedurally generated levels put the various things you’re encouraged to destroy in different spots, sure, but other than a garden variety of predictable weapons options and armor boosts, you quickly get the picture. As such, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the developers shove you into the deep end just so you’ll have to tread water to pad out the runtime. Is it a fair stab at replayability to make things so challenging that you have no choice but to continually retry just to get halfway through the game?
But admittedly, difficulty is subjective, so more experienced gamers or those who are willing to grind for hours on end may not be quite so turned off. There’s not really levels so much as there are different kinds of alien spacecraft to receive artifacts from, and CRYPTARK at least does a commendable job of making sure that each separate ship has distinct antagonists and obstacles. While the same roster of enemies sticks to their respective ship class, the roulette wheel of changing security systems technically increases the amount of level permutations to innumerable possibilities. The enemies are all beatable in their own right, but become overwhelming in large amounts (especially the persistent Spikedogs, first response drones which continually bash you with fast jabs), all the more so when security systems are shooting their own lasers at you while sounding alarms to summon even more goons.
Who apparently look like this, I guess
The game somewhat shoots itself in the foot by not offering anything approaching a boss fight, however, until the randomly generated mini-bosses of much later levels. While the security systems are ostensibly supposed to fill this role, they’re fairly easy to destroy, making use of simplistic attack patterns, if they have an attack pattern at all. The only one that really proves a challenge is an entirely passive shuffle system, which changes the location of all of the space-hulk’s systems every 60 seconds. This is CRYPTARK’s most innovative calling card, and one of the few challenging elements of the game that’s fun to experience, as opposed to frustrating.
The one bone the game throws you is a utilitarian and easily understandable attack and defense system. Using a mouse and keyboard makes the best use of this, although it is admittedly a bit of an acquired taste to use Mouse 3 as one of the primary inputs (assign your shield to it so you can make much more ready use of your bash attack). With grenades and health kits easily assigned to other keyboard keys, it’s refreshingly user-friendly; any more complex attack system would render CRYPTARK entirely unplayable. And of course, one of the largest potential draws of the game is the ability to swag out your arsenal with progressively more impressive weapons and defense mechanisms.
You’ll really be able to visually differentiate them, too!
That being said, tying back to the earlier discussion of difficulty, a large part of the struggle is how damn expensive everything is. Before dispatching to the next ship, you’re heavily encouraged to buy health, ammo, different weapons, and all the like. The tricky part is that you have to buy them each round if you want to keep the same arsenal as you did last time. With a poorly executed mission, even if it’s successful, often netting you significantly below the roughly $200K loadout (this is what I found to give you enough health, ammo, and healing packs to stand a chance), you’ll soon find yourself having to severely downgrade all of your abilities if you want to go for a last-ditch chance at gold. I suppose this is one aspect of how hard CRYPTARK is that I can respect instead of resent. By forcing you to conserve ammo (you really can’t get away with holding down your primary weapon constantly, as it would turn out) and push you towards using the more powerful, ammo-free, and damage-risking bash attacks, the game requires a little more intellectual investment than it seems to upon first glance.
To be clear, there is a demographic for CRYPTARK, and the mostly glowing reviews show that I’m in the minority in my take. If you don’t need any story or characters in your game, if mild variations in level design keep you invested in replayability, and if you have the patience and stomach for schizophrenic battles and visuals, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. But I need something a little more gripping than a semi-nostalgic throwback to the shoot-em-ups of yesteryear to walk away impressed, and as such, I’d say your money is best spent elsewhere, especially considering the ongoing Steam summer sale.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Reviewed on PC, also available on PlayStation 4.