As part of our E3 coverage back in June, I got to play a preview demo of B.ARK and even sat down for a quick chat with Abraham Morales (Game Director) and Sara Pocock (Studio Art Lead for Tic Toc Games). They told us that their team’s goal was to produce a character-driven, Saturday cartoon-style, retro shmup that could be accessible for newbies, while still providing enough challenge for more experienced players in the genre. I was rather excited about what I saw and heard back then. And now, after playing the full game, I’m happy to report that barring a few tiny quirks, B.ARK simply explodes with charm. After rolling credits (twice) I still couldn’t wait to jump back into one of the four pet-driven mechs and continue my mission against the nefarious Dark Tide. And that’s coming from someone who isn’t usually a fan of the shmup genre and probably tells you a lot about how much fun I had.
A fish-brained scheme
For some of us, waking up early on a Saturday morning to watch our favourite animated show on YoTV/KTV (or even joining our favourite alien Dub) may seem like something we did WAY too long ago to remember. But who are we kidding, no matter how old you are now, it’s hard to find someone that doesn’t still have some kind of soft spot for old-school cartoons. And B.ARK plays on that nostalgia perfectly. Not only does it look and sound like an up-rezzed version of something we watched after coming home from school on our CRT televisions, but the team has also obviously gone to great lengths to give us a wonderfully simple and classic “good versus evil” story too.
C’mon… it’s literally a story about cute pets in giant mechs taking on a fish-lead ocean armada called the Dark Tide. If that’s not a near-perfect elevator pitch I’m not sure what is.
After polluting the oceans for too long, humans have accidentally created a super-brainy fish bent on revenge. And now, as humans near annihilation, it’s up to a bunch of friendly talking animals to pilot mechs and save the galaxy. It’s a straightforward story and, sure, there’s a light sprinkling of environmentalism messaging in there too (let’s be honest we seem to need that message repeated again and again). But to have a shmup game built on those friendly and classic tropes and be supported by great music, awesome hand-drawn cut-scenes, charming writing and delightful characters – really makes it stand out right from the start. Also, c’mon… it’s literally a story about cute pets in giant mechs taking on a fish-lead ocean armada called the Dark Tide. If that’s not a near-perfect elevator pitch I’m not sure what is.
Despite the early successes of uber-popular games like Space Invaders, Galaga and Gradius, ‘shmups’ (as ‘shoot-em-ups’ have come to be known), is not a genre you see much in modern gaming anymore. It’s a bit of a niche category now – all about pushing the basic mechanic of the genre to the limit; Bullet-hell, chaos-filled screens that require quick, twitchy reflexes that few are skilled enough to master. However, B.ARK bucks that trend right from the outset by welcoming those new to the genre. This is done in a variety of ways including great visual distinctiveness (bright colourful mechs against solid dark backgrounds), a slow build-up of difficulty (particularly at the lowest setting) as well as smooth, engaging gameplay.
Jumping into the actual game you can choose between one of four characters: Barker (the dog), Felicity (the cat), Marv (the rabbit) and Lucio the bear. While each character is visually unique – their controls are the same and pretty straightforward: basic directional movement, shooting and dodging (basically phasing between short distances while invulnerable). What separates each character mechanically is that they each have slightly different shooting types and accompanying strengths and weaknesses. For my first run, I mostly used Marv. His Lucky 7 mech sends out “heat-seeking” bullets, meaning that I didn’t have to be the most accurate shot. However, Marv’s bullets also cause less damage than his fellow spacefarers meaning each boss actually takes more hits to defeat. Lucio on the other hand is a bit bigger and has a straight left-to-right shooting. However, each shot also explodes on impact causing lots of damage. Each character then also has a unique temporary Super Ability (like multiple projectile streams, slowing down time or even a defensive shield). You charge these Supers by collecting Plutonium – the blue bits left over every time an enemy is destroyed.
You can also chain or combine Supers producing a fantastical swirling kaleidoscope of colourful projectiles while destroying enemies.
It was really fun figuring out which character not only suits one’s own specific playing style but also which fits the different level designs and enemy movements best. In early areas where you’re mostly moving from left to right and facing bosses that attack you directly – Barker or Lucio work well. However, when camera movement changes up later on and bosses come at you from all angles (many of the enemy movements reminded me of Galaga which I loved), I found Marv and Felicity more useful. However, to be honest, I enjoyed trying each different character out not only because they all felt so well balanced and different, but (thanks to great attention to detail) they also all have their own unique HUD animations.
A fishy frenzy with friends
As you can tell I played a lot on my own. But B.ARK is a quintessential local multiplayer game. Thankfully my wife also joined me for a few rounds. Even though this is her first shmup, the fact that the game caters for beginners because of its accessible initial levels and its mostly co-op nature meant she actually got into some of the frantic gameplay. When playing in multiplayer mode not only can you save each other should one of the mechs be destroyed, but you can also chain or combine Supers producing a fantastical swirling kaleidoscope of colourful projectiles while destroying enemies. I suspect that adding more players to your adventure will just increase the wonderful chaos. And if you can find four players whose playstyles suit the four different characters this will likely be the best and most enjoyable way to tackle the game.
I enjoyed trying each different character out because they all felt so well balanced and unique.
Despite its early welcoming introduction though – experts of the genre should not feel like there’s nothing there for them. Rolling credits on my first playthrough on Normal difficulty was quick (somewhere around the three hours). However, going back in and playing the game in Hard and then at the Insane difficulty setting is substantially more challenging. In-level checkpoints that earlier seemed like a breeze, suddenly felt like real achievements when reached. And once you try to tackle the final boss-rush mode you’ll be testing your dexterity to the limit. On the negative side of things, I could say that the main campaign feels a little too short, and there were minimal but noticeable frame-rate hiccups in some of the tougher boss fights as their bullets swirled all over the screen. However, these didn’t bother me too much. I’ve got to say, though, that while we’re all still mostly stuck in our homes (and the time when I can have three friends come over to share a couch still feels like it’s a long way away) the lack of an online mode did feel like a bit of a miss.
If like me you haven’t really been into the shoot-em-up genre since the eighties – B.ARK provides a great re-entry point. The visuals and writing are compelling, funny and friendly (check out these great videos (Barker the dog, Felicity the cat, Marv the rabbit and Lucio the bear) to give you some idea of the humour you can expect). While the cutesy aesthetic won’t’ be for everyone, higher difficulty levels in particular still provide an engaging challenge even for veterans of the genre. Of course, as a mostly couch-co-op experience, this will likely be a barrel of fun with three friends – even if some of them are newbies. That being said, even in solo mode, there’s a lot to enjoy and thanks to its relatively reasonable price tag you’ll probably even forgive the fact that it won’t take you very long to complete. So grab a dog, a cat, a rabbit and a brown bear and let’s save the galaxy from the evil Darth-fish named Chog.