There are two types of games I really hate to review: criminally mediocre games that you can't really say anything interesting about and games like AR-K, a game that has a lot of heart, but is like a busload of burning orphans careening off a cliff; a terribly executed, tragic waste of potential. Update
Within the day, I was contacted by one of the developers to tell me that they read my review and are working hard to make sure the next episodes live up to expectations. That's great to hear! By actually talking with me about my criticisms it reflects very well on AR-K's team and gives me even more reason to hope that it might come together and I can recommend it to everyone. The review remains the same for now, but those interested in the community behind a work in progress may find that here. Back to the review
How shall I start to explain the trouble that is AR-K? I know. Look around your computer and try and find a belt or length of rope. Just trust me. I'm going somewhere with this. Got it? Okay, now fold it in half, grab it firmly by each end and pull it taut. Now rapidly move your fists inward and outward. The flapping movement you are seeing is quite similar to how the main character's mouth moves in the first episode of AR-K; outside of cutscenes, anyway.
You might think this is a minor gripe and adventure gamers have always had a knack for looking past poor and peculiar graphics. And you'd be totally right. But I'm only pointing out one teaspoon in an ocean of technical issues and bad presentation. The volume of the spoken dialogue hasn't been normalized, there are a couple of misread lines, the subtitles have been poorly edited, you can't save on your own initiative or have multiple game files, the voices of characters are prone to change once or twice (probably artifacts from old voice actors), there's been some weird scaling when characters interact with each other, it took me about fifteen minutes to figure out how to get items from the inventory screen to interact with objects in the world, and the English localization has a few wrinkles. That isn't even an exhaustive list.
Alright, alright. So that's all really quite terrible, but like I've said, we're fans of point and click adventure games. We can forgive any kind of presentation in the name of good puzzles and and a good story. Let's start with the puzzles then. So, you've got an object on a high shelf that you want to get, a length of rope, and a large-breed dog. What do you do? Obviously, as an adult of average physical ability and a functioning brain, you ignore the rope and dog and climb the shelves, get a nearby box to stand on, or you just wedge your arm behind it and push it over. But you're playing an adventure game so you're probably already conditioned to ignore logical brevity and will do exactly what the game expects you to do: combining rope A with dog B. That's a puzzle in this game I found intuitive and logical and solved within seconds of its presentation. So, dear god, what kind of anti-backwards madness-dimension logic must be employed for me to call this game a completely illogical mess that demands a walkthrough?
Well, let's examine one puzzle from episode one that I like in theory, but was so horribly implemented it was unsolvable. In AR-K, you play an investigative journalist and there was a puzzle based around you asking other characters about a policeman so that you could create some sincere-sounding flattery to get him to help you. That's a totally awesome thing for a game about an investigative jounalist! However, the hints you actually get don't correlate to the actual dialogue options you're presented with during the flattery, at best. At worst, they're totally misleading. For example, you're meant to get his first name from a bulletin board where various people have left posts. Now, the names on the board include three of the four choices you have in the dialogue and absolutely none of the bulletins suggest character traits specific to an officer or to anything else you've learned about him. In fact, the closest logical leap I could find is that one of them mentioned a feature of the specific area he was patrolling, so I assumed that must be the one. Nope. So to solve the puzzle you have to choose one of four dialogue options correctly four times. The game will not tell you which you have gotten correctly and none of your hints are better than my example. Oh, yeah, and in episode one you can't cut off dialogue you've already heard (at least I couldn't find a way).
That's exceptionally awful. And it's doubly bad, because that's such a neat idea poorly done. But it's not the worst. Actually, episode one wasn't too bad. There was one other highly questionable moment that I only solved by clicking everything I had on everything else for long enough to get a result, but only that dialogue puzzle sent me to a walkthrough. Episode two, though.... Did I somehow kill your family without knowing it, episode two? Is that why you tortured me so? The first half was perfectly logical (well, dog-rope-shelf logical), but then there's a bit with a rat, and a trap, and you have to shoot it, and you have to... and you have to *rocking back and forth while crying*. And then you're taking exams for some reason!? WTF!?
Okay, so the puzzles are half okay and half unsolvable moon logic. That does not a good adventure game make. But, hey, we've still got the story, right? It's a noir thriller, with the cartoony charm of Sam & Max, and it's set in space - the best setting! There's no way this could be bad, right? Well, hmm. It's okay. Episode one starts off with a good noir hook involving a mysterious MacGuffin and ends with the uncovery of a sinister plot, a betrayal, and ominous forshadowing. I even like the simple touch that we're playing a female investigator under the influence of a "homme-fatale" in a typically masculine genre. However, episode one is just a lot of screwing around on a college campus with very little movement in the story. It also doesn't help that the main character is kind of rough around the edges and performs some unlikable deeds. And it's not so gut-bustingly funny that you can forgive the character's misanthropy like with your Sam & Max. That said, episode two fixes all of those problems. The plot thickens and things happen. The protagonist actually appologizes for, say, maiming her mostly helpful roommate. And, most importantly, a disembodied narrator is introduced that only the protagonist can hear. There's some wonderfully funny lines between them and the narrator is able to voice our concerns with the protagonist's actions and manners.
The narrator is also supposedly there to give you hints, but these are as helpful as the aforementioned clues with the policeman puzzle.
So we've got a badly designed, technically messy game with a story that's all over the place. No, I can't recommend this game. I really wanted to. If you had told me last week that I'd be playing a noir-themed adventure game in the style of Lucasarts or Telltale set in freaking space, I'd have said, "Yes! All of this! Melt it down and inject it right into my eyeballs!" I want AR-K to be the video game equivalent of the underdog kids in an 80s sports movie, where after a synth music montage with a robot, the devs crank out an adventure game that beats down the big bully Triple A teams that give adventure games wedgies.
Maybe it still can be that. There are still two episodes that haven't been released and episode two was mostly an improvement over episode one. In recent history, Tales of Monkey Island went from a mediocre first half to an adventure worthy of its pedigree. I'll keep an eye on AR-K's upcoming episodes and maybe I'll have the good fortune to erase my work here and tell you how badly you need to play this game. For now, though, I wouldn't.