Space Ark Xbox 360 Review

It’s such a shame that more games can’t be included in Microsoft’s ‘Summer of Arcade’ campaign, because the ones that do usually don’t need the publicity. The ones that don’t – case in point: Space Ark – are left outside with the rest of the riff-raff, fighting it out for the attention of the masses. Without some sort of promotional backing from Microsoft, it’s difficult to market a new IP at 800MSP, especially when an increasing number of genuinely interesting games are cropping up on the Indie Channel for little more than 80 points. Released just under a month before Summer of Arcade, Space Ark just misses the boat (do you see?) but remains a fun addition to XBLA’s roster regardless.

Though fundamentally you could consider Space Ark to be a Break-Out clone, there’s a lot more going for this arcade gem than initially meets the eye. As far as the fairly irrelevant (but none the less charming) narrative goes, a group of Arkonauts (cutesy animals in space suits) are travelling the galaxy in a state of cryogenic freezing, waiting for new planets to terra-form. It all makes perfect sense. Each new level appears in the form of a new barren planet to terra-form, with a different Arkonaut awaking from cryogenic hibernation to perform the task in hand.

Missions play a bit like Arkanoid, but with less brick-breaking and more blob-collecting. Scattered within each level are a number of DNA blocks of varying colour. By using the bounce pad (that moves horizontally at the bottom of the screen via the left thumb-stick) to initially launch, and then ricochet the Arkonaut into the designated playing area, players must collect all of the present DNA blocks to terraform that fragment of planet. It may sound fairly simplistic, but we’ve barely scratched the surface.

For a start, the level’s exit doesn’t open until a target combo has been reached. Combos are gained through the collection of three or more same-colour DNA blocks, and while to begin with they’re laid out in nice easy strings for the Arkonaut to gather, they get progressively trickier to collect as the game goes on. Using the right thumb-stick, it’s possible to adjust the trajectory of the Arkonaut, providing just enough control to angle jumps toward target DNA, while varying power ups throughout the game provide abilities such as shields, machine guns and lasers to help take out obstacles in the Arkonaut’s way.

It’s a strange and somewhat unsettling control scheme to get to grips with. While your left hand is moving the base the right hand is moving the Arkonaut, and at first keeping track of both motions at once can feel rather alien after the slew of twin-stick shooters spawned by the advent of XBLA. Give it a few missions to sink in however and it’s not long before you’re zipping through the air, grabbing a combo of DNA with the right hand and simultaneously collecting the falling fruit and power-ups with the left.

There are still times that the Arkonaut’s movement feels sluggish due the nature of the game’s gravity and environmental factors that affect the tiny creature, but once you understand the general law of each new element, it becomes a game of strategy rather than the simplistic bouncing of earlier levels. There are missions in which it only takes a few blocks of DNA to be collected individually rather than in a combo to make it impossible to complete, and in these situations it’s paramount that you plan your bounces carefully, ensuring that no block is left behind.

It’s this factor that changes Space Ark from a happy-go-lucky bouncing marathon, to a far more intriguing puzzle-arcade game. Planning the bounces, figuring out when and why to use power-ups, and deciding when to trigger switches that change the DNA’s layout is all part of the bigger picture. It’s something that takes time to unfold, but once it does Space Ark becomes a completely different game to the one it starts out as. The same goes for the other game modes available. Survival has Arkonauts collecting DNA as quickly as possible, with time bonuses for fruit and target combos, while time-attack is all about clearing the level of DNA as fast as possible, regardless of combos.

If that wasn’t enough, Space Ark features an interesting local multiplayer, which has up to two players working towards the same goal, yet against one another where scores and combos are concerned. It’s an amusing premise, with each player trying their best to collect DNA before the other swipes it from beneath their nose. The ability to swap the regular Arkonauts for players’ avatars adds an extra level of competition, encouraging a great deal of swearing like any good local multiplayer should.

Space Ark is a charming hybrid of a handful of classic arcade games. Its combination of score-beating arcade mentality, and devious puzzle elements in the later stages, make it shine against the murky backdrop of lesser XBLA titles. Its level/mission structure makes it perfect for a quick pick-me-up, while its addictive nature constantly encourages the ‘one more go’ attitude. Though it’s not exactly cheap at 800 points, it’s a far more productive and rewarding use of your money than a lot of the more well-known titles on XBLA. Though Summer of Arcade may be just around the corner, Space Ark is still an incredibly valid purchase.

8/10

by

Version tested: Xbox 360

Developer: Strawdog Studios

Publisher: Strawdog Studios

Genre: Anthropomorphic Arcade

Players: 1-2