B.ARK Review: Animal Friends in Space
B.ARK is a game that’s been on my radar for a while. As a fan of Tic Toc Games, I was hopeful their latest title since Adventures of Pip would be amazing. B.ARK is a shmup all about 4 animal friends fighting against the mechanized forces of the Dark Tide. The game starts with a group of valiant astronauts and their pet pals trying to find safety in space. Things quickly go awry, and the animals are jettisoned to safety in their pods. Meanwhile, the humans are seemingly destroyed by a giant robot squid. After coming out of hypersleep, the 4 animals find refuge and get equipped with powerful ships. Now they have the means to turn the tables on the Dark Tide, and maybe find out what happened to their humans in the process.
The Final Furry Frontier
Though I enjoyed the basic story of B.ARK, it also never got quite as deep or meaningful as I’d hoped. The animal friends (Barker the Dog, Felicity the Cat, Lucio the Bear, and Marv the Bunny) are all delightful and full of personality, as are the commanders of the Dark Tide. But the plot is still pretty barebones. It can be seen as a loose allegory about the dangers of climate change. The leader of the Dark Tide is a fish who got mutated thanks to radioactive waste. And while that puts a giant chip on Chog’s shoulder, I just wanted a bit more depth. I know it’s a shmup, and those don’t generally have much plot. But what’s here is interesting enough that I found myself wanting a little more.
Roll Out, Cadet!
The story is split into 6 levels, each ending with a challenging boss fight. There’s also plenty of mini-bosses in the game, and once defeated, their lair serves as a checkpoint. Most stages have a handful of checkpoints, and they really helped in the more frustrating levels. Likewise, depending on which animal serves as your pilot, you’ll have different tools at your disposal. They each have a specialty. Lucio fires explosive shots; Felicity has spread shot; Marv fires homing shots, and Barker gets orbiting pods, providing a shower of bullets. By holding back on firing, each character can also fire a charged attack, useful in destroying heavily armored objects. Also, each pilot has a different super move, which can only be activated once your meter is full. My favorite is probably how Marv’s slows down all foes around him for a few moments, but all the supers are useful.
Locked and Loaded
Additionally, each default weapon can be powered up one of two ways. Either by collecting enough plutonium, dropped in droves by destroyed foes; or by collecting rarer pods that boost your weapon level immediately. Your maximum weapon level is 3, and taking too much damage will reduce it. This makes boss fights especially hard, since those last longer and are delicate dances of evasion and offense. Also, you can team up with fellow pilots to boost your firepower, though I’m not entirely sure about how that works. I only was able to play single-player, and I believe this mechanic works differently in multiplayer. In single-player, the pilot you choose seems to get upgraded supers based on their default. In multiplayer, I think it mixes their supers together. But since I wasn’t able to try multiplayer, I can’t say that with certainty.
Best Bring a Friend
Besides blasting the living hell out of all robot scum in your way, there’s another key mechanic in B.ARK – the dash. Not only does it allow you to avoid taking damage, but you can dash in 4 directions. Mastering this move is vital to survival, not only on the later levels, but on the harder difficulties. Speaking of which, the difficulty in the final release has definitely been increased a bit from the Steam demo. That said, it’s still pretty fair, at least on Normal and Hard. According to the developers, you need to beat the entire game on Hard to unlock the Insane difficulty option. By beating the game on Insane, you’ll unlock something really special.
I found the main loop of the game enjoyable, and it ramped up accordingly the farther I got. Stages were long, but the checkpoints helped alleviate burnout. Honestly, the hardest part of the game sometimes was just maneuvering around. Many stages have hazards such as falling stalactites, doors you have to shoot open, and even dangerous space jellyfish. When you mix in waves of fast-moving aquatic robots, things can get pretty hectic. And all the bosses were pretty tremendous, though some were a bit on the annoying side (looking at you, Vic).
One thing I really appreciated about B.ARK is there’s decent replay value. In each stage, you can find capsules containing Hidden Memories for each of the pilots, plus a couple of surprise characters. These are basically really beautifully drawn cutscenes showing things that defined that character’s past. My favorite is Felicity’s memory, which revolves around a traitorous goldfish and stray cats. These show a lot of the personalities of the pilots. Besides that, there’s also some replay value in the 7th stage. Rather than being a standard level, it’s essentially a boss rush. You have to face all the game’s bosses and mini-bosses, one after another, in random order. Though you will get scant health pods and weapon upgrades, this stage is easily the hardest part of B.ARK. Even on Normal, I haven’t been able to beat it. It’s a real test of your endurance.
Pops With Color
Visually, B.ARK is outstanding. It’s colorful, cute, and just a joy to look at. There’s a lot of loving work that went into crafting all the animal pilots, and it’s very reminiscent of some of the best from companies like WayForward. Given that Tic Toc got their start there, this makes perfect sense to me. I especially loved the design of the massive bosses. Musically, the game holds up pretty well. The themes are catchy, though not overly memorable. Measured together, the game is quite attractive.
While I enjoyed a lot about the game, it wasn’t all rosy. For one thing, I found it a little annoying you can’t change your pilot mid-level, and have to quit back to the character select screen and then return to the stage. For another, though the design of the game is great, I can’t help but notice your ships seem quite tiny contrasted with the stages. This makes it sometimes easy to lose track of where you are in massive levels. And though the game usually runs very smooth on Switch, that all goes out the window when a ton of bullets are on screen. This temporarily causes bad lag, and this can make smooth dodging near impossible at the worst time. And while this might be too nitpicky, I wish I clearly understood why all the animals could magically speak English once they get their ships. They weren’t irradiated or experimented on, so it confused me that they all could communicate with each other. Thankfully, none of these are enough to really hurt the game overmuch.
Saving The Day While Being a Good Boy
Overall I really enjoyed B.ARK, even though I suspect the best way to play is with friends in local multiplayer. That said, it’s still a solid SHMUP even in single-player. When you throw in colorful art, an interesting premise, and decent replay value, you have a very solid game. I personally feel this is the best offering from Tic Toc Games yet, and I hope it’s a sign of things to come from the small team. Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I still need to beat the boss rush…
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC, PS4, Xbox One; Publisher: Tic Toc Games; Developer: Tic Toc Games; Players: up to 4 players; Released: July 29, 2021; MSRP: $9.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.