In 2009, the gaming industry was forever changed when a humble indie game called Minecraft was first made available to the public, introducing the world to a new genre of sandbox gaming that would go on to be cloned and mimicked to death in the ensuing decade. One of the most recent offshoots of this concept is PixARK, a Minecraft-esque take on the cult survival hit Ark: Survival Evolved that eschews the pseudo-realistic dino-hunting aesthetics of the original in favour of a blockier and more colourful style that appeals to a wider audience. Unfortunately, this new mashup of styles simply isn’t very enjoyable to play, and though it may look rather pretty, PixARK proves to be a weak and unmemorable attempt at riding on the coattails of much better games.
As a survival-first experience, PixARK doesn’t have a story to speak of, just a simple ‘you vs. the world’ setup that demands you examine the ins and outs of the environment around you and learn to subdue it, bending it to your will to accomplish your goals. Worlds are randomly generated, filled with a diverse array of biomes and geographical features teeming with animal life, and your goal is to explore as much of it as you can, harvest what natural resources you wish, and ultimately eke out a satisfying existence. When it’s done right, this kind of setting can prove to be a wonderfully enjoyable challenge, as you constantly set a series of small goals to fulfill on your endless journey for self-improvement. In PixARK, however, this survival focus feels more like a chore than an enjoyable challenge, largely due to the sloppily thrown together nature of the controls and design.
Right from the get-go, you know you’re in for a ‘treat’ when you’re faced with a character customizer that gives you a taste of the abundantly deplorable menus that plague the entire experience. It’s clear that the developers put no serious time into playtesting these menus, as the tiny text and hokey navigation show that it was obviously designed for a PC interface; switching between options with a controller is about as fun as trying to navigate a webpage using only the TAB button to move between links. It’s possible, sure, but it’s the farthest thing from intuitive that a menu design could be, and given how much of the PixARK experience is spent sifting through crafting and inventory menus, this oversight is simply unforgivable. The poor menu design is softened (thankfully) by the inclusion of touch screen support when in portable mode, but nonetheless, it makes a terrible first impression that proves to be more or less accurate of the whole game.
Once you drop into the world, sometimes inexplicably dragged up in the air several yards because of a loading error, what you do next is entirely up to you. Or, at least it will be if the RNG doesn’t laugh in your face. Upon our first experience dropping into our fresh, new world, our character spawned in the middle of an ocean and was promptly savaged by a level 60 Megalodon Shark that appeared to have been waiting for us to descend from the heavens. After a few more attempts that all ended with the same Megalodon spawn-killing us, we opted for one of the other spawn locations – something far on the other end of the map that was blessedly on land. Spawning there, we were instead greeted by an equally high-level werewolf which also seemed to have been waiting for our arrival.
This should tell you about all that you need to know about PixARK; it’s a game that’s entirely and bafflingly oblivious to the actual end user experience. Once we finally did manage to find a spawn location that wasn’t closely monitored by voracious apex predators, we were greeted with imprecise and input-lag laden controls that make the very act of simple movement a chore. There’s no reticle indicating what your character is targeting, so if you want to, say, dig up the dirt around you to build yourself a simple hut, it’s anybody guess whether the block your character is pointed at will actually be the one that gets destroyed. Strangely enough, a reticle appears when you have certain weapons equipped, but then disappears if you switch to anything else. It's obvious from the mountain of minor annoyances like this that PixARK simply doesn't care about things like whether or not you're having fun.
There are some RPG-lite mechanics included, too, but these prove to be uninteresting at best and downright tedious at worst. Your character has standard stats like health and stamina, but others, like temperature or hunger, ensure that you constantly have to be on the lookout for things like food and favorable shelter. Randomized post boxes are scattered about the world offering up side quests that ask you to perform asinine activities like killing a certain number of woodland creatures or taming one with a certain berry, and completing these will grant you a meager amount of XP. Or, if you don’t feel like doing the busy work, you can sit around and do literally nothing, as your character gains XP every second. When you level up, your character can then spend a certain amount of Skill Points on new, craftable recipes, many of which only feel cosmetically different from earlier equipment. Then there’s the issue of how the message “LEVEL UP IS AVAILABLE! Access Inventory To Apply Skill Points!” will, no joke, permanently plaster itself across the top of your screen after your first level up, covering up previously readable portions of the menu in the process. Spending said skill points down to zero does nothing to get rid of this message, it sticks around like a bad rash whether you’re in the menus or playing around in the overworld.
Those of you that prefer to play your survival games with friends will be pleased to know that there’s both local and online multiplayer, but this comes with the caveat that performance may vary. Also, the local support requires your friend(s) to have their own Switch with a copy of the game; there’s no split-screen multiplayer to speak of here. Servers can hold up to 64 players at once, though most of the ones we encountered only had about a dozen people playing at most, and if you’d like to, you can create clans with these people or choose to fight them instead. Those of you who are somehow enamoured by the gameplay offered in PixARK will no doubt be pleased with the opportunities that multiplayer affords you, but the omission of split-screen is another of many disappointments with this release that’s tough to overlook any way you cut it.
From a performance standpoint, you can probably already guess how PixARK fares. The framerate, which appears to be trying its best to reach 30 FPS, hovers in the 20 FPS range and oscillates wildly depending on what’s happening on screen. Meanwhile, the draw distance remains disappointingly short – you’re always encircled by a mildly distant cloud of bluish-grey fog – and pop-in is rampant, with things like animals and whole mountains seemingly emerging out of nowhere on a relatively frequent basis. The real shame of this is that PixArk actually possess a fairly eye-catching art style; the voxel-based dinosaurs are a real treat to see, and even if the blockish aesthetic has been done to death already, it’s executed here in a brightly-coloured way that possesses a sort of otherworldly beauty that, in a better game, could prove to be effective. It doesn’t help, either, that the low resolution – whether docked or portable – gives the visuals a furry, unfocused look that’s noticeably lower than most software on the Switch.
A critical talking point that we feel needs to be reiterated is how much PixARK feels like an unfinished game. The original PixARK launched for the PC on Steam’s Early Access program in early 2018 and this version on the Switch feels equally like a rough framework for what could eventually become a respectable retail release. Presumably, the developers have a plan in place for how they’re going to keep incrementally updating the game into a more complete product, because the product currently available is not a completed, quality-tested experience. Those of you that don’t have enough faith in the developers to eventually make good on this potential will want to steer clear, as there’s really no way of knowing whether PixARK will ever become much more than the hastily made effort we see here.
In its current state, PixARK on the Switch is a poorly optimized, unenjoyable, and otherwise weak approximation of the Minecraft experience that in no way delivers value equivalent to the money you’re paying for it. Considering it comes with a $40 price tag at the time of writing, this unfinished and unpolished game is borderline robbing you of your hard-earned money and time that could be so much better spent on just about anything else you can think of. We would strongly urge you to take a hard pass on PixARK, as it offers a lacklustre survival experience that’s not even worth the memory it’ll take up on your SD Card; life’s much too short to be wasted on poorly made games such as this.