Ever wondered what would happen if ARK: Survival Evolved and Minecraft had a baby?

Title: PixARK
Platform: Xbox One (Reviewed), PC
Developer: Snail Games USA
Publisher: Snail Games USA
Price: £20/$25 Xbox One, PC
Release date: Out now on Early Access, full release date to be confirmed.
TL;DR: Sandbox world, survival gameplay, and dinosaurs.
Family Focus?: Click here for more information

Welcome to PixARK, the hybrid open-world, voxel, sandbox survival game developed by Snail Games, based on ARK: Survival Evolved. PixARK looks to combine the best of ARK with the world building simplicity of Minecraft in a cutesy cartoon-like aesthetic. But does it work?

To get things started I decided to join one of the official EU servers and see what there was to offer. Having played a lot of ARK, the character creation screen was very familiar and had the same feel as the original, offering an opportunity to customise your avatar and pick your starting area. You can tell that Snail Games seem to be borrowing the coding directly from ARK, as all the menu systems and options are identical, complete with a horrendous user interface that’s painful to navigate using a controller.

Creating your character.

The UI is not console/controller friendly; it’s more intuitive for mouse and keyboard and seems to have been designed with PC in mind. When using a controller there isn’t an onscreen cursor, so you have to move in the rough direction you want to go and hope the option you want to select gets highlighted. I’m sure this would be so much more accessible on a PC platform, but for this playthrough on the Xbox, I was already getting frustrated at how badly designed the experience was. One wrong move results in having to cycle through all the highlighted options again to get to where you want to go.

Upon balloon parachuting into the world of PixARK, you’re greeted by massive Sauropods who dominate the landscape with their size, with lots of smaller dinosaurs also running around. The world itself felt open and gave me the urge to explore the surrounding area and start gathering materials to get a head start on making my first hovel. But I encountered a problem… a distinct lack of trees!

Ballooning into the world of PixARK.

A lack of wood hampers all progress, as in the beginning, the crafting tools need small amounts of wood to create, and resource nodes do not seem to be respawning in any capacity. What about fibre? … Nope, doesn’t seem to be any bushes about either. Hmm. Then it was time to explore further afield and hope any nasty beasties aren’t encountered on the way; a wish that was not granted. Within seconds of moving off, a level 64 raptor roaming the starting zone had dispatched me in one hit. I did try to avoid the creature as soon as I realised I had gained aggro, but it was a futile effort.

I didn’t spot anyone else running around the world, and this was really starting to feel like I picked an empty server. Player built houses came into view around me, and this was probably the reason for there being no crafting resources about the local vicinity, but regardless, I needed to find some materials, so it was off again on a scouting adventure to find me some ingredients.

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I’d spent the majority of the afternoon just trying to get wood (no innuendo intended) and there is a really annoying amount of glitching on the graphics in the distance. I saw trees on the horizon, but once I got there, they’d disappeared. And the one time I did get to find some trees, in a jungle-like biome, I was set upon by a dire wolf and killed before I even got a chance to punch a tree – sigh.

I was at Level 10 and I had already died so many times. There just seemed to be high-level vicious animals and dinosaurs all over the place with insanely large aggro-ranges and patrol paths, and all this is in the starting area. I do love a challenge, but this is again, just frustrating, not rewarding, exciting, or fun inducing.

Not a tree in sight.

Having finally found some trees, I was able to start playing the game, some two hours after starting on the server. On my travels, I encountered some quest giving mailboxes, and portals to other areas of the world map. The quests were simple and seem to be at first the only form of any kind of tutorial. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had experience of how ARK: Survival Evolved worked, I wouldn’t have a bloody clue how to do anything in PixARK. Questing in PixARK involved taming or hunting dinosaurs, or completing a gathering task, and these would reset eventually.

Having taken a small break to perform real life activities, I was horrified to find that my character had not saved on the server. All my progress was lost – good times. I decided to just go for the single player option and play on my own server, and what a sudden improvement that was. The slight lag and framerate drops from the official servers had all but disappeared, and the game was running so much smoother than my earlier session, that it felt like a different game. Resources were in abundance and I began crafting and building immediately.

Mail Box quest hubs.

The mechanics of crafting and building in PixARK are the same as in ARK, albeit with some changes in how the engrams are laid out in the menus. It wasn’t long before I had a cool set of leather armour, and the foundations of my wooden structure all laid out.

Construction of anything is painful. You need so many resources and so many blocks just to create a small structure, and the construction itself is very fiddly. It’s not as simple, or as fluid as Minecraft, but it does work, it just takes a little getting used to. It wasn’t long before I had a home I could call my own, furniture installed, and tame dinosaurs protecting my property outside.

Home sweet home.

I was proud of my fortress of solitude, although it was annoying that giant Sauropods could tail swipe through your building and destroy furniture inside even when not having aggro. Hopefully, these are quirks that can be ironed out as the game goes through its early access period.

Combat in PixARK is weak and underwhelming; the target reticule is not suited for a controller and you are insanely underpowered versus dinosaurs that are a much lower level than yourself. Having a dino companion accompanying you it the best way to engage and survive encounters with reptilian foes.

Snow covered biome.

Even though the graphics of the game are block-based, the rendering and animations of the dinosaurs and environments are very attractive. I really liked the look and feel, and I think it worked. Where ARK bowls you over with its visuals, this simplified version keeps the feel but gives you the Minecraft aesthetic. ARK isn’t particularly gory, but it does look really nice. Perhaps the idea was that by using blocks and not photo-realistic graphics, it would enable low-end systems and consoles to run the game better, but judging by the lag and frame rate issues of my experiences on an Xbox One X, that isn’t really the case at this moment in time.

As my son pointed out, what’s the point in this game? Why not just play ARK? The main problem I feel is that it doesn’t improve on ARK, it’s just a reskin of the game, with a mashed in Minecraft element but lacking that certain something that made ARK great.

A portal to another part of the map.

Whilst compiling my review I’m reminded of Dr Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, who said: “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And I think this sums up PixARK perfectly, in that was there really a need for this game?

There are loads of bugs, glitches, and annoyances that are frustrating and enough to put you off playing, but as this is in early access you are told to expect some bugs and performance issues as the game is not finished. The emphasis here is why bother buying or playing a clearly unfinished game.

Familiar looking engram menu.

I understand the business model for employing early access and how that income can help to fund further development, but also understand how that can be abused. Snail Games have managed to get hold of one of the most successful early access IPs, but the challenge here is to replicate ARK’s success, and in my opinion, I don’t think it will. Especially with the state PixARK is currently in.

With all said and done though, I did still have fun. Once I was up and running on my own server, I could enjoy plodding about, making my own entertainment in the sandbox environment. The different biomes were varied and unique looking, with plenty of crafting and magic to explore.

Riding my pet dinosaur.

It’s not as good as ARK: Survival Evolved and it’s not a replacement for Minecraft; PixARK is sadly stuck in the grey area between. It will be interesting to see how the game develops through early access.

The Good

  • Vibrant colours and quality dinosaur animations.
  • Open sandbox world lets you create anything.

The Bad

  • Too many bugs/glitches.
  • Low server populations, lag, and performance issues.
  • Dire User Interface for controllers.

Family Focus

ESRB: No Rating as of this review. PEGI: 7 (for ages 7 and above)
Super family friendly fun, with minimal blood and/or violence towards dinosaurs.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.