Alientrap's Cryptark slipped out of Early Access in late June (as so many games seem to do these days), prompting us to spend several evenings blasting aliens, destroying turrets, and enduring lots and lots of unceremonious death. The premise is reassuringly simple; you're a mercenary looking to make a living for yourself out in the deepest darkest depths of space. As such you take your salvage exo-suit into the wreckages of derelict space stations and explore them for loot, blasting dangerous creatures and defence systems as you go, with your ultimate goal being to take out the central core of each one so your investors can claim the vessels for themselves and you get paid.
Like the majority of its roguelikian peers, Cryptark is hard as nails, and just learning the ropes requires a significant investment of time and energy, meaning you'll need perseverance if you're to discover and unlock its secrets. There's a dash of bullethell action mixed in with the perma-death and procedural generation, and as such we played it very aggressively at first, but this turned out to be a big mistake, and after a couple of hours spent dying repeatedly and generally being rather ineffective, we went back to the drawing board and revised our plan of action.
There's a surprising amount of depth here, and you have to explore the game's many systems if you're going to get the most out of the experience. For example, you can change the loadout of your exo-suit and tinker with the weapons you use, adding extra ammo, swapping out different guns, assigning extra health packs to hotkeys, and so on. It's a good setup, as newcomers can spend all their money on additional health, repair kits, and extra ammo, giving them a better chance of success while out on their adventures. Alas, spending lavishly and heading into battle fully supplied is not the way to win this game, and it's actually prohibitively expensive to do so to the point where you'll bankrupt your operation (and end your run) if you don't pick your gear carefully, and make an effort to look beyond your chief assignment and try to complete side objectives. Even once you've learned the ropes it becomes clear that you're not going to get an easy ride.
When you're out and about enemies will come at you from all angles, and it's during these moments that the twin-stick mechanics really shine. Fast reflexes are a must, and you'll need to think tactically and take advantage of bottlenecks and hard corners to maximise the damage you can dish out to enemies as they rush towards you. There are some frantic moments, with enemy fire zipping all around you while you dodge increasingly complex attack patterns. Naturally, as you advance and take on higher level missions, the potency and frequency of enemies increases, sharpening the challenge somewhat. You can have up to four different abilities assigned to your exo-suit, and you'll need to master the shield and melee weapons as well as guns and grenades if you're to stay alive. You can also spend relics (found in later levels) on unlocking new suits, with different loadouts available that align with general playstyles, in the process opening up new tactical options for the player to explore.
The level of challenge can be a source of frustration at times. While it's undoubtedly the point of games like this, we found getting that first foothold took longer than we'd have liked. Later on, when we were more proficient and we had advanced through to higher level wrecks, the fear of failure was compounded by the steepening difficulty and the tightening noose around our finances. More than one promising run was brought to a premature end simply because we ran out of cash. There is a roguelike mode that punishes death with the game over screen, but the standard campaign allows you to rescue a downed pilot - for a price - giving you a bit of a cushion and perhaps a second chance if a run goes awry and you've got enough cash in the bank. Still, the going can get very tough, especially with sharpened difficulty spikes introduced in the fourth and fifth waves, and spending a goodly amount of time scouring multiple vessels only to throw your progress away a round later can be somewhat disheartening. As such we think we'd have enjoyed having a casual mode where finances were not so important, especially when learning the ropes.
We mentioned the difficulty spikes, and these manifest themselves in a number of ways. Most obviously you come up against bigger and badder enemies, with new offensive systems to contend with, but the ship itself can also throw a curve ball or two your way. One thing that frustrated us the first time we encountered it was the shifting objectives in some of the wrecks. The previously established gameplay loop of taking out the shield generator and then moving onto the core (a giant brain found in the ship) was turned on its head, with timers introduced and objectives swapping places thanks to a new defensive system located somewhere else in the ship. We got there eventually, but it was a painful lesson to learn.
Beyond the frustrations we endured after some admittedly painful deaths, we enjoyed the blend of ingredients that Cryptark brings together. The game looks great, with crisp and clear visuals, eye-catching enemies, and detailed ship environments to explore. The audio is solid too, with crunching effects and pulsating music combining to good effect. All in all, then, it's a pretty tidy package, and the mix of challenging gameplay and polished systems makes for an engaging overall experience. The range of customisation options certainly adds depth, and even after several hours of playing we can see that there's more to explore and discover, especially if you've got a similarly inclined friend who wants to play co-op with you (a feature that we didn't explore too deeply, but that we appreciated nonetheless). Cryptark is a very good roguelike, that much we can't deny, and fans of the genre (especially games like Galak-Z) will no doubt enjoy what it has to offer, although a couple of questionable design decisions stopped us from making this an unequivocal recommendation.