When Ark: Survival Evolved left Steam Early Access last year, I took the chance to give it my full attention and find out if the action was my jam. I found a game with a lot to do, like gathering, crafting, taming, and combat, but it still fell short of what it could be. Gathering and crafting was fine, but the upkeep was tedious. The soft PVP nature meant you might return to a server to find you've lost everything. And when it came to technical aspects like the graphics, frame rate, or AI, Ark was very rough.
PixArk starts with the same framework as Ark: Survival Evolved, but the new aesthetic allows developer Snail Games to recast the game as something else. PixArk has a blocky cartoonish look that recalls Minecraft or another Minecraft-like title like Dragon Quest Builders. The game is all bright colors and deformed cartoonish versions of Ark's prehistoric creatures. The aesthetic also allows PixArk to move away from the science fiction theme and play around with magic.
PixArk is currently in Steam Early Access. I'm pointing this out because my earliest moments in PixArk were fraught with peril in terms of bugs. Like Ark, the game has dedicated servers that run for a certain amount of time, like tiny persistent worlds. I picked a server and jumped in thinking everything would be great.
But I was lost almost immediately. It took me a quick moment to figure out where to get basic materials like fiber, dirt, and rock, but I couldn't progress too far in the game because I couldn't find any wood. I wandered around for 30 minutes, searching for wood. Surely, there were some trees somewhere? I had dropped in one of the "new player friendly" spots, but maybe other players had clear cut all the trees?
So I picked another spot. When you spawn in PixArk, you actually come floating down on a bunch of balloons. I saw trees from above, excellent. I angled myself towards the trees, only to see them literally disappear as I got close to them. I did a quick search online to find that PixArk has a bug on some official servers where trees and bushes won't respawn. Without trees, there's no wood. Without wood, you can't build a pick axe or axe, or even basic building materials like a thatch foundation or walls. You're just stuck. Luckily, the bug isn't active on every server and eventually I found one where trees appeared like normal.
One thing that was good about Ark: Survival Evolved is the relative speed of progression. You're always gaining new points to spend on new engram recipes and Ark is filled to the brim with engrams. PikArk is early, but it's able to draw from Ark's engrams, meaning you're always feeling like you're improving. Everything you do gives you experience, which levels you up, and gives you points to purchase more engrams, so you can build more. Unlike Minecraft, which is more freeform, PixArk makes you feel like you're getting somewhere.
On top of the basic progression system, PixArk has terminals scattered about the world that offer up quests to players. The quest are basically gateways into various facets of PixArk—hunting, gathering, taming animals, crafting, or simply exploring the environment—and once you've completed a quest, you return to its Mailbox terminal for your reward.
You also end up feeling a bit closer to the creatures you tame in PixArk because frankly, they're cuter. The entire aesthetic adds this faux-Digimon vibe to the game, which I actually think will be something that could draw younger kids in. This is improved by PixArk leaning on magic, which opens the bestiary up a bit. The first time I created a mountain and looked down to see werewolves and giant man-eating plants, I knew I was in for a slightly different experience from Ark itself.
Despite the kinder, cute designs though, PixArk can still be as vicious as Ark itself. Players still have to manage thirst, hunger, temperature, weight, and stamina. If you leave for any lengthy period of time, you'll likely return to find your character KOed from hunger. One time, I jumped down from what I thought was a reasonable height, only to die immediately.
And the monsters that roam each region can have wildly different level ranges; I ended up leaving a bunch of stuff on one of my corpses because I died to a high-level raptor close to my farming spot. I couldn't kill it and trying to was just leaving more corpses. In fact, a number of the monsters in game are automatically aggressive. If you land on or wander into the wrong spot, PixArk will still kill you just as hard as Ark did.
I also wish that PixArk was a bit more flexible in terms of how you build structures. For example, You can stack dirt into walls early on, but it doesn't technically count as a roof, preventing you from building an entire hut out of dirt. Instead, you need to build actual foundations and roofs out of various materials.
Right now, the biggest problem PixArk has (outside of some bugs), is a lack of real reason to stray too far outside of your comfort zone. Like Minecraft, part of that motivation needs to come from the player, not the game itself. You'll be perfectly fine with a basic house made out of stone; wanting a fully kitted future home full of the best technology and glass windows is pretty much down to your personal desire. PixArk is better about adding context than Minecraft, but not as good at it as Starbound or Dragon Quest Builders.
That said, this is a good start. Sure, it builds on what Ark already did, but I found myself enjoying PixArk a bit more than its older brother. There's less PVP and turmoil, fewer technical problems, and ultimately, I just had more fun building things in PixArk. It's just a matter of what Snail Games builds on top of this base experience in the future.