Content of the article: "ARK: Survival Evolved is probably the best Digimon game ever made"
A bit of double patient-gamering here since I first bought my copy of ark what feels like a lifetime ago, around 2017. Even then, it was on sale and already had a couple years behind it. It then sat on my digital steam shelf til 2020. I only ever got into ark properly over the last year, what with all the indoor time.
This is going to be a niche series comparison if the title of the post hadn't already given it away! See, ARK has a very particular aesthetic, and a very particular design philosophy. Both of these helped it tap into the nostalgia center of my digimon-playing teen brain. We'll start with the game's visual and tactile elements, specifically the UI.
THE SURFACE STUFF
Ark's default UI is, uh, blue. Being exposed to this much Windows XP energy had already made me whiplash back to PSO. But all the dinosaurs also told my brain I was back playing the PS1-era Digimon World games and all the sweet, sweet, nostalgia that entailed. Further, Ark is concerned with presenting a variety of natural landscapes dotted with far-flung technology, another digimon aesthetic staple.
Ark is billed largely as a survival game, but it also exists firmly withinin the 'monster collector' subgenre. If folks remember all the yearning for a game that's 'Pokemon, but like Skyrim!' commonly heard with the release of each new pokemon generation, well, that's just Ark. Except it's actually Digimon, but with dinosaurs. All the game's systems revolve around its critters, they're the main source of conflict, your most reliable tools, really cool mounts, and good eatin'.
I actually think Ark surpasses most of its mon-colle contemporaries in another aspect: its presentation of a curated, pretend ecosystem. I like to call this specific kind of setting "eco-fiction". There's not a lot of media that even attempts this, and when it happens its usually incidental. Pokemon is the primary example, others are Monster Hunter (World, specifically), Subnautica, and more recently, Bugsnax.
What I think sets Ark apart is its focus on fidelity, and monster utility. Ark is a pretty-looking, first person game, and that makes it so much more immersive. Ark also has gameplay systems in place to incentivize interaction with its critters, as most species will have a niche role it can provide tied to the rest of the experience.
THE SYSTEMS STUFF
Digimon and Ark both share a very specific tactile element, or rather the lack of one. They do NOT ever feel polished. For digimon, this would manifest in weird game breaking bugs, slow combat pacing, archaic design elements, or just utterly nonexistent QoL even for the time. Ark on the other hand is just broken in a lot of aspects. First off, its most often going to end up being a pretty big install. The non-dedicated multiplayer will inevitably break in some form or another for everyone involved. It's also famously ill-optimised, requiring a fairly beefy PC even 5 years down the line. While I wouldn't quite call these games 'janky', they do give off the feeling of something rushed out the door.
Another shared trait is the focus on grinding. For Digimon and Ark, grinding is a pillar of design. Digimon as a video game series subscribes to the 'high numbers = win' school of game design. Gameplay goals are leveling goals, and leveling takes a lot of focused, repeated combat. Ark, on the other hand, is grindy because it is granular. There are a LOT of resource conversion flowcharts in the game and you have to perform all the steps involved ad nauseaum, especially if you want to get into the basebuilding aspect. The dinosaur taming can also be particularly bad, requiring you to stand over an unconscious critter for up to an hour or more while routinely force feeding it drugged food.
Ark's granularity may be explained by its nature as an online game. Its basebuilding and resource systems resemble that of an RTS, albeit one where you're controlling just one of the construction units. If you want things to go at pace, you of course bring on more workers. There's thankfully a lot of setting sliders, and a robust modding scene to accommodate more forgiving settings for those who don't want to engage in Ark's darwinistic take on multiplayer.
Lastly, we'll look at the dinos. Arguably Ark's main draw, it's branched out over the years, no longer peddling dinosaurs exclusively. They started off adding in textbook fantasy creatures like dragons and the phoenix, but have since started adding in their own original takes on monster design, all of which I would happily take a bullet for. As mentioned earlier, all these creatures exist both to populate their well crafted maps, and to provide a measure of utility for the play experience. In that sense I feel it differs from digimon, and swings closer to pokemon. Also in that sense, I feel it eclipses pokemon entirely, especially from a mechanical gameplay perspective.
Seriously folks if you want to relive that feeling of setting out on a grand adventure with a trusty animal partner watching your back, I can't recommend Ark enough. Just like the digimon games there is a LOT to dislike, but if you're the target demographic of this very specific fantasy, then the game will fully welcome you into your own personal dinosaur isekai.
- What is Pokemon’s secret sauce vs. other “monster taming” games when it comes to feeling a personal connection with the monsters you catch?
- Is there a way to incorporate the “love and friendship” message of Pokemon into the game itself? Because right now it is an extremely hollow theme.
- Digimon: Cyber Sleuth. Pokemon with more experimentation and also an interesting amount of religious references
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