"A poster child for style over substance, it fails to impress as a whole, but the stellar art direction demands attention, regardless of other flaws."
When I first got my hands on Armikrog, I really thought this might be it. A shiny, ripe cherry proudly perched atop a messy blob of mediocre point-and-clicks. So, now that the fat lady has sung and credits have rolled, just one question remains: "Is Armikrog the indie gem I've been looking for?" Sadly, the answer is "no."
My great expectations weren't based on a nostalgic soft spot for The Neverhood (to which Armikrog is a spiritual successor), nor did I vigorously follow Armikrog's successful Kickstarter campaign. So why the high hopes, you may ask? Though all I had to go by was some media and a few bits of information, it was difficult not to be impressed by Armikrog's fantastic art direction. Quirky, imaginative and bizarre, the game's visuals ooze with charm from head to toe. Claymation is almost a lost art, but this title brings it back with flare. Lovingly crafted cutscenes steal the show, with every frame aiming at perfection. Characters animate beautifully, and each location is a joy to look at. Music, tailored perfectly to fit the visuals, compliments every scene. Voice acting, when present, feels natural and further adds to the charm. With such meticulous detail going into the presentation, what could have possibly gone wrong? No matter how pretty the bodywork is, you still need something solid under the hood, and this is where Armikrog's shortcomings lie.
I've mentioned the beautiful and memorable, but before I get to the ugly, let's take a quick look at the forgettable - that is, Armikrog's story. You take on the role of Tommynaut and his blind, alien, talking dog Beak-Beak as they crash land on Spiro 5 while on a mission to find P-tonium. This mysterious alloy is apparently the key to ensuring the survival of Tommy's kin, the people of planet Ixen. This, and other bits and pieces of Tommy's backstory, is revealed through a funky music video that opens the game. After a brief encounter with local wildlife, Tommy and Beak-Beak flee to a nearby building that turns out to be an abandoned fortress. Their goal is to find some P-tonium and get back home, while trying to piece together what transpired on Spiro 5 before their arrival. Story elements are used sparingly, with exploring and puzzle solving taking the front seat. There is a villain, but he only shows up near the end of Tommy's adventure, and is dispatched almost as quickly as he appears.
Most of your time will be spent exploring as Tommynaut, with occasional Beak-Beak sections (in retina burning "negative" vision mode). Despite being a point-and-click, Armikrog doesn't feature any inventory management per se. The protagonist does collect items, but they're used automatically whenever he interacts with an appropriate object in his surroundings. To balance this out, all interactable hotspots have been stripped of labels, markers and descriptions. The cursor has no context sensitive features either, so you're left furiously clicking on anything that looks mildly interesting, hoping for a result.
This kind of stripped down approach to adventuring leaves heavy emphasis on puzzles. Unfortunately, despite a promising start, these also prove very disappointing and, at times, frustrating for all the wrong reasons. Armikrog likes to recycle the same puzzles over and over again, bumping up their difficulty ever so slightly with each encounter. Special statues located in every major section offer cryptic hints to help you move Tommynaut and his four-legged pal further along on their adventure, but this in no way alleviates the tedium of solving said puzzles. One particularly nasty example is a reoccurring minigame involving reconstruction of a musical baby mobile. While not too hard, the solution takes unreasonably long to trigger, even more so if you make a mistake. Keep a pen and notepad handy while playing, as some puzzles require combinations of information gathered in different areas. It's even possible to get locked out of a room containing vital clues.
If that sounds like a rant, then hold on to your hats, folks, because I'm not done complaining just yet. Armikrog manages to do something rather extraordinary: it makes single button point-and-click controls clunky. This comes in two major flavours: Beak-Beak and his tendency to get in the way of levers that require multiple pulls, and those godawful gondolas that act as a means of transport between sections. By the time I was nearing the game's conclusion, getting into one of those things would fill me with dread because of how fiddly they can be, especially in places where tracks cross.
My final major complaint ties into both control and puzzle solving. Some events won't trigger unless precise conditions are met. One example involves having Beak-Beak step on a button; however, in order for this to happen a revolving door needs to be set to a certain position, otherwise Beak-Beak will simply ignore the button. This may be fixed eventually, as Pencil Test have already released some post-launch patches and will hopefully continue to support the game until all major issues have been addressed. I've also encountered several bugs during my four hours spent with Armikrog, but only one was game breaking (Beak-Beak got stuck in a wall). Fortunately, a fairly recent save was available, so this didn't hinder my progress too much. A word to the wise: keep multiple saves handy and save often.
Despite its shortcomings, I can't help but be enchanted by Armikrog. A poster child for style over substance, it fails to impress as a whole, but the stellar art direction demands attention, regardless of other flaws. If this review sounds bitter, that's because it is. Armikrog is a barely average game that could have been stunning had the same care that was put into its presentation been put into its design. If a sequel ever comes along and Pencil Test Studios learn from their mistakes, we just might get the game I was expecting in the first place.