The player will inhabit the shoes of an Urb citizen and, from the get go, the game’s Soviet stylings are apparent as, while we can name our character will still be referred to mostly by their identification number. After a very long time in cryosleep, Urb wastes no time drafting us into their military unit. Something of an increasing necessity as an already apocalyptic space station is increasingly failing its people. Entire segments fall to ruin, food and water becomes scarce and different factions with clashing motivations soon spring up, providing the political hotbed that is on show in Insomnia: The Ark. To be clear, this game is dark, gritty and sombre. Lovers of painstakingly crafted dystopias like Bioshock and Fallout should read on.
Insomnia: The Ark is out now, exclusively for PC and can be purchase on Steam.
As the player awakes from their cryosleep pod, into a floating space station of turmoil, it instantly becomes clear that everything from economy to politics is on the downturn. The massive space station that houses thousands of the last of mankind, Object 6, is coming apart at the seams.
While this sets the bedrock for some fairly elitist survival gameplay (to be explored later in the review), it also serves as a mechanic for surprising the player after two or so hours of play. To start with, players will feel like they have everything figured out -- no small task given the sheer amount of lore and worldbuilding that has been poured into the game. After that two hour mark, figuring out how everything we’re exposed to links into one narrative bundle, we’ll then have even more to figure out. Insomnia is not just about the last of mankind struggling to survive on Object 6, but it also plays with themes of the paranormal. At least… it seems like the paranormal.
After waking from his deep cryosleep, our protagonist will frequently see shimmers of ghosts wondering about. Although, this is neither the paranormal nor hallucinations of a shaken man waking from a long sleep. Some kind of alien influence has infiltrated Object 6. Those who are able to interact with its trippy events are demonised and seen as a freak. As if the place didn’t have enough division as it was. At an early stage in the game, we’ll get the chance to commune with some form of this alien consciousness, typically dangerous to all others. We’re caught red handed in the act and offered a serum to dull our sensitivity to the alien’s influence. Here, the story’s branching nature begins and wastes no time doing it as another character offers us a mission for his personal gain that we can choose to turn down.
Insomnia’s story, as you can tell, sounds great on paper. It has branching chapters of our choosing that leads to multiple different endings. There is a heck of a lot going on and while I commend Studio Mono for coming up with it and building such a rich dystopia, I can’t help feeling the translation from Russian to English leaves us Westerners a little lost on it. Localisation has not treated this game kindly as, fairly frequently, dialogue will come off as just a little odd or straight up deadpan. Studio Mono being a small studio that had to work their asses off for eight years, means there’s no spoken dialogue in the game. They have excelled themselves in a lot of areas which makes for a text only kind of setup quite a shame. It is understandable, given the logistic difficulties a small studio has to go through. However, some segments would equate to having to read an A4 sheet of paper before being able to move on and it sadly creates a very stop-start sense of momentum. It requires quite the hefty concentration span, in other words. Something unfortunately many gamers do not possess these days.
Insomnia: The Ark is one heck of a challenging game. For that reason, players will need to take it slow at the start and scrape up every money token and resource they can possibly find. Typical of RPG games, the difficulty curve is inverted. At the start, we may as well be naked in a storm of mechanics we must learn in order to become sufficient at not dying all the time. Something said truthfully of the Witcher is quite plainly “don’t get hit” and the same can be said for Insomnia. One bullet or melee whack from an enemy will take off at least a quarter of your health and resources to undo the effect of that are thin on the ground. It’s just as well the combat mechanics are fairly tight.
Personally, I welcomed the brazen call to such a challenge. The thought processes I eventually grew into reminded me of much older RPG games. Incidentally, Insomnia inherently feels like it was designed for gamers hungry for the old school. It’s inventory system is like an expanded version of Resident Evil’s, inviting players to constantly figure out what is worth carrying and what isn’t, in preparation for the next scrap. Enemy encounters are few and far between and often require strategy and preparation. Firearms offer security at a distance but melee weapons deal more damage if we’re prepared to get in there and put ourselves at a higher risk.
As the story opens up with accompanying side quests, so too does Object 6. More and more areas open up for fast travel. Although, perhaps to the game’s detriment, I found some areas could not be returned to for a grind. Once one area was cleared of enemies, it could not be returned to for that sweet XP. This makes for a game that enforces serious moment to moment decision making not just in inventory management but also in choosing skills on levelling up. But it also sadly generates a sequence of areas you leave behind empty, looted and devoid of any reason to go back.
Another issue with Western localisation is that Insomnia may feel needlessly overwhelming at the start. Some items and phrases have slipped through the cracks, remaining in Russian. On top of the game’s difficulty in communicating how to get from A to B in the larger areas, Western players may feel a little lost in the game’s opening chapters. Suffice it to say, I wondered about aimlessly several times, searching for perhaps some UI that I had missed that could make life easier. Alas that golden navigation nugget was nowhere to be found and it was borderline impossible to discern quest markers on the map.
Aside from a few inescapable issues, many of these problems can be deconstructed with sheer concentration. Insomnia never spoon feeds the player and like I said, it demands a hefty concentration span. In a way, I respect Studio Mono for that as videogames today become increasingly mainstream; increasingly basic. Yet Insomnia’s story and gameplay pushes up against all that nonsense and, if you miss the RPGs of the 90’s and early 2000’s, you will likely welcome its brazen approach in how it challenges you.
Graphics and Audio
Studio Mono worked tirelessly on Insomnia for eight long years. You’d better believe it when you lay eyes on the game for the first time. That’s not to say its graphics are on the cutting edge of what the games industry has right now. Far from it. Although, the ‘dieselpunk’ art direction of the game, combined with the hard edges of Soviet style architecture, allows the game to pull off its visuals at a more than acceptable standard. The result is a mixture of Bioshock’s dilapidated architecture and Dishonored’s comic book characters.
As you may have seen from the trailers, there is a sprinkling of environment variation in Insomnia. The greys and browns of Object 6 will occasionally fall away to the bright colours of a beach, light blue ocean water stretching off into the distance. It would be a little spoileriffic to explain why this happens on a massive space station but the change up in atmosphere is appreciated. However, in some massive areas, the inability to pan the camera upwards almost feels like a waste. We see these impressive wide-shots of the game’s environments in press releases but in the game itself, we will never see them in the same way. Some areas will beg you to just pan up and take it all in… but it simply won’t let you. You'll never see the ceiling in this game which leads me to wonder if one had even been designed. This is not only a little uncomfortable gameplay-wise but mostly just a big shame. The technical reason as to why this problem is here baffles me. The image you see below is as far as the camera will pan up…
Insomnia’s audio design is as you would expect from a developer like Studio Mono, as I have described them. That is -- an incredibly hard working and dedicated team, struggling to build with what they have. Don’t expect audio effects to differ depending on what kind of environment you are in. However, weaponry sounds punchy and general sound effects are great. Some areas may throw the same ambient noises at you repeatedly, but this can be dampened by the game’s excellent soundtrack which oozes atmosphere. Insomnia’s music comes with a sense of wistful longing, like you would expect at a survivor’s camp in Metro.
Considering the small team of people at Studio Mono and the fact that they slaved away for eight years to bring us this product, it’s hard not to be impressed by Insomnia: The Ark. At the same, it is clear just how ambitious this project was and from time to time, a failure to truly achieve that ambition occasionally creeps through. RPG mechanics are designed for the old school purists out there. It is among those people that Insomnia will doubtlessly find its following. Many of the game’s issues with camera control or localisation work can be easily amended in a patch. If you’re the patient type, prepared to endure a steep learning curve at the start, Insomnia will reward your staying power with a brilliantly realised sci-fi world of politics and mystery.
|+ Impressive world building||-- Can be overwhelming even for seasoned RPG gamers|
|+ A welcome challenge throughout||-- You just can't look up|
|+ At least 60 hours of play||-- Awkward navigation|