Earth is under attack! An army of mechanical sea creatures, the diabolical Dark Tide, have descended from outer space to wipe out life as we know it! A team of intrepid scientists have banded together to build a spaceship, dubbed the Bio-interstellar Ark, to carry themselves and a few animal specimens into the safety of the stars. Unfortunately, the escape didn’t go according to plan, and only four animals, Barker the dog, Felicity the cat, Marv the rabbit, and Lucio the bear escaped the Dark Tide’s grasp. Now it’s up to the four spacefaring refugees to take back their home and save humanity!
That’s the setup for Tic Toc Game’s B.ARK, a retro-inspired side-scrolling shooter sprinkled with just a dash of Saturday morning cartoons. If you’ve played Gradius or R-Type games before, you’ll feel right at home with B.ARK. Stages are linear and scroll automatically, making movement a tool solely for dodging and aiming your shots. That’s not a bad thing, as there will be tons of enemies and projectiles to keep you busy while you try to stay alive and collect power-ups on your way to the next boss fight. Every stage has three boss encounters, with the first two doubling as checkpoints after their defeat. The checkpoints are a big help for the more difficult stages, and they are just the right distance from one another to feel meaningful without making the idea of repeating a section feel like a chore.
The levels themselves, set on different planets in our solar system, are diverse visually and mechanically. Neptune, for example, has sections focused around dodging and destroying icy meteors. As you work your way through the solar system towards Earth, the levels get more and more complex, adding mechanics like switch-operated doors and paralyzing lightning among others. None of the levels are very long, but they never feel too short and the automatic scrolling keeps players from feeling rushed. The boss fights at the end of each stage are all unique and interesting, but some of the mid-boss encounters are used more than once with only some slight tweaks.
The experience of playing through all these stages is going to differ ever so slightly based on which of the four characters you choose. Each character has their own unique shot type and super ability. Barker gains tiny allies that follow him around and fire their own bullet streams. Felicity has a spread-type shot that gains more bullet streams as it levels up. Marv gets homing shots, and has a super ability that slows down the stage and enemies around him while maintaining his high rate of fire. Lucio has exploding shots that hit enemies multiple times, and a shielding super move that absorbs incoming projectiles. The mechanical differences may be slight for the most part, but finding the character that gels with your play style is pretty satisfying.
The unique characteristics of each animal make for some superb cooperative play. B.ARK supports up to four players for local co-op play, and let me tell you, this game is at its best when played with friends. When playing with others, individual super moves can be combined together to make for devastating combinations powerful enough to make quick work of all but the most stalwart enemies. Should one of you fall, the other player can pick up their fallen comrade. While the rescued player waits for their ship to be restored, which happens rather quickly, they orbit their savior while providing some light supporting fire. After a short recharge, the rescued player respawns back in their own ship at full health, and contributes as normal.
The rescue mechanic, in my opinion, is a great place to start talking about B.ARK’s difficulty. B.ARK, on the default difficulty setting, is not a particularly trying ordeal, especially if you’re a veteran of the genre. Less experienced players may have a hard time coming to grips with the sheer number of enemies and bullets on screen at once. The rescue mechanic is a fantastic way for players of all skill levels to support each other and to take the edge off of the game’s more difficult sections. I’ve played B.ARK alone and cooperatively with both my “gamer” friends and my ten year-old son, and I always enjoyed myself. The game is more difficult solo, but you do still get access to the combination super moves via collectable character power-ups. Higher difficulty settings are, as you would expect, more difficult, but B.ARK never gets difficult to the point of feeling unfair or cheap.
What’s going to entice your less experienced friends or children to even play B.ARK is its visuals. B.ARK looks like an old Saturday morning cartoon, the characters are cute and have their own personalities, the colors are bright, and the effects are eye-catching. The animation, while it isn’t top-of-the-line, is well done. Larger enemies and bosses telegraph their attacks just enough to tip you off to what’s about to happen, and swarms of smaller enemies move in visually pleasing patterns. The visuals are good enough to be pleasing to the eye, without distracting you from the lasers and bullets headed your way.
B.ARK’s story also has a pretty Saturday morning cartoon vibe, but this time I’m not sure that’s a compliment. The antagonist, a fish mutated by pollution, wants to end humanity as payback for all the damage humans have done to the environment. The B.ARK team replies to this with your typical “not all humans are bad” angle, and that’s about it. If there’s too much more to the story, I don’t know about it, because all of the in-level dialogue is placed in the bottom-left corner of the screen in a game where I’m constantly looking at the right for incoming enemies and upward at my health and special meters. There are hidden backstory segments available for some characters, unlocked by finding collectibles in levels, and these optional segments are where the meat of B.ARK’s narrative lives. Some of the character backstories are genuinely sad, and some of what they’ve been through is truly horrific, but it’s possible to finish the game without finding any of them. It’s true that arcade shooters like B.ARK don’t typically push the boundaries of storytelling, but that doesn’t make the story presented any more enjoyable for me.
B.ARK isn’t going to change the way you think about video games or shooters, and that’s ok, that isn’t what it’s trying to do. B.ARK is a solid, old-fashioned arcade shooter with some modern conveniences that keep the experience feeling more fun than frustrating. I enjoyed all of my time with B.ARK, but I strongly encourage you to play this one with friends if you can. If you can get a crew together, you’ll get more than enough enjoyment out of a playthrough (which only takes about an hour and a half) or two to justify the low price of admission. B.ARK is also a fantastic game for parents, thanks to the short nature of its levels and generous rescue mechanic. If any of that sounds appealing to you at all, go ahead and jump in, you won’t regret it.