Disclaimer: I backed Armikrog on Kickstarter. I really don’t feel it matters, if anything it makes me more critical of the final game, but for the sake of full disclosure it’s right that you guys know. It’s fair to say that I would’ve been excited about Armikrog anyway - a Claymation adventure game acting as a spiritual successor to underrated cult classic The Neverhood made by a lot of the same team? Sign me up! Unfortunately developer Pencil Test Studios rather underestimated the internet’s hate towards Earthworm Jim designer and outspoken homophobe Doug TenNapel, who designed the characters and story for Armikrog and whose involvement in this project scraped their Kickstarter in with little over the absolute minimum amount of cash (which they were lucky to get). $974,000 may sound a lot of money, but it’s a tiny amount when it comes to making a wildly experimental videogame like this. Bear this in mind for the majority of this review.
The story, if you’re lucky enough to encounter it (see later), goes like this: Tommynaut and his dog-like sidekick Beak-Beak are the last survivors of a group of astronauts sent out to find a power source to save their home planet Ixen. They’ve crash-landed on the planet Spiro 5, the home of the substance called P-Tonium that could be the power source they need, except they find themselves trapped in the weird fortress of Armikrog.
Storytelling in Armikrog is kept to an absolute minimum, and while I don’t mind minimalist plots in games I do mind when there’s barely any dialogue, characters, or anything to flesh out the world. The world Pencil Test have created is weird, wonderful, and I really wanted to explore it in full, so it was utterly disheartening to have so little to interact with and so little conversation from either Tommynaut or Beak-Beak. For example I love the three PresidANTs but they’re just a brief cutscene each and no explanation why they look like ant versions of famous US Presidents. The third one only says one word and doesn’t even have a point.
It’s Tommynaut and Beak-Beak that come off worse though. I love Michael Nelson (Mystery Science Theater 3000, Rifftrax) and veteran cartoon voice actor Rob Paulsen in the roles, but they rarely interact and it actually comes as a shock when one of them says something outside of one of the few cutscenes in the game. This makes things much worse when you want them to give you hints or describe interesting things in the environment like in every adventure game ever, but it’s just sullen silence for 85% of Armikrog. Sadly that means that Armikrog isn’t as fun to explore as it could’ve and should’ve been.
AbrahANT Lincoln. Of course.
The lack of most kinds of hints also means that if you get stuck on the puzzles you’re pretty much forced into looking up a walkthrough. If you do get stuck though it’s probably because you hadn’t noticed something, as the actual puzzles themselves aren’t difficult to work out. The difficulty comes when the solution is on an etching on the wall on the complete other side of the game world, or you understandably hadn’t realised that clicking an octopus attached to the ceiling was a requirement for plot progression, especially as every time that octopus was clicked on before that exact moment nothing happened.
Some of the puzzles are just an exercise in time wasting or frustration. A recurrent “baby mobile” puzzle is trial and error and is both extremely boring and extremely aggravating, since you’re being bombarded with a terrible melody and a baby crying at the same time. The penultimate puzzle in the game is especially annoying because it requires retracing your steps throughout the entire game to find four arbitrary symbols. As mentioned you’ll get stuck because you didn’t notice something, but actually you didn’t notice it because Pencil Test didn’t call attention to it properly, such as when Beak-Beak is able to press a button but Tommynaut can’t for no reason. Oh, and one final note: have a pen and paper handy. Yes, we’re back to those days.
By far the best thing I have to say about Armikrog involves the graphics and sound, but even both of them have caveats. The Clay Animation style is gorgeous, with the cutscenes in particular being a treat to behold but the game is fortunately just as lovely too. Tommynaut and Beak-Beak are wonderfully evocative, designs are cutely crazy, and the “real” sets give the whole game a beautiful homemade look. Even if the sets are blatantly made out of egg-boxes it doesn’t matter because it just makes Armikrog even more charming. The caveat? Things aren’t as interactive as they should be, and many of the areas are actually pretty boring - yes it’s fun that this room is made out of clay with thumb-grooves, but couldn’t there be more to look at?
It'll be important later. Trust me.
The music by Terry Scott Taylor is superb and very catchy, much like his soundtracks for The Neverhood and Skullmonkeys, and I only wish there was more of it. I particularly enjoyed the secret “backers” song which you have to explore a bit to discover! Unfortunately the “but” here is that the music regularly cuts out and cuts in at random moments and the game becomes eerily quiet without it. Speaking of quality issues with the sound, voice acting (particularly with Mike Nelson) occasionally sounds like it was recorded over a bad phone line on the bottom of the sea, and sound effects now and again just won’t play.
The fact is, Armikrog is simply clearly unfinished. There are reports of massive game-breaking bugs that require restarts to fix or even changing your Windows language. The ‘Save’ page is hidden away in the Options menu for some reason. At least one puzzle-locked door can be walked straight through, screwing the game up. The mouse pointer is the default Windows cursor and it turns every area into a pixel hunt as you don’t know what objects can be interacted with or when. Sometimes clicking on something interactive won’t do anything anyway, particularly if you’re trying to get Beak-Beak to jump on a button. There’s no Inventory button, nor is it obvious when you’ve switched between the two characters. Then there’s the cost-cutting measures, like having the same animation on the “Father Ghost” every time you meet him and the very final action in the game to finish off the boss being denied you for no reason. Oh, and the game’s only about 3 hours long even with all the padding.
Speaking non-critically about Armikrog I did get enjoyment exploring its walls, but by the end I said “is that it?” rather than “that was a great game and it satisfied me”. As a lovely and crazy world to explore with a charming art style and catchy music it’s just fine, but as a game Armikrog comes up significantly short. Puzzles are either dull, badly signposted or contain pointless busywork, there’s nowhere near enough dialogue or anything else that could truly make the world come alive, and the game is seriously unfinished. Remember how I mentioned about the lack of funds before? Well, it meant that Pencil Test had to cut corners everywhere so that Armikrog only feels a tenth the game it could’ve been. Wait and hope for some major patches for now, but even then Armikrog still won’t feel actually finished. Shame.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The opening cutscene is awesome.
Lovely Claymation style and cool music.
Hideously unfinished in every possible way, and I don't just mean "buggy".
Puzzles are at best simple and at worst pointless trial-and-error frustration exercises.
More dialogue and detail could've made the world come alive.