I wasn’t much of a fan of Alientrap’s first release, Capsized, but they more than redeemed themselves with Apotheon. While both featured impressively detailed 2D art and floaty, chaotic combat, Apotheon was where they refined the formula into something satisfying. CRYPTARK then represents a further refining of their style, focusing the combat down to hectic yet manageable firefights and constructing a mysterious and threatening world for them to happen in. If not for a few technical stumbles it would be just about perfect, but almost perfect is never a bad place to land.
Drifting out in the vastness of space is an immense alien fleet, thousands of derelicts devoid of life or purpose. At the center of this fleet is the CRYPTARK, a vessel said to hold an artifact of immense importance. A mega-corporation is prepared to pay your salvage crew mega bucks to bring it back, but finding the thing is the tricky part. By capturing other craft in the fleet it should be possible to triangulate the CRYPTARK’s position, so long as you can blast your way past their automated defenses. Customizing your rig’s loadout is key to surviving these incursions, as is taking risks to secure more weapons, more funding, and the strange artifacts hidden among the derelicts.
CRYPTARK has an excellent hook for its action, and an equally excellent structure for it. For each stage of your journey you’ll select an alien ship to invade, each one procedurally-generated and filled with security systems and drones to contend with. Once you select your loadout you jet into space and into one of the ship’s many hatches and get to work. It’s entirely up to you where you enter and how you proceed to your final goal, the oddly-cerebral central core of the vessel. The combat is pure twin-stick shooting, challenging you to weave between foes and bullets while you blast back with your own ordnance.
You don’t have to fight, either. Stealth is an option if you can stay out of detection range of drones and security sensors, and some weapons are silenced to help you avoid drawing too much attention. This ability to pick your battles extends to the ship systems you’re up against, as the only one you MUST destroy is the central core. But you’ll encounter drone systems that pump out enemies, alarm and sentry systems that control security measures, lock systems that seal important passages, and plenty of others that will massively complicate your incursion. Some systems even cover for others with shields, repairs, failsafes, or cloaks. The makeup of the ship’s systems is shown when choosing your next target, and is pretty much always the most important aspect of that choice.
Money is also going to be a concern, at least in the campaign. You score cash for every derelict you seize, along with bonuses for optional objectives like leaving certain systems intact or not using supply pods to heal or gear up during the mission. That cash is spent to outfit your ship at the beginning of those missions, and some of it is lost when you die, so it’s both a resource that allows for better gear and a measure of how close you are to failure. This goes out the window in the game’s brutal Rogue mode, where your only gear is what you can scrounge from research nodes and death is final. The two modes play very differently but you’ll need to master both to find all the artifacts in the game, interesting bits of lore that serve as the true goals of your adventure.
The strategy is the big draw of the game, especially when you factor in bonuses for sticking out optional objectives or trying to score the rare artifacts which are only rewarded for completing special feats. Pushing yourself in those areas can heighten the tension and tax your problem-solving skills, but it can also frustrate due to certain aspects of the design. It’s entirely possible (and probably intentional) that situations can get completely out of control if you trip certain alarms or allow enemy factories to crank out foes. You might also run afoul of the the wicked environmental hazards which are often far too dense to navigate and battle around. And on one occasion I actually got stuck in the walls of the ship I was exploring, forcing a VERY costly restart of that mission.
These are pretty much all issues you can get past by being patient, careful, and just plain good at the game. It’s a gratifying title to work at as well, with plenty of rewards tucked away for talented explorers. The art style does it plenty of favors too, featuring vibrant colors and exacting details. Even the sound design helps immerse you in the grim, alien technology with a moody soundtrack and meaty effects. It’s a challenge to master but not hard to find the fun in, especially once you start blasting away with heavy ordnance. CRYPTARK gets a lot of mileage out of its hook and offers plenty of action and secrets to enjoy once you’re there.