If asked to name two games set in post-apocalyptic, dystopian worlds, you most likely would think of BioShock or the original Fallout games, or maybe Dishonored or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Russian developer Mono Studio would love us to add Insomnia: The Ark to the list as well. Set in a dystopian future as dark as any in gaming, Insomnia: The Ark is an action-RPG with a lot of ambition and lots of rough edges that will probably never be sanded down.
Unlike its Earthbound cousins, Insomnia: The Ark takes place on Object 6, a massive space station that is home to the remains of humanity. In addition to a surprisingly wide variety of environments, Object 6 is also the home to a number of competing political factions, warring economic classes, criminal gangs, robot workers and a growing paranormal/alien threat, all ruled over by a totalitarian regime just ripe for being overthrown. If this was a sci-fi novel, it would be a hefty volume indeed, and although Insomnia; The Ark has a lot of stories to tell, it doles them out slowly, in rather piecemeal fashion, and via translations that range from serviceable to incomprehensible. For all I know the original Russian text could be the marriage of Tolstoy and Blade Runner, but the acres of unvoiced dialogue make for some tedious and uninspired reading.
After a prologue and then a proper start, Insomnia: The Ark’s main story begins as the player character traverses the floating world, mostly doing routine and mundane quests for various NPCs, avoiding the criminal element, and learning about the world and its history, all the while trying to solve a much larger mystery. Although the Role-Playing part of RPG is somewhat limited, there are starting classes to choose and most of the mechanics standard to the genre: crafting, upgrades, loot, etc. For quite a long stretch, the action element is in the background, in part because the player character is severely underpowered and most enemies are capable of one-shot kills. Actually, this imbalance is consistent throughout The Ark but there are a few strategies that help keep the player alive. In general, Insomnia: The Ark’s combat is challenging, not terribly well-balanced, and lacking in variety, both in weapons and encounter types.
Maybe it’s genetic, but Insomnia: The Ark nails the whole “oppressive totalitarian regime” aesthetic throughout, with lots of gritty, grimy machines clouded in steam and a populace that looks and acts beaten down, if not by the State, by the deeply disturbing premise of being the last vestige of humanity. Despite some interesting visual elements — some, unmistakable homages to BioShock — there are some pretty rough edges in the graphics and quite a few bugs remain to be hunted down. Inventory management is a mess, part of a larger issue with the game’s UI being less than intuitive and below the standard we expect for recent ARPGs. Insomnia: The Ark is dozens of hours long but meanders when it needs to focus and double down on its central story.
Insomnia: The Ark has an exceptionally cool premise and a very complex story to tell but the game that Mono Studio built to house its vision doesn’t always do a great job. It simply moves too slowly and lacks a central narrative drive. It’s burdened by combat that is both hardcore and limited, and by lots of smaller issues that add up to a bigger overall impression of messiness and missed opportunities.