In my preview of the closed beta of Insomnia: The Ark, I expressed my concerns that the game could get bogged down by its ambition while neglecting its strengths. Insomnia can indeed be very messy and frustrating as a whole, but it’s also one of the most compelling gaming experiences I’ve had in a while. The build I got to play so far was actually v0.9, but the release build will likely be v1.0. So, for the record: my impressions are based only on my experience with the v0.9 build.
I’ve clocked 50 hours so far, and I have yet to finish. My character is level 12, and I assume the level cap is at least 20. I’ve completed a good number of side quests, and I’ve made substantial progress with the main quest. I’m still struggling to understand what’s going on in the grand scheme of things. There is almost no handholding or introduction, and no tutorial at all. Everything you learn about the game and its world comes from the UI and the characters you meet.
Insomnia is fairly straightforward as a third-person ARPG with standard controls, though the camera controls are vertically locked. You can’t look up or down. This is effective because it reduces jank in movement. Your character can’t jump either, which also reduces some of the jank, though he can dodge and roll. Granted, there’s still some clunk, with a few invisible walls and spots where you can get stuck. Considering this is the debut title of an indie Russian studio, it could be much worse.
The journey begins with you waking up from the Big Sleep, a cryogenic state in the colony ship turned crumbling space metropolis Object 6, a relic of the Exodus of the Nomah civilization. Insomnia allows you to choose a name and one of five unique classes for your character. You plunge into a conspiracy involving an alleged terrorist attack. As you investigate the case and follow the orders of your superiors, you discover a realm or dimension called Somnia. At certain parts of Object 6, you are able to enter this dimension, where you meet “shadows,” but it isn’t quite clear whether they are ghosts or something else. Some of them will send you on little quests so you can try to figure out what’s going on.
In the middle of all this metaphysical quandary, you explore Object 6 and meet many characters and factions. Sometimes, you fight marauders and rebels, and sometimes it’s giant insect-like creatures, or giant lizards and scorpions. Sometimes you get weird “somnic” visions of some kind of a shadow-beast lurking in corners. There’s very little explanation for what you see and hear. The world of Insomnia speaks for itself. For some players, this will be fascinating, but it might frustrate others.
There’s little innovation or distinctiveness in its base gameplay. The shooting is barebones, but effective enough at what it does, with decent animation. It doesn’t have a streamlined third-person cover shooting system, and I actually prefer it that way. You can cheese the melee combat all the way to victory just by clicking away. There are different kinds of grenades and Molotovs you can toss, but they’re mostly unnecessary. The AI is thoroughly unremarkable and just plain functional. There’s some challenge to the combat, but, as a general rule, you can come out of most battles unscathed.
The art direction is mesmerizing. The dieselpunk Nomah civilization has a fascinating and beautiful aesthetic. It looks like a combination of Soviet propaganda and architecture with retro-futuristic elements. As said in the preview, the influence from the art direction of Fallout and BioShock is very clear, though it's not just a barefaced imitation. It’s an original combination of elements and details, with a sleek space station visual design.
The level design itself lacks a little elegance, but it’s effective. There are quite a few surprises and interesting details for the dedicated explorer. It’s not exactly an open world, but some of the locations are fairly large and open, full of nooks and corners that add to the atmosphere. While most of Object 6 is falling apart, some of the locations are still in pristine condition. Those levels are usually the least interesting, though.
I really like most of the music in the soundtrack, but the sound design itself can be a bit annoying and repetitive. Not just the usual UI sound bits, but also some background noises in certain areas. It’s a bit like Chinese water torture. Still, the music in most of the bigger levels is very soothing, with some of that Blade Runner ambiance.
There are so many problems with the UI that I don’t know where to begin. It’s like it’s held together by spit and bailing wire. At first, it’s almost inscrutable. Inventory management is a complete mess, and it crashed the game a couple of times. There’s very little organization involved, and if you have a compulsion to keep everything neat, don’t bother. The character UI where you manage your skills is also mostly unintuitive.
Insomnia excels at its worldbuilding, as already mentioned in the preview. This, of course, requires that you have some interest in the world and the building behind it. And it’s not so much a plethora of lore dumps so much as the patience to put together all the bits and pieces that you gather from documents, books, and dialogues. I know that the vast majority of gamers won’t care for it, but I find it fascinating myself. It's a rewarding and very obsessively designed fictional universe.
The localization from Russian improved somewhat when compared to the closed beta preview, but it’s still far from optimal. There’s still some text in Russian, and there’s still some poor translations and awkward sentences. There was also a residue from gender scripting for the player character in some dialogues. Some of the NPCs will say things like “you gender(dumbass, whore).” Apparently, it was possible to play as either male or female at first, in the early stages of development. Then they changed it to an exclusively male player character. This might be a really bad look if it makes into the final release.
The characters are colorful, but the side quests are mostly restricted to fetch-or-deliver. It’s refreshing to play an RPG without a quest mark system, but the areas and directions should be well-implemented and defined beforehand, which isn't always the case here. The main quests follow the recent model of quest design where a quest leads to another quest that leads to another quest... It can be a bit much after a while. While the quests are engrossing as I struggle to understand the whole story arc, I’m ready for closure after fifty hours. There’s definitely replay value with the different classes and the different skills, but I haven’t had many choices overall.
What I really hate in Insomnia right now is the fast travel system. Not only it’s way too slow (I get it, Object 6 is huge, but give me a fast-forward option at least), it’s also full of random encounters, most of which are unskippable. It’s one thing to have a couple of random encounters when you’re making a big trip to the other side of Object 6. It’s another thing to have like three encounters when you’re trying to reach a close destination just to wrap up a quest. In that sense, Insomnia scratches the classic Fallout itch, but it also reminds me of one of its worst parts.
I’m still eager to continue my odyssey in Object 6 in spite of all these complaints. I do wish Insomnia was more polished and consistent as a product, but some of my favorite games are messy and frustrating just like this. I call these games diamonds in the rough, but some will call them buggy, unoptimized hunks of junk. They're not entirely wrong, but I hope this is informative enough to both those who share my tastes and those who don’t.
Insomnia: The Ark is being reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developers.