It isn’t easy to retain the sense of wonder we had in our formative gaming experiences. We tend to become jaded as time goes by, feeling that many games look like carbon copies of each other. So we try very hard to recapture that sense of wonder and discovery when we explore new worlds and mechanics. Sometimes we manage to recapture it through games inspired by those from our fondest gaming memories. That’s why I was drawn to Insomnia: The Ark, a title openly influenced by Fallout and BioShock.
What makes Insomnia unique is that its crumbling civilization doesn’t take place on Earth, but in a dieselpunk space metropolis. It doesn’t quite qualify as a generation or colony ship, though it seems that’s how it started. Some lore books and characters mention an Exodus event, so Insomnia seems to take place in the aftermath of its collapse. While in certain areas it may look like a full-blown post-apocalyptic setting, the story shows that it's still building up to the boiling point of societal collapse.
The influence from Fallout and BioShock is more notable in terms of setting and worldbuilding. This is a third-person ARPG with both shooting and melee combat. In its gameplay it's somewhat closer to Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, but in everything else it's closer to the classic Fallout titles. There is no voice acting and no audio diaries, only text dialogues and lore books. The influence from BioShock is more notable along the lines of art direction, and the space metropolis resembles the idea of Rapture in a way.
Insomnia begins in a limbo state, showing a shadowy silhouette of what your character is supposed to be. There are others like you nearby, gathered around a circular mechanical structure. Around it, you see a bay littered with sunken ships on one side, and huge rocks on the other. Before you step outside the structure you can examine a monument carved with the relief of a naked, muscular man. You follow a luminous silhouette along a path between the rocks, and you come to a sphere that blinds you. That’s when you wake up from the Big Sleep.
You’ve been in this cryonic “delta-stasis” state for an unspecified amount of time. You’ve taken the Big Sleep before, but this time it feels different. According to a journal entry, it feels “like somebody somewhere lived a whole life in your place.” You get up and talk to a doctor, who says your recovery is surprising, then sends you to diagnostics anyway. That’s when you get to create your character, choosing one of five classes: Helot, Thingmaster, Ordinator, Tector, or Jaeger.
You can customize your looks, but you can’t distribute any points beforehand. The classes are set, but you can customize your character as you gain “achievements,” which grant skill points. In very broad strokes, the classes focus on several skills, including stealth, mechanics, close combat, electrical systems, medicine, etc. I chose to play as a Helot, focused on stealth and survival. That didn’t stop me from spending skill points on other skills as well.
Gameplay consists in exploring some fairly open levels where most of the ship is already in a state of collapse. You meet or fight NPCs and scavenge junk that can be used for crafting and trading. It’s a standard ARPG in that sense, though the third-person shooting has an interesting aiming system. You have to aim and wait for the crosshairs to center on the target or you’ll miss. There isn’t a similar system for the melee combat, but it does include dodging and rolling. The action feels a bit jank, but there is potential for a deep and satisfying third-person combat to emerge from the systems.
There are also quite a few very clever minigames for hacking, lockpicking, and mechanic fixes. The influence of the minigames in BioShock is very obvious, but there is an original strain here that makes them satisfying and fun to play. Some of them require a substantial amount of crafting material, making it challenging and rewarding. It's not just a distraction, it fits the setting and the RPG system in a way that is seamless and compelling.
The most fascinating aspect of Insomnia so far is its worldbuilding. It’s openly dieselpunk, but it doesn’t adhere to that subgenre quite so literally. It seems more invested in creating its own unique world with dieselpunk elements, just as Fallout is its own unique brand of atompunk. There are many nods and similarities to Fallout, including a set of power armor, but it’s not a slavish imitation. It seems to use the iconography and aesthetic of Soviet technology and subvert it with its own twist and spin. The soundtrack sounds like Vangelis in Blade Runner, and it resonates well with the atmosphere and the setting.
It’s a world that I want to explore and learn more about, even though the localization so far is rough. Some of the dialogue is still in Russian, and the English localization sometimes sounds odd and poorly translated. There is a flavor to the dialogue text in this state, with some interesting turns of phrase, but it might alienate a wider audience. The ideal would be to keep that uniquely Russian style while also making the text more readable and natural.
This is a closed beta after all, and a lot of it will probably undergo quality assurance before the product is final. It runs and plays just fine so far, I experienced just one minor glitch, and no bugs in the quests I managed to complete. Performance is kind of patchy with an unstable framerate and character models that look somewhat shoddy, though adequate enough for this kind of game. The UI also needs work, especially when it comes to trading and crafting.
Ambitious games sometimes result in astounding failures. Insomnia: The Ark is very ambitious and it literally reaches for the stars. We joke about “Eurojank” and “Slavclunk,” but we want to see European and Slavic studios succeed in creating fluid and compelling gaming experiences. There is much to like from what I managed to play and I’m eager to see and play more. There is also much that can go wrong if they can’t refine the product and reduce jank to a minimum. The worldbuilding and the story will suffer from a poor and unfocused localization. I hope that Mono Studio will be able to deliver a great final product to establish Insomnia as one of the worthy heirs to Fallout and BioShock.
Our preview of Insomnia: The Ark was conducted on Steam with a code provided by the developer.