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Occasionally a game lands in my review inbox that’s such a joy to play that the whole writing-about-afterwards aspect goes straight out the window.  I’ve been going at Cryptark hammer and tongs for the past four days and have only now managed to wrench myself free of the gamepad and pick up the keyboard instead.

Cryptark is an ultra-modern take on a format that’s literally as old as Unix itself – delve deeper into a procedurally-generated dungeon, gather booty and gradually prepare yourself for a mighty final battle at journey’s end.  Having seized hold of this timeless format, a number of favourite tropes have been expertly bolted onto it (think space hulks, a lovable rag-tag crew, a weapons budget to control, all thumping good stuff) and give the whole game a satisfying, well-oiled, sturdy slickness.  The game levels are oppressive and atmospheric, the lighting moody, the soundtrack thudding and the mechanics are devilish.  And most importantly, it’s fun.

Sure, being Early Access it’s still evolving.  Among the feature requests both humble and outrageous are a smattering of complaints from players caught between the twin pincers of a punishing difficulty level and a frankly unreasonably short time limit allowed for each level.  Now, I love hard games.  They make the world go round.  Unless it’s in fact a story masquerading as a game it should be a healthy challenge.  Cryptark would be wavering just on the right side of the sweet spot were it not for the time limit, after which you begin rapidly bleeding credits in “late fees”, which often result in the player completing a level with even less money than they started it with.

Not only is this a slightly limp-wristed and in my opinion unnecessary piece of false jeopardy (God knows there’s jeopardy enough once the hot lead starts to fly) but it’s also incompatible with the endless variety of complex levels, dead ends, choke points and roundabout routes the game throws at the player.  A perfect storm of finite ammunition, distant objectives and prolific enemy drone factories can make certain levels, even with the wanton expenditure of all the high-tech ordnance in the world, nigh-impossible.  A cautious and methodical approach is the only way to tackle these monsters but with a six-minute time limit, you can forget it.

Games like Diablo II are exemplars of the magic that happens when procedurally-directed gaming is perfected.  Throw in the occasional set piece, sprinkle a fortuitous super-weapon or two and above all maintain a meticulous watch against the kinds of unwinnable traps that are the only blight on Cryptark’s otherwise engrossing landscape.  A great irony of certain of these rogue-like games is that by making levels randomly-generated you can end up with something desperately samey and at times desperately frustrating, with only the occasional foray into gaming bliss.  The key is in the phrasing – there’s a gulf of difference between “random” and “procedural” and if Cryptark could only push its level design from the former to the latter then this would be a truly worthy title.