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Review: Ultra Pixel Survive [Switch]

21 Apr 2023

So here’s a statement that might surprise people who read this because it’s kind of considered verboten among anyone who plays a lot of video games: I actually really like mobile games. No, really.

Don’t get me wrong; a lot of mobile games are shallow, lightweight experiences that barely qualify as games and I would prefer not to give them the time of day. But I am not inherently opposed to mobile games as a concept. As a way of gaming when you are otherwise on the move, they can be fun, and as a game experience to fill in gaps of time away from doing anything else they can be brilliant.

Of course, that can also cause problems as well. After all, the things that work well for a mobile game do not necessarily work well for a full console experience. Which brings us to Ultra Pixel Survive from Ratalaika, which released on April 14th for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S. It’s based off of a mobile game. How does it hold up when judged not as a mobile experience but as a console experience?

Yes, I am aware that the Switch (which is the platform I played the game on) can, in fact, be taken around as a mobile device. It’s the principal of the thing.

Sunshine is Creeping In

Normally I start these reviews by telling you the story of the game, but this time I think we can skip it, because there’s not really anything to say. You get plopped into a fantasy world with no stated objectives whatsoever. Would you like to continue existing in that fantasy world? Well, best get surviving… sort of.

Let’s take a step back. In the broadest strokes, Ultra Pixel Survive is akin to games like Minecraft and Terraria. You gather resources and explore during the day. During the evening, you defend yourself against hordes of enemies that will endlessly spawn and swarm you. Repeat over and over until you are overwhelmed and you die. This may take a very long time, or it might take five minutes. (Your first couple of outings are likely to be more along the “five minutes” line, to be fair.)

Unlike those games, however, you don’t really have the luxury of the usual plan. In those games, your goals are all about getting a shelter together so you can hole up and survive during the Dangerous Time, and then eventually you’ll be able to go ham and just smash the crap out of enemies whenever and you won’t really care about night terrors any more. Here, though… you can craft, but your crafting is limited to static defenses so you lay down rows of turrets and traps, campfires, torches, and crafting benches.

There is a house that you start right next to, but time doesn’t pass while you’re inside of it, so you cannot actually wait out the night. I tried, believe me.

As you slaughter enemies, you gain coins and you also level up. Leveling up allows you to upgrade your tools and weapons as well as your stats. You have a health bar, a stamina bar, and a hunger bar, with health going down when something hits you, stamina decreasing when you swing your primary weapon, and hunger decreasing over time because that’s how metabolism works. Find food and eat, level up, collect coins.

Collect enough coins and you can start unlocking additional characters, who have different skills and aptitudes and sprites. You can also trade coins for rubies or vice-versa, as some characters require rubies to unlock. And you can level up the characters, so when you start from the beginning with that character you’re starting at a bigger advantage. You can also choose between permadeath on or off; if it’s off, you can save your game and restart from when you had last saved, but if it’s on you… well, cannot.

So that’s all straightforward enough, right? The question becomes whether or not it plays well. And it’s here that I think the game’s originally mobile nature really works against it, because this definitely feels like the sort of game you play on your lunch break before putting down… which is not ideal for playing in longer sessions.

For one thing, the game commits one of the things that bothers the heck out of me. When you start the game, you have exactly one character option, and it’s going to take you quite a bit of playing to unlock your second. Let me be clear here – I think it is entirely valid to start you off with “here’s the average, okay-at-everything, good-at-nothing character so you can understand the basic mechanics right away.” Utterly valid. But if I’ve gone through a half-dozen runs with that character and all I can see is “here are the characters that look more fun to play, but I’ll have to play another dozen times with the guy I don’t want to get them,” my motivation starts to shrivel up and die like a slug hit with a pile of salt.

After all, let’s remember – the idea here is not that these other characters are better, just different. Why do I have to play a bunch with a bland character to just try a character I might like more? That’s not conducive to fun. It makes sense as a gating mechanism spread out over weeks of short play bursts, not for a console title.

The inclusion of a stamina bar also kind of, well… blows. It could theoretically add a tactical field to combat, but combat is already floaty and imprecise. It’s hard to judge how close is too close to an enemy, so you wind up taking a bunch of damage through little fault of your own. Having your character then suddenly stop swinging their weapon just slows things down further and puts you into a fight-or-flight mode where you don’t really… have any options for flight. It’s not balanced great.

Yes, theoretically this is where those static defenses come into play, but they’re not really explained very well and it always feels bad setting up temporary fortifications for a pseudo-tower-defense feel. You have direct control of your character, you want to fight with that character. The communication isn’t great here, in other words.

A lot of these choices, of course, work better on mobile devices. But that winds up becoming the biggest problem. The game has a lot of decisions that make sense on mobile, but it’s no longer on mobile, and so those design choices no longer serve a purpose but they’re still there.

The Mother Flew Too Late

First things first – I’m not sure if this is true of all the music in the game, but at least a decent chunk of it comes from Kevin MacLeod, who specifically makes royalty-free music that can be licensed for various things and has been doing so for quite some time. I recognized Master of the Feast as soon as it started playing. This is not a hidden element or something, he’s credited on the loading splash correctly, and this is also exactly what royalty-free music is meant to be used for. But since MacLeod has been doing this for a long time his theoretically generic music has its own character and becomes recognizable. It stands out when it’s supposed to not stand out, like wearing a hat and sunglasses to try to look inconspicuous.

Or maybe that’s just me because I watch too much stuff on the Internet.

The sprite work on the pixel elements of this game is beautiful. Sprites look clean and distinct, which is a definite asset. Less charming, however, is the fact that a lot of the animations for that pixel work is… minimal. It’s there, but everything feels very… floaty and like it just drifts along. It’s also hard to read everything at a glance, and a few resources in particular sit exactly at the uncomfortable intersection between just detailed enough to be specific and just small enough to be hard to parse. Not a great place to be, ultimately.

Also the night graphics feel just about 10% too dark to be comfortable. I know, that’s what torches and first are for, but when it’s already hard to tell the difference between “an enemy has hit me” and “I have avoided an enemy” this is the opposite of helpful.

Don’t Doubt the Fact that There’s Life Within You

It’s probably clear enough at this point that I’m not terribly enamored with Ultra Pixel Survive. That’s not because it’s a straightforwardly bad game, though. The game is solid enough. But it feels just shot through with just enough minor irritations. Nothing that’s broken, nothing that will stop people who really like playing survival tower defense from doing exactly that. But just enough little irritations that creep in across the span of the game that kind of feel endemic of a singular problem, a game that was made to be a mobile title that’s been ported to consoles without much more than a basic mechanical pass.

If you do enjoy the idea of what amounts to a never-ending survival horde defense mode and are willing to do quite a lot of playing before you earn other characters? There’s stuff to like here! This is not a bad game. But it’s a game that looks a lot more charming than it winds up being. It’s an all right game masquerading as a good one, and while that doesn’t make it bad, it does make it less than the sum of its parts.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Game provided by Ratalaika for purposes of evaluation. All screenshots courtesy of Ratalaika.