I’m not going to sugar coat this: ARK Survival Evolved for Nintendo Switch is the worst performing game I’ve ever played on Switch. The Switch library thus far has been a constantly surprising string of technical success stories. We’ve marveled at games like Doom, Wolfenstein II, Rocket League, Everspace, Warframe, and Starlink, all of which have brought demanding, current generation titles to a handheld. ARK’s ambition is equally admirable, but unfortunately nowhere near as successful.
ARK is a survival game. On an island full of dinosaurs, your goal is simply to stay alive and maybe befriend a dino or two along the way. After awakening in nothing but your underpants, you must gather resources and begin crafting tools, weapons, and a place to live, not to mention finding food and water. As you gather and build, you gain experience points and level up. Leveling up earns you skill points to put into one of a variety of attributes. It also allows you to unlock new items for crafting. This gradually unlocked catalogue of craftables functions well to prevent the player from being overwhelmed. Even so, the initial simplicity of your available actions means little in the absence of any real tutorial. There is a help section available from the main menu that explains the hud but little else, and you are otherwise left to stumble through complex menus on your own. It reminded me of playing Minecraft years before it officially released when your best bet for learning how to play was consulting a wiki. ARK isn’t impossible to figure out, but it felt like I was playing a beta and not a finished, full-price game.
Everything is geared towards online play, in which you’ll join up with a server full of other players to be eaten by dinosaurs together. Your progress is saved on a server by server basis, but I regularly ran into issues connecting to servers, meaning I’d have to go to a different one and start over from scratch. Of course being that the Switch is also a handheld, online connectivity is not always an option. Thankfully, ARK can be played offline. Strangely, even in this mode I ran into odd errors. I had multiple instances of apparent connection issues when playing entirely offline. I was playing in airplane mode, so how ARK suddenly decided that I had lost connection to my single player game I have no idea.
What I’ve described thus far is a decent but certainly flawed survival game. However, this is where we go from somewhat okay, to borderline unplayable. ARK doesn’t run well on anything. Even the PC version is so poorly optimized that it requires a much stronger PC than it ought to just to get a semi-decent performance out of it. When it comes to home consoles, ARK has always been a mess. So, as should be expected, the Switch version is, to put it plainly, a dumpster fire. Resolutions can at times drop to a level equal to or even lower than an N64 game. You’re looking at what appears to be sub 240p in handheld mode (that’s lower than a 3DS for those keeping score) and just marginally better when docked. I don’t have the technical knowhow to tell you exactly what's going on, but there is also some sort of image smoothing in place that makes everything look like a gunky mess. Somehow the image smoothing actually makes everything look worse and even more ill defined. But wait there’s more! Foliage pop-in occurs mere feet from the player when it occurs at all. Everything around you constantly shifts from 2D billboards to 3D models and its extremely disorienting. Shadows also randomly zip in and out of existence, adding to the confusion. Finally the frame rate, which is a weak point for ARK on any platform, is also rough here. Expect to spend the majority of the game hanging out around twenty to twenty-five frames-per-second. Taken together you find yourself surrounded by blurry dinosaurs, on an island full of constantly popping trees, all of which cast randomly moving shadows. Oh, and did I mention the loading times? They’re multiple-minutes long.
I found ARK unplayable in handheld mode. I just couldn’t tell what was going on most of the time. Coupled with both online and offline crashes it just didn’t feel like a finished game. Things improve somewhat docked, and that's why I refer to it as borderline unplayable. When docked you could probably make real progress, but this is a Switch game. Is a Switch game that can realistically only be played in docked mode actually playable? The entire point of this system is to be able to take your games with you, but ARK can’t really offer that. It draws into question the sanctity of the Nintendo seal of quality. The fact that it is not only available to the public, but costs money is an insult. Don’t buy ARK on Switch.