The years have not been kind to this caveman. Abandoned in 2003 by publisher Microsoft, Tork: Prehistoric Punk seemed doomed to wander the earth unreleased until Ubisoft stepped in. Although its $19.99USD price point belies its origins as a premium title, Tork has finally arrived in some form. The question at hand remains – is Tork a diamond previously hidden in Microsoft’s coffers that they were too blind to see, ala Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, or is it a scrambled mess along the lines of Argonaut’s troubled Malice?
Tork places the player in the shoes of the title character, a prehistoric delinquent predisposed to smashing things with his bolas. Story wise, Tork’s father, Bargh (yes, Bargh), is suddenly kidnapped by the diabolical wizard Orgus, and only under the tutelage of the wise Yok can Tork realize his full potential and save his father.
Better platform games have had even less plot, so Tork’s minimalist story doesn’t hurt it. How the plot is focused and targeted towards the audience has a larger effect – the ability to transform into different animals comes out of nowhere, as does the prehistoric-to-middle-ages-to-modern-day time-travel angle that the game ends up favoring. The cut-scenes eventually deteriorate into comic relief, and Tork fails to live up to the ?punk’ attitude displayed so prominently in the title. These attempts at pratfall humor, coupled with a bland, sterile protagonist and an oddly paced plotline suggest that the target audience is the youth market, which, by definition, would make Tork a ?kiddie’ game.
The simplicity of the gameplay solidifies this notion extremely quickly. Most of your time in Tork is spent tapping the ?X’ button repeatedly (?X’ instigates a close range attack, ?B’ lets Tork throw his bolas a few feet in the air), bringing destruction on enemies, environmental set pieces, and statues that yield power-ups. The rest of the sparse game controls – ?A’ jumps, ?Y’ transforms Tork into an animal form when his Fury meter is full, and pulling both triggers together launches a special attack when you’ve collected enough crystals.
Occasionally you come across areas with very few enemies, and end up mindlessly cracking every cactus and statue open just for their point values (which contributes directly towards opening bonus levels). There is a combo system in place, but it’s hardly skill based. When a deluge of enemies comes into view – most commonly the rat-like crawling baddies – you’ll earn increasingly higher ratings by quickly bashing them into submission (which also encourages players to barrel through levels quickly). Ratings pop up on screen akin to Devil May Cry’s style-based ranking system, but seeing ?Good,’ ?Excellent’ and ?Incredible!’ appear after mindlessly mashing the attack button isn’t so much a reflection of gaming prowess as it is padding for player confidence. Even more strangely, the only type of enemy that aggressively attacks you can easily be killed with repeated long-range attacks – a glaring hole in the game’s combat.
Tork is a fairly linear game – fairly – because, while you’re only moving forward for the majority of the stages, there are detours and different forks you can take in each level that offer some essence of variation and replayability. Yet the attempted variation throughout the levels is abruptly stalled by Tork’s biggest obstacle – its camera.
It’s perhaps beyond clich?d to criticize a 3D game for its poor camera work, but the one at work here in Tork needs to be addressed, clich?d or otherwise. You can slightly adjust the camera with the right stick, but the field of maneuverability is so restricted that it seems almost pointless in most circumstances. When you approach a different part of a level, sometimes the camera’s manual control is deactivated, so there is no possibility of changing the view until you reach a new area. The camera’s fixed position of facing forward makes backtracking needlessly hard if you find yourself off track, and also opens the door for off-screen enemies to get a cheap shot in before they’re anywhere near your field of view. Most grievous are the rat enemies, who sometimes spawn out of thin air on top of your head. Combine them with the handicap that the camera provides and you’ve got a big problem indeed.
Any enemy can whack you off screen, though, and their blunt tactics hardly change throughout the duration of the entire game. Later stages pit you against different enemies cosmetically, but their attack patterns remain the same. The enemy roster boils down to 4 basic types – the aggressive fighter, the flying enemy, the non-threatening enemy, and the rat type. Granted there are some level-based enemies that aren’t re-used, but they only appear between lengthy bouts with repeated foes.
Boss fights offer up a change of pace, but are largely hit and miss affairs. In a few boss confrontations, you have to run towards a fleeing/flee a charging enemy, similar to the first level boss of Sonic Adventure 2. But while Sonic’s contest was engaging because of his speed and the intensity of the race, Tork plods down a hill towards the camera, which is far too close to offer any hint of the obstacles in the way. There are wholly different problems with the ?pursue the enemy’ race – where, on one occasion, I successfully roared to the end, yet still received the ?You Lose!’ screen. After replaying, and racing to the exact spot from the previous time, I emerged victorious. A microsecond’s difference in the winning margin or a glitch – either way, it was quite unusual.
Regardless of whether that was a mistake in the code or not, it’s definitely not wise to include elements that feel like glitches. When you finish a level, Tork freezes in mid-air (mid-stride as well) and the screen slowly fades out to a cut-scene. Other games have used similar methods to end levels, but this is the first time it feels like a coding glitch. One particular section of a boss fight that emulates the on-rails shooting of Panzer Dragoon feels similarly wrong – the control is loopy and the lock-on mechanism busted, making the whole experience feel entirely broken. It’s truly a shame and an opportunity missed, since the break in Tork’s smash-em-up gameplay could have been a refreshing change of pace – had it been realized better.
You’re guaranteed to ask a few rhetorical questions while playing Tork, like “Why don’t I start out with full health?” You start off with a paltry three hearts while the max is five. And, “Why can’t I skip these cut-scenes?” Indeed, the cut-scenes are absurd the first time around, and annoying every time after if you have to repeat a level. They don’t do a great deal in moving the plot along, either, and also fail to adequately explain the level goals (in most levels you’re seeking a random item to help your quest progress).
At least the graphics are interesting to look at, especially with the change in time period every three levels prompting new environments. The game’s vibrant colors and stylized models are reminiscent of early Spyro games, if the pure polygon power may be lacking. For an Xbox-exclusive game, the graphics are around average, yet this doesn’t seem to be a huge handicap.
The same must be said for the sound, with standard effects and competent voiceovers common to low-budget gaming fare. The music is nothing special, but serves the game well. Strangely, there’s hardly any music and minimal sound effects during cut-scenes, which really draws attention when sequences play out and there’s nothing to accentuate them.
As a final conclusion approaches, it’s perhaps worth mentioning a topical debate on the minds of puzzled gamers: Can videogames obviously produced for and marketed towards a kid audience be judged objectively alongside more mature games with understandably evolved play mechanics and plots? It certainly wouldn’t be fair to comparatively rate, let’s say, Barney beside an episode of The Sopranos, so why do publications consistently rate children’s games on the same page as M-rated titles? After weighing the fairness of the question, a worthy conclusion would be that, while there are different standards for different audiences, a well-produced children’s game can still be just as entertaining to an adult as Grand Theft Auto. The better of the Disney movies, for example, are created for children, but can also be enjoyed by adults – the overall quality shines through, as adults generally have higher standards.
In the end, Tork is a flawed and problematic game that will stand out as such with a mature audience, but might not show up on the glitch radar of a younger player. If you consider yourself part of the latter demographic, add 2 points to the final score for an appropriate rating. If not, there are probably better things you could be doing than playing Tork: Prehistoric Punk.