ARK: Ultimate Survivor Edition Review For Nintendo Switch: Fight For Your Fun

  • Runs better than expected on Switch
  • Looks pretty decent
  • That good-old satisfying “survival game” feedback loop
  • Large maps with varied environments
  • Taming dinosaurs
  • Console controls aren't great: particularly for menus
  • Very little in-game help for new players
  • Most of the "Ultimate" content isn't available yet
  • Frustrating situations stack up fast and ruin the fun

I think it's important to acknowledge that "ARK: Survival Evolved" is not a new game, by any stretch of the imagination. It initially spent some time in early access on Steam before seeing a full release in 2017 — and has since been made available on most modern platforms, including smartphones, before making its way to the Nintendo Switch in 2018.

If that sounds weird because we've long since passed 2018, well, yeah. This is the "Ultimate Edition," which includes the base "ARK" game along with (eventually) all of the expansions and add-ons that have been released on PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and so on. Making this a definitive version, of sorts, which costs about $40 more than vanilla "ARK."

This is the "Definitive" version in the sense that it's the most complete version of the game you'll find on the Switch — not so much that it's the best version overall. Though in fairness, most of my grievances pertain to "ARK" as a whole and aren't specific to this console port. A digital code for "ARK: Ultimate Survivor Edition" (via Nintendo) was provided for this review, and the game was played on a regular (non-OLED) Switch console.

So you want to get eaten by dinosaurs

Whether you're playing the standard version of "ARK" or this new all-in-one Switch port, the fundamental game is the same: Your character wakes up in a semi-random spot on your chosen map, then you get to work crafting survival implements and putting together a shelter. Eventually you branch out into bigger and better stuff, and even start to tame dinosaurs to act as mounts, protectors, or specialized material gatherers.

Gather materials and supplies, craft tools and gear, level-up to learn more crafting recipes, gather more materials, craft better stuff, and so on. All while balancing your character's need for food and water, navigating extreme temperatures, and trying not to get eaten by prehistoric animals. Comparing it to "Minecraft" might seem disingenuous, but the game runs on similar principles.

Some things are a bit more complicated in "ARK," however, even without the need for terrain manipulation found in "Minecraft." There are a lot of status effects to consider (get too warm, too cold, poisoned, knocked out, broken bones), and you have to craft everything — including the parts needed to build yourself a home. It's a satisfying enough feedback loop of steady progression, but it also feels a bit hamstrung by its history.

Good luck, newbies

What I mean is, "ARK" doesn't hold new players' hands. Actually it's not so much that it doesn't hold your hand, but rather it doesn't even offer the courtesy of smacking you in the back of the head and pointing in a vague direction. Something I expect is a result of the game's PC survival game roots, coupled with a player base that's just sort of been there from the start, poring over forums and version update notes.

There are no tutorials (despite the "reset tutorials" button in the options menu, which makes zero sense), and zero guidance outside of maybe piecing a vague sense of progression out of crafting recipe descriptions. There are large glowing pillars that draw the eye, but nothing that tells you what they are or why you want to go over there (or that visiting those large floating obelisks in the early game is a complete waste of your time).

The one and only help provided is a Survival Guide you can access from the game's main menu, which is just a few pages of static text explaining the most basic of basics. Everything else you have to either intuit on your own or learn by watching one of the many (so, so many) beginners guides available online. To say it's "uninviting" would be a massive understatement.

The circle of life

In fairness, this doesn't automatically make "ARK" a miserable experience as there's definitely fun to be had here. Once I had a better idea of the fundamentals and watched a few video guides I was able to jump back in with a new survivor and had a pretty good time. Slowly expanding my base with materials I scrounged up myself was satisfying, as was eventually smithing my own metal tools. Taming dinosaurs turned out to be more important than I initially thought, but it's simple enough to do (once you figure it out or look it up) and the dinosaurs can be a huge help in the field.

Problem is, it can be frustratingly easy to lose a lot of progress. Well, not exactly progress, since you keep all of your levels and crafting recipes upon death, but everything you have equipped and in your inventory gets dropped with your body if and when you die. Then you have a set amount of real world time to get back to it and recover your stuff.

As you might expect, losing a bunch of equipment and materials built and gathered over the course of a few hours is... not a great feeling. Especially when it's due to one simple mistake that snowballed, or even just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Losing hours worth of work because of a large carnivore that won't leave the area just doesn't seem fair.

The Switch experience

However, this is all fundamentally "ARK" regardless of platform. I have no basis for comparison since this is (probably obviously) my first foray into "ARK," but the Switch version runs pretty well, all things considered.

It doesn't look as lush and vibrant as it does on the PC, but it runs decently and looks just fine. Though some of the lighting effects are a bit blown out, the framerate very occasionally dips, and forget about trying to read any of the smaller menu text in handheld mode — at least not without a magnifying glass.

I did encounter some mild annoyances, though. Like several instances of randomly not being able to turn left or right for a second or two (presumably while the game loads something). Or the very not-controller-friendly menu interface that hides very useful button combinations for things like inventory management in a small menu window — why these prompts aren't shown in the pop-up item description windows (which do include references for other buttons) is anybody's guess. And nothing anywhere mentions being able to press the R button to toggle between the Inventory and Crafting menus.

Even crafting is somewhat held back by the lack of console-specific menu consideration, with the window changing shape ever so slightly once crafting begins, resulting in having to move the cursor around in order to select more items to craft. But the window changes back to its original shape once crafting ends, which often resulted in me accidentally crafting something I didn't want because the layout changed a millisecond before I pressed the craft button.

Not so ultimate at the moment

What sets this "Ultimate Survivor Edition" apart from the version of "ARK" that's been available on the Switch since 2018 is access to a heap of additional add-on content. Aside from The Island — the game's original map — this version also includes "Scorched Earth," "Aberration," "Extinction," and "Genesis Parts 1 & 2" expansion packs. Each one offers a large new environment with some new creatures, new crafting recipes, and loads of new dangers. Something that Snail Games adds up to "thousands of hours of gameplay."

This is theoretically true — especially if you have the patience to weather the game's many, many frustrating stumbling blocks — but it's not entirely true right this minute. As of writing, only the Scorched Earth expansion is available, with the remaining add-ons being added one-by-one every few months or so. Meaning this definitive Switch release won't actually be definitive for quite some time.

Of course there's still plenty to see and do in the two maps that are currently available, especially for someone who hasn't played "ARK" before, but don't expect to jump into the more recent content once your download finishes. On the plus side, it does offer more time to get used to the fundamentals before diving into the more difficult scenarios, I guess.

Oh yeah, multiplayer

Aside from dinosaur taming, online multiplayer has also been one of the biggest features of "ARK." In that it's mostly intended and designed to be played on a server with other people, rather than as a solo affair — though single player is an option and doesn't require a Switch Online subscription.

Admittedly, I hate online multiplayer — particularly player-versus-player (PvP). Player-versus-environment (PvE), where you either work together or at least leave each other alone for the most part, is way more my speed. "ARK" offers both options, with an assortment of official and unofficial servers running either of the available maps (and myriad background options that can be adjusted).

I stayed far, far away from the PvP servers during my playtime, because I abhor that stuff, but I did mess around with PvE for a little while. Again, I have no basis for comparison since this has been my first experience with "ARK," but I didn't encounter too much in the way of lag. And being able to interact with other players — or at least find evidence of them scattered around — was pretty neat and didn't feel anywhere near as isolating as playing solo did.

Testing my first ever online game on Scorched Earth was undoubtedly a mistake as I died a lot. I learned the hard way that you don't have anywhere near as much control over where you respawn when playing online. Still, I can imagine why so many players enjoy online dinosaur wrangling.

ARK: Ultimate Survivor Edition verdict

Figuring out how I feel about "ARK: Ultimate Survivor Edition" has been a challenge. It's missing a significant amount of the "Ultimate" content promised in the eShop description (and costs $50, as opposed to the standard version's $10). There are way too many frustrations built into the game by its very nature. 

It doesn't feel like much thought was given to playing with a controller rather than a mouse and keyboard. The game offers zero help to newcomers. Oh, and nighttime is a drag because you can barely see anything but there's also no way to sleep through the night or otherwise speed things up so you just have to wait.

And yet. Even with all of those issues, and admittedly turning the game off in frustration the last time I played it, I want to go back. "ARK" can be a cryptic, unfriendly, infuriating mess, but it's also compelling despite (or maybe because of) all that. I'm determined to train myself another Pteranodon and find a beautiful, somewhat safe location to set up my primary base of operations. I want to see if I can train a few velociraptors at once and have them follow me around like a pack of carnivorous bodyguards. Eventually I want to face my fears (phobia, really) and hunt a megalodon.

I think it'll ultimately come down to whether or not I can be more stubborn than the game itself.