On the surface, Astro Shark seems like a casual title. It has very simple gameplay and controls and the audio and video communicate a calm, lightly challenging experience. And that’s basically accurate for about four levels. Then Astro Shark reveals its true colors, proving to be the most unforgiving, irritating action game I’ve ever played on Android.
The story is the standard “shark and dog are in love, someone kidnaps dog and flies to outer space with him, shark rockets off into space to get dog back” story. You know, that old chestnut. The goal in each level is to reach a specific planet where your canine significant other has been taken, the direction of which is signified by a heart icon with a white circle around it that depletes the closer you get. But the dog is never there and instead you’ll find another animal telling you to look in another galaxy. You can also earn three stars in each level for accomplishing achievements such as “kill three rockets at once” or “ride 15 asteroids.” Achievements can be earned one at a time on multiple playthroughs, but you must survive to the end of the level for them to count.
The tutorial provides the bare minimum needed to get started. In essence, your rocket-propelled shark flies around scattered celestial bodies by locking onto and orbiting different planets (and occasionally asteroids). All you have to do to lock onto something is touch it then keep your finger pressed to orbit, releasing when the shark is aimed in the direction you want it to go.
In a smart move, the tutorial explains nothing beyond this. Astro Shark’s progression is based upon introducing a new gimmick in each of its 12 levels and figuring out how to work with or around each of these on your own feels more rewarding than having it all spelled out. However, when you die, the game over screen does provide moderately useful hints.
Speaking of dying, it happens a lot. You’ll soon learn that the consistent element in each level are the flurries of rockets chasing you down. The majority of Astro Shark is concerned with outrunning and avoiding these bastards generally by snaking from planet to planet and occasionally u-turning. As mentioned, each level introduces new elements, most of which can kill (or at least hinder) you, but, if utilized properly, can destroy rockets (preferably a few at once).
Initially you’ll be triggering floating mines that go off moments later by flying through them. Later levels introduce frozen planets that release an ice wave when orbited, freezing nearby rockets, which you can then smash into to shatter. Other hazards include radioactive asteroids dangerous to both sharks and rockets and nebulae that you tap to cause explosions at just the right time to destroy your pursuers but not yourself. Destroying rockets, however, only gives you a brief respite as new ones spawn immediately.
Astro Shark feels very polished in all facets of design. The graphics consist of vibrant, bright colors and high-end animation, the details of which are extremely impressive. The shark is a tiny little avatar and yet his tail visibly swishes left and right depending on his movements and his white underside becomes visible whenever he performs a complete orbit. The flaming trail he leaves is chock full of awesome particle effects. This level of detail pervades the game’s graphics and animation across the board. The controls are solid and feel natural for touch screens. The music tracks are few, but are good, pleasant-sounding compositions that complement the easygoing look and feel.
But, again, this easygoing presentation is a ruse. After four levels of enjoyable yet undemanding orbiting, the game’s difficulty ramps up unexpectedly. Rockets come in droves, hazards pop up everywhere, and level exits become much farther away. You’ll die so much and get so frustrated you’ll want to (and very well might) quit. Personally, I felt like throwing my phone. And I am usually not the “throws things” kind of gamer.
My problem with Astro Shark is that, after a point, I have no idea how to get better at it. The placement of objects is randomly generated so it’s not like you can come to grips with a level’s layout and you’ll occasionally find yourself with no planets in immediate reach to help you out of a jam. You can get pretty good at avoiding rocket clusters (skull icons on the sides of the screen let you know they’re approaching), but you’ll still frequently get kablooeyed by an errant rocket coming in before you have time to react. Even so, I can’t actually decide for sure if Astro Shark is ever unfair. But it is really hard and, after dying a couple million times, you’ll either hate yourself, the player, or hate the game.
Astro Shark controls well and is highly polished in its presentation. It’s got a simple premise making for fun gameplay until a few levels in when it drops all pretenses and begins to openly abuse you. It might feel a little fairer if less of the game hinged on random elements. Still, this is an undeniably well-made and engaging title that I keep trying to conquer. But make no mistake, I hate you Astro Shark and I hope they jettison your dog boyfriend into outer space and he suffocates and then his head implodes.