Or: What is Arknights and should I play it? (If you don't care to read any of this, jump to the conclusion.)
Table of contents
Arknights is, at its core, a tower defense RTS (real-time strategy) game, but it differs so drastically from other tower defense games that I hesitate to call it one. Each level has its own layout, enemy composition, and enemy pathing, and how you clear it will depend heavily on which characters you have at your disposal. There are a lot of characters, and each has their own unique skill loadout. As a result, there are virtually infinite ways to clear a given level.
Grinding for resources to build characters with is an unavoidable part of the game, but Arknights has a completely hands-off autoplay system with no restrictions on how much you can use it outside of your ingame energy reserves. Autoplays are saved from a previous clear of your choice, and they're seeded (i.e. not dependent on RNG), so in the vast majority of cases, they don't need to be babysat and you can leave the game running while you're doing more important things with your life. There is also a base system that lets you passively accumulate resources.
The game is definitely harder than your average tower defense game, but speaking as someone who is by no means a gamer and doesn't like overly hard games, it's not punishingly difficult. It's also very low-stakes for a few reasons:
- It's PvE, so you're only working to beat the map and not anyone else.
- If you fail out of a map or exit out of it, the game only takes one energy point from you instead of everything. If you fail or exit a challenge map, the game takes half of the energy you spent. There are no cases where the game will completely deduct the energy you spent.
- While the game is technically RTS, you can spam pause a level, and there's a bullet time feature that will make the game run at half speed.
All this combined makes Arknights feel more like a casual puzzle game than an RTS game to me. Because of this, many players who want more of a challenge put arbitrary restrictions on themselves to make maps harder.
Here's a chaotic video of me being a pro gamer:
Story and characters
I don't really like the story that much in most cases. I find that the writing is best in self-contained vignettes that they do every so often. You might like the story, and if you do, great! If you hate or don't care about it, you can safely skip it without it affecting anything in the game. I haven't read 90% of the main story and I'm chilling.
That being said, I do find most of the characters endearing, so if you're only concerned about character likeability, you'll probably be fine. The cast is very large and I think the character design is, for the most part, pretty good. There are a large number of artists who have done work on the game, so you can pick and choose which art styles you like if that's important to you.
While the primary target demographic of the game is indisputably heterosexual men, the devs are pretty good at throwing the rest of us a bone every so often. The number of male characters has been increasing dramatically lately, so if you like your gacha games to have men that aren't an afterthought, Arknights may appeal to you in that aspect.
A very small subset of playable Arknights characters
Like most other mobile free-to-play games of this genre, Arknights has a gacha system through which you get new characters. In my opinion, the gacha is just about as good as it gets compared to every other gacha game I've played (and I've regrettably played many gacha games), but here's a full explanation of gacha mechanics for you to make your own decision.
New characters come in six rarity tiers, though the bulk of the characters occupy the top 4 tiers (3 star, 4 star, 5 star, and 6 star). The game is balanced such that a team of 2/3/4 stars can clear all content. On top of that, the game strongly incentivizes you to use 3 stars in early game because they're stronger at lower levels than their higher rarity counterparts.
Characters are obtained via gacha. There are two types.
The free gacha type, recruitment, uses recruitment tickets that are obtained extremely easily through regular gameplay. Recruitment tickets take time (set by the player) to complete, or tickets (also obtained extremely easily) can be used to finish recruitment instantly. The rates are heavily skewed towards 3 and 4 stars but can rarely give 5 and even 6 star characters. This substantially speeds up progression in early game by allowing you to fill out your team pretty fast.
An example of the recruitment interface. The top operator tag guarantees a 6 star.
The premium gacha type, headhunting, uses orundum, which can either be obtained through normal gameplay or by converting originite prime, the paid currency. Using paid currency on rolls is generally not recommended for reasons we'll get into later. There is no difference between free and paid orundum. Orundum is obtained at a constant minimum rate of about 3000 per week via daily and weekly missions and annihilation maps. Annihilation maps award orundum even for failed runs, which allows even new players to hit their orundum cap, and daily/weekly missions are easily completed through normal gameplay.
In terms of what this means for actual pulls, 3000 orundum amounts to 5 pulls every week, or 20 pulls per month. You will generally accumulate orundum faster than this from login bonuses and other bonus rewards the game gives, but the predictability and consistency mean you can easily calculate how many pulls you'll have at any point in time.
An example of a gacha banner. The first 10 rolls have been used up already.
Gacha rates on headhunting banners are 2% 6 star, 8% 5 star, 50% 4 star, and 40% 3 star. Banners have a pity mechanic that kicks in after you've done 50 rolls without getting a 6 star - after those 50 rolls, your chance of getting a 6 star increases by 2% every roll until you get one. If you do the math, you will get a 6 star at least every hundred rolls. The pity counter carries between banners. However, outside of limited banners, there is no pity/"spark" mechanic for rate-up characters. Rate-up characters make up 50% of their rarity's rate. To put that into concrete numbers, you have a 1% chance of a rate-up 6 star or 0.5% if there are two rate-up 6 stars, and this will scale with the pity rates.
There's no benefit to doing ten headhunting rolls at a time, but your first ten rolls on a banner will guarantee you a 5 or 6 star. (In other words, if you don't get a 5 or 6 star on your first nine rolls, you'll get it on the tenth.) It doesn't matter if you do solos or a ten roll, so you can solo until you get the guarantee and stop. As a result, casual and earlygame players are advised to spread out their rolls.
One topic that has seen controversy is limited banners. There are four limited banners every year. Two lims in particular have been busted to extents that I disapprove of, but the others have been on par in power level with the permanent characters. Players don't need the lims to progress in the game (see the next section), and you also have the option of borrowing them from a friend with the support system. Lim characters can be sparked after 300 pulls, which is a pretty common number.
Limited characters are still obtainable after their rate-up banner. There are three series of limited cards, and all characters from a series will appear on subsequent banners belonging to that series. Older lims appear at slightly higher rates than permanent cards, and they can be sparked for the same amount as the featured character.
Limit breaks and the shop
Arknights includes a limit break system for duplicate copies of characters called Potential. You can get 4 stars and below to max potential just by playing the game. While potentials are a fun consolation prize for dupes, they're not necessary for higher rarity cards (or anyone) to function properly, and players who aren't whales shouldn't worry about them. The main benefit of dupes (even 3 and 4 star dupes) is that they give you tickets called certificates that can be used to buy materials, gacha pulls, and even 5 and 6 star characters from the shop. Once you're past earlygame, the game is almost constantly foisting certs on you, so you can buy a 6 star once every few months (if not faster).
The yellow cert shop interface where players can buy 5 and 6 star characters. The characters for purchase rotate every 2 weeks.
Other F2P considerations
While there have been some ridiculously broken limited characters released since the game launched, powercreep isn't really a problem. As mentioned before, maps are balanced for low rarity characters. Also, the lack of PvP aspect makes powercreep kind of pointless, and I've been able to clear even content of user-inflated difficulty without the busted lims. The busted lims haven't made previous busted characters obsolete, either - the powerhouses from the beginnning of the game are still powerhouses now, with the bonus of them being way easier to get.
If someone says that x character (especially if x is limited) is going to be "meta-defining", they don't know what they're talking about. You do you.
Sometimes I forget this game wants my money because it doesn't really tell me it wants my money. This is a minor detail, but the game doesn't bombard you with popups about things it wants you to buy, and microtransaction packs are relatively few in number. Occasionally the game will sell packs that give you a free ten roll and let you pick a character for about $25. There are no paid-only gacha banners.
There is a monthly pass that costs $5. You get 6 OP on purchase, then on every login for the next 30 calendar days, you get 200 orundum and a free refill worth 60 energy. It's not gamebreaking, but it's a good deal if you'd like a few extra goodies for $5. You can prepurchase up to 3 months, but it doesn't auto-renew, and it applies to the next 30 days regardless of when you buy it. It can be a one-time purchase if you'd like it to be.
Originite prime is purchasable, but you also get one for each map (and then another one for its corresponding challenge mode). There are a lot of maps, so building up a stockpile is pretty easy. Besides converting OP to pulls, as mentioned, you can also convert it to energy (you really shouldn't do this) or buy skins. The only way to get skins is through OP, so casual players are advised to use their OP on skins. Skins cost either 15 or 18 OP depending on how fancy they are, so you can buy skins very liberally and still have plenty left over.
A very small subset of obtainable skins.
Arknights is a tower defense-esque strategy gacha game. It's easy to play and somewhat challenging to master, so if you like casual puzzle games, you may enjoy it. If you like brutal puzzle and strategy games, you will likely still enjoy it. There are many aspects of the game that can be customized for difficulty without affecting gameplay progression.
It's not my place to tell you whether a gacha is good, because at the end of the day, it's still gambling, but I find the gacha system to be pretty reasonable, and the game isn't constantly pushing you to do it. There are no paywalls (not even soft paywalls) - it is feasible to play the game completely F2P, or even without touching the gacha at all. I bought the $5 monthly pass for a few months, which really just gave me a few extra pulls, but for the majority of my time here, I've been F2P.
I really like Arknights. I think it's a solid mobile game with a lot more substance and consideration for its players than almost all other ones that I've tried.