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The Short Version:
No one else is playing this game, so why should you? Take my advice, people – let this mishandled, misshapen, misguided, utterly confounding, frustrating-as-all-f**k excuse for a game rot in the bowels of hell.
The Long Version:
You know, despite the difference in our styles, I do respect The Opinionator’s particular brand of articles. They may feel like, as he put it, “hate speeches”, but there’s a certain earnest, emotionally-charged charm to them. You get the impression that he really believes in what he’s saying, that what he’s reviewing has caused him significant pain as to be worthy of criticism.
Lord, do I wish he were in my place right now. Because there is no love for DARK in my heart – only burning, foaming anguish and frustration. And if someone on my team can handle raw anger and frustration in regards to a game, it’s the Opinionator.
However, I digress – my review, my responsibility. DARK, courtesy of Realmforge Studios and brought to us by Kalypso Media, was clearly meant to be a budget title – no significant buzz, no media saturation, just a soft release in the middle of the summer. I was actually holding out for this game’s success (as seen here), hoping with all hope that it would be bearable on some level.
It isn’t, it really isn’t.
DARK certainly doesn’t hesitate to seed doubt into the player’s mind, even with its first impression. The story – if indeed it can be called that – begins with our protagonist, generically-named Eric Bane, awakening with a splitting headache and visions of an angel. As revealed through some very weirdly edited cut-scenes and plentiful exposition, Eric’s a vampire… and no one knows who his “maker” is.
Thus, the driving force of the plot is Eric just accepting what the supporting cast tells him and following their instructions to find the vampire who bit him, in the hopes that sucking said vampire’s blood will stabilize his transformation. Here’s my question: WHY DOES HE WANT TO BE A VAMPIRE?
Eric just had his life taken away from him, he’ll probably never be able to go out in daylight again (not sure about these vampires), and he can’t visit his family and friends without frightening them with his appearance or resisting the thirst for blood. Why does he just accept this as fact? How does he think his existence will be improved with mystical vampire powers? Will the game ever explain where the logic in his decision lies?
See, these are questions gamers like asking. They also like getting answers, so when a game presents such massive plot holes, we can be forgiven for getting a bit pissy. For example, how is it that one of the vampires Eric is tasked with hunting down – a decision that can be summarized as “substitute any old vampire’s blood and you’ll be fine” – was able to relocated his entire castle to the States? Or how about the fact that Eric – despite being plain in appearance – has basic combat abilities, can differentiate between your average security guard and well-trained contract security, and is on-board with killing said people all in the hunt for magical blood?
Wow, game, just… wow. That is a lot to buy. There’s suspension of disbelief, and then there’s just plain stupidity.
The supporting cast fares far worse than Eric, mostly due to the face-palm-worthy nature of the writing. There’s a scene that occurs in the second mission, wherein Eric makes the saddest and most forced excuse for a pick-up line I’ve heard to date… and the lady in question actually calls him out on it. When your own characters are criticizing your dialogue, that’s your cue to take a step back from production and READ OVER YOUR OWN F**KING WORK!
So the protagonist doesn’t make much sense, the story doesn’t really work or go anywhere, the supporting characters aren’t well-developed and the script is a farce. Anything else? Well, missions and the general through-line of the plot move at a snail’s pace, due in large part to both gratuitous dialogue between missions and the actual missions themselves – we’ll come back to that. Additionally, the vampires Eric hunts down are as one-note as the rest of the cast, only appearing in the final ten minutes of each mission and leaving no noticeable impression.
I could go on and pick apart every solitary thing wrong with this story, but then you’d be reading this all day. Instead, here is a summary of DARK‘s story: nothing of significance is done, said, achieved, visited or thought. It’s just a paint-by-numbers tale of self-centred survival, driven by idiotic logic and buckets of repetitive monologuing by Eric wherein he complains about his pain and how being a vampire is a necessary evil, but that he’ll suffer through it ’cause there’s nothing else he could possibly do. At all.
Typically, discussion of the gameplay comes next; that’s how my formula for reviews usually works. But I’m not emotionally composed for the massacre I’m about to unleash on the game design, so instead I’m going to go over the presentation aspects of DARK.
DARK runs on the Vision Engine 8, something of a gem for indie developers these days. The environments and characters look decent enough under the cell-shaded filter, with little details like age lines or graffiti being exaggerated for admirable results. The problem is that the entire game looks dated, at least eight years too late to the party. Lip synching is absolutely atrocious, the characters look a bit too exaggerated at times, and the cutscenes are edited in a way that makes them pulsate for half-a-second before settling on a close-up.
There’s nothing to be confidently said about the soundtrack or voice acting, except that Eric’s voice actor deserves a very special BAFTA just for making the best of this crappy material. I didn’t necessarily hate any of the voice actors involved, but like the characters there was just nothing there to love either.
Okay, now for the gameplay. The game has been advertised as a stealth-based blend of action and role-playing elements, akin to Deus Ex. The theory I expect the developers were operating under is that if they borrowed liberally from that source material, coating it in a faux-noir aesthetic and sporting a half-assed through-line, they could repeat said classic game’s success on a smaller scale.
First off, I absolutely hate the fact that I had to use Deus Ex – number six on my Top 10 Games of All Time List – as a point of reference. DARK outright fails in every attempt to mirror its thirteen-year-old predecessor, and by extension (and closer association in game design) Human Revolution.
The stealth in this game is fundamentally broken. Levels are designed with specifically-programmed blocks meant to be used as cover, giving the game more of a shooter feel than a stealth-action feel… which begs the question: Why does Eric not carry a gun? Guards are conveniently placed in corners or pathways, in such a manner that there is only one path to success and that much trial-and-error must occur for the player to find it.
Being locked to a rigid movement pattern isn’t the only issue with the guards; their AI seems to be operating under two mindsets. On the one hand, guards (and hastily-explained zombie-like ghouls) tend to be jumpy and hypersensitive to the player, being able to spot them from a distance whenever it’s convenient. However, when the player is behind transparent cover or within spitting distance, they seem more dense and ignorant to the player’s presence.
Then there’s the big issue: stealth’s basically the only feasible option. Yes, you can survive a mission after alarming all the guards, but since they’re armed with weapons and Eric only has the clothes on his back there’s a clear disadvantage. Additionally, the levels are rigidly designed around specific checkpoints, forcing the player on an essentially linear path – there’s no ducts or secret passages to find, and rarely any secondary objectives that have no bearing on the game as a whole.
Questionable stealth mechanics and linear level design might be forgivable if the upgradeable powers were any good, but unfortunately this admittedly cool concept is undermined by the execution. Eric can unlock or upgrade powers in a separate menu, using experience points that are earned by killing guards and completing objectives efficiently. Problem is, in order to use the powers, the player has to suck a guard’s blood; this will inevitably attract attention because of the aforementioned guards’ apparent perceptiveness at long ranges and of how loud blood sucking turns out to be. Even if you manage to get a single Blood Point for use of a power, few of them are actually offensive-based and none of them are useful against crowds without significant upgrades.
The game seems determined to frustrate, especially in regards to the player’s controls. Eric has only two modes of movement: slow crawl, and a moderate jogging pace. There’s no fast movement button, only an input for slowing his jog to a walking pace. He is also resistant to some pieces of cover, as the game isn’t always clear on what can be pressed up against. His animations are stiff and clearly simplistic, and he occasionally doesn’t register input for a stealth kill which results in several cheap deaths.
DARK is not very substantial, either. It has only the campaign to satisfy players, with no DLC in sight (not that it would be a comfort), and said campaign commits the worst sins a game could commit: it’s tedious, padded and more than a little squicky. There are a total of six missions in game, lasting about 4 hours – less than half the length of your typical action game, and well below the standards for a role-playing game. Yet because of the above frustrations, plus the fact that you only get to save twice per checkpoint, the game feels longer and more than overstays its welcome.
I also take issue with some of the game’s more “gothic” elements. Throughout each mission, there are a couple of scenes – usually centred on the undercooked vampire “bosses” or the ghouls – that feel like Realmforge’s cheap attempt at shock-based horror. There’s nothing wrong with creating an uneasy atmosphere, but the lengths to which DARK goes to creep out its audience feels rather forced and definitely unnecessary.
Finally, the game suffers from genuine technical issues. More than once there was lag – surprising given the average visual design. The game also crashed no less than three times during my playthrough, forcing me to cut my research time short. This is the ultimate sin of DARK: it genuinely worries me whenever I decide to run the game.
No game should ever put the fear of God in me, but somehow this travesty has managed it. Under no circumstances should any self-respecting gamer play this, not even out of morbid curiosity. I mentioned Deus Ex: Human Revolution above – go play that, that game was great. DARK… well, it should just slink back into the shadows where it belongs.
Recommendation: Skip It