Wot I Think: Dark

By Adam Smith on July 8th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

nom nom nom

There’s a heatwave sweeping across this part of the world, which means I start to sizzle like bacon on a grill as soon as I pop my head out of the front door. I haven’t turned to dust yet or begun to sparkle but I fear that my skin will peel if I don’t shelter indoors and I’m becoming increasingly moody about the lack of rain and fog. This makes me the perfect person to step into the shoes of freshly turned vampire Eric Bane. I stepped into the Dark with him this weekend and have returned to tell you exactly wot I think.

Dark begins in darkness. We know this because protagonist Eric Bane’s tells us as much, staggering through a club and fearing that his drink has been spiked, when in reality somebody has spiked and drunk him. With their mouth-spikes. Fangs. A vampire has been necking with poor old Eric, and thanks to a combination of amnesia and being a complete cretin, he is, forgive me, in the dark.

Eric is the most entertaining part of the game – he’s a gruff Geralt-voiced slice of oblivious angst wrapped in pulsating purple shadows and a hoody. I liked him almost immediately and loved him a little bit shortly after he drank a glass of blood and mistook it for a Bloody Mary with a weird aftertaste, or perhaps it was when he had a flashback that he described as ‘realistic’. Eric’s memories have good graphics, evidently. If not then, it was certainly when he finally realised that he was a vampire. To demonstrate his abilities, a friendly bloodsucking bouncer pulls a gun on him and fires. Instincts kick in and Eric ‘shadow leaps’ across the room, a dark blur, dodging the bullet and sliding to a halt on his knees a few metres away.

“Cool moves, dude!” Says the bouncer, which is entirely appropriate to the tone of this potentially terrifying and momentous occasion.

Assassins Bleed

Eric doesn’t even stand up. “What?” He asks, looking over his shoulder as if he’s just been caught tying his shoelaces or trying to pick up a penny that some git has glued to the floor. He sounds fed-up, maybe because he knows what’s coming. Dark is a stealth game, and I’m going to spend the next three days in Eric’s company, dying because he’s clumsy, dying because his powers are shoddy, dying because he can’t jump or pick up a gun or accurately target anything ever.

Seconds after the misting in action episode, our hero has accepted the existence of vampires, his own conversion and is about to set out on the task that is the focus of the game’s six story missions. The plot and its alterations to traditional vampire mythology are delivered rapidly and without fuss. Those who are bitten must feed on their sires or they swiftly become mindless ghouls. Since Eric doesn’t know his sire, having been abandoned shortly after being bitten, he must take an alternative route to salvation – hunting down the city’s most powerful vampires and feeding on their blood in order to retain at least a smidgeon of his own humanity.

This involves entering areas of the city that are notionally inventive – a museum, a skyscraper with artificial biomes – and squatting behind cover while armed guards follow prescribed paths. Considering how often the word ‘dark’ comes up in conversation, second only to ‘pain’, it’s something of a surprise that shadows and light don’t actually affect the sneaking and stalking. Hold down the right mouse button and Eric snaps to nearby cover, making him invisible to anyone on the other side of it.

the ability that enhances vision makes it really hard to see

It doesn’t matter if a light is shining on Eric. Presumably he’s dark enough to negate it, but he must stay out of sight as he traverses these weird spaces, so it’s handy that waist high barriers are conveniently placed at regular intervals. Here’s an experiment: look at the room you are in and imagine that everything, from a table to a coffee mug, was suddenly waist high. The chairs are now barriers that a vampire could be squatting behind, impossible to see. The plant over in the corner? A miscreant may lurk behind the pot, the fronds tickling his chin as he crouches, waiting to strike.

The room is now a maze, a very bland maze, and that’s the room most of Dark takes place in. The size varies as does the colour of the walls and the specific design of the objects, but most areas are like large offices with cubicles routinely placed throughout. There’s also very little to interact with. The club that serves as the briefing point between levels as a few characters who will chat, including a DJ who plays the same song on loop for the game’s duration, but apart from buying a drink, dancing, stopping dancing and looking at a statue of a vampire’s bum, there’s nothing else to do.

a sculpture of a bum

The abilities, which can be unlocked and improved using experience points, often replace environmental interactions. There are no bottles to pick up and lob across the rooms, for instance, but Eric can cause distractions using his magical abilities. I’m assuming pheromones, sexy vampire pheromones. Whenever a power is selected, its targeting emblem is visible as long as Eric has enough blood stored to use it, which means there’s often a large purple blob floating around and making a nuisance of itself. Then there’s the shadowjump, which doesn’t require blood and has a short cool down. It’s a lot like Dishonored’s blink, a localised teleport, but the positioning of the target location is erratic and there’s no fluidity to the movement.

Despite the constant availability of that motion-based ability, Dark isn’t in the style of Dishonored. There’s precious little vertical movement and Eric is wearing concrete shoes, unable to jump or clamber over any of the many barriers he is destined to meet and to press his cheeks against. Patience is more valuable than skill. Rather than learning environments or behaviours, the challenge is to learn patrol patterns, although which isn’t terrible in and of itself, but the poor AI, which loses track of Eric if he ducks out of sight behind a desk and triggers its ‘alert’ reaction, becoming confused whenever it trips over a corpse, even if already aware that there’s a violent intruder.

sneaky sneaky

Comparing the architectural design to Dishonored’s city would be like comparing Dallas’ Perot Museum to a small cardboard box, and the way that the powers improve while the areas and enemies barely become more threatening or compelling means the player reverses around the learning curve. I’d write more about the combat but there really isn’t any – Eric has one-hit kills that are sometimes deflected and enemies mostly shoot at him until he dies.

The strongest idea is the simplest – sneaking up and chomping down on a neck to charge your powers – but it initially takes so much time and makes so much noise that somehow all the joy is sucked out of it. It doesn’t help that victims’ hands glitch through Eric’s head as he slurps on their contents. In a game with a vampireprotagonist, that such a central and oft-used animation doesn’t look right communicates a great deal about the technical quality of the rest.

Overall, Dark leaves me with the same sinking feeling that always settles in the pit of my mind when I arrive at the unnecessary stealth level in an otherwise entertaining game. Usually they’re of the sort that actively crumple and contort the game’s game’s central mechanics, eventually abandoning them, bending an engine unsuited to the task to the will of shadows and sounds.

Sadly, Dark is that level and it is also an entire game.

Dark is available now.

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62 Comments »

  1. reggiep says:

    I was surprised that this game released already. I was sure that the preview videos were pre-alpha or alpha at best. They looked extremely clunky.

    I remain puzzled how a studio could release a game that so obviously fails to meet the standard for games in this genre.

    • Artist says:

      Well, simple answer that sums it up: Kalypso Media! They are pros with nice ideas that are delivered in subpar quality!

      • malkav11 says:

        Kalypso is a publisher. Some of the studios they work with do mediocre work, some of them do terrible work. The people that made this one also made Dungeons, which was one of the latter kind.

        • scatterlogical says:

          Then there’s the Tropico games, which I have glowing regard for, that Kalypso somehow fluked into publishing. I guess there’s exceptions to every rule.

  2. Aerothorn says:

    Hmm, seems like Adam has a dim view of the game.

  3. Drake Sigar says:

    Are you a DARK enough dude…

  4. DeFrank says:

    DARKFACE… wait.

  5. DigitalParadox says:

    The only good games Kalypso has ever publiched, to my knowledge, has been Sins of a Solar Empire and Galactic Civilizations 2. Other than that whenever I see their name on something I just prepare for a trainwreck.

  6. DrScuttles says:

    Every time I see the words “Eric Bane”, my mind seems to be interpreting them as “Eric Bana”, only in turn to have my interest rendered flaccid when I realise that there isn’t a game where I can play as Eric Bana in a club.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      That’s funny, because every time I read the name “Eric Bana”, I see “Eric Banana”, which reminds me of Bananaman, leading to similar disappointment.

      • DrScuttles says:

        Now I’m thinking of Bananaman in a club. And then I muse upon the kinds of clubs where people would dress up as Bananaman and my childhood innocence is finally lost, like the awakening of a Kwisatz Haderach.

        • LennyLeonardo says:

          Oops, sorry.

          Ever alert for the call to action, indeed.

          • Harlander says:

            I’m going to have the Bananaman theme stuck in my head all morning now.

            I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I am a bit uneasy that I can remember the opening but nothing that happened in any of the episodes

    • belgand says:

      And Eric Bana for some reason makes me think Bruce Banner (and I had to just look it up to find out he even played him) and makes me very concerned that I avoid making him cross.

    • Low Life says:

      I kept thinking who that reminded me of. Eric Bana, indeed.

  7. povu says:

    Stealth games are great, when the AI and the gameplay systems behind them are good. If it’s not, the whole game falls apart. Don’t make stealth focused games if you can’t do stealth properly.

    Dumb AI and linear level design in FPS games can be tolerable if the shooting is good, but you really need decent stealth mechanics/AI and level design for a stealth game to be fun.

    You don’t need super genius AI either. I enjoy stealth in Deus Ex a ton, but the AI isn’t clever at all. But the level design is good, and the AI is consistent in a way that can be manipulated in various ways.

    • Machinations says:

      When i finally got around to it, I was incredibly disappointed with deus ex HR. Repeated use of textures meant that every major character in the game was reading the same 8 books. The stealth was at best, clumsy. Knockdowns requiring energy from an energy bar..ridiculous. The whole thing felt like a bad homage to what deus ex should have been.

      Dishonoured was great, though. Thats how you build a world, amazing.

  8. Michael Fogg says:

    Sometimes people complain about the absence of a ‘mid-level’ games, between indies and the 3As. Well, here we can see an example of such a mid-budget game. One wonders why aren’t they more popular.

    • RedViv says:

      Because, as science says, there is no way for anyone to handle a budget of modest size. Humans can only manage fending off starvation while working, or the opposite case of shoving out money left and right for huge dev teams as well as left and left and top and bottom and right and square over yonder for PR.

    • ulix says:

      Those mid-budget games were not only relatively popular, but also much mor common and often excellent a generation ago (PS2, Xbox, Gamecube). And before that as well.

      But with skyrocketing productions costs and budgets you can’t really produce a good mid-budget game anymore. At least not for the money Kalypso is trying it with. It sometimes works in certain niche genres, especially strategy. But not for linear, story-driven action-games.

      “The Double-A game is dead”
      http://www.computerandvideogames.com/293155/features/the-double-a-game-is-dead-lets-mourn-its-passing/

    • belgand says:

      Part of the problem is ambition, scope, and genre. Successful indie games often know their strengths and weaknesses: graphics are more often than not highly stylized and relatively simple or inexpensive, the gameplay itself is typically focused around a few core mechanics, the genre either lends itself to a short, repeatable experience or one that is intentionally short. This is why we see a lot of 2d side-scrollers or pixel-art Rogue-likes. They lend themselves well to this sort of development and with some novel mechanics can be made very compelling.

      The problem is that many mid-tier games these days are really wannabe AAA games without the budget, talent, or audience to support a bland me-too product produced without the budget to be shallow and empty. Instead you get the equivalent of a non-charming B-movie. A dull action movie with bland actors, unimpressive effects, and a generic story. Is it significantly different from the big-budget blockbuster action movie with the famous actor that has little range, spectacular effects, and generic story? Only in regards to how much that polish and sheen makes up for the lack of originality. Y’know, the sort you might find in that tightly-written indie film with no effects, a single cheap location, less-known but excellent actors, and a great script. Compare Ocean’s Eleven to Reservoir Dogs to… that movie you don’t remember.

      Mid-tier needs to either do something that works for its budget (e.g. strategy games, RPGs), but might be beyond the reach of an indie game or mix that sense of indie experimentation and freshness with AAA-style resources. Something like Rayman Origins comes to mind: a less-popular genre that might be approached by an indie, but with much higher resources and less originality. When it works you end up with something like The Terminator. A new, interesting concept that knows how to make the most of its budget and get that production quality out there when it matters. Instead we get whatever Jason Statham was in most recently.

    • Low Life says:

      Except that mid-tier has never meant broken gameplay. Low budget is an excuse for low technical quality (graphics) and less impressive voice acting, not for a bad game.

  9. SkittleDiddler says:

    Why am I so reminded of Velvet Assassin when I see this game?

  10. Freud says:

    Sneaking is a bit like sniping in games. People love it and don’t mind spending a whole game doing it.

  11. malkav11 says:

    When I learned the development studio behind the awful, awful Dungeons was responsible for this game, any hope I had that it would be at least mildly entertaining pretty much went out the window.

  12. ChampionHyena says:

    “Rather than learning environments or behaviours, the challenge is to learn patrol patterns, although which isn’t terrible in and of itself, but the poor AI, which loses track of Eric if he ducks out of sight behind a desk and triggers its ‘alert’ reaction, becoming confused whenever it trips over a corpse, even if already aware that there’s a violent intruder.”

    This is probably overly pedantic of me, but my eyes started to cross a little once I hit this sentence.

    • malkav11 says:

      Yeah, that sentence is not so much with the functioning. It seems like it should be more like:
      “Rather than learning environments or behaviours, the challenge is to learn patrol patterns. Although this isn’t terrible in and of itself, the AI is poor, losing track of Eric if he ducks out of sight behind a desk and becoming confused whenever it trips over a corpse, triggering its ‘alert’ reaction even if already aware there’s a violent intruder.”

      But I’m guessing, and that required a fair amount of restructuring, and filling in a few words.

  13. Shadram says:

    “the ability that enhances vision makes it really hard to see”
    Made me laugh way more than it should have.

  14. Sardukar says:

    I like it. I’m enjoying it. It’s a fun game at least on hard. I use the Vampiric Vision pretty steadily to work out routes.

    You can stealth through whole levels or set up your abilities for faster blood drain, more blood pool, 200% health and ranged/Aoe stun attacks and just go nuts. Fun either way.

    The AI is solid enough that if I don’t move a corpse, it will go on the hunt for me and I will lose my Stealth bonus. If I get spotted, I have a variable amount of time before he realises I’m a bad guy. Very close range or while attacking – instant. Further away in the shadows..seconds.

    It’s pretty fun if you like stealth or murder games.

    • webwielder says:

      Please stop being a fake person.

    • scatterlogical says:

      Nice bit of trolling here. Either that or he works for the developer.

    • Emeraude says:

      The game is quite clearly the gaming equivalent of a B-movie (certainly, it shares with the genre the awful corny, campy presentation – as far as small budget productions go, this is more Maciste Vs. the Vampire than Let the Right One In), it has many faults, but for all of those I find it is quite interesting to play and contrast with other games. – the three I have in mind upon reaching the end of the museum segment are Dishonored, Human Revolutions and the VR missions for Metal Gear..

      Like this latest, the game is mostly composed of a succession of small rooms that are more tackled like simple, small puzzles – Mr Smith is right that the level design cannot compare with Dishonored’s but at the same time it quite certainly doesn’t pretend to try to offer the same kind of experience.

      The game does share some verbs with Dishonored, but it makes a pretty different use of them (very limited verticality so far with the blink equivalent – which also alerts people if used to land to close to them; the dark vision being constantly available, but making the reading of you environment more difficult in exchange for the supplemental information it does provide actually offers an interesting compromise to the way Dishonored handled things on that respect). Overall, I find that one thing Dark does better so far is the imparting of tension… you do feel like you *have* to play stealthily.

      Too bad the “stealth” portion of gameplay is mostly limited to a Human Revolution-like “press button for cover” with very spare options and systems in place with which to interact – this is a very poor game all in all – if Megaman can be summed up as “Jump and Shoot”, then this game can be summed up as “Dash and Cover”. Also, like HR, it seems to suffer from a poorly though out leveling system, but I’d need to play more to confirm.

      The worst complain I have with the game so far is how often you have to fight against the control scheme to get things done, which is too bad really, because when the game actually flows, it can be enjoyable.

      Overall, this is certainly not a game I would recommend, but I can see someone enjoying it as a guilty pleasure if in the right mood.
      And I do find it interesting to experience if you’re a fan of the stealth genre, if only as a counterpoint to other games.

  15. Sharza says:

    I didn’t know that once you became a vamp you would also automatically become physically deformed. Or what is it that is going on with his hand in the “stopping dancing” picture?

  16. Iskariot says:

    Such a pity.
    I somehow was still hoping for a good follow up of my beloved Bloodlines.
    Back to Bloodlines it is then. I guess I can easily play it for the 13th time and still get more than enough fun out of it compared to a failure like this.

    If I was a billionaire I would get the team from Bloodlines and let them make an open world sequel.

  17. Machinations says:

    That line comparing architectural styles was brilliant. So my first instinct was correct..thanks RPS

  18. Cunning Linguist says:

    Vampirism sucks.

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