2Dark [official site], the new stealth horror game from the creator of the original Alone in the Dark, is a grim, gruesome and thoroughly unpleasant affair. The story begins in flashback – a family on a camping trip meet with violence and death, the children abducted, their mother murdered, and the father set on a path of grief, hard liquor and eventual blood-soaked revenge. From there on in, you're hunting serial killers in a top-down stealth-horror game that looks as smart as it is sinister.
You take control of Mr Smith, for that is the father's name, when the scene jumps to 'now'. His home has gone to seed and the brief tutorial section has him collecting a gun, switching lights on and off, and moving from room to room searching for items and information.
There's a hidden room in the house and that's where Smith keeps all where he has been gathering evidence and clues about the activities of the town's serial killers. And, yes, the town is home to serial killers. Plural. It's also called Gloomywood.
One of my hopes for the game is that the weirdness of the town will be addressed directly. Even during the first level, which I saw in its entirety, there are suggestions that something sinister and not a little surreal has taken hold of the entire place, and that the outbreak of murders and other atrocities is in some way linked to some darker purpose.
That said, I'm also wary of any explanation for the evil that detracts from the game's willingness, in its early stages, to confront horror without hiding it under the cloak of a fictional cult or some kind of demonic possession. Even though the first level has the player breaking into a circus to retrieve kidnapped children, and features a killer clown and rampaging lions, it keeps the core of its gruesome nature grounded in ways that I found far more unnerving than any amount of culty bollocks.
Why are the children being abducted? Because a sex trafficking ring is operating in the town. That's what Smith believes, at least, and dialogue between the enemies about the desirability of certain abductees and their relative value suggests he's correct. At least to a point. It's entirely possible – and plausible, given what I've already noted about the town and the fact that the situation is likely to escalate and morph as the game progresses – that there will be some kind of supernatural explanation for the kidnapping and sale of these children, but the game explicitly states the likelihood of a sexual motive.
I found that disconcerting. Crime dramas and thrillers tackles these kind of situations and issues frequently enough, but horror games (and films to a slightly lesser extent) tend to add a layer of escapism to their shocks and scares. You know this couldn't really happen, is the message behind the beasties and the abominations, we're playing make-believe.
While events in Gloomywood aren't ripped from the headlines and 2Dark almost certainly has monsters that are other than human - “unnameable horrors lurking in the shadows”, says the website – it doesn't seem to be shying away from the monstrous behaviour of its human villains either.
That's, perhaps, why I'm slightly concerned about the entrance of the supernatural elements. They could not only dilute or distract from the horror of these early stages, they could dismiss it entirely. That wouldn't only take away part of its
2Dark is a grimy game. Visually, its voxels and shadows lend themselves to the seediness of the setting, and the stealth-based mechanics and moments of brutal violence are a perfect fit for the ugliness of the story. Smith is an unusual horror game protagonist in that he's not afraid – he's vulnerable, yes, but he's desperately angry, and he's infiltrating the lairs of killers and kidnappers rather than trying to escape intact.
That feeds into the flow of the stealth. While you could try to sneak through every level without being spotted, you can also approach them in the spirit of Hitman, luring guards and killers into dark corners and then stabbing them to death, or triggering environmental hazards to make mincemeat of them. The aforementioned lions are the main hazard in the circus level. They're no threat to anyone at first – the circus seems to be ready to leave town and everything is packed or caged – but if you find the right lever or key, you can release them and lead them toward your foes. Or lead your foes toward them.
While there are set patrol routes, it's possible to cause deviations from those routes using a combination of sight and sound. Enemies, whether human or animal, have a certain radius within which they'll detect noises made either deliberately or accidentally, and they'll spot you if you don't stick to the shadows.
Improvised weaponry is important. Pick up a pipe or an axe and bludgeon and hack away, because that gun you brought along isn't going to be useful for long. Ammo is scarce and guns are noisy, and the whole game is based around being quiet and being efficient.
The objective in each level is to find a certain number of children and to escape with them in tow. That means you'll need to backtrack while leading the kids, who have AI routines that cause them to panic if they see bodies or blood. Cleverly, that makes cleaning up after your kills useful not only as a way to prevent enemies from becoming alert to your presence, but also to make your escape less dangerous.
The behaviour of the children is a perfect example of the game's strong stealth simulation – there are several overlapping systems that can create chain reactions of disaster or victory. A child flees upon seeing the mangled remains of a serial killer and runs straight into the jaws of a lion that lurks in the dark, or an enemy might pursue the player and stumble into a trap, only for the sound of his death to alert everyone else in the vicinity.
I'm primed to love 2Dark. It's tapping into a form of horror fiction that we don't see very often and backing it up with a solid systemic stealth game. There are similarities to Manhunt as well as Hitman, but the top-down perspective and smart use of light and line of sight lend themselves to a world that is both tactically open and oppressively claustrophobic.
On top of that, there are lovely/gruesome touches that inform the mechanics, such as the way damage inflicted on characters chips away at their voxel forms, leaving ragged wounds and gaping holes. It's far more intricate and impressively detailed than I'd expected from screenshots and videos.
Grotesque and gruesome as it is, 2Dark's silly name and deceptively cartoonish graphics might attract people who are then immediately turned off by its uncompromising horrors. But after this closer look, I'm more intrigued by Gloomywood and its terrible secrets than ever before.