Platforms: PC and Xbox 360
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Realmforge Studios
Before Twilight came along vampires were cool. Lurking in the shadows they were menacing figures with an air of mystery and intrigue, terrifying us and fascinating us at the same time. But then those sparkling bastards came along and ruined the whole thing . Now, though, a new game by the name of DARK aims to recapture some of the danger surrounding vampires in a stealth game which lets you become one of the unholy monsters and open up some veins.
I have something of a strange, and possibly even unrequited, love for these kind of games, budget titles that are released so far under the radar that they’re practically ploughing fields. The reason for that is amidst the many, many terrible budget titles there is occasionally a shining gem to be found, perhaps a bit rough around the edges due to money constraints but nonetheless packing superb gameplay ideas or oodles of charisma. Think of it like a good old-fashioned car boot sale: most of the time you walk around them in a tired, and often drunken, haze, bored out of your tiny mind as you sift through tons of utter crap. But sometimes amidst the crap you find some exciting, something awesome, something that makes all the trawling worthwhile. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I love games like DARK. Like DARK, but not actually DARK because as it turns out DARK is kind of terrible.
What frustrates me the most about DARK is how much promise the premise of the game has. It’s a stealth game where you play as a powerful vampire with access to a variety of cool powers, all set in a dark world with lovely cell-shaded graphics. I love that! I love vampires, and I love the ideas that DARK is presenting to me, making it all the more painful that this is completely mediocre. I don’t hate DARK – it has many problems, but none of them are bad enough for me to hate the game. What I am is completely indifferent to DARK’s existence. Had it never been made, I wouldn’t have cared. It’s the epitome if forgettable, despite its own great setup. Which is why a part of me really hopes that somehow, against all the odds, DARK gets a sequel, a second chance with a higher budget, though obviously a lot of the problems here aren’t just to do with a lack of cash. The basic concept is so good that it needs justice to be done to it.
But I’m talking in broad sentences, here, and that just won’t do for a review, so let’s actually get into the game proper and break it down piece by piece, starting with the storyline. You play as Eric Bane, a man who finds himself in a mysterious club with almost no memory of who he is or why he’s there and plagued by strange hallucinations. As it turns out the club is run by a vampire by the name of Rose who quickly explains to our hapless hero that he’s been bitten, and unless he can hunt down his creator quickly and drink his or her blood he’ll become a mindless ghoul, a creature that relies purely on instinct. Since Eric has no idea who bit him, Rose suggests an alternative: drink the blood of an old and powerful vampire. Again, purely based upon the premise DARK’s story is actually sounding pretty decent, but the whole thing is hamstrung by terrible dialogue, a plot that goes nowhere, clumsy voice acting and a lead character that’s just…just…just…well, just flat. Eric Bane is a black-hole of a character, exhibiting no discernible personality and speaking in a gruff, god-awful voice that makes me assume the developers just grabbed a guy off the street to play the role. Occasionally he launches into monologues written in a dark, brooding, almost poetic style, but they’re more likely to leave you groaning in horror than anything else. He’s just so utterly boring He has all the charisma of a tin of cheap tuna! The thing is I can’t even bring myself to hate him, because there’s nothing to actually hate. He’s just there. He exists, and I wouldn’t give a damn if he didn’t exist.
Likewise Eric’s surrounding cast of characters are about as interesting as a man called Mr. Boring who has just won the World Championship of Being F*cking Boring by sending the entire audience into a boredom induced coma. Like Eric Bane they all feature horrendous voice acting. They also act as the primary means of delivering the games equally horrendous dialogue, which is almost made up of lines that sound like they should be delivered by a character cunningly called Captain Exposition. The major problem with the writing is that the developer’s vocabulary is extremely limited, and so they have nasty habit of repeating words depressingly often. Take, for example, this astounding exhibit of writing excellence: “The cool thing about vampires it they can do really cool shit.” Not only that but characters also tend to repeat information that other character’s mentioned just seconds ago, and occasionally even repeat themselves, blithely spouting the same tedious exposition in a slightly different way.
The plot itself is largely nonsense from the very beginning. Thanks to his cliché amnesia Eric Bane has to solely rely on the word of Rose, the Sanctuary bar’s vampiric owner, who sends him on a series of missions to track down and suck the blood out of a sequence of powerful vampires, which Eric does without so much as a moment of hesitation, seemingly all to happy to blithely bumble along, killing numerous people in the process. It’s guff, managing only to provide a vague excuse as to why Eric is going from location to location.
At least those locations are rather pretty. DARK uses a cell-shaded graphical style that hides the games technical inability while also managing to bring a nice sense of personality to the high-rise offices and dark dungeons you’ll be stealthing your way through. Sadly this can’ make up for the game’s other presentation problems, such as the lousy animation work which succeeds only in making Eric look like the most clumsy vampire to ever have the misfortune to clump his way around a room. His attacks look stiff, but the worst offender is his running animation, which may just be the worst I’ve seen in several years. Good god, man, you’re supposed to be a terrifying predator of the night, bloody well act like it!
When it comes to sneaking your way through these environments DARK’s core stealth mechanics are simple, following many of the standards of the genre. You navigate through a series of rooms, each of which has a number of enemies contained within. It’s up to you whether you kill them or simply sneak past them, with an XP bonus awarded for never raising an alarm. The bad news for those that like to have the option is that apart from simply not touching anyone there is no non-lethal options. Should you choose to kill them then you can drag their bodies around to hide them, something which inexplicably suddenly puts you into a first-person view while you’re doing it. There’s a basic cover system in place and the rule of thumb is that if you’re in cover then the enemy can’t see you unless they’ve got a clear line of sight on you. So, getting through a room is as simple as watching the guards patrol patterns and either slipping through silently or opening up some arteries.
Things begin to fall apart or just plain irritate quite quickly. To begin with Eric Bane is also the least agile vampire in the history of the world, completely unable to jump or even vault over barriers, nor can he clamber around on ledges. He must keep his feet firmly planted on the ground, severely limiting your options for sneaking around and turning a lot of the levels into what are essentially Pac-Man mazes. Considering Eric is a vampire I find it massively disappointing that he can’t leap onto people from the rafters.
Like almost every stealth game out there the quality of the gameplay is largely dependent upon the AI. It’s important to have an AI that behaves in a believable, realistic way that also follows a consistent set of internal rules. Sure, over the years we’ve come to accept that the AI in stealth games has some glaring problems, such as assuming the violent decapitation of their friend was, “just rats”, but for the most part it’s the beating heart of the game, providing a hopefully satisfying series of opponent for you to test your ninja skills on. DARK has carefully examined the AI evolution over the years and decided that the best way to go is to replicate the AI from many, many years ago. There’s actually a tutorial message in the game which politely informs the player that some guards stand perfectly still and simply stare in one direction. Guards walk along their pre-determined patrol routes slowly, and their behavior is often strangely erratic. Sometimes I could stand in full view of a guard and never have him bat an eyelash, while at other times I’d kill a guard a vast distance away from one of his friends, assuming that I was more than far enough away, only to have his friend somehow spot me and magically inform every single other enemy in the room to my presence. Guards range widely from having the eyesight of a drunken student to have the eagle-eyed vision of a…well, eagle, making judging what you can and cannot do a right pain the arse. Another stunning example of beautifully written AI was when a guard unleashed a burst of gunfire in a fairly small room, and after killing him I was astounded to discover that none of the other guards had heard it. Who the hell hires these guards?
Other things the AI do are equally baffling. Get within the range of an enemies eyesight and a meter will pop up designating how long you’ve got to get back in to cover before the guard comes over to investigate, but even this is strangely inconsistent. At one point I sat and casually drained the blood of a guard, a move that takes a little while and is used to replenish your vampiric abilities, a fairly shot distance away from his buddy, who really should have been able to clearly see what was going on, all while the suspicion meter slowly filled up. Not only did I have enough time to finish draining the guards blood, but I even had time to drag his corpse aware into the shadows. His buddy calmly decided nothing was going on, and resumed his weary patrol. Meanwhile I attempted the same thing later, but at a much further distance from a guard, and was spotted almost instantly.
And if you run away from conflict upon being discovered then expect even more strangeness. Hide behind a box and enemies will come at you in single file order, meaning it’s actually possible to kill an entire room of enemies by going in, deliberately getting spotted, hiding behind a box, waiting for the conga line of guards and then initiating the instant-kill animation each time. There are also certain rooms which appear to be guard proof, because as they search for you they’ll simply come up to the threshold and refuse to go any further, even if the room is clearly the perfect place for an angry vampire to be hiding in, making them the most inept and useless guards in the history of guarding crap.
Other problems with the core mechanics emerge as you play, such as the cover system. Not only is often argumentative, sometimes refusing to work properly, like not letting you move along cover, but it’s also extremely limited. While other titles have introduced handy context sensitive button presses and systems which let you move gracefully and quickly between sections of cover, DARK has none of these things. You just pull the trigger to get into cover, and that’s it. While the game certainly doesn’t need to utilise the same systems as other titles, it’s just another reminder that DARK is far behind on the playing field.
And then there’s some control problems to contend as well. For some baffling reason Eric Bane, vampire extraordinaire, has no options when it comes to direct conflict with guards. He can’t simply punch them, grapple them or anything else, and so your only options are stealth, because being spotted is almost always a death sentence as the guards open fire and Eric gets riddled with holes. Considering how characters insist on reminding Eric that he is an extremely powerful vampire I find it baffling that there are zero options to combat enemies outside of stealth should things go wrong, which they inevitably shall thanks to the games bloody incomprehensible AI. Still, this at least encourages you to actually stick to the shadows rather than relying overmuch on sheer brute force.You would at least expect the actual stealth controls to be smooth and responsive, then. but they’re not. To initiate either an instant kill or to feed on an enemy you need to get so close to them to bring up the prompt that you’re practically bumping in to them. On several occasions I did indeed end up alerting enemies to my presence by accidently walking into them because they stopped suddenly while I was trying to get the damn game to bring up the prompt. The actual response time of the controls also feels sluggish, with a noticeable gap of around a second present between pressing the insta-kill/feed button and anything actually happening being the worst of the lot. These unresponsive controls also make it difficult to get away from foes if you’re spotted, and so the likelihood is that you will meet your demise. Controlling Eric is far from an elegant.
Awkward controls also somewhat hamstring one of Eric’s go-to vampire abilities, Shadow Leap, which acts sort of like the blink ability from Dishonored, allowing you to quickly cover ground by vanishing in a puff of purple smoke and reappearing at the designated location. It’s a solid idea and using it to swoosh through a level is one of the few times in DARK that you’ll truly feel awesome, but actually aiming the bloody thing is something of a nusiance. When in cover, which is obviously where you’ll mostly be using it from, the aiming is haphazard at best. Sometimes it wouldn’t work at all, forcing me to move out of cover in order to properly use it, and other times I ended up spending a good half-minute just trying to get it to target the area I wanted. Problems also arise when trying to target areas on a level below you, as once again it sometimes simply refused to work at all, and when it did I usually found myself in a wrestling matching with the targeting reticule.
Still, Eric’s vampiric powers mark one of the very few areas in which the developers got things sort of right, although sadly even these are marred by a few problems. As you venture along killing guards and sucking blood you’ll net yourself some shiny XP, which in turn grants you points to spend on unlocking new powers and upgrading existing ones. Eric can pick up some neat skills like Shadow Kill, which lets you instant-kill a foe via a brutal teleport attack, and Shadow Grip, which let’s you kill a distant foe by slamming them into the ground using your telekinetic powers. Incidentally Shadow Grip can also be upgraded to allow it to vanish the body as well, making it one of the more useful powers in the game. Or for a more subtle approach you can also pick up abilities that distract foes or make you harder to see, as well as a raft of passive upgrades that bump up your basic health and also let you get around faster and quieter. There’s a satisfying sense of progression to had from upgrading your skills and some of the powers you unlock are quite enjoyable to use, giving you a few rare moments of empowerment in a game that otherwise seems intent on making you feel like the most useless vampire since Edward Cullen sulked his way through a series of books and films.
Your usage of these powers is restricted by Vitae, regained by drinking blood. At the start of the game you’ve only got two Vitae points, but this can be upgraded to four. This cleverly ensures that you actually need to think about when to use your powers as it may be some time before you can isolate a guard in order to feast on them, as doing so takes some time and makes some noise as well. On the other hand, having your powers limited in this fashion once again firmly takes way from your own sense of power in a game that’s already struggling feebly to make you feel like a kickass vampire.
But now we get back to those pesky problems. First and foremost is the simple fact that there are a couple of vampiric powers that simply feel vastly more useful than others, and when you consider that every power costs the same amount of Vitae to use there’s really no need to use anything other than those abilities. Why confuse a guard when you can simply instantly kill hom from a distance and hide the body? Although I will admit that the other powers available may be more attractive to players who perhaps want to get through the game with minimal killing, but considering the number of guards the game likes to throw around the place the chances are you’ll quickly resort to more violent methods. Not to mention the game rewards you with solid chunks of XP for eliminating foes, but not for simply avoiding them all.
Another problem I found when using powers is that almost all of them are listed as causing a noise and thus have the potential to attract guards, and yet actually trying to judge the level of noise created is rather tricky, especially when you take into account the already patchy AI. The audio of the game does a poor job of portraying how loud your abilities are, particularly in the case of sucking some blood, which sounds nearly silent to you but is apparently pretty damn noisy to everyone else. There is an upgrade you can purchase to your vampire sight which lets you know if using a power on an enemy will alert his mates, but without it you’ll probably find youself playing it fairly self when it comes to using your mighty abilities.
And yes, I mentioned vampire sight. Like quite a few games these days of a similar type DARK has a power which lets you see through walls and highlights enemies in red. It also conveniently slows down time, and yes, like those other games you’ll most likely spend an inordinate amount of time in this mode so that you can keep an eye on everyone. Upgrades also let you see undead foes (there are a few different enemies in the game, but frankly they’re all about as useless as the guards) and what weapons guards are carrying.
I also found it frustrating that there’s no button to swap between targeted enemies when using powers. The game automatically picks out a target for you, often the wrong one, and getting it to select the correct one is irritating and wastes valuable time.
Even the checkpoint system within DARK seems designed purely to infuriate you. You can play massive chunks of game without it ever saving, which would perhaps be forgivable if it wasn’t for the fact that you’ll often find yourself dying because of the game’s own clumsy mechanics. Nothing is more infuriating than getting killed because of the game’s terrible controls, only to find yourself reloading a save from the very beginning of the level 30-minutes. To add insult to injury when the game does save it’s quite often just before another boring monologue or annoying speech, forcing you to sit through it all again. Oddly enough from what I can the PC version of the game allows you to manually save in between checkpoints, with a total of 2 per checkpoint allowed on Normal difficulty, more on Easy and none on Hard. This feature seems to be strangely absent on the console version of the game I tested, and changing difficulty didn’t actually seem to affect the game in any notable way.
Sadly the game’s final boss fight doesn’t even manage to deliver, providing nothing more than a pathetic experience that’s almost so bad it’s funny. But it isn’t.
There’s also a couple of different bugs I encountered along the way. None of them were game breaking or anything of the sort, but there’s a definite lack of polish . There were also a variety of other little problems I had with the game, but considering the length of this review already I won’t get into further detail.
I think ultimately what angers me the most about DARK is there are moments when the game comes together and it’s genuinely fun. Still rough, rather clumsy fun, but fun nevertheless. There are rare times when the controls briefly work properly, there’s no ability aiming issues and the guard layout is quite well done where zipping across the level, opening up veins and using tour powers feels awesome. But those moments are just far too infrequent, with the rest of the game coming off as a poor man’s stealth title. I know DARK has been made on a budget, but that just doesn’t excuse its many, many problems.
+ Occasionally makes you feel like a vampire.
+ Some of the powers are quite cool.
– Awful story.
– Awful writing.
– Awful voice acting.
– Clumsy gameplay.
The Verdict: 1.5/5 Bad, bordering on being okay.
DARK never makes you feel like a powerful vampire capable of ripping people apart, and that is perhaps its biggest sin. The premise is rock-solid, but the gameplay is so poorly and clumsily executed and the AI so stupid that I just can’t recommend playing this to anyone. There are brief moments of genuine enjoyment, but they’re rare.