Vampires used to be cool before Twilight got their hands on them and rubbished the blood sucking, neck biting terrors of the night. In a similar way stealth games used to be a lot tougher, the genre has become less challenging, developers opting to hold your hand more and offer easy escapes should you blow your cover or fumble a stealth kill. Could DARK be just the thing to make vampires cool again and bring back the difficulty and tension of the stealth games that we remember playing?
You are Eric Bane, a stern Max Payne wannabe who like Max, talks to the player about past events, what he needs to do next and how he is feeling. Starting out in a mysterious club, it quickly becomes apparent that you are a vampire. As a new vampire you aren’t ‘fully-fledged’ and to complete the transformation you must drink the blood of the one who turned you. What happens to a young vampire who doesn’t complete their transformation? They turn into a mindless ghoul of course!
The conversations are rather dry with poor lip-syncing, you will care little for the bland characters you meet and even less about the storyline. Some conversations include the option of pursuing different conversation chains, similar to Mass Effect’s speech wheel but not as in-depth or interesting. With no memory of the vampire who turned Eric, it looks like you need to guide your young wannabe through an adventure to track down an ancient vampire – biting one of these bad boys will have the same effect as biting your creator and complete the transformation.
Each level is like a maze; you must hide in the shadows and eliminate your enemies one by one or avoid them to travel through an area undetected. It’s like a puzzle where each piece needs to be carefully removed. You can do this by using cover and the shadow leap ability (or blink as it’s know in Dishonored) to move greater distances. Using this ability creates noise, something you need to pay careful attention to when making your move, once you have been spotted and the bullets begin to fly your vampire abilities won’t protect you for long, forget the stake in the heart or silver bullets, you’ll die as easily with standard rounds! Eric can use vampire vision to help avoid these scenarios; the environment is plunged into a hazy purple neon glow highlighting each enemy in red.
Each kill rewards you with XP and if you complete an area without raising the alarm then a bonus XP is awarded. XP is invested into abilities, each having its own skill tree. There’s plenty here for completionists or those wishing to experiment with different abilities. Combat is strictly hand-to-hand, sneak up behind enemies to break necks or sink your fangs into delicate necks, it’s all about the one hit kills, even when enemies are alerted to your presence. Abilities add an additional depth to your attack style but they are all variants of the simple sneak attack mechanic, making combat rather one-dimensional. Had there been more combat moves available, DARK may have been more accessible to a broader audience and added more variance to its gameplay.
Not only do you need to be sneaky but also you need to be precise. Abilities use vitae, each using a single block, starting with only two vitae blocks; it’s essential you plan your moves. You can refill a block of vitae by feeding off of an enemy, which means going for the longer noisier kill! This does add an additional obstacle to consider but ultimately it makes you feel a bit feeble – I thought as a vampire you should be the ultimate killing machine, instead you are shackled by restrictions.
Trial and error can be a real bitch, not only can you end up wasting vitae, you may also find yourself redoing a section over and over, raising the alarm really does mean game over. In this day and age checkpoints are expected at every corner so some may find DARK’s checkpoint system rather annoying. I didn’t mind it too much, I do like a challenge, but it would have made more sense to offer players x amount of saves per level so you could choose when to have your own checkpoint.
Once alerted to your presence, enemies are placed in hostile mode and they are lethal. They comb each area efficiently as they look for you and if they find a dead body that you’ve left behind, the hostile cool down bar starts again. Unlike Batman, there are no clever gadgets you can use to run and hide and you’re not as agile as Bats. It can be frustrating at times but stealth fans will revel in the challenge, especially when enemies reposition themselves in different locations after their patrol. This mechanic is slightly flawed, enemies will rush to the scene of a dead body and you can simply pop out and pull off a one hit kill without any real effort, well except for wrestling with the camera to bring up the attack command – another shackle that Realmforge seem to want to place on you.
Larger areas show how tough and broken DARK can be, you can end up spending nearly an hour carefully navigating through an area, removing your enemies one by one only to see all your hard work disappear as you end up dead and back at your last checkpoint. At times, enemies barely acknowledge that you’re making loud clumsy noises, other times they are eagle-eyed and spot you a mile off. AI patrol patterns may be precise but they are also stupid making them easy prey especially when not alerted, simply waiting for you to remove them from the playing board. These large areas also highlight how an environment you could interact with would have made the gameplay so much more fun by using environmental takedowns, setting traps or creating diversions. These areas also unlock as challenge arenas, accessible from the main menu, you must clear them out as quick as possible without raising the alarm.
DARK’s graphics are cel-shaded like Borderlands but with less texture effects and opting for a heavy dose of bright neon lights. The quality is somewhere between Borderlands and The Walking Dead and is just as pleasing to look at. I did get some screen tear and the camera floats as it shifts about when you change direction, it’s jarring at first but you’ll get used to it.
Sound isn’t much of a highlight, the voice acting is ok with moments of great deliverance in Eric’s Max Payne inner monologue, but the sound effects are lazy. Footsteps sound clunky, probably to make you crouch everywhere but even with your heavy footsteps I was able to get the jump on some of my prey. Sound could have been used to greatly enhance the stealth mechanic of the game, especially if you were able to manipulate some of the items in the levels, like radios, computers or set off fire extinguishers, instead the effects are a missed opportunity to create an addition tool in your combat.
My biggest complaint with DARK is that it’s made harder by the leash Realmforge have put on you when it comes to movement. You can’t jump so vaulting over obstacles is impossible, ok so you can use the shadow leap ability but this needs to cool down before you may use it again and it was difficult to aim, mainly because it didn’t snap to the environment. Often it would also jump to a piece of cover right next to you! This would have made the close combat far more fluid and the chance to escape more likely, instead movement becomes a burden making you feel inferior rather than empowered.
Despite its nuances I enjoyed the choices that DARK forces you to make – quick kill for a small XP reward or go for the longer kill for more XP and a refill of your precious vitae. Slow and steady movement or the more risky shadow leap to move about. It can feel like trial and error but isn’t every puzzle game about trial and error? This is what DARK boils down to – it’s a puzzle game with stealth elements. It goes some way to make vampires cool again and while the storyline and style isn’t as gritty as the title might suggest, DARK struck a nerve for me.
If you can forgive the shackles placed on you and the lack of character development or story then DARK is an enjoyable game. It certainly has potential and had Realmforge developed the movement, combat styles and given the enemies an ounce of intelligence, then they would have had a winner, instead DARK is an acquired taste that certainly has room for improvement.