Genre: Adventure Horror/Mystery
Release Date: November 2007
Note: Originally published 19 December 2007
I should start off this review by admitting, in the interest of full disclosure, that I’ve grown tired of the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired adventure games of the last several years. Starting with Necronomicon in 2001, there have been a depressing parade of games that deal directly or obliquely with the Cthulu mythos. After awhile I just find the themes depressing, dark, grubby, nihilistic, and boring.
That having been said, Darkness Within is one of the best explorations of this genre, though it definitely proceeds on its own terms.
This is a first-person adventure with nodular movement and 360 degree scrolling. From the very opening of the game, you get the impression of a more lush budget than we’ve grown accustomed to with adventures these days. Though not in 3D (will this disappoint anyone?), the pre-rendered graphics are absolutely superior in quality and create screen after screen of imagery that’s attractive and fun to explore.
The story takes place a few years in the future. In classic Lovecraft fashion, the game begins in an insane asylum, with your character looking back as to how you got here. Before the men in white coats came for you, you were a detective on the trail of another detective (the titular Mr. Nolder) who is now a murder suspect.
From the very beginning the game has a somewhat dreamlike quality. When queer things happen, it’s difficult to know if you’re witnessing an actual phenomenon or simply in the middle of another grand mal hallucination. Did you really just sleep for four straight days? Why are there no messages on your machine even though your concerned friends have been calling you? Is someone meddling with your daily medicine? Why do you keep waking up in your room after mishaps out in the world? This is not really a complaint, for Lovecraftian stories always seem to exist on the edge between nightmare and reality.
Another aspect of this game that the player will either like or not like, based on his or her own tastes, is that most of the horrific stuff is implied. There’s much less frank gore as in the recent Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, for example. I generally like this style of horror storytelling, because I think the unknown is almost always scarier than the known (with the possible exception of Star Jones). Throughout your explorations, there’s hint after hint at a story that you suspect may be much larger than the one you’re actually in.
The game is a mystery, and one that requires quite a bit of patience and meticulousness on the part of the player. Like many adventure games, you come across a lot of reading material. Unlike many games, however, you REALLY have to read these documents carefully. In fact, careful analysis of many documents (in the form of identifying and underlining important phrases and passages) are a required element of the game’s puzzle-solving. So if you’re a player who sees a 12-page journal in bad handwriting and tends to think, “Blah blah blah," and then move on, you might have a tough time with Darkness Within.
The game also literally has an interface designed to help you think about various clues. You have to drag combinations of clues onto a sort of think pad, and when you use the right combination, your character will have a mental epiphany and figure out the next step in the puzzle. The game can be unforgiving in this regard, because important hotspots will remain inactive until you have put clues together in this way.
So if you like the precision detective work of poring over letters and journals, comparing photographs to actual scenes, combining clues, and studying obscure symbols, the game can be quite rewarding.
In classic adventure fashion, as you uncover more clues, more new locations appear on a map, allowing you to travel to them. You spend a lot of time underground in this game, as it seems that every place you go has vast subterranean tunnels and chambers built beneath them. (Who built all these tunnels, anyway? I always wonder.)
The locations, both above- and below-ground, are consistently vivid and scary.
The game is a pretty lonely one, as you have very little interaction with other characters.
The music and the sound design are effective in augmenting the game’s atmosphere of dread.
Speaking of scary. I have to say that there is one sequence in this game that scared the crap out of me. I can’t remember being this scared staring at a computer screen since System Shock 2, and that was a long time ago.
As absorbing as the puzzle-solving and exploration can be, it’s unfortunate that the plot turns out to be a bit of a shaggy dog story. Nothing really adds up to anything, and it turns out that the hints and shadowy trails of story turn out to be not much more than that. The journey, however, can be fun if the meticulous style of information parsing doesn’t turn you off.
Turkish developer Zoetrope seems to have some good ideas, and certainly some good artists. I think they are a studio to keep an eye on. I would definitely pick up their next game and see how they develop.
Final Grade: B-
If you liked this game, then
Play: Prisoner of Ice, Eternal Darkness (Gamecube)
Watch: The Evil Dead
Read: Strange Eons by Robert Bloch
System: Pentium III 1.0 GHz or equivalent
RAM: 256 MB
Video Memory: 128 MB
Hard Drive Space: 1000 MB