Dark Fall

The Gang's All Here!
Review by Skinny Minnie, Jen, Orb, and Old Rooster
August 2002

Skinny's Skinny

The rotted stairway groans with dilapidation and then splinters underfoot. Wizened shadows arch and fall as they lurch toward my trembling hands. I hold the banisters in sweaty, vice-like grips and they bow and creak out their dismay. The barren, rusty bulb dangling haphazardly above me flickers and hisses, sputtering out altogether as I grope my way downward toward the musty, peeling paint of the cellar's landing ... Okay, so my apartment building is really only eight years old. What can I say? The path to my computer room gets a lot of use!

Third-person perspective games are my usual weapons of choice these days. First-person, 90-degree turn, "tunneling" point-and-clickers tend to feel like they offer two invisible things in every game box: handcuffs and leg restraints. I am not ordinarily a fan of note-taking, either. If I can't memorize it to correctly manipulate it, I'd better be able to shoot it. Smith & Wesson: The original point-and-click interface.

However, there are a few first-person, mouse-driven, pure adventure games that have shot bull's-eye arrows right into my heart: Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within ... Byzantine: The Betrayal ... Ripper ... Although these are all older full-motion video adventure games, there is finally a new, eerily 3D-rendered etching for my tombstone: Dark Fall.

Chill and Thrill, Without the Kill

Atmospheric thrillers are often tainted with cheap gore. Rare is the game (or even the movie) that can evoke perpetual fear without it, never mind present a fluid and compelling story as well. Dark Fall manages a continual tale of horror by merely alluding to an unknown, otherworldly shadow of murderous terror. There are no timed sequences, no mazes, no sliding tile puzzles, and no blood. This is solely the puzzle-laden tale of a being that lurks inside an abandoned 1940s railway station hotel, and the horror that being has perpetrated upon innocent people down through the ages. It creeps around darkened corners and knocks on aged doors. It watches ... It waits ...

Dowerton Train Station in England has been closed off since 1947. The shutdown was largely due to the twelve residents of and around the Station Hotel who vanished the night of April 29th that year, seemingly without a trace. You as the player first enter the game in the present day, though, after just missing a call from your brother, Peter Crowhurst. Pete is an architect setting up shop in and assigned to revamping the long-abandoned Station Hotel and its grounds. The answering machine message he leaves is actually a plea for help. "I am in Dorset with two students from Weymouth University—they're ghost hunters. I need you to come here! Whatever they have been hunting has found them, and found me too ..." The message is interrupted only by Peter himself as he eventually breaks away from his train of thought. Someone is whispering to him, hypnotically, from outside the door to his room at the old hotel ... That someone knows his name ... What in God's name is that sound on the tape? Oh, Peter, don't open the ...

After taking the train as far as it will go, you hop into a cab, where you apparently fall asleep, waking up in an antiquated and dimly lit train tunnel. A young English lad's voice echoes across its dank recesses. He introduces himself as Timothy Pike, a boy lost and unable to find his way home. You look for him, for all the good it does. He is nowhere to be found. To move in different directions and explore, you merely click in response to mouse cursor changes (left, right and forward arrows onscreen). Timothy yelps a warning when you try to enter a blackened area of the tunnel. "It" apparently likes the dark, whatever "It" is, so you decide stay in the light, as you are told to do ...

Good-Looking Goods

The 3D-rendered environments, although not totally cutting-edge, portray distinctly ramshackle abandonment quite skillfully. There is a high level of detail in the oodles of old accouterments and photos from the bygone, post-WWII era as well. The train station, hotel and grounds themselves (shown in the screenshots on the right) propel you along through this "Fear Factor 10" game, keeping you at the edge of your seat the whole time. The slow, 90-degree turns of this point-and-click interface actually serve to feed the growing tension; you can't outrun whatever lurks in the darkness. At times, you can barely turn fast enough to glimpse a shadow or luminescent movement out of the corner of your eye before it is gone once again. For myself, I particularly enjoyed making my way through certain creepy, pitch-black areas using only a lantern, with its small, round, quite limited field of vision!

A Sound Station

There are three floors' worth of hotel rooms plus the ground floor lobby, basement, and attic to explore just in the hotel alone. There are also scenes outside, along the hotel grounds. You can always come and go freely as you please, giving gaming linearity a right cold boot in the arse, mate! During all this exploring, it won't take long before you hear communications from the ghostly English victims of the hotel's former glory days (and beyond). Through both telephones and the handling of old, personal artifacts, souls impart snippets of advice for your survival or merely the feelings they had during the final, frenzied hours of their existence. The ghostly conversations, although occasionally two-way with you via text parser-like typing, are mainly much like any hotel itself. They are a patchwork quilt, or one-way snippets if you will. A hotel, having separately inhabited rooms instead of being a complete "home," does not reflect its inhabitants' complete lives by far but only the times where their paths crossed at this one junction.

Voiceovers are exceptionally good for a computer game, conveying shock, annoyance, happiness, helpfulness and fear, all with equal aplomb. Sound effects, although sparse, are eerie and placed for maximum effect. The music of harps, pianos and synthesizers can be heard at various points, underscoring both the musical talents of certain hotel inhabitants of the past and emphasizing the scarier episodes in the story.

Ghost in the Machine

You will appropriate some interesting "ghost hunting" equipment (goggles, sensors, cameras and the like) as your journey to find out what has become of your brother unfolds. (You do remember Pete after all, don't you?) Polly White and Nigel Danvers, the alleged "ghost hunters" that were living in the hotel with Peter, have their own back story and tales to tell, via both aural communications from the great beyond and their abandoned computers and equipment. Polly in particular was schooled in otherworldly talents like Ouija board manipulation (I hope you didn't think you'd get away without using one of those in a ghost story of this magnitude).

A Puzzling Plot

You will come upon many interesting and unique puzzles in this game, but every one is intrinsically woven into the artifacts and lives of the hotel's past inhabitants, and they cohesively flow, as does the whole spooky tale, toward a grand finale puzzle section and story ending. The puzzles range from simple to moderate in difficulty. Inventory is sparse, usually numbering ten items or less, although items no longer needed are still carried with you and shown in the upper left of the screen with the rest. Simply approach an area or puzzle where an inventory item is needed, wait until the cursor changes to a wrench to indicate inventory interaction, and then click on an item carried. The correct item will set a scene in motion and give the desired results, be it suitcases opening, coin-operated phones working, etc.

When approaching puzzle areas, click on the forward arrow to get closer. A hand indicates there is a puzzle to be completed or an item to be examined; locked treasure boxes and hidden compartments abound. A magnifying glass indicates a closer look at a specific item is possible. When done, you must click on the downward-pointing arrow near the bottom of the screen to zoom back out. You must also close drawers and closets again before being able to back out of those areas. The puzzle answers, although a little cumbersome at times and a bit reliant upon secret codes and ancient symbols, are always there for you. The answers may, however, be spread out not just over the hotel's floors, but also on the grounds outside as well. There are many scenes here, and even if you have a fine memory you will want to take a few diligent notes (or screenshots if you're a writing rebel like I am), unless you don't mind backtracking for answers. Pay attention to seemingly innocuous doodles on drawing pads, as well as the wealth of written notes left about concerning not only hotel duties and the careers of the occupants, but the scandals, alliances and secret loves occurring within. Refer to the screenshots at the right for a few visual examples of the many puzzles. Some are hidden in old-time artifacts, others refer to astronomy or mythical symbols, and there are a few cryptograms and anagrams as well (you've got to hide messages from "It" however you can, you know), but all tie in nicely to the main theme.

The grand finale itself consists of three puzzles called "trials" that culminate in an endgame sequence, where you must at long last confront and trap the evil that has managed to wreak havoc down through the ages. I was a little disappointed in the flatness of the ending after such a stressful thrill ride of a story, but the tale itself departs with a satisfying twist, if a slightly nonsensical one.

The Big Black Bug Bled Black Blood

I had the unusual experience of playing Dark Fall not just on one computer, but on several. I spend a lot of my summer vacationing at a seasonal campground, and I happen to have a Windows 98 Athlon PC with a space-saving LCD monitor there. My main rig at home is a Windows XP Athlon machine with a CRT. The first thing to "bug" me was the sole full-screen resolution of 640x480 offered. LCD monitors run clearly in only one native resolution, usually 1024x768 or 1280x1024 depending upon the monitor. I wound up stuck playing the game in a small window, my only other choice being a full-screen 640x480 setting that was so blurry I quickly went back to 1024x768 with a sigh. When I came home from the campsite due to foul weather, I transferred my saves to my Windows XP machine at home, and was once again irked by the 640x480 full-screen mandate; WinXP itself does not natively support that bygone of bygones, and you must run the compatibility wizard first every time you want to fire up Dark Fall in full screen. I actually decided to play it in a window even in WinXP as I normally run in 1024x768 there too, and desktop icons rearrange in haywire fashion whenever you switch down to 640x480.

This transfer of gameplay from Win98 to WinXP conveniently brings me to the "Seeing Black Blood" portion of our bug program. Once I had backed up my Dark Fall saves and installed them into WinXP (all Dark Fall saves are .txt files that default to the My Documents folder), the bleeding began. Some of my saves were okay, while others gave I/O error messages when I would try and load them. The faulty saves would then finally load, but were missing all inventory items! I found a save not too far back from my latest one that worked fine, but then when I progressed a ways and went to save again in WinXP, that new save was whacked out when I went to load it later; I got the same I/O message error and missing inventory items. This left me the choice of either starting back again from the previous good save and trying to finish the whole rest of the game in one shot without saving again, or transferring my saves to yet a different PC. Luckily for me, I have quite a PC fetish and am usually armed with six to eight extraneous PCs at any given point, running every version of Windows there is. As an experiment, I loaded all of my same Dark Fall saves into a Windows Millennium PC, and lo and behold, every one worked, even the ones that gave I/O errors with WinXP! As I similarly had no save game troubles in the original Win98 machine I began the game with, I would recommend this game more to Win98 and WinMe-based computer owners than I would to those running WinXP.

Spelling out Other Bugs

Another small bug I encountered was that every time I exited the first-floor buffet area off of the kitchen in the game, I was flung directly into a second-floor hotel room upstairs without even ascending the stairway!

The only other complaint I have with Dark Fall is the lack of proofreading within the written communications of the game. It is hard to say what Peter, Polly and Nigel etc. needed more: assistance from professional ghostbusters, or English grammar and punctuation classes!

Dark Fall Won't Hear Our Call

There is no paper manual included with Dark Fall, but there are both instructions and hints on the game CD. The game itself actually comes as a completely blank, burned CD in a printed DVD case. Don't leave the CD hanging about near your homemade MP3 CD collection, or you may have an additional Dark Fall mystery to solve! The $29.99 price tag is quite stiff for such low-budget media, and perhaps the "burn-at-home" copies of the game that Jonathan Boakes provides may be behind some of the I/O errors—who knows? Unfortunately, no one will ever find out, because several emails to Jonathan by staffers here early on have gone completely ignored. At any rate, about the only mystery presented by a blank, burned CD is the one of how, in comparison, the major adventure companies can issue professional releases at the same price, or even at a significantly lower $19.99 price point. To be fair, though, some major releases are bug-laden as well.

All in all, despite the game's worrisome save game problems with WinXP (I believe Jen had the same troubles with Windows 2000 too, mentioned in her comments below), its restricting full-screen setting, and the lack of professional polish throughout its many written communications, I would recommend Dark Fall to any adventure gamer desiring a subtle horror story rife with fine puzzles. It is in many ways a wonderful offering, the graphics being quite good considering the whole game was created almost entirely by Jonathan Boakes alone. Dark Fall kept me glued to my monitor over its entire length, which is truly saying something in my case as many big-budget, blockbuster adventure game releases wind up serving merely as sleep aids for me. All things considered, I still feel compelled to rate Dark Fall as a star, albeit a rusty, flickering one!

At this time I would like to turn you over to Jen, Orb and Old Rooster, who would like to share their impressions in this quadruple-header Dark Fall review. I shall now bid you goodbye, mates, as I have a lot of remodeling to do around my cellar ...

Jen

I have seen many parallels drawn between Dark Fall and Amber, probably because both use the four-walls navigation/view technique and both draw together the stories of several ghosts. However, Amber's three ghosts' tales were pretty fully fleshed out, and you only get snippets of the Dark Fall spirits' histories. Amber is one of my all-time favorite games, and Dark Fall didn't quite measure up to that standard. For me it was hard to care about any of the characters, even the more recently departed ones, because they were treated just too superficially.

As far as gameplay, I liked it a lot at first when the puzzles and their solutions were flowing like water, but it soon devolved into a look-everywhere-again-ad-infinitum pixel hunt to find overlooked hotspots. The sound effects, very effective at first, became repetitious, and since each one was triggered in the same place every single time, the game lost its creepy luster after the first hour or two out of the 10 or 12 it took me to finish the game.

Some of the puzzles were pretty clever, but others required trigger actions that were too far away from the results, engendering yet more tromping around the hotel. All of the little puzzles' solutions ultimately provided the needed clues to solve the one endgame megapuzzle, which was not so mega after all because, and I'm trying not to give any spoilers here, just one look at it, actually pretty early on in the game for me, was enough to know exactly what to do, based on everything I'd seen up to that point.

Dark Fall's graphics are fine, sound effects are suitable, and like I said before, the creepy atmosphere, at first anyway, is very well-done. Dark Fall would have shined had it been released seven or eight years ago, but today it plays like a game that was, well, released seven or eight years ago. Jonathan Boakes is indeed a very talented amateur ... but an amateur nonetheless, and it shows.

I played under Windows 2000 and, in addition to not liking that 640x480 requirement, I encountered script errors in trying to load some of my more recent saves. However, it proved to be no big deal to go back and reacquire the lost inventory items after restoring an earlier, working save.

I really wavered between the egg (I hated the repetitious traveling, and atmosphere only carries a game so far) and the thumb up for my verdict but I am going with the thumb up because, despite all my griping, Dark Fall really is an impressive first effort for the one-person design team and is actually better than some recent big-company releases. I'm not sorry I played it but neither am I gaga over it. How's that for decisiveness?

Orb

Point-and-click, first-person adventures have always been my favorite sorts of games. Dark Fall, while not necessarily a milestone, fits neatly into the group of well-regarded, independently produced games that adventure game players are always looking for and crowing about when they find.

Made to be atmospheric and spooky, Dark Fall seems to be repeatedly and favorably compared to Amber: Journeys Beyond. My feeling that it was very similar in design and ambiance to Inherent Evil: The Haunted Hotel—another clever indie title. In fact, there were several occasions throughout gameplay where I was really reminded of Inherent Evil, simply by the design of a particular area. Dark Fall does one better than its predecessor in that it has unlimited saves, and in unlimited locations—IE had a major design flaw in that players could only save between levels.

The style and feel of the game is right up my alley. It is really a classic, old-fashioned adventure game design and formula, and it works as it's supposed to. Two other games with similar roots came to mind while playing—Comer and the Mac-only The Castle, although I really feel that in this instance Dark Fall improves on the formula.

I loved the post-war London setting, and I am so happy to see a designer pick a unique location. At the risk of being stoned to death by adventure gaming stalwarts, I am dead-dog tired of Egypt. The great parts of this setting are all of the wonderful, intricate cultural details, which one for one are very lovingly crafted. From newspaper clips to boxes of products to posters on the wall, one is consistently reminded of what era the environment has lodged itself to sleep within.

But my favorite thing about the game is the initial degree of exploration available. In fact, the whole game is completely wide open and can be explored and played in whatever sequences one wishes, which to me is the right way to put together an adventure game. And there is some really nice rendering in closeup looks at objects in the environments.

A really good piece of news, something to the designer's credit, is that the system requirements are low enough to afford any Macintosh owner with Virtual PC the ability to play Dark Fall right off the shelf, so to speak. I ran it on a 466 MHz iBook running System 9.1, and it ran beautifully and flawlessly, with no bugs at all.

One thing I did not care for is the blackouts when moving in between game locations. I don't know if animations of going up or down stairs would have made it too cumbersome production-wise, but the fact that the player does not see the stairs then is dumped off in a new location is a little disorienting.

It's a sweet little game with a lot of nice details.

Old Rooster

To play on an old standard a bit, please hum along with me: "There's a small hotel, with a wishing well, I'm glad that I'm not there!" What M. Night Shyamalan does for understated but terrifying horror in his films The Sixth Sense and Signs, Jonathan Boakes has accomplished with Dark Fall. It's the unspoken, unseen, yet hinted-at terror that makes us really squirm. Our imaginations, with but a little prodding, can conjure up visions of imminent doom much more unsettling and hard to confront than a few Resident Evil zombies down the road! Typical of the anticipatory dread engendered is a comment early on: "It's right outside the door ... It knows my name ... I've got to open the door!"

Dark Fall, to be sure, made me think of Amber and the Shivers series, but mostly I'm remembering one of my favorite adventure games—John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles. There, instead of a hotel, we have a shut-down mental hospital being explored, with its share of very sad, sometimes bizarre, ghostly and ghastly secrets.

Accompanying my plaudits, though, are a few concerns. I find the 640x480 resolution an unfortunate choice, wishing the minimum full screen was at least 800x600. Further, one shouldn't have to play a new release in Windows XP compatibility mode. In that regard, I did experience a couple of save game crashes with my XP 1.8 gig system. The 90-degree screen movement is sometimes limiting and is not something we're used to with newer games. Although the freedom of exploration and nonlinearity are generally positives, there are occasions where a piece of information is needed that will require "going back" if not already secured. I prefer games that don't let you proceed to a new section until you have what you need. Of course, good note-taking can alleviate this concern. Finally, I found the intended darkness of the game occasionally a bit too dark in terms of hotspot searching.

On the other hand, these "warts," or lack of 2002 production techniques, are more than compensated for by wonderful ambient sounds and voice acting embedded in a terrific story. The game grew on me, and with the cohesive and well-integrated puzzles, I came away suitably impressed by the work of a very talented, perhaps gifted, writer. Congratulations!

As to a rating, my impression is closer to a thumb up than a star. What brings the rating down are those concerns about the lack of modern production and the aforementioned warts.

A Note from the Developer

"... [R]ereading the Dark Fall review on the site, I realised that it only covers the original v1 version (of which only 75 copies were printed). The game now ships as v4, with the i/o errors, proof-reading and colour settings repaired. I occasionally get enquiries from possible customers asking whether these bugs were fixed. Would it be possible to update the review, to avoid this?" (March 2003) The End

The Verdict

?

The Lowdown

Developer: XXv Productions
Publisher: XXv Productions
Release Date: June 2002

Available for: Windows

Four Fat Chicks Links

Player Feedback

Screenshots

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

System Requirements

Windows 95/98/00/XP/ME
Pentium 233
32 MB RAM (64 MB recommended)
24X CD-ROM drive
SVGA capable graphics adapter
32-bit color at 640x480
Keyboard and mouse
Speakers

Where to Find It

Links provided for informational purposes only. FFC makes no warranty with regard to any transaction entered into by any party(ies).

 
   
Copyright © Electric Eye Productions. All rights reserved.
No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.