Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder
Review by MrLipid
Looking Forward to a Dark Ride ...
I approached this game with high hopes. I had enjoyed the mood and look of the demo. The mood was suitably Lovecraftian and the look recalled that of Safecracker 2006 ... if Safecracker 2006 had been set in an old house slowly collapsing under years of neglect while slowly suffocating on decades of dust. The dust was a particularly snazzy touch, what with the player being able to look at the sunbeams (and lens flare) from different angles by changing position. Of course, that's clever code, not gameplay.
Loading up the two game CDs and the two patches, I was ready to be spooked, or at least engaged. And, at least at the start, things were engaging. The guy whose shoes I was being asked to step into, a policeman named Howard E. Loreid, appeared to have lost his lease on sanity and was doing time in the casa de tuercas (house of nuts).
What could have happened to land him in such dire circumstances? Assuming that he really is in such dire circumstances. This being Lovecraftian and all, maybe it's just a dream. Maybe when he thinks he has awakened, he is really dreaming. Or maybe he'll join another protagonist who spends his time between sleeping and waking and eventually run into a giant turtle who'll explain it all.
Once the player awakens as Howard, the first job is to sort out what has been going on in a murder investigation involving Loath Nolder. Nolder is a brilliant investigator who appears to have decided that the simplest solution to a particularly difficult case is to murder the prime suspect, a wealthy gent named Clark Fields who has been known to dabble in the occult.
And so begins the adventure.
Look but Don't Touch ...
Like Safecracker 2006, the game world of Darkness Within consists of a series of nodes. The cursor becomes arrow-shaped when movement is possible. Click on the cursor and the environment adjusts to aim the player at the next node. A hint of forward movement, a quick dissolve, and the next node is available for examination. As Darkness unfolded, it left this player with the feeling of being trapped in a museum where everything was out of reach. While this highlights which items may be of interest because only those items can be picked up, examined, or tossed into inventory, it also highlights the "gameness" of the experience.
This matters because the key selling point of Darkness Within is its ability to generate an atmosphere of relentless dread. That atmosphere winds up being undercut by how the player experiences the environment. If it is not possible to do much with the surroundings, what are the surroundings going to be able to do to the player? I found myself feeling pretty much dread-free thanks to the environment's indifference toward me. Sort of like rolling through a haunted house (or two) encased in a giant indestructible hamster ball.
Just Try Forgetting This Is a Game ...
Then there is the disconnect between the story the game is attempting to tell and what the game has to do in order to be playable. I found it odd that, while the house of the murder victim had not been searched, all of the lights, even the lights at the mouth of a well apparently leading to Hell itself, were burning brightly during my repeated visits.
The lights, of course, make the game playable by making it relatively easy to wander around. I couldn't help thinking, though, how much more frightening the game would have been had Howard had to navigate more than just a brief sequence near the end of the game by the beam of a flashlight.
Inventory Control System ... Engage!
There's more to do in Darkness than simply click from node to node. Darkness sports a relatively complex inventory system that allows players to replay conversations, examine objects and documents, and combine objects to reveal clues. There is a "thinking" button that simulates Howard "thinking" about what he has seen and what he has in his inventory. Drag a number of clues into the "thinking" area and click on the brain icon to "think" about them and, if they are related, an insight will appear.
A sealed letter might need something sharp to open it. And that letter might contain information necessary to advance the investigation. Then it is time to activate the "underlining" portion of the control panel. A separate smaller panel appears next to a document containing words and phrases that can be underlined. Your challenge is to figure out which words to underline in order to reveal the clues that will let you move forward.
While this sounds daunting, Darkness tempers the challenge by offering three levels of gameplay difficulty, selectable upon starting a new game: Standard, Detective, and Senior Detective. Standard provides plenty of hints and automatic document research. Detective eventually provides hints but offers no assistance in researching documents. Senior Detective leaves players at the mercy of the game developers. No hints and no help researching documents.
As eager as I am to praise innovation in gameplay, many of the inventory system's functions sound better than they turn out to be. Darkness is a slow game to begin with, and the inventory system does nothing to keep the narrative momentum alive. And, like classic Macromedia Director games, Darkness only allows progress when certain clues have been discovered. Figuring out where one must go next does no good if one hasn't first found or done everything the game deems necessary before taking the next step.
You Still Here?
Once you've done what you need to do to open a location, you can go there by clicking on a postcard image of it. One catch. You only get to see images of other locations once you have gotten to the exit point in your current location. Given the nodal navigation, getting out of some places takes a lot of clicking. Worse, Darkness has set up some puzzles that require clicking all the way out of Location A for the sake of one clue, located in Location B, followed by clicking all the way back into the bowels of Location A to use the clue. Unlike Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, which rewarded players for learning the layout of the ship, Darkness teaches the layout of its locations to no point other than, perhaps, extending its modest length.
Not that I had any luck learning the layouts. The similarity of the doors in Howard's apartment combined with the quirks of the nodal navigation led to a moment more reminiscent of bedroom farce than horror show. Something unspeakable was drawing near and, amid many slamming doors, I kept getting stuck in the bathroom or the hallway. I could imagine the hideous shade tapping its foot wondering when I was going to open the right door so it could deliver its payload of terror.
You Are Getting Sleepy ...
While the voice work manages an impressive naturalness, the painfully stiff character animation does not. It doesn't help that Darkness jumps into third person now and then, leaving the player looking at the disturbingly inert Howard.
And Howard, whether one is looking at him or not, is frequently inert. His reaction to terrifying events is to say that he feels ill and must go home for a nap. And, apparently, have horrifying dreams. No matter how awful the nightmares are that he has in his own rumpled bed, he always returns to it to catch a few Zs. And get the guano scared out of him. Again. And again. Odd guy, Howard.
Being asked to see the world through the eyes of someone who is perpetually queasy and exhausted quickly becomes wearisome in itself. Being reminded repeatedly of how nice a nap might be does little to ratchet up the tension of facing the accumulated revelations of whatever it is that is going on in the investigation.
Also odd is the choice of setting the game in 2011. Why not today? Or 1930? The technology used in the game—cars, radios, phones, flashlights, and recording devices—existed in 1930. And in 1930, a Victorian mansion would have been new within living memory and grown old as townsfolk watched. And speculated. And wondered what sorts of things might have transpired in the basement. Or below. But in 2011?
(I have the same complaint with Blackstone Chronicles. The story is allegedly contemporary, but the style of the portrait of the father, not to mention the overall look of the facilities, puts the knack back in anachronistic.)
Unresolved Issues ...
Howard roams back and forth constantly, repeatedly scouring a handful of locations for secret doors to pry open, a few pretty decent puzzles to twiddle, and lots and lots and lots of critical passages to underline. And while all this is going on, the game is keeping track of how long it takes the player to complete what turns out to be an incomplete game. It's only the first installment of a promised trilogy. It's just the first act. The story, rather than reaching any sort of resolution, just stops.
And once the story stops, there's not a lot more to do than think back on what one has been put through to get to that point. Unfortunately, the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. It was not so much a story as it was a string of portentous hints about dark things. Hints that never developed into a cohesive narrative. But maybe that's what finally drove poor Howard into the casa de tuercas.