Mr. Bill's Adventureland Review
Reviewed by Laura MacDonald
"What Makes a Game Scary?"
This question was once tossed out upon the web by Inferno, a fellow gamer. The subject of that discussion was Dark Fall, just self-published by a new developer, one Jonathan Boakes. Inferno concluded that this game itself 'was' the answer. At the time, I loved the moody artistically driven graphics, the storyline and was creeped out more than I thought possible. I also looked forward to anything else Mr. Boakes cared to spook us with. But was it the definitive response to what makes a game scary? Well, maybe... Iíll get back to that later. Time has passed, the newness has worn off and another game is out and about. Yup, itís here... "Dark Fall: Lights Out", or "DF2" as it is known around gaming circles.
So where is our intrepid game developer, now that his second game has been released? Simply put, at the top of his craft. For the first time the opening scenes and closing credits were enough to grab my gaming interest, and left me one happy gamer. The game loads with a black screen, the lonely sound of lapping waves and a haunting melody that slowly builds as artfully rendered opening credits flicker elusively across the screen. The beacon of an isolated lighthouse pierces the darkness as the view seamlessly dissolves to the menu and load screen. Then the opening cinematic begins... and what a treat it is. You experience a black and white medley of disturbing images. Is it a displaced memory, a dream, or perhaps a nightmare? Reality merges into the mystical as you then segue into the open of the game. The main game graphics of the first environment resemble a colorized black and white film, and add to the surrealistic feel of the game.
The Dark Is Rising...
Though this game appears to be a sequel to Dark Fall, it is really just one in a series of loosely related ghostly tales. While gamers will have a great time spotting all the side references to the first Dark Fall game strewn about, it isnít essential to play the first game to understand events in DF2. One thing missing from this game that was present in game one (and would have been helpful) were sub-titles when listening to dialogues. There may have been some technical issue for not using them, but they are always good to see in a game.
At first glance, the storyline in DF2 seems more simplistic than that of the first game. But if you take the time to sift through all the available materials, ghostly ramblings and side events, the story has depth and details not present in the first game. This is a modern day ghost story, which weaves in and out of time and resonates within the pathways of our daily rambles. But donít be fooled by the suggestions of sci-fi and talk of time travels. At its scary little heart, this is a pure ghost story. As much as any classic tale of a headless horseman or suicidal abandoned bride. It seems spirits are not isolated to decaying manor houses or lonely country lanes. They may exist within the brightly-lit confines of suburban communities, a space station, or even perhaps within our own PC's.
In DF2, our story begins in 1912, in a misty harbor town that echoes with clanking boat fittings, fog and lapping waves. It could be any one of the many aging seaports along the Cornish coastline. We are Benjamin Parker, a cartographer (or mapmaker in laymanís terms), and have traveled here to chart the areaís rough shoreline and rocky straits. On this fateful night, he has been given the secret task of taking a small boat to a forbidding lighthouse. A place called 'Fetch Rock', that appears on no map. He must try and learn what if anything has been going on up on that ragged rock, in that isolated tower. It seems something foreign may be haunting its winding stairs and the men who dwell there. Upon arrival, the mystery deepens. The place is devoid of life, but odd sounds and remnants of recent existence are everywhere. Soup steaming in bowls, a broken door and signs of sudden disarray. So where could they have gone and what could have happened here? That is what you must uncover through exploring this time and place. Where you go from there is for you to discover for yourself. One word of advice... leave a light on near by. You will thank me later. Really, you will.
I Met A Man Who Wasnít There...
There was, in one sense, a multitude of characters in DF2, and in another there was a shortfall. Many of those we encounter in the game are but echoes from the past. There was one key character, at the start of the game, which had a very interesting perspective. The graphical style of this game figure appears to be a direct homage to the Barracuda game, "Titanic". I enjoyed the paranoid and surreal look of this person, and my only regret is that there were not other similar encounters. And there were some spots that felt very isolated. One locale from the distant past felt very lonely and bereft. There was little outside interaction other than the ever-present taunts and hints delivered by our nemesis within this game. Despite saying this, I did not feel that the game was sparsely populated. Why? Well, because of the wide variety of spectral visitations, whisperings and comments from those who were no longer with us. Did I still feel lonely? Well, yes... perhaps a little. I would love to see a few more full-bodied (even if they are spectral) characters in future games.
Things That Go Bump In The Night...
With game two out on the shelves, one thing is now clear. If you see Jonathan Boakes on the box, expect one spooky ride. A rich layer of sound effects and musical stray notes are his hallmark. Further, what was notable in game one has been taken to a whole new level with Dark Fall: Lights Out. In the new game, the ambient sounds and events are randomized. So you never know quite what to expect when passing from place to place. Walking along, one may hear any mix of eerie murmurings, sounds, musical pieces, signature violin chords or even one particularly nasty laugh. This game leaves the player unsettled and ill at ease as they roam its corridors, and here is where the game excels. I actually played most of this game looking out over 19th century London rooftops while attending the game shows there. Yes, it did add to the atmosphere. Unfortunately I also startled several hotel employees on their various trips to the room, as they caught me yelling out things like, "Now what? Arghhhh, not a %$#% creepy laugh!!". They looked around the room repeatedly for whomever on earth I could have been talking to. I just smiled enigmatically and went back to my eerie wanderings around Dark Fall 2.
The look of the game in DF2 is an interesting montage of styles. Rather than use uniform graphics throughout, each place in the timeline of this game has its own distinct look and style. There is the surrealistic opening locale, harbor town. Then there is a place from ancient times that has a Rivenesque look to it. There are two other main environments, and they had slightly varied looks as well. The overall ambiance created by the graphics and amazing sound effects is the best thing about playing this game. Bravo, Mr. Boakes...
Gameplay, Haunting and other odd events...
The game itself has a very nice interface. Those who shudder more at the thought of keyboarding through a game than over an evil cackle will be happy with the old familiar point n' click style of gameplay. There is also a minimum of inventory items used in the game. Another pleasant inclusion is a smart cursor, and it indicates when you need to employ an inventory item with a particular object in the game. All you have to do (assuming you have the needed item in your inventory) is to click on it and the item is automatically applied. One very essential item to find and add to your interface is the ghost specs. Well, they actually have the more technically impressive title of 'EVP detection device', but 'ghost specs' works ok for me. Finding this device is not only essential to uncovering vital clues and info needed to finish the game, it also adds a layer of interactivity to places and objects previously viewed. With them, you can view events that, although not game critical, will add layers to the storyline and give life, as it were, to the missing people who have vanished from this place throughout time.
I do have a quibble with some of the pixel hunts that you have to engage in to locate needed game items, key locales, and clues in the game. There are no real mazes to speak of, but the game has many pathways in each site, and some areas previously closed off will suddenly open to new places once a trigger event has occurred. It doesnít occur regularly, but players should be aware that if they feel stuck, they need to carefully search places and leave no object unturned that highlights with a look icon.
Another feature of the gameplay is the non-linearity of the game. Some clues or devices needed in one environ may exist in another place. The truth is, if you really feel stuck and frustrated in one area, simply leave it and go explore another. Except for the absolute end puzzle, anything in the game can be solved in any order the player wishes. They are all just one part of a larger tale of the eerie events in this place throughout time. One added suggestion... since the game invites a careful exploration many times of the same locale, it can be frustrating to open a coded door and have to re-do it each time you go back. Once open, a door should stay open. Not much really in the way of suggestions for future improvements, but no game, even one as hauntingly well done as this, is perfect.
There has been a lot of talk over time about how the Dark Fall games are haunted, and even Jonathan Boakes has spoken of 'haunted' events associated with the making of his games. Truth or hype, well who really knows, but I now have an odd story of my own to add to the mix. There is a side 'ghost story' created by the author for this game that tells the tale of the sad fate of two doomed lovers. While I was reading it, the TV suddenly turned on. I glanced up and the remote was safely on the other side of the room. I got up, turned off the TV, and went back to the story. Then again the TV turned on, and again, and again. I weakly joked to myself about bad circuits or loose wires. Finally it stopped. After I finished the game, I was startled to read that others had similar experiences. I read one such post myself. Uhm... maybe Dark Fall has awakened the spirits for more than just this bored gamer. Did I tell you to leave a light on nearby? Maybe better make it two...
I actually almost sent this on for publishing without even including a section on in-game puzzling. Not that there werenít stand-alone challenges and such. There was actually a very good mix of in game challenges in DF2. You encounter mechanical devices, enigmatic locked doors and boxes, and both inventory based and environmentally based challenges. Some may seem maddeningly obscure and even impenetrable at first glance, but as with the first game, there are adequate clues to solve anything you meet up with. So if the answer seems impossible, you need to start carefully going around the real estate and search high and low for the related clues. Note taking is fairly essential for most players if they want to get through this game without help. So if the idea of taking a pen to paper sends you to sleep, prepare to miss some things or lose track of the clues. I am not saying you shouldnít play the game... itís too good to miss out on. Just consider yourself cautioned that if you fail to take notes of the many verbal comments, written materials and visual clues, you will likely get stuck at some point and need further hints or even a walkthrough. Which is fine. It is not how you play your games, but how much you enjoy them in your own way that matters most to this reviewer.
So did I enjoy the challenges in the game? Yes, I did. There were enough to engage me in the game, they were not so difficult that I ever really got stuck, and gathering the clues and hints meant I was encouraged to take my time with DF2 and examine everything I encountered very carefully. All of which enhanced my game involvement and enjoyment. So why did I almost leave out any discussion of the puzzling in DF2? Hmmm, that's a good question. I think it is partially because I really didnít ever feel stuck. And also because the graphics, sounds, general ambiance and storyline captivated me to such an extent that I sort of forgot about the challenges in the game. But rest assured. The puzzles are in there. They are also well crafted, visually stimulating, and are a good mix.
So what makes a game scary?
Well I suppose many things serve to make a game scary. But after playing both Dark Fall games, I think the answer is obvious. Jonathan Boakes... he makes a game scary. Despite some minor imperfections, Dark Fall: Lights Out is one of the best games that I have played in some time. There may be a game or two that I graded a bit higher due to overall production values, technical precision, lack of flaws and other items. But there are games, as there are movies, that although not the most perfectly made that year, beat out the rest by being the best entertainment of the year. So far I have not played another this year that kept me this engrossed, spooked me at every turn without one drop of blood, and kept me motivated to play nearly non-stop. This reviewerís bottom line is fairly simple...
Dark Fall: Lights Out is one devilishly delicious game, and a serious contender for Adventure Game of the Year.
All I can say is keep them coming, spooky man, keep them coming.
© 2004 Laura MacDonald
Developed (2004) by Jonathan Boakes and XXv Productions. Published by The Adventure Company.
Rated: T for Teen 13+ (mild violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: Pentium III 450 MHz Processor; Windows 98 / 2000 / ME / XP; 128 MB RAM (256 MB Recommended); 24X CD-ROM Drive or PC DVD Drive; SVGA Graphics Card with 32 Bit Color at 800 X 600 Resolution; DirectX 9 Compatible Sound Card; Mouse, Keyboard, Speakers
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