Vampires have been experiencing a bit of a revival lately (which is slightly ironic, since they’re undead), with books, movies, games and teenage heartthrobs. Not all of the recent press vampires have been getting has helped their image though, presuming that vampires exist and it is not their goal as a species to slowly take over Seventeen magazine. Publisher Kalypso is setting aside the glitter and bringing back the gore with the recent release of Dark — a stealth action, pseudo-RPG that plays in a vein similar to Obsidian’s mostly maligned Alpha Protocol. Having just said that, I understand I’m going to have to work hard to explain why that’s a cool thing.
Waking up inside a thumping night club, initially unable to remember your own name, the story gets off to a bad start with stilted dialogue, poorly delivered lines and unnecessarily fast jump-cuts. All this is saved slightly by the main character’s voice actor Doug Cockle (of Geralt of Rivia fame), but saved a bit more so by your own one-liners you’re sure to blurt out in response to some of the nonsensical things said. Dark makes a poor first impression in this and other regards, but if you find the core concept of the game compelling enough to stick with it, it’s definitely enjoyable.
As a stealth action game there are a few mechanics which can be frustrating to work with. Initially you are granted a Shadow Leap ability, which lets you cross from cover point to cover point at the expense of making a little noise. But in relying on this ability to get around guards, you’ll realize you can’t actually aim where you’re going. As you rack up kills you’ll earn experience point bonuses for taking enemies unawares, and earn a large bonus for making it through a section without raising any alarms. The power points can then be distributed to unlock different abilities that suit your play style, granting you extra health, silent kills or the ability to distract guards.
Hiding corpses or sneaking up on solitary individuals to feed (restoring your “blood” units so you can use other dark powers) is clumsy to the point of rage quitting, at first. But the PC version of Dark carries with it one, perhaps unintentional, saving grace: the ability to save anywhere, and reload almost instantly.
If you try to play through a section of this game like a normal stealth action title, spending hours memorizing guard patterns only to fail and die a horrible death once spotted (because they have guns and all you have are fists and fangs), then you’re going to get frustrated quickly. But if you liberally abuse the save system, Dark instantly becomes an absolute blast to play, with an overly forgiving stealth system that lets you instantly reset your mistakes, allowing you to back up, try again, and pull off some amazing combo kills.
Knowing that there’s no penalty for failure, acting boldly and taking risks is really thrilling in those moments where it pays off: say a group of four armed guards just piled out of an elevator. You could be all timid and hide behind something, waiting for each person to go to a different corner of the room while whispering to yourself “Bella, stay with me.” Or you can be a badass and teleport in for one quick Shadow Kill, stunning the other three guards, two of which then meet a quick death at your hand, while the third becomes your dinner, giving you a net gain of blood units for your efforts. Moments like this make you forget about the story and its constant “all you have to do is this and it will all be over” way of stringing you along. Moments like this make you want to sneak around every corner and wipe out a room full of bad guys, rather than proceed to your next objective. And the fact that things as fundamentally flawed as overly aware guards or throw away narratives can be overcome by the potential fun of the gameplay (provided you abuse it right) really says something positive for the ideas here.
If you’ve hated every stealth action game you’ve ever played, not because you hate being stealthy and want to run and gun, but because simple mistakes make you start all over (and ain’t nobody got time for that) then Dark is your savior. It gives you the perfect venue for trial and error tactics where using vampiric powers to snap someone’s spine from across the room and obliterate their corpse may or may not be the right move at a specific point. Your vampire vision may slow down time and allow you to see through walls like Batman so you can meticulously plan every action, but there’s just no substitute for being able to instantly hit the reset button in a game until you see things play out exactly how you wanted. And that ability, in any stealth action game, just makes things awesome.
SCORE: 7.5 out of 10
A code for Dark was provided to Pixel Related for review.