With little to no fanfare, Kalypso’s vampire stealth game Dark hit the shelves in summer of 2013. There was minimum marketing for the game, little budget, and it was obviously trying to pull a little of that sweet, sweet Deus Ex: Human Revolution vibe to itself. How’d it do? Well…
Dark is a game about a newly created vampire, Eric Bane. He has two problems. The first is amnesia. As a new vampire, he has only the haziest of recollections of his past. Second, since his maker was a deadbeat sire who didn’t go out of his way to make introductions, he doesn’t know who his creator even is yet. Without getting a little blood back from his creator to drink, he’s on the path to become a mindless undead ghoul. However, he’s in luck. A powerful enough vampire’s blood will do in a pinch to get him on track to becoming a full vampire. Fortunately, the vampires he’s recently fallen in with have some scores to settle and can point him in the right direction for a good donor.
The gameplay should be passingly familiar to anyone who has played Deus Ex or other stealth game. Your ‘hero’ is centered around stealth kills and infiltration, and there are several vampire powers that you can learn given enough time and experience. Quiet kills get you more points, stealthy passage through levels gets you bonus XP as well. There’s also a varied array of mostly human and a few undead opponents, with a few gadgets and systems to make passage challenging as you traverse levels towards your goal of avoiding ghouldom.
Okay, this game ultimately had more bad with it than good, so in a turn around of my usual format I’ve decided to lead with the bad. Because, honestly, the game has a few merits that make it worth playing, but you should understand the flaws before you find out for yourself if you want to take a shot at the game.
In terms of gameplay, there is a right way and there is a wrong way to play this game. If you choose poorly, this game is going to suck. A lot. And I don’t mean this as in if-you-play-it-like-a-shooter-you’ll-die. It’s a stealth game. Be a ninja. That’s what the game is designed to accomplish. The only problem is that when you have a bunch of different power sets to choose from to choose how you want to be a blood-drinking ninja, you should be able to accomplish goals in different ways. I wasted probably a good fourteen hours playing the game the wrong way before restarting at the beginning out of pure spite and self-hatred. To play the game right, you’re going to specifically need Awakened Instincts and a fully developed Shadowgrip power tree if you don’t want to spend a lot of time looking at the loading screen.
And I mean that, because it’s biggest flaw is its save system. Oh, did it take you forty minutes to clear that big room in the museum level? Got that one last guy in your way between you and your goal? Want to save before you take that big risk? You can’t. The game decides when your save points are dammit, and it’s not going to give you any big hints when it happens. The little disk icon doesn’t stay up for real long and it usually comes up in subtitled cut scenes when you’re not ready for it. So, want to take a risky gamble? Determine if you can bear looking at another purple tinged load screen with really stupid hints refreshing on it while you wait for another chance to feel extra dumb trying it all over again.
To add to this, the AI system is dumb. I mean rock stupid. I understand that the role of ‘Museum Guard’ is probably not the best paying of jobs, but if I’m standing in a pool of light and I kill another guard in front of you, it shouldn’t matter how far away I am. You should be on your radio reporting that some psychopath in a hoodie just twisted your buddy’s head off and drank him down like a fucking Pepsi. Likewise, there are delineated zones that guards just won’t go into. No matter what. In the garden level, I found a hidden grotto to lurk in while I planned the best way to take out the forces keeping me from my objectives. When I came out and killed a guard a little too carelessly, I set off the alarm, and despite seven well-trained corporate security troops having seen me… they did not chase me into the grotto. They stood outside shouting ‘search the area!’ for three minutes then went back to business as usual. Also, if you’re in one zone and trip an alarm, go to the last zone and hang out with all of the bodies you’ve murder-deathed to get there. Guards won’t follow you into other zones. These are some really minimum wage guards.
On an aesthetic note, the cut scenes are laughably bad, and are only trumped by the voice acting which is some of the most lackluster I’ve seen in a long time. To top off the badness, no one in the game has any facial expressions. No one gets surprised. No one gets angry (unless angry is their default expression). Mouths just move up and down like a fish looking for falling food flakes.
The last thing to note as well is that the story… isn’t really there. It judders forward in stutter stops like a drunken sorority girl on rush week. While the cut scenes make some pretty obvious statements, the game doesn’t seem to really follow them. At some point the game stops being about getting your blood fix to avoid ghouldom and turns into fucking up vampire hunters on the regular cause… vampires. I dunno. Fuck, man. Just kill something already. After a bit, the game’s objective becomes following the objective marker to the next challenge.
And that final challenge… the rest of the game is harder than the big showdown at the end. Just be ready for that let down.
So why in the name of god would you play such a game? Why did I play the game for over twenty hours according to Raptr?
Because when it comes down to the gameplay, it’s actually kind of fun, I dare say. For its myriad flaws, when you play it the right way, there’s some innovative stuff in it. Shadowleaping is interesting because the power needs maturation to use it to its fullest and you can choose how far you want to push the power. Shadowgrasp is useful because not only can you use it to kill opponents who aren’t being observed by their buddies at a distance, but at the end of it’s power tree it actually makes their inconvenient and alarm-raising bodies go away. You can use Distract to make guards investigate things that aren’t there, or use Confuse to startle them just long enough to feed. Some obstacles make noise when you traverse them and can alert enemies. Different foes have different tolerances for vision and sound. They did put some effort into this and that makes it worth playing.
For as bad as I said the AI was, it also has its occasional moment of brilliance. If you traverse a level and leave a body behind on a patrol route, the guards swarm the body and then they spread out to look for you. If you left more bodies, they’re going to find those too, and so on and so forth until they eventually track back to you. And whoa mama, when they do find you, they fuck you up hard. If you rush a mob, you get dead – just like it ought to be.
It also got me on a soft spot – the game’s cell shaded which I like. Sure the character models are wooden, and the voice acting is bad. But the level design and visuals are pretty good, and they make good use of shadows and lighting.
The Sum Up
I cannot with a clear conscience advise this game for anybody. Note that: for anybody. It’s not for a broad audience, but there’s folks who might give it a shot. There are some who I know who might enjoy it. For the vampire fiction lover who needs a brief distraction, sure. For die-hard stealth gamers, maybe. For anyone expecting the next Deus Ex, leave it alone. And whatever you do, don’t pay even twenty bucks for it. I only paid $5 after store credit, so I don’t feel cheated – but if I had paid full price for this title on launch day I would hate on Kalypso Games with the power and fury of a thousand stars.