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Darkstar – The Interactive Movie: Captain’s Box Edition
Publisher: Parallax Studio
Developer: Parallax Studio
Genre: Panoramic Adventure
Release Date: 11/5/2010
Darkstar is a game I’ve been waiting literally years for. I’ve been following it for god knows how long now, but finally it’s here. My interest in the game was twofold. First was that the original cast of MST3K (not the Mike Nelson years team) was acting in the game. The other was that this would be the first truly big full motion video (or FMV for short) game in a long time. I’ve always loved this strange little offshoot of adventure gaming. I remember spending many a quarter on Dragon’s Lair and Mad Dog McCree in the arcade. I remember 1992 was a huge year for me as I got Night Trap on the Sega CD (launch version) and The 7th Guest on PC. I remember being wowed by Phantasmagoria in 1995. I remember games like Who Shot Johnny Rock, Dracula Unleashed, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, Mansion of Hidden Souls, Brain Dead 13, and the A list acted and high budget production that was The Black Dahlia. But after 1998…the genre went all but extinct. Now when FMV games has arisen, they’ve been less than awesome, but they’ve also been pretty good. Missing Since November came out in 2004 and Casebook in 2008, and although both were pretty fun for what they were, neither truly captured the feel of the horror big 3 (NT, 7th, and Phantasmagoria) in terms of how they revolutionized gaming. A lot of people forget or downplay just how the gaming landscape changed with FMV games. Night Trap brought about the ESRB, The 7th Guest single-handedly made CD-ROMs into a feasible and sellable medium and Phantasmagoria showcased just how gory an “M-Rated” a game could be.
Now we have Darkstar, the first truly blockbuster FMV game in twelve years, but unless you are a fan of FMV, MST3K, or point and click games, this review is probably the first you’ve heard about the title…unless you’ve talked to me about any of the above in the past few years. As I said earlier, I’ve been watching the development of this game for years and even joked with “TV’s” Frank Conniff about the fact it was finally coming out in Boston at a Cinematic Titanic event. I happily plunked down $75 of my own money for the “Captain’s Box” or collector’s edition which included a strategy guide, artbook (both in pdf format), a two disc soundtrack, a T-shirt, two signed (and mangled by shipping) glossies of the cast and a signed copy of the game itself by the main behind it all, Jeffery Williams. Now that I’ve actually played the game, has it lived up to the hype I made for it in my own little brain…or did FMV games die out for a very good reason?
In the not too distant future, 2185 A.D., there was a guy named O’Neil, who was pretty different from you or me. He lived in a time of war with Mars along with an anomaly called the Darkstar. He did a good job protecting the human race, but then the Earth got blown up so he was shot into spa-ace. La-la-la.
Okay, MST3k reference over. This is pretty much the set up for the game though. O’Neil awakens from Cryo-sleep to find it is the year 2499. Because the system let him oversleep a bit, he also has near total amnesia. He finds himself aboard a ship called the Westwick that is orbiting a planet and no idea who he is, why he is on this ship or why one of the crew members is still asleep, one is missing, and one is a mummified corpse that would have a problem clapping if restored to life.
As O’Neil, you’ll have to go to the ship, discovering who you are, why you are here, what your end mission is, and most importantly, discover the secrets of Darkstar. Along the way you’ll also uncover an hour’s worth of video of just back story on what happened to Earth, the war with Mars and the all-but annihilation of the human race. Besides the “documentary” footage you’ll unearth throughout the game, you’ll have constant FMV footage (in high definition for the first time, to boot!) as Captain O’Neil discovers things about himself, his crew, and his mission and how even at the end of time, the human race is a pretty messed up species indeed.
There is an amazing amount of story here. Most FMV titles, or adventure games in general, are only a few hours long. DarkStar is approximately TWENTY – nearly all of which is plot based. As such, you really get a lot of character development and back story, which is impressive considering two of the characters are total amnesiacs. The game does take a big page from The 7th Guest in which you’ll see spectral remnants of the past act out things that happened long ago, but instead of being supernatural, it’s sci-fi in nature. The game is incredibly well written and even though the games relies on a few worn-out clichés to set the stage (amnesia, heel turns, etc), it’s all nicely done and a great deal of fun. Usually I’m not a fan of Sci-Fi, but I was thoroughly impressed by the sheer amount of content here. I should point out at this point that the game takes up 13-14 gigs of space on your hard drive and that’s almost all story and video footage. To say that Darkstar is the biggest and the best FMV adventure game ever in terms of story isn’t a hard case to make. Sure there are some things I didn’t care for or found lackluster (like the ending), but the entire affair is so well done, you’ll find yourself scouring every corner of the ship (and other things…) to get all the story out of the game.
Story Rating: Great
Full motion video never looked so good. Seriously, the video footage and the high definition quality of it had me wowed from beginning to end. Now sure, there are times when you can tell the actor or actors are doing their lines in front of a green screen and the background you are seeing when you play the game is computer generated, but that’s true of any sci-fi, fantasy, or live action movie that intermingles with computer graphics. Compare what we have here to Sewer Shark and you’ll see that visuals have come a long way in the past two decades.
The footage of the actors is wonderful and the graphics that make up the background visuals, puzzles and the like are extremely high quality too. There are bits of the back story showing a dogfight (starships, not Michael Vick) in space that is as good as any movie I’ve ever seen. Not only does the game blend live-action footage with gaming graphics to a level we’ve never seen before, but if you just take the video game graphics on a stand-alone basis, you still have one of the best looking adventure games or PC titles I’ve played through in recent memory. I think I encountered a bit of delay between clicking my mouse and something occurring on the screen a dozen or so times throughout my playthrough, although it could just be that I wasn’t exactly on a hotspot rather than any slowdown occurring.
Overall, when you look at the game from a FMV perspective, this is easily the best looking game of its type ever, If you look at it from a point and click adventure game standpoint, it’s still one of the best looking titles for the entire genre. As a straight up video game regardless of platform or genre, Darkstar is still visually impressive on every level and is a game that will be as much fun to watch someone play through as the adventures of Dirk the Daring were back in the early 80s.
Graphics Rating: Great
Although I do need to mention the incredible cast Parallax assembled for Darkstar, they’re actually overshadowed by the phenomenal soundtrack that comes with the game. This is without a doubt one of the the best scores I have heard all year. The two-disc soundtrack that comes with the Captain’s Box (or which can be purchased separately on sites like Amazon or iTunes) is amazing and is definitely accompanying on long car trips from now on. In fact my only complaint about the soundtrack is that the default setting in the game is too loud, so you’ll have to turn it down when you first start up or risk missing some of the dialogue. The soundtrack ranges from trippy new wave bits to symphonic background tracks to flat out hard rock. Awesome job here.
Now for the actors. The late, great Peter Graves does an amazing job as the narrator and I sometimes killed my character just to hear Graves’ reaction. Your protagonist, John O’Neil is played by Clive Robertson who has done shows like Starhunter and Wicked, Wicked Games. The rest of the major actors are all the original MST3K crew (aka Cinematic Titanic) and include Trace Beaulieu as First Officer Perryman, Frank Conniff as Burke, and SIMON, Joel Hodgson as Kane Cooper, and other cast members like J. Elvis Weinstein and Mary Jo Pehl. You also have Beez McKeever who made many of the props from MST3K. There are a lot of other secondary actors in game, but the game really is selling the participation of the MST3K crew which isn’t a bad idea as the series still remains popular a decade and a half after its peak. I am happy to say that the full cast does an amazing job in their roles with Peter Graves and Trace Beaulieu emerging as the best actors in the game. In fact, Trace is so good at his role, I’m actually surprised he hasn’t done more serious acting in his career. I should also point out Frank Conniff does a superb job in his double role here as Simon and Burke. To be honest, Conniff gets the vast majority of the comedy bits in the game, ranging from just being a sarcastic robot schmuck to having a date night that involved viewing “Sidehackers.” Everyone should be proud of their job, though, and I absolutely adored the cast here.
Incredible work here in the audio department, be it soundtrack or actual acting. Again, this is another area where I can honestly say Darkstar is the best game I’ve ever played in the FMV genre.
Sound Rating: Unparalleled
4. Control and Gameplay
Although Darkstar bills itself as an interactive movie, the actual genre classification it best fits into is that of panoramic adventure game. This genre has some of the best PC games I’ve ever played like Myst and Barrow Hill basically this is a first person point and click game, but instead of just static images in front of you, you have a full 360 degree viewpoint on both a horizontal and vertical access. You hold down the left mouse button and then use your mouse to look around. If you find a “hot spot” which will take the form of an arrow, you can click on it. The arrows might let you interact with an object, move in a direction, talk to something, and more. It’s pretty standard fare and the game controls reasonably well. The controls are purposely simple so that anyone can play and enjoy Darkstar regardless of gaming experience or skill level.
Now there are quite a few puzzles in the game, but what would a point and click title be without them. For the most part the puzzles are pretty simple and self explanatory. If you have trouble, chances are you missed an earlier clue at some point. These puzzles range from getting the correct unlock code for a room, putting pieces of a ship together to allow for bridge separation, navigating a deadly labyrinth, and more. The puzzles are there more to balance out the game aspect of Darkstar with the movie aspect and Parallax has made it so nearly all of them can be beaten without too much effort. There are some exceptions to this rule however, as there are a few puzzles with time limits towards the end and so if you’re a bit slower or not as clever you might run into difficulty there. There is also one particular issue involving a gun where if you pick up the wrong one, you can’t beat the game. In this game, hopefully you’ve been making multiple saves rather than just resaving over the same game over and over again. If the latter is the unfortunate case, you’ll most likely find yourself in a world of frustration.
About the only nitpick I have with the game is that it’s missing what is now an industry standard for this genre. I’m talking about a button that lights ups all the hotspots briefly in case you are stuck or unable to find what to click on. Pretty much every adventure game includes this these days. While I didn’t have any trouble playing through the game, younger or less experienced gamers with this genre might have found this option to be a lifesaver.
Like all Adventure games, the controls are simple as the focus is on storytelling over hand-to-eye coordination. Darkstar does a great job of making the most of the gameplay there is in the title, and it doesn’t suffer from any of the flaws other panoramic games like Scratches suffered from in terms of slowdown or stalling. The puzzles are diverse enough that you won’t feel like you’re repeating yourself and the exploration of the ship is a lot of fun.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Good
The weak point of Darkstar is the replayability factor. Although you can explore the ship and there are roughly three dozen ways to horribly die ala Dragon’s Lair, the game is pretty linear and it has only a single ending. For most of today’s gamers, that makes this a “one and done” title. However if you’re a big fan of the story and/or the cast and crew that put on this interactive movie, you’ll definitely keep this around for as long as new operating systems allow you to play the game on a PC. Now the game is 20 hours long and after this I have Infinity Gauntlet, Grotesque Tactics, and Deadly Sin 2 to review, but even then I probably won’t pick up Darkstar for a while. Like most of the truly great adventure games ala Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, The Sinking Island, and The Lost Crown, this is a game you’ll play once ever few years primarily for the incredibly story that links the gameplay bits together. What I’d like to see with Darkstar at some point is what they recently did for Dragon’s Lair where instead of playing the game, you can just watch it as a pure movie. That way in case Windows whatever down the road can’t read Darkstar in the same way Windows 7 can’t read my old SSI Advanced Dungeons and Dragons‘ games like Strahd’s Possession, fans of Darkstar can at least watch it even if they can’t play it. I suppose it all depends on how successful the game is for this option to ever become feasible. In other words, BUY THIS GAME DAMMIT!
Sure Darkstar isn’t going to be a game you can repeatedly play back to back and get a different story or ending each time, but it is a game you’ll want to bring out of moth balls every so often to experience the best full motion video game ever made one more time.
Replayability Rating: Mediocre
Darkstar balances the juxtaposition between movie and game nicely. There are stretches when all you are doing is walking from one room to the other, but that generally comes after you’ve seen or done everything in one area and are just backtracking to see what’s now open or that you might have missed. It might also come up when you are lost or stuck as to what you should do next. This is standard for any game of this type. I mean who didn’t have that problem in Shadowgate, and there you had a torch based time limit to deal with as well. Although the game is VERY long for this genre, the time went by quickly, especially since so much of it was watching video footage. Think of it like an RPG with a lot of cinematics in terms of length and flow, but without hit points, leveling up, and boss fights.
The puzzles were all nicely done. There was nothing hair pulling, nor was there anything with an illogical answer to them. You’ll never find yourself in a situation where you just start clicking randomly or trying out items to see what they do. If you have an item, more often than not, the game automatically prompts you to use this, like with a code deciphering puzzle or against a creepy alien sea monster. It was a nice change of pace from a lot of adventure games like Dracula: Origin where the solution to a puzzle involves a hollowed out deer carcass and using it as a funnel. No, seriously.
Darkstar is one of those games where everything is done very well. As soon as you get a bit bored of looking around, there’s a new puzzle to solve or video to watch. As soon as you finish a long puzzle like the labyrinth, there’s things to explore. There’s also Easter Eggs and MST3K jokes scattered throughout the game, so exploring takes on a whole other layer for those with a keen eye and willingness to check out every nook and cranny.
Balance Rating: Great
Let’s be honest. There are a lot of Sci-Fi games out there, a lot of adventure games, and a lot of FMV games. But have all three ever been wrapped up together in a package like this? The closest I can think of is Sewer Shark and that’s more an action game anyway. No, the majority of FMV games have been horror or mystery based. While Darkstar certainly can be considered a mystery game in some ways, it’s primarily a sci-fi adventure and a very well done one at that.
Now the plot does use a lot of commonplace trappings and/or clichés, but at least it uses them in new and amusing ways. Sure, Darkstar doesn’t do anything new, but it does take a lot of old and almost forgotten bits of gaming and reinvents them for 2010, making them feel fresh and new to the average gamer.
Originality Rating: Above Average
Time really flew by while playing this game. I’d run through a section of the game, then glance at a clock only to see that several hours had passed. Yet it had only felt like maybe an hour at most. The game may be long, but it’s very fast-paced for an adventure game. I beat the game in just a few days of play and it was mainly because I just wanted to get back to the game and see how things would unfold. Now it helps that I’m a fan of the MST3K cast, but Darkstar is so vastly different from making fun of a giant flying turtle that is friend to all children that I was more impressed with them acting rather than riffing on someone else’s work. Even if I wasn’t a fan of MST3K, I’d still have really enjoyed this game and found it to be one of the best titles of 2010 simply because everything is so well done. Having Frank, Joel, Trace, and the gang in a video game is more an Easter Egg to me than anything that affects the quality or performance of the title.
It’s well known that I’m a pretty big fan of adventure games and that even sites oriented just on those games like Gameboomers.com and Justadventure.com will recommend me to their readers. So when I say this is easily the best adventure game of 2010 as well as the best adventure game I’ve played since 2007 and the best panoramic adventure game I’ve ever played…it should tell you something.
Addictiveness Rating: Good
9. Appeal Factor
So here’s the thing. A lot of the marketing for Darkstar (such as there is since it’s an independent game), is relying on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 outlets to get the word out. Shout Factory, publisher of the MST3K DVD sets, is one example, as are fan sites for the TV show. There’s a dedicated Facebook page for the game and things like that, but outside of myself here at Diehard GameFAN, I don’t think I’ve seen another major publication even mentioned the game is passing, much less give it coverage. This worries me that the game won’t find an audience, although god knows some sites will finally start to talk about the game with a five paragraph (or less) review once they get the press box (which funnily enough arrived while I was halfway done writing this review. Because you know, I actually bought the game with these crazy ideas I have about financially supporting indie games.) which is full of similar swag to the Captain’s box and a few other extras like a flash drive and some popcorn. This is definitely a game that needs and deserves coverage by the gaming press, but it will more than likely live or die by word of mouth.
So the question is, who would like this game? Well, point and click titles are pretty huge with casual gamers in North America. But Darkstar is pretty long and may be more intense than they would be prepared for. MST3K and Cinematic Titanic fans will love the game just for the cast having major roles in the game. Console gamers are right out since this is for PC gaming. Oddly enough, the audience that will eat this up the most are Eurasian PC gamers since adventure gaming is considered mainstream rather than a niche genre over there and something like Darkstar is going to be a dream come true for them. Same with Japan where over 70% of all PC games are sold are adventure games.
At the same time, let’s look back at our gaming history. The 7th Guest had similar trappings to Darkstar and it changed how people played games. Seriously, the game single-handedly caused the death of floppy and the success of CD-ROMs. Look at MYST in the 1990s. Same core trappings as Darkstar and it is still considered one of the most successful games of all time. All without pandering to the press. In more recent times all I have to say is Mystery Case Files as an example of adventure games selling more copies than things like Halo or Resident Evil V. Darkstar easily has that potential. It just needs to find its audience. This is the type of game that casual and diehard gamers alike can enjoy, but on different levels. Now it’s obviously not for everyone. If you seizure high levels of action and constant gore streaming across your screen, then Darkstar is going to be slow and dull for you. If you only like fighting games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, Darkstar isn’t your type of game.
For most gamers reading this though, you’ll find Darkstar to be a return to the glory days of both Adventure and PC gaming. The time when actors like Dennis Hopper and Terri Garr happily did games like these. When Myst sold tens of millions of copies. When people anxiously awaited the next Gabriel Knight title. Darkstar wonderfully captures everything people loved about the golden age of PC gaming but also gives us high definition visuals and fully brings FMV into the modern era.
I can honestly say that the vast majority of older gamers that pick this up will love this thing. If you’re still skeptical, remember there is the $29.99 no frills version alongside the $75 Captain’s Box version. Trust me when I say it will be well worth the investment. You’re getting an awesome game, you’re supporting indie gaming as well as the return of FMV. In a day and age when neither developers nor publishers are really taking chances and are just churning out replayed sequels with hackneyed plots, how can you not support this?
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Okay, so I’ve covered the game with over 4,000 words of (mostly) praise. Let’s wind things up by talking specifically about the Captain’s Box materials. First up is the game itself which comes in a nice case signed by Jeffrey Williams. The game takes up a whopping 13-14 gigs of space on your hard drive due to all the footage, so make sure you have room! Then there is the two disc soundtrack. There are 38 tracks on the disc (all instrumental) and an eight page glossy color booklet highlighting the band. You get a 61 page Strategy Guide in PDF format which is a walkthrough of the game along with a glossary of terms. There is also an artbook you can either print out or view in-game. Although I want to recommend the in-game viewing as it’s a greener option, you really can’t read the supporting text for the book this way, so print it out if you’re inclined for a lot of background info about the game. The Captain’s Box comes with two autographed glossies and although every box gets one of Clive as O’Neil, purchasers get a choice of several options for their second glossy. I chose the main cast of Frank, Trace, and Beez. You also get your choice of two different t-shirts. All in all it’s a nice package and you’re saving a lot of money if you buy them bundled up instead of piecemeal. I am quite happy with the purchase and I’m also happy gamers DO have the option to pick and choose things that they want as well. If you don’t have a lot of money, you can just buy the game for $29.99 and call it a day without the extras. If you just want the game and the strategy guide, it’s $39.99. So on and so forth. It’s nice to see a publisher giving you these kinds of options as it’s rarely done anymore.
When all is said and done, Darkstar is one of the best indie games I have ever played in my thirty years of gaming. It’s one of the ten best games I have played in 2010. Most of all, it was well worth the wait and then some. Don’t let this thing pass you by simply because it doesn’t have a multi-million dollar ad budget. You’ve been warned.
Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled
Control and Gameplay: Good
Originality: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Darkstar: The Interactive Movie might not reinvent the wheel, but it certainly reinvents the Full Motion Video subgenre of adventure gaming from the early 1990s and brings it into the modern era of gaming with full high-definition visuals. Not only does the game look fantastic, but the story is a lot of fun as well. Darkstar is also brilliantly acted with a cast that includes Clive Robertson, Peter Graves, and the cast of Mystery Science Theatre 3000/Cinematic Titanic. Darkstar is one of those games that manages to do everything incredibly well and about the only negative thing that can be said about it is that it’s not for everyone since it’s definitely an homage to PC gaming from 1990s. It’s one of the best point and click titles I’ve ever played and the best FMV title since The 7th Guest and Phantasmagoria. You can get Darkstar from Amazon, Strategyfirst or simply go to www.darkstarstore.com. So now that you’re done reading this nine page verbal fellatio on the game, go out and buy what is one of the ten best games I’ve played in 2010!