Review: Dark (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Genre: Action/Stealth
Developer: Kalypso
Publisher: Kalypso
Release Date: 07/09/2013

There are an astonishingly small amount of games that feature vampires as the protagonists, when it all comes down to it. While there are plenty of games where vampires are the antagonists, or possibly allies, even the games that allow us to play as something vampiric often soften that a bit. Characters like Rayne from Bloodrayne and Alucard from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are actually dhampir, AKA half vampires, so they don’t even technically count. That’s not to say that there aren’t vampiric protagonists, as Alex will surely tell you, but even then, only seven of the characters there are protagonists, and three of those are from fighting games. Outside of the Vampire: The Masquerade games and some of the Legacy of Kain titles, if you see a vampire anywhere in a game, chances are you’re killing it, is my point, so when games come around that feature vampiric lead characters, that’s an interesting hook from jump. Dark, however, wasn’t content to just lead with that, as the game itself liberally attempts to mix elements from Vampire: The Masquerade and Splinter Cell with some light elements of Mass Effect, which, if you’re anything like me, sounds like the best thing ever. In fairness, Dark certainly tries to be the game that the above description promises, and in the rare instances where the game comes together just right, it almost seems like it could have been something great. In somewhat less fairness, however, we will forgo the obvious joke and simply say that Dark, for all of its ambition, is ultimately not very good. You can, however, feel free to make the associated joke in your head if you’re so inclined, because lord knows everyone else has at this point.

The plot of Dark is the first point where everything seems to be promising. You take on the role of Eric Bane, newly turned vampire who has no idea about anything going on in his life except his name… oh, yes, and that he’s randomly seeing visions of an angel, which may or may not have something to do with his massive headaches. By speaking to residents of the club he finds himself in as the game begins, Sanctuary (because of course it is), he discovers that he’s a vampire, but an incomplete one. Having not drunk the blood of his master, Eric is very likely to turn into a mindless ghoul if he doesn’t do so soon, which is this side of impossible, since he knows nothing about who his sire could be. The proprietor of the club, Rose, makes an alternative suggestion: hunt down a more powerful vampire and drink from him, which will, in turn, hopefully have the same result. This turns out to be a lot more involved than it would first seem, and it turns out that the events of the game change significantly at the halfway mark, as conspiracies and genetic experiments abound the further and further you go. The good news is that the actual plot isn’t half bad. You’ve seen it before, more than likely, even if it wasn’t attached to a game about vampires, but it does its job nicely, and actually builds itself up well across the game, in a way that, if it were attached to better writing, might pan out into something memorable. Sadly, such is not the case, as the writing in the game is, at the best of times, overwrought and laughably corny. Eric sounds like a teenage goth kid’s composition book, the rest of your allies are either bland or outlandish, and your enemies are as cheesy as they come, from the flunkies to the big bads. It’s amusing on some levels, certainly, but it’s not good in the strictest sense, and if you’re looking for something that’s good for the right reasons, you won’t find it here.

The visuals continue this back-and-forth trend, as they’re aesthetically interesting, but technically unsound at the best of times. The game uses cel-shading to good effect here, as it gives the world a very artistically pleasant comic book feel, and the character models and environments are interesting, aesthetically. The lighting and special effects are also generally fine enough, and the various visual filters are mostly well implemented and used to good effect. The animations, on the other hand, can look wonky and amateurish at times, and there’s only a small pool of character models that pop up throughout the game, to the point where the last three chapters literally feature the same few enemy types constantly, and you’ll see repeated models in the first few minutes of the game. Aurally, the game isn’t much better. The music is generally well implemented, though outside of the track that plays in Sanctuary you’re unlikely to really want to listen to any of it outside of the game. The effects are mostly acceptable, and while some are more ridiculous than others (Eric’s blood drinking noises come to mind), most of the audio effects sound fine. The voice acting, however, is as overwrought and stiff as the dialogue, and it gives the game a further unintentionally comedic feel that hurts the experience. Eric himself sounds like he’s trying to impersonate Wolverine on downers and comes across as childishly unconvincing, and the rest of the cast are either bored out of their mind or overacting to the point of absurdity. It’s fun, certainly, but that doesn’t mean it’s good in the strictest sense.

Dark is, at its core, a stealth action game, but less in the Assassin’s Creed or modern Splinter Cell fashion where exposing yourself to the enemy means fighting your way out and more in the Tenchu or older Splinter Cell fashion, where exposing yourself is unwise if you value life. The left and right sticks control movement and camera position respectively, A allows you to interact with the environment and attack enemies when close, and holding the left trigger snaps you to cover to hide from enemies. You can also drag the corpses of dead enemies around using the left bumper to hide them from sight, press in the left stick to crouch or stand as needed, and press in the right stick to go into a first person zoom for more careful environmental inspection. Eric has no weapons to work with, so to say, so when you’re looking to get into combat with enemies directly it’s going to be with melee attacks, either by sneaking up on them or in a frontal assault. The latter tactic isn’t advisable, however, as aside from the fact that enemies will frequently throw up an alarm when threatened, they’re also most likely packing heat that will shred Eric in a reasonably short period of time.

Of course, being a vampire, Eric has some tricks at his disposal. In the beginning of the game, Eric has two techniques available to him that make his life (or lack thereof) easier: the Shadow Leap and Vampire Vision. Shadow Leap allows him to cover a fairly good distance in a short period of time to move between positions while staying in cover, while Vampire Vision allows him to see enemies in different shades of color throughout the surrounding area to best plot a plan of attack. That’s not all he gets, though. As you complete missions and silently (or not so) kill enemies, you earn experience points that allow you to buy new skills. You can select skills with Y from a radial menu and press X to activate them, which can range from more combat oriented attacks like Shadow Kill (dive onto and kill enemies) and Shadow Grip (grab from a distance and kill), boosting skills like Celerity (fast movement) and Obfuscate (hide in plain sight) or distraction skills like Distract (distract enemies to a specific place) or Dominate (cow enemies briefly). You need to fuel these skills with vitae, or blood, however, so you’ll need to strike a balance between using skills, manually killing enemies, and feeding from enemies in cover to make it through the game in one piece. Eric can also upgrade his various skills, increasing their range, reducing their noise, or otherwise making them more useful as you progress through the game to give him even more of an edge in battle. You’ll need to do so, however, because the various enemies improve as well, becoming stronger and more capable of countering direct attacks in addition to adding armor to their arsenal, preventing feeding from them, which limits how well and how frequently you can feed.

The game isn’t all sneaking and killing, though, even if this is certainly the majority of the game. In-between the earlier missions, you’ll be able to interact with other vampiric characters at The Sanctuary, allowing you to build further information on the situation and pick up the odd sidequests before missions. Some of the missions in the game aren’t just about sneaking through an area killing dudes, as you’ll see the odd mission that tasks you with placing bombs or deactivating fuseboxes or what have you to make forward progress. There are also a few boss battles, where you’ll have to face down more powerful vampires on their turf, often with the odds heavily stacked against you, to give you a bit more of a challenge in addition to the normal enemies. There are also the odd PDAs and such to collect around the game world to fill out your knowledge of the back story, if such a thing interests you, and they give you some added experience bonuses to boot, which is useful if nothing else.

The game is only six stages long, and you can complete it in about six to eight hours with dedication and a little effort. There are multiple difficulties to play through, if you’re interested in this thing, and you can also try playing through again if you’d like to try respecting Eric in different ways from the start to try out new attack techniques. You can also start the game from any chapter you’ve completed with a set amount of available points to distribute or jump into Challenge mode, where you try to kill as many dudes as you can without raising the alarm, and there are two endings (though you can see both from the same save point, sadly). There’s also a fairly accessible amount of Achievements to earn in the game, and while most of which will unlock in a single play session, a few may require some additional planning to unlock depending on how much advance preparation you do to earn them. Also the instruction manual comes with a recipe for a Sanctuary style Bloody Mary, which isn’t bad if you’re a vodka fan (the non-alcoholic version is uninteresting, alas). The game doesn’t offer much variety to bring the player back, making it something of a one-and-done affair, sadly, so if you’re looking for more replay value or variety to keep you coming back you’ll be a bit disappointed.

You’ll more likely be disappointed, however, with the fact that, for all of the potential the game and its ideas have, Dark is an incredibly shallow experience. A bit part of the problem the game has comes down to the actual mechanics of the stealth experience. Generally, most of your stealth games offer you lots of crazy mechanics or interesting tools to work with and task you to be patient enough to use them effectively. Dark often can’t manage this; while you’re given several tools to use, Shadow Grip is often the only one worth a damn, especially later in the game when you’re facing armored forces, as it can kill enemies silently and dissolve the bodies when upgraded. If you’re attempting to remain stealthy at all times, the game becomes a chore, forcing you to watch patterns for an almost excessive amount of time because the actual enemy placement and patterns simply aren’t particularly good and the level design concepts aren’t conducive to the experience. If you give up on stealth, however, the game often becomes too easy, as you can exploit the AI of the enemies in various ways. The enemies will often get stuck on the environment, or bumble around aimlessly, or otherwise make poor decisions about what to do or where to go, meaning you can kill an enemy in public, slaughter a few with vampiric powers, wait for the heat to die down, and repeat ad infinitum until a section is complete. When the game is far more frustrating and full of trial and error when you play correctly, that’s not a good thing. It also doesn’t help that the game is, more often than not, identical from one stage to the next, and the few elements that break up the experience are largely underdeveloped. It’s a shame too, because you can see where the game could have been interesting based on the framework that’s here, but the final product is far too limited to pay that off.

Dark, then, is a disappointment, in that it’s a collection of ideas that honestly seem like they should have been awesome crammed together into a game that never comes close to paying off the promise. The plot is interesting structurally but poorly written and full of corny dialogue, the graphics are artistically interesting but limited in variety and technically flawed, and the music is occasionally interesting but the effects are merely acceptable and the voice acting is atrocious. The gameplay hits all the basic notes of the stealth action genre while crossbreeding it with specialized vampiric powers, and the odd conversation-driven Mass Effect styled sequences combined with the proclivity of the game to borrow Vampire: The Masquerade terminology all come together in a way that implies a deeper experience than one would expect. Sadly, however, aside from the multiple difficulty modes, there’s little to bring one back to the game, and between the limited usefulness of most powers, the frustrating mechanics when one is attempting to be stealthy, and the exploitable elements when one is not, the game never even comes close to paying off its potential. Dark seems like it should have been a successful hybrid experience, but instead cribs minimally from better games and attaches ideas that could have been cool together to a game that’s slow, plodding, broken and generally repetitive, making it a hard game to enjoy and a harder one to recommend.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Dark seems like a winning idea on paper, as it cross-breeds a lot of neat concepts together into a game that should be a lot of fun, but the final result fails to pay off that promise, instead congealing together into a boring mess of an experience, as everything good is weighted down in equal measure by everything bad. The plot could have been interesting if not for the bad writing and corny dialogue, the visuals could have been artistically solid if not for the poor animations and bland repetition of models, and the music could have carried the experience alongside the adequate effects if not for some silly effects and terrible voice acting. The gameplay holds to the basics of the genre fine enough, and tacks on some interesting vampiric powers that are full on borrowed from Vampire: The Masquerade, and if the game had anything interesting to do with those and the elements it borrows from Mass Effect, it might have been a cute sleeper hit. However, the game is limited in replay value, most of the powers you’re given are unexciting, the game becomes tedious and frustrating when you play by its rules and is often easier when you don’t thanks to the broken AI and glitches that pop up, and in the end, it’s simply repetitive and dull. Dark might be a fun game if you really, really love vampires and stealth games, but anyone hoping for something that wasn’t the same experience over and over for six to eight hours would be better served looking anywhere else for their fix.



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