Dark Fall: The Journal Review

An old train station and hotel in Dowerton, Dorset, England have been abandoned since 1947, when several mysterious disappearances started rumors that the place was haunted. Now, a large London corporation has decided to renovate the area, and turn it into a profit-making hotel, bar, and club, based on its aura of mystery. Your brother has been assigned the task of scoping out the area and working on the early designs. However, he, too, has mysteriously disappeared, but only after leaving you a desperate message on your answering machine, urging you to come at once and help him.

Dark Fall is a combination of many things -- ghost story, historical fiction, and tale of suspense -- with a bit of present-day high-tech equipment. You arrive at a completely deserted train station, not knowing how you got there. No one else is around, but as you begin exploring the old hotel and train station, it is quickly apparent that you are not alone. And as you explore, you discover that this area has a history that predates the modern-day buildings to a time when strange and mystical powers were present.

There have been two distributions of Dark Fall: a 2002 version, available from the developer, and distributed primarily in Europe; and the 2003 version, distributed by The Adventure Company. While virtually the same game, there are minor differences. This review is based on the 2003 version.

Installation of Dark Fall is fairly simple. The game is distributed on a single CD-ROM, and there is only one installation configuration option -- a "Full Install", which copies all files to your hard drive and does not use the CD-ROM after installation. (By contrast, the 2002 version played entirely from the CD-ROM.)

Navigation is done by clicking on intuitive cursors to move from scene to scene. There are no panoramas in Dark Fall; every scene is a still shot. At times, this can get frustrating for an adventure gamer who is used to being able to pan from side to side or up and down. But I did not find that it detracted significantly from the gameplay. Almost all activity takes place within the walls of the hotel and train station, so it is a fairly simple matter to move from one point to another, without the tedious traveling found in some adventure games.

The game started out slowly. Even after an introductory cut-scene, the actual goal was not clearly identified. The story line remained unclear until late in the game, but even after considerable improvement, it was almost "too little, too late". And the game -- and the story line -- ended rather abruptly. After a series of end-game puzzles, the game ends with a fairly weak cut-scene, which attempts to wrap up all that has happened, but ends up falling flat and left me unsatisfied.

During exploration, there are dozens of interactive objects that you can zoom in on, move, or open. At first, I was intrigued by the frequency of such occurrences. However, it soon became obvious that the vast majority of these were for visual purposes only. A cupboard could be opened -- but it was empty. A drawer could be pulled out -- but there was nothing in it. A book could be picked up -- but it could not be opened. This resulted in frustration -- i.e., wanting more to happen; hoping that, this time, it would be something important; but it rarely was.

In a similar vein, there are many, many items to be read -- from short notes with only a few words, scrawled on a piece of scrap paper, to complete journals that are pages long. Much of the reading is superfluous, but many of the items do help flesh out the overall story line. In some cases, there are documents or papers containing outright clues to some of the puzzles in the game, and which must be read before proceeding beyond that point.

And yet there was no way to pick up or "photograph" any of those important items for later reference. There were only two ways to retain written information -- write it down by hand, on a notepad; or head back to wherever the item was, when the need to reference the information again arose -- neither of which is very satisfactory.

Only a few items can be taken into inventory, and the game's interface makes using an inventory item extremely simple -- the cursor changes to indicate where an item can be used, and clicking on the correct object in inventory "uses" that object in the appropriate way. On the up side, there is no need to fool around with inventory objects, to get them to "work" in just the right way. On the down side, it makes the use of inventory objects somewhat simple. (It also means that there can never be two inventory items used on the same screen, nor can inventory items be combined -- which other adventure games sometimes do to increase the challenge of a particular puzzle.)

While the game is relatively non-linear, and you can move fairly freely throughout the hotel and train station, many places require trigger events to take place before you can progress to later stages of the game. For example, a location that gives nothing to do on one visit may have "action objects" or "hot spots" after the player does some other activity in a completely different location. The only part of the game that became a bit linear was the end game -- as so many similar adventure games do once the story begins to focus on the finale.

The game provided about 20 hours of gameplay. The "T" (Teen) rating is predominantly based on the story's theme -- including not only ghosts and spirits, but unexplained murders and disappearances. However, there is no activity within the game itself that visually portrays anything untoward.

The puzzles in the game are a mixed bag. Some are of the "find the correct object and bring it to the appropriate place" type (such as finding a key for a locked door). Others are truly puzzles, which may involve clicking buttons or keys in a certain order, piecing together the parts of a visual puzzle, or working the controls of an unfamiliar device. Without exception, the clues for all of the puzzles are readily available in the game, and -- for the most part -- are fairly obvious, once the puzzle and the clue have both been encountered. There were, unfortunately, some puzzles where there might be some contention as to the intuitiveness of the puzzle.

Despite the theme of the macabre, and the apparent urgency of discovering what is going on -- before we, too, fall victim to whatever has happened in the past -- there are no "life-or-death" situations in the game. Even so, I found myself saving games regularly, as I was about to encounter some unknown -- and seemingly hazardous -- situation. Saved games are stored in simple text files, which makes them easy to manipulate and easy to name, and there is no limit to the number of saves. But it also means that there are no pictures associated with the individual games saves to help locate a specific save.

The graphics in Dark Fall are quite good. The overall environment is one of over 50 years of disuse, neglect, and disrepair -- and the scenes are crafted carefully to give just that feeling. Many of the scenes are finely detailed, presenting a picture of a bygone era frozen in time. I found it quite entertaining to be transported back to 1947, and explore through rooms, books, furniture, fixtures, writing implements, and other items from that period. (In fact, it was almost surrealistic that many of the simple, personal items that were left lying around in 1947 were still in such good shape, over 50 years later.) And although most of the rendering lent a high degree of realism to the scenes, there were occasional times when "something was wrong", and yet it was not immediately apparent what -- for example, lights in a hallway were not casting shadows correctly. While that may be a minor faux pas, it would cause me to pause, subconsciously, and wonder why the scene didn't look quite right.

Also, without having any panning motion, there is somewhat of a lack of a "3D feel"; however, even the still scenes have been drawn to present as realistic a feeling of depth as possible. There were a few times when, as I transitioned from one scene to another, I lost my orientation for a moment, because the new scene somehow presented the same objects I had just seen, but in a different perspective.

This is also one game that must be played with the sound turned up. There are constant encounters with ghosts -- mostly the spirits of those who disappeared in 1947 -- and they frequently have something important to say. Sometimes it may just be a word or short phrase. Or perhaps a knock at the door, or other similar sound, will provide additional hints for further exploration. (And there are countless audio clues buried in tape recordings, answering machine messages, telephone calls, and even old gramophone records!)

One irritation, from my perspective, was that some of the sounds, and some of the game interactions -- particularly important ones -- require the player to try the same thing multiple times, or perhaps just to stop for a moment and listen. One puzzle is only available after clicking on the same object at least three times in a row, and another requires listening to static for about 30 seconds before getting a clue. I was almost getting to the point where I would click on an object (such as a switch) and then wait for a while before continuing -- only to come back and try it again two or three more times, just to be sure.

I encountered no software or hardware problems, either in installing or running Dark Fall, and the game ran smoothly.

Dark Fall is an adventure game that should delight gamers who enjoy slightly "dark", or "ghostly", adventure games. The graphics are extremely well-done. And the story -- while slow to develop -- eventually reached a satisfactory -- if somewhat less-then-stunning -- conclusion. Dark Fall is the first in a series of games, to be followed by at least two other offerings from creator Jonathan Boakes.

-- Frank Nicodem