DarkFall: Lights Out Review

Like cult movies such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, DarkFall: Lights Out is going to appeal madly to some gamers and be received nonchalantly by others. I found, while playing the game, that if I approached it as a simple adventure game, I was very disappointed -- for many reasons. However, if kept it in the perspective of the genre in which it is written, DFLO can be quite an enjoyable game.

DFLO is the story of a young cartographer, Benjamin Parker, who is sent to the Cornish harbor town of Trewarthan. His task is to map the harbor, and the rocks that have claimed lives through the centuries. Inexplicably, the Fetch Rock Lighthouse, which has guarded the harbor for years, is plunged into darkness, putting numerous lives in peril. Their only hope may be the new cartographer, Parker. Armed with little more than his wits, he sets off to unravel the mystery. Along the way he discovers that Fetch Rock and its lighthouse have a very mysterious, and apparently sinister, history.

DFLO is distributed on 2 CD-ROM discs. The installation of DFLO is slow -- so notably slow, in fact, that the installation guide has a message telling users to give it some time, even if it appears that the installation has completely stopped. And it did -- several times. But finally, after waiting over half an hour crunching for the installer to crunch through one CD and decompress proprietary files, I was ready to play.

DFLO, like its predecessor DarkFall: The Journal, is the work of a single man -- Jonathan Boakes. It is not really a sequel, in the true sense, since there is very little overlap between the two games. There is one very minor encounter with a single character, and there are also some modest references -- typically through documents or photographs -- to the first game. But no knowledge of either game is required to play the other.

What makes DFLO stand out, in my opinion, is the story -- the weaving of a tale based on spirits, time-travel, and things beyond our capacity to understand. No longer can we reason through a situation rationally, since what is happening is not reasonable, nor rational. The story begins with what appears to be a simple mystery. But the way in which the plot is developed results in the original mystery (which had been all-consuming in the early stages of the game) becoming merely a small piece of a much larger puzzle. Here are all of the ingredients for excitement, adventure, and suspense: an apparent murder in 1912 in an old lighthouse; spirits who still seem to invade the lighthouse in 2004; time travel to the distant past, as well as the not-so-distant, imagine-the-high-tech future.

The first thing that most users will notice are the graphics. The original DarkFall was a very "dark" game throughout; there was very little opportunity to see anything in bright light, or high contrast. DFLO also has its moments of darkness -- and very mood-inducing they are, too. At the same time, there are many sections that are played out in daylight, or other scenes where the colors and the details of the graphic renderings are presented in a way that they can be appreciated all the more. Many of the 3D objects are rendered in great detail, and very realistically. The scenes are laid out well, and not so pristine as to appear "planted". There did seem to be, unfortunately, a bit of a dichotomy at times between the "really good" and the "really bad" graphics. A highly detailed object -- rendered well, with impressive textures -- might be set among rocks that looked like they were colored by a third-grader's crayons.

DFLO is a ghost story. And naturally, in such cases, we need good background music, replete with spooky sounds (footsteps echoing through dark halls, voices coming from nowhere, other unidentifiable sounds). DFLO has all of those -- and more. The musical score for the game is done quite well, and the ambient sounds are prevalent everywhere. There is very little opportunity to get out of the grip of the game, and wander back into reality. (This is especially true if you like to play these games -- as I do -- with the lights turned down, and focused on the screen.)

One thing that I found very frustrating, playing DFLO as a standard adventure game, was the inability to take with me many of the objects that I could actually pick up. While there are literally dozens and dozens of objects that you will encounter, clicking on them simply brings them into a "close-up view", often even rotating them for a more detailed look; however, the only thing that can be done after that is to put them back. Again and again, I would find and retrieve an object thinking "Aha! I'll bet I can use this somewhere!", only to discover that I could not keep the object, or place it in my inventory. It was "just for looks". Some would argue that it actually gives an additional air of realism to the game play, since in any real-life situation, you can typically interact with all sorts of things that have no bearing on your goal at the time. However, many gamers are used to the paradigm that "if I can pick it up, I can keep it".

DFLO is an interesting combination of linearity and non-linearity. For much of the game, you can roam to your heart's content, and perform various tasks in a pseudo-random order. However, it doesn't take very long to realize that, unless you actually progress in a fairly fixed order, that's all you're going to do -- roam. The problem with this is that there is too little intuitiveness in the game as to what that "order" should be. Much of the time, while playing the game, I would be completely lost in a fog of "What the heck am I supposed to be doing now?"

As you progress through the game, you will encounter many things to read: journals, letters, newspaper articles, books, love notes, even World War II memorabilia. At first, I found this to be a quite pleasant diversion from the wandering and exploring, as it seemed to be contributing information to the overall story. But it's too much. Just stopping to read everything that can be read contributes to several of the "hours of game play". And although it's true that much of it helps understand the story itself, very little of it is necessary to solve any puzzles, or complete the game. And without any knowledge of what is, or isn't, important to the game play, the player is forced to read through item after tedious item, writing things down on scraps of paper (since none of these documents can be taken into inventory), hoping that the one or two pertinent pieces of information have been captured.

Movement through the game is point-and-click. Different cursors provide clues as to what can be acted upon, which directions you can move, etc. A simple, well-implemented inventory is used to transport items during game play, and also to select items to use with other objects. The learning curve to get up and running is extremely quick. The problem lies in figuring out what to do.

In addition to the aimless wandering, I constantly found myself in a haze as to how everything was tying together. During the course of the game, the player will travel through time to several different periods -- both past, present, and future. And it was not always clear why or how these particular periods tied in with the game -- and why not others. Was there something particularly unique about the time periods in the game? How they all fit together was never clearly explained. Of course, there were also the inevitable space/time anomalies associated with time travel: "I did this after I did that, but I did it 'in the past' -- so it actually 'happened' before the other did."

For the most part, there is a good mix of puzzles in DFLO. There are some inventory puzzles (find the right object to bring back and interact with this other object); there are intuitive puzzles (there's no outright clue that this is a puzzle, but something tells me that this relates to something I saw before); and there are even clear logic puzzles (pull the right handles to start the right machines to make the right things happen). The puzzles are never terribly difficult, although some required "remembering" some fairly remote piece of information that had appeared elsewhere in the game.

One thing that surprised me was the technical inaccuracies that I encountered while playing the game. At one point, an anemometer is rotating in the wind -- backwards. In another scene, there is a rubber stamp on a desk that can be picked up and examined. And the initials on the bottom of the stamp are in the forward orientation (i.e., not backwards, as a rubber stamp would have to be). And I will admit that I was a bit disappointed to see that floppy disks are still being used in the year 2090!

Another minor irritation was the inability to take some of the documents into inventory, nor have a camera to capture them on film. Any need to reference information already seen requires returning to that location, and seeing it again in situ. For this reason, it is advisable to make game saves at key locations, so that you can quickly move back and forth to review information that was presented earlier. (Game saves are extremely "cheap" in DFLO, each consisting of a single file, requiring substantially less than 1KB each.)

One last complaint (and, while this is not intended as a spoiler, some purists may wish to skip to the next paragraph) had to do with an item that you pick up halfway through the game. This particular item allows you to "see" things that are in the "spirit world" -- things that may occur at any point in the game, anywhere that you have been, or places you have not yet been. Which meant that, after I had obtained the item, I now needed to revisit literally every point in the game, in case there was additional information "from the spirit world" that I could now garner. To some, perhaps, a neat creation that supports the paranormal emphasis of the game; to me, a cheap trick to add game play time (and some modest excitement) to an already-tedious game.

All in all, I appreciated DFLO much more after the game was over, and I (finally) understood the entire story. There is a fine line between keeping a player in suspense, and boring (or frustrating) him with a lack of a clear, intuitive understanding of what is going on. DFLO dances on that "line" constantly. I believe that the story and artwork from DFLO would make an outstanding Hitchcockian movie -- where I have only to sit back and watch, and let the movie drive my destination. And undoubtedly, the quality of the overall game is quite high. I would have been even more pleased with it, however, had there been a bit more intuitiveness -- or "direction" -- to the game play.

-- Frank Nicodem