Dark Side of the Moon Review

Dark Side of the Moon is one of the best graphical adventures I've played. It's the kind of game that you will either love or hate -- for various reasons. The scenery compares to Riven, the plot is more complex than Grand Inquisitor, and the characters are done exceptionally well.

As Jake Wright, you have just received notification that your uncle, a miner on Luna Crysta -- the sixth moon of the planet Cepheus -- has died, leaving his mining claim to you. Right from the start, there is some mystery as to your uncle's death, and you are as interested in solving that issue as you are in finding out about his mining claim, and its worth.

The game begins as you arrive on Luna Crysta, and things immediately start heating up. There's a mysterious stranger, who seems to be hiding something from you; a friendly woman who runs the blackjack table in the local casino; the head of security, who starts making veiled threats almost before you have a chance to settle in; a questionably competent CEO of the mining corporation; a native Cepheid who befriends you; and much more.

You must travel around the complex, learning as much as you can, talking with everyone who will talk with you, and doing a bit of "detective work" on your own. As the game progresses, the danger to you increases rapidly. And finally you begin to realize the forces you are up against, and what it was your uncle was trying to tell you.

In reviewing the game, let's start with the "bad news" first, and get that out of the way. DSOM comes on 6 CD-ROMs. And in any game of this size, there's bound to be a lot of disc swapping. But SouthPeak has even packaged the 6 CD-ROMs so that they are quick to switch. Early in the game, you'll spend a lot of time in each individual location, so the swapping is minimal; however, as you get later in the game, you'll need to be moving back and forth throughout the game, which increases this swapping. A "perfect" game (i.e., one in which the minimal number of moves are made to complete the game) can require 30+ disc swaps.

Also, as in any similar game (especially one that has taken the time to develop good video) there's a lot of video to watch. But I found that if I sat back and relaxed, and enjoyed the details of the graphics, it enhanced the experience, not detracted from it.

The requirements are stringent; this is not a game to play on an underconfigured machine. Without the appropriate "horsepower", the videos could get jerky, or the sound may break up. Every aspect of hardware -- CPU, memory, disk space, etc. -- is taxed. I played DSOM on a 266Mhz Pentium with 64Mb of RAM, using the "minimum" install of 140Mb of hard disk space, and it ran flawlessly. (DSOM does, however, almost demand to be the only program running, as it does a free-memory check when it starts up.)

Similarly, the sound and video of DSOM are excellent -- but only if you have the equipment to appreciate it. I played DSOM on three separate machines; one was a laptop, and two were systems with 17" CRTs. The graphics on the laptop were marginal; and even on one of the CRTs, the images occasionally seemed blurry. At first, I thought it was the game itself, until I played it on a high-quality 17" screen, at which point I realized that the graphics were actually quite good, and it was my other systems that were short-changing the experience.

I had a similar experience with the sound. On one system, I had trouble hearing much of the dialogues, until I realized that I had my Surround Sound turned to the maximum. Since the game takes place primarily in a mine, there are already extensive "echo" effects in much of the sound. When processed by my Surround Sound system, these "echoes on top of echoes" made conversation almost unintelligible. Only after turning off my Surround Sound effects did I realize that the game itself has tremendous sound without the need for any enhancement.

Now for the "good news". What starts out as a seemingly easy game becomes incredibly complex, due to an almost total non-linearity. About the only thing that's "linear" is dialoguing with the other characters. As in any such adventure game, the best option is typically to click on every response you can give, which presents a brief appearance of linearity. But movement throughout the game contradicts that, as there is almost no direction as to what to do next, where to go, whom to talk with, etc. It's totally left up to the player. If you like a game where you can just "wander", and do a lot of investigating without feeling as though you are being "pushed" in a certain direction, you'll like DSOM.

Unlike games like Myst or Riven, movement throughout DSOM is totally smooth. You have complete 360-degree movement at all points throughout the game, and some up-down movement as well, where appropriate. You're not walking through a "slide show"; you're actually immersed in the environment! Also, unlike these games, or others such as TimeLapse, Lighthouse, Beyond Time, etc., you're not traveling to multiple, totally-independent locations; every piece of DSOM is closely related to the others, as the entire game takes place in a fairly localized environment, much like the Zork games.

Of course, there are many places where, if you do something wrong, you can die! But in the most graceful of ways, you will always be revived at a point right before your suicidal decision point, leaving you to continue along another path. This was one of the features I liked the most in the game, especially as it progressed at a much more complex pace late in the game, since I didn't always remember to Save my game before trying something dangerous.

Your have an almost limitless inventory, and this may initially appear cumbersome, particularly since there are many, many items to pick up, purchase, or in some other way acquire. The inventory is implemented, however, in a way that makes it easy to use items within the game, use objects with other objects, or even apply objects to yourself.

One of the most useful features is your Video Digital Assistant (VDA), which is an electronic device that stores your E-mail (both text and video), saves notes that you add to it, and -- perhaps most importantly -- provides maps of all areas of the game that you have already visited. This latter is crucial as you work to learn the layout of this complex environment.

All in all, I rate DSOM very highly. My top scores would go to the graphics and sound of the game. If possible, this is a great game to play using headphones. Next highest would be the non-linearity that allows the player to go at their own pace, wander around, and learn where they are, without being forced into a fixed pattern. Ease of learning is also fairly high, although there are a few things that take some time getting used to. (Navigation is a little different, for example, as the only "arrow" cursor is the one that tells you that you can move forward. All other movement -- e.g., right, left, up, down -- is done with 4 "hot spots" at the four sides of the scene window.)

Also high would be my rating for "story" -- that is, how all of the pieces of the game fit together into a believable whole (that is, assuming you can believe that you are going to another planet to investigate a mining claim, and that you're talking with aliens from that planet...) The puzzles are well integrated into the game; there is nothing that is just a "hurdle" thrown in as an afterthought.

DSOM is a very immersive game. The closest game I can compare it to would be Riven, based on similar non-linearity, top-notch graphics, extended play, integrated puzzles, etc. If you liked Riven, you should certainly enjoy DSOM. And with the addition of features such as smooth-scrolling, 360-degree movement, I may even put DSOM a notch or two above Riven.

-- Frank Nicodem