Dark Train Review

I’d like to think that I’m smart--well, smart enough. When it comes to puzzles and brain teasers, however, I can only get so far before I need someone better than me to help figure out the solution (unless the puzzle treats me like a five year old and then it’s all good). It’s the abstract puzzles that often give me a really hard time. I still remember agonizing over Riven’s marble dome puzzles. Despite my readiness to consult guides, I really like abstract puzzle adventures. Games like Antimatter and Cyan’s latest Obduction are enjoyable even with their tricky challenges. They helped me get into the right mindset for Dark Train, a disquieting puzzle adventure developed by Paperash Studio. Presented without instruction or fiction, Dark Train is a moody and confounding brain teaser.

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o jump into Dark Train cold, like I did, means coming face to face with a game that doesn’t provide narrative. There is no opening cutscene, no scrolling text, no slideshow of events that led you to the game’s opening moments. Why am I a squid? What is the significance of the rickety train? How do the train cars teleport me to different worlds? Where are the train tracks leading me? Like the video games of yore, consulting the packaged materials is the best way to find out what’s going on. In the case of Dark Train, Paperash’s official website provides the full context for this unique adventure:

The client requested the creation of a model of the human world that embraces changeable weather and civilization. What he did not want to be part of the model was the human face or even people themselves. The actual challenge was presented by creation of transportation that would be capable of delivering the order.

ventually D. W. Tagrezbung devoted the rest of his life to the client's order. The day the train was finally ready to go, the famous inventor died.

he story of D. W. Tagrezbung’s final creation immediately brings to mind Syberia, another moody adventure game that begins with the loss of a beloved toymaker whose existence had a profound impact on his hometown. Syberia, however, has all the charm of a warm bowl of tomato soup on a rainy day, while Dark Train positions itself as something more terrifying and nightmarish. I found that the game wasn’t scary by any means, nor would I agree with the developer calling its atmosphere as “oppressive.” In truth, I found it all to be positively disquieting, comfortably cozy, and oddly wonderful.

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our role in this mysterious journey is to control a squid-like robot named Ann. Tethered to the train by a chain, Ann can direct the vehicle’s movements by manipulating various systems and contraptions that propel the train along its track. Where things get really interesting is how Ann interacts with four mysterious train cars that transport the squid-bot into compact but lively dioramas with their own unique ecosystems and game mechanics. Both the train and its cars are equipped with puzzles that have some level of connection but intentionally give few clues as to how everything relates. What this does is force the player to feel around, to poke and prod and see how things work. Only through blind experimentation does a system emerge, one that reveals a relationship much deeper than initially believed.

nfortunately, I didn’t come to this conclusion by myself. I spent over an hour with the game’s first act consulting text and video walkthroughs because I had a hell of a time trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. The whole game features a level of abstract design that left me confounded. While I can appreciate this hands off approach, my dumb, old brain was frequently confused and irritable trying to make sense of it all. There were a few flashes of inspiration that led me to figuring out stuff on my own, but I largely felt it was a result of blind, dumb luck. I used a guide to get me to a point where I had full access to the entire train and at that point, I decided to go at it on my own. That didn’t last long after being introduced a new mechanic that let me shuffle the order of the train cars. This has a fundamental effect on their internal dioramas, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities. That sound you just heard was my brain walking out on me for good.

ifficult as Dark Train can be, much of the frustration I experienced wasn’t entirely my fault. The game can be played either with a PC controller or Mouse and trying to navigate Ann through some of the more finer actions, such as pulling down chain handles and collecting objects, is as elegant as a drunk elephant in a china shop. Ann’s floaty movement can be a little difficult to get under control for precision work. I also found strange hotspot triggers that take Ann’s control out of your hands in order to play a particular animation. One puzzle took a long time for me to realize that moving Ann to the extreme left or right side of the screen would trigger a transition in which she flies around before moving behind the foreground environment. I also found the practice of picking up small items around to be especially troublesome as the slightest movement in the wrong direction would cause me to drop the piece or, in one scenario, accidentally leave the room causing the puzzle to reset.

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Dark Train was designed to stand out aesthetically. Paperash’s decision to construct the game using paper models is a cool concept on, well, paper but in truth the effect doesn’t really stand out as much. The game is definitely pretty and the paper look adds character, but if I hadn’t known they scanned in real paper cutouts, I’d assume everything was covered with a digital texture effect. But don’t confuse the message: this is a really beautiful looking game. Its style goes the extra mile after you can switch train cars because their dioramas change significantly depending on their order.

Dark Train easily could be a game you’ll either love or hate. Those who appreciate a good hint system, distinct feedback and puzzle pathfinding might feel left in the weeds because of its obfuscating nature. But if you like games that don’t hold your hand or get in the way, prepare to be challenged. You’ll want to keep a pen and paper handy to make notes as the game mixes things up at nearly every turn. Dark Train is a neat, confounding, obtuse, and fascinating puzzle adventure that brings to mind older, niche PC games.

Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.