Vampires are something that seem to wax and wane. Some 15 years ago they saw a fair amount of popularity with Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Stealth games too tend to fluctuate, seeing a high period in the early 2000’s and then disappearing for years. Since those times, both stealth games and vampires have changed quite a bit. Dark, the new game from RealmForge and Kalypso, tries to bring both genres together. But it’s less True Blood meets Batman, and more Blade meets the first Splinter Cell. While that may not have been a popular choice for many and I can’t say that Dark is a great game, it definitely lacks polish, I also can’t deny that I found it to be very enjoyable.
Dark stars Eric Bane, a newly turned vampire who wakes up in a night club called Sanctuary. In the world of Dark, those that are turned into vampire have to then drink the blood of their sires in order to complete their transformation. If they fail to do so, they become mindless beasts. Unfortunately for Eric, he can’t remember anything and thus has to venture out to find out who turned him into a vampire. Until the last two levels, that’s as complicated as Dark’s plot gets, which is a good thing because the dialogue is terrible but in an incredibly odd and endearing way. It inadvertently makes the game less serious and a little goofy, which I found rather refreshing. Instead of getting bloated down with too many story details or an emphasis on the dark and gritty, Dark’s plot is really only there to give you a reason to go to different locals and murder people.
The heart of Dark’s gameplay is stealth. Being such, it is not a good idea to try to play it like an action game. One of my pet peeves in modern stealth games that they enable characters too much; making it too easy to run-and-gun or bash you’re way through a scenario. Dark resists this trend but does so to its own detriment. Unlike almost any stealth game in the last five years, combat require you to get behind enemies to take them out efficiently. Dark doesn’t employment a combo system, instead Eric is powerful enough to kill his enemies in one blow, but only if he gets the drop on them. Attacking enemies head-on means that they can and will block you attacks, making your kills not so silence and possibly alerting others.
While Eric Bane may be under-powered compared to his stealthy counter-parts, he’s not powerless by any means. His powers are simply all geared toward enabling him to dispatch foes stealthily and no other way. Eric can acquire or enhance a total of 16 abilities through the course of the game. Eight of these abilities are active while the remainder are passive. Of the eight active powers, only two pertain to combat, essentially giving you the ability to kill at long range. The other powers allow you to remain hidden by putting enemies a daze, creating a distraction or enveloping yourself in shadows. Being a vampire, Eric uses blood to perform these feats and must get up close and personal in order to replenish that blood.
While most of the powers in Dark require the use of said blood, Shadow Leap does not. Shadow Leap allows Eric to teleport short distances and climb ledges. Like other abilities it can be upgrade to reduce the sound made and decrease cool down time. This is important as Eric is otherwise very agile. Like stealth games of yesteryear, Dark forces you to be stealthy not simply because it’s a good idea, but because not built for you to do otherwise in terms of physics, animations or combat. And if you do manage to play in more action-oriented manor, you’re actually going to be making things harder on yourself. In addition to punishing a non-stealthy play style, it rewards the opposite. Taking out enemies unaware quadruples the amount of experience you get while in tougher difficulties killing alerted enemies nets you no experience at all.
While Dark actively rewards players for playing stealthily and staying hidden it also contains one of the sparsest check pointing systems in recent memory. In Dark you do not have the ability to save your game manually and checkpoints are generally only at the beginning of each room. Rooms often contain somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 enemies while some can contain as many 20. On top of that, once enemies are alerted, they stay alerted for a quite a while, making evasion or restarting from the last checkpoint the best options. Needless to say, it can get quite frustrating. Even so, I found myself restarting time after time not because I died but because I wanted to level-up as much as possible. Sadly, the game is not balanced well. I had every ability maxed out before I even started the last level of the game. When I finished, I had some 15 points that I couldn’t even put to use.
Even with experience points and despite being billed as a “stealth action RPG”, Dark is a stealth game with a progression system. It is not an RPG. While it has some of the trappings of an RPG, none of it is very meaningful. Dark has a grand total of two side missions that you can complete and the game’s conversation system amounts to little more than the ability to gain background information before accepting you next mission. I never had an issue with this, but if you go into Dark expecting a Witcher, Mass Effect, or Dishonored-level of depth, you will be disappointed.
Visually Dark is an interesting game. It is not terribly impressive technically or artistically. It employs an art-style that very reminiscent of the Crackdown games. For the most part everything is drawn as it normally would be except that everything has a black outline around it. So it has a sort of “cell shaded lite” look to it. What’s interesting though is that I found myself often wondering around rooms look at different details and taking screen shots simply because I liked the way they looked. So with neither the technical nor the artistic side are particularly strong, they come together to create a look that I found aesthetically pleasing.
In the end, Dark is an incredibly hard game to judge. While it may be rough around the edges, Dark is the kind of game that has heart. Yes, the animations, voice-acting and checkpoints could all use a massive overhaul but I found myself enjoying its brand of stealth. I would love to see the good folks at RealmForge try their hand at a smaller game, but what they’ve built is a fun homage to older stealth games. In many ways, Dark’s greatest success is in reminding me of time when I liked vampires and when stealth games were stealth games. And it provides an entertaining- if sometimes absurd -experience on both fronts.