A massive headache pounds in his skull as he awakes on the floor of the club. In the distance, he can hear the thumping dance tunes. He’s attracted to them, even if just to figure out how the hell he got here. His memory seems to have been wiped. He reaches the dance floor and is horror-struck. Did he enter some portal to some parallel universe where the worst of 80’s music lived forever? The lead singer is singing something about “becoming the night”, while blocky characters move stiffly around the dance floor. In fact, everything seems to have slowed down, like he’s entered a slideshow, seeing just one snapshot of the world at a time. He returns the way he came and goes into a bathroom. He looks in the mirror. There’s no reflection. His stiff arms move to his temples, in a moment of faux drama. Whether the horror comes from the realization that he’s now a vampire, or that he’s stuck in such a crud game remains unknown.
DARK embodies the phrase “an exercise in frustration”. It’s apparent right from the start. It’s a broken stealth game both looking at its plainly awful production values, and the broken controls. The main character, Eric Bane, whose voice is like Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher, sounds so terribly unengaged with the scenario he’s in. It’s like he doesn’t really understand that he’s become a vampire, and isn’t terrified at the situation. Or he just doesn’t seem to care much. That disengagement is prevalent with all the characters you encounter throughout the game. The voices just don’t seem to fit with the characters. Not to forget that they navigate through the world like mannequins with stilted limbs, and a perspective that changes in shifts rather than fluid movement.
One instance was especially grating. In the first mission, Eric is searching for an ancient vampire, whose blood he can suck so he won’t decay and become a so-called ghoul. After wading through dozens of guards in a museum, he reaches the vampire, who’s cutting corpses up to use for an exhibition. Upon seeing Eric, he shouts “Go! Bring me his hands”, sounding like Vizzini from The Princess Bride.
The club serves as a sort of mission hub, where Eric goes between missions to get new information about where to look next, if he wishes to figure out what happened to and why. The first thing that’s noticeable is a huge fountain of blood, shaped like two lesbians having sex, which – when clicked – prompts Eric to say something like “Oh my!” (paraphrased). Coupled with the fact that practically every single female character in the game is dressed in extremely skimpy clothing, which gives DARK a particularly disturbing misogynistic feeling. There’s also a female character – a human – at the club whose sole purpose is to be available for hungry vampires, because she’s so into the whole vampirism thing. The whole misogyny in games debate that’s been raging for a while now hasn’t bothered me all that much. After all, the core of the matter isn’t that game developers are intentionally or unintentionally misogynistic, but that the quality of the overall writing is poor. But then DARK shows up and completely ruins that point of view. Frankly, it’s embarrassing.
When you are on a mission, though, those worries are substituted by something possibly more horrifying. That is, broken stealth in a stealth game. You spend most of your time moving from cover to cover, trying to avoid getting seen by nosy guards, but even with an indicator it’s difficult to know whether or not guards will be able to see you. Their line of sight seems to be completely randomized, as sometimes guards will spot you miles away, while at other times they won’t see a fresh corpse that’s lying in plain sight right in front of them. It’s also strange how the game essentially rewards you for killing guards, by giving you XP for it. I mean, a proper stealth game ought to disincentivize relentless killing in favor of, well, stealth.
You do have to engage with the guards frequently, though. It’s almost unavoidable. It’s here that the poor controls come into play. You essentially step up close to a guard, and have to click on him to kill him – or hold the button if you want to suck his blood. Unfortunately, you can only do this when the guard is highlighted, which makes it unpredictable. It also doesn’t always register your click, so you’ll end up sneaking up on a guard, only to not kill, but rather have him turn around and shoot your face off.
Fortunately, though, the guards’ lack of intelligence shows up here too. They’ll often just fire intently at the last spot they saw you in, even if they have walked past that point, and have clearly seen that you are no longer there. It’s depressing to witness, but it makes it a bit easier to pick them off. But this terrible pathfinding and lack of intelligence even finds its way into cutscenes, where guards just walk around without aim.
It also incorporates some RPG elements, as you have to upgrade certain skills to be able to fully harness your vampiric skills powered by human blood™. Most of them, though, feel obsolete. The only one that was constantly useful was Shadow Leap, which allowed you to essentially teleport a few meters ahead, creating one of the few truly enjoyable moments in the game, as I snuck in behind a witless guard and put him out of his misery. No one should be forced to be part of this game.
DARK’s main mistake is that it never makes you feel like a terrifying vampire in any way. If it did, some of its many, many flaws could be excused. It’s bug-ridden, badly designed, and plain boring to go through. Add a side-dish of casual misogyny, and you end up with a deeply unenjoyable experience.