Eric Bane is in the dark straight away. He awakens in a nightclub, clutching his head, bereft of memories and clueless to his current predicament. Within a few short minutes the truth is revealed; he's halfway to becoming a vampire and, if he doesn't get hold of the blood sucker who bit him posthaste, the transformation won't complete and he'll become a mindless ghoul. There is, of course, a second option. If he drinks the blood of an old and powerful vampire, that might suffice and his fate may be averted.
All of this story is delivered in the first few minutes of Dark, the new action-stealth game from Realmforge. Eric, dressed in an Assassin's-esque hoodie, meanders around a vampiric nightclub, Sanctuary. When he's not drinking blood at the bar, he's chatting to the helpful staff, who assist him in formulating a plan for how to avoid turning into a mindless monster.
Sanctuary is not the most enticing of nightspots. Eric shakes his booty on the dance floor, checks out a tasteless sculpture, and listens to the same song over and over again ad infinitum. Talking to the nightclub's denizens is a necessity in order to access the campaign, but the woeful script is delivered in a hammy, cliched manner. It's clearly a translation, and not a particularly good one at that.
These early exchanges introduce us to the cel-shading graphics. At times Dark has the appearance of a handsome game, and in fairness to Realmforge they've done a good job in aping games like The Darkness II and The Walking Dead. But that's where the comparisons to the aforementioned games ends, Dark is different kettle of fish altogether.
During the cutscenes, where we're given options via a conversation wheel, but the jerky jumps from different camera angles and the generic depiction of the characters means that it won't be long before you're ignoring the opportunity to delve into the additional lore in favour of extracting the necessary information and getting on with the game. We're introduced to the nightclub owner, who explains our predicament in no uncertain terms. Her head of security, by way of demonstrating Eric's reflexive powers, shoots him with a gun. Eric uses one of his base skills, the Shadow Leap, to avoid the shot, and in that second cooly and calmly accepts that vampires exist, he is one of them, and he has a near impossible task ahead of him if he doesn't want to turn into a ghoul.
Our first chance to test out those powers comes in the alley ways outside of the club. Gangs of well armed thugs patrol the darkness, and within seconds of introducing themselves to Eric, guns are drawn and combat is initiated.
The first thing that I notice is that Eric doesn't jump. He can, on occasion, spring up to a ledge using his Shadow Leap, but it doesn't happen often. Instead he's rooted to the ground, and in one fell swoop many of the games most interesting scenarios turn to dust, unable to live up to their potential thanks to this baffling design choice. His movement isn't as graceful as you might expect, and there's no smoothness in the interchange between forward and diagonal movement via the keyboard (we reviewed the PC version).
Despite being called Dark, actual darkness has very little to do with the gameplay. To hide Eric must conceal himself by any one of the multitude of waist high objects strewn across each level. When not in cover, he's easily spotted and quickly dispatched by enemy gunfire. Moving between cover is then the name of the game, but sadly the Shadow Leap is an unreliable mode of transport. Sometimes it allows for quick jumps across confined spaces, other times it simply refuses to let you go where you want to; the marker failing to appear where you want it.
After the short tutorial mission we head back to Sanctuary to give that song another listen, and get more details regarding our first proper mission. The different chapters range from a museum to an office, and a visit to another nightclub. Each level is populated with stupid guards. The AI here is truly horrendous. Patrols follow tightly designated paths, but are quick to spot the fallen bodies of their comrades, which puts them on alert. Should they not find you during the lengthy alert cool-down (it's well over a minute, and feels like it's taking an age) they forget your existence and return to their patrol. Nothing unusual about that, but when searching for you they often neglect to look in the most obvious places. Alternatively, they can be easily lured into bottlenecks for simple takedowns.
When you are discovered, there's nothing dynamic about what follows. There's no meaningful combat, Eric just performs powerful one-hit kill takedowns. Sometimes a guard can parry these blows, but for the most part a singular mouse click or button press will end a conflict. As guards swarm from around the various environments, it's hard to defend yourself in a meaningful way. One or two are manageable, any more and you're in trouble.
The levels that the guards patrol are boring and uneventful for the most part. As there's pretty much zero verticality to the environments in Dark, there's no chance to forge your own path or use any ingenuity. You're forced down pre-prepared routes and made to memorise patrol patterns in order to progress. The AI further stifles attempts to keep things interesting, as a multitude of guards haunt all avenues and you just have to wait while the patrols arrange themselves in a way that is conducive to your progress. The different levels are suitably varied in tone, with vivid colours and contrasting aesthetics, but there's not enough variety in their composition and layout to truly distinguish them from one another in a meaningful way.
Much of the time you're sent to get an object, and then have to backtrack through the areas you've already passed through. They certainly get the most out of their environments in Dark. When nearing the end of a room, a mad dash to the checkpoint puts a hold on any conflict and allows forward progress; it feels like cheating the system, but I found it preferable to more frustrating restarts. Enemies don't follow you and the resultant cutscenes wipe the slate clean.
Different enemy types do spice up the experience a little. There's standard guards with different weapons, ghouls and heavies. Ghouls spit some kind of poison at your which degrades your health even after you've punched their lights out, and although guards themselves are fairly straightforward to take down on their own - their strength comes in numbers. Heavies require consideration and flanking, but their introduction comes too late in the game.
There's several different powers that can be used to enhance your experience, and some of them are quite fun to use. As you would expect, with this being a vampire game, you gain power (Vitae) by drinking the blood of your victims. This isn't always possible, and often an attack is the only option available. Some guard's armour is too thick, and their blood can't be drunk, and special moves are best saved for these adversaries. Once enough confidence has been gained, the standard enemies are viewed more as opportunities for blood, rather than as potential hazards.
Once you've found a victim and feasted on his neck, you can then use that energy on one of several powers. My personal favourite was a Darth Vader-like choke hold that quickly ended enemies at range. There's also options like using blood to charge your health, distracting patrols, and faster movement. Experience earned can be used to improve these skills, but for the most part I opted to boost passive buffs like increased health and quieter movement.
I found very little difference in the difficulty levels other than the limit on the amount of saves you can make mid-level. I quickly ascertained that, for me, the only way to progress through the game without pulling my hair out out was to save often, and that the lengthy gaps between saves on anything other than easy made for a more frustrating experience. Forward progress is simply a series of land grabs; get so far and save, die and go back and try again. Repeat as required.
Other than the visuals, it's very difficult to find much to praise about Dark. The setting is neat, but the delivery of the story is botched and unappetising. There are some moments when the powers come into their own, and they can be combined to good effect, but these fleeting moments of quality are the exception, not the rule. As the game warms up things certainly improve, and by the end you're both comfortable with Eric's skills, and very powerful. This increase in ability opens up more tactics, and allows for more creativity, but the broken stealth mechanics and mediocre level design do little to accentuate this improvement.
It doesn't help that Eric is not a charismatic character, and apart from the odd slice of dialogue when the script and voice-acting are up to scratch, on the whole he's uninspiring and drab, as are his co-stars. As an idea Dark looks fantastic on paper, but poor AI, limited level design, and shocking storytelling make for a frustrating experience. It's a shame, because this could've been a really fun game, and one that I was hoping would succeed.