When Realmforge Studios first began developing ideas for Dark, I’m positive that they were swept away by irresistible desires to create a bold new stealth game that capitalized on a rich history of vampire mythology. The allure of infusing the supernatural elements of the vampire with engaging gameplay of a third-person stealth action game is enough to seduce anyone. There were bold visions of players maneuvering through the shadows, teleporting from cover to cover, and fatefully sinking their fangs into some poor schmuck. It was probably even pitched with some clever tagline like, “Bringing new blood to the stealth genre.” It had potential.
Yet the problem with Dark isn’t in the concept at all. It’s in the execution. On paper, I bet there was a huge range of potential for engaging gameplay situations that grant players a true sense of power as they lurk their prey from the shadows. Stepping into the shoes of recently turned vampire Eric Bane never delivers the deadly stealth combat you would expect from a night walker. Instead, it reveals a sloppy kiss of death that manages to consume your soul before the credits ever roll.
Dark’s shadowy path to disappointment begins early. Awakening in the middle of a happening night club called Sanctuary, main character Eric Bane quickly uncovers that he’s been transformed into a half-vampire, and in order to prevent himself from becoming a ghoul he must find and drink the blood of the vampire that turned him. He discovers all of this information through Rose, the nightclub’s vampire owner, and quickly realizes that Sanctuary is essentially a convent of party addicted vampires.
It’s a struggle to ever take the plot seriously as the game progresses through a series of one-note plot points and horrendous attempts to establish character. At one point, Bane walks by a statue of two women holding each other in a sensual manner and comments, “Pretty, pretty.” Dark makes it increasingly difficult to ever invest yourself in the narrative due to painful voice acting, poor lip synching, and flat out lazy writing.
Dark always chooses the fastest and sloppiest way to progress the game to the next stage. It feels as if development was simply kept moving forward to turn out something for a final product. It feels mechanically composed, calculated, and a far step away from the visceral presence of a vampire. It clearly draws inspiration from vampire mythology with references to Vlad the Impaler, their aversion to sunlight, and even their enhanced senses. Yet, these are never fully developed and often serve as small details to create the illusion of a living, breathing world. Dark relies too heavily on the notion that simply being about vampires is enough to excuse a poorly executed and highly unpolished game.
After introducing players to the lacklustre presentation, Dark wastes little time getting Eric out on his quest to find his creator’s blood. Rose suggests that he search for a vampire named Blooming, who runs a local museum. Suffering through another cutscene rewards players with the opportunity to experience Dark‘s wasted potential in playable form as Bane hides behind an endless supply of waist high objects and completely absentminded guards.
This is one of the most perplexing missteps of Dark. The possibility for unique and engaging gameplay experiences is one of the most exciting ideas behind Dark, and yet it is limited by an inability to properly flesh out and develop the game’s core gameplay mechanics. The game’s story is forgivable, but a sheer lack of respect for creating gameplay that functions properly together is not. Unfortunately, it never fully manages to create a compelling gameplay experience because it never manages to make you feel like you are in control.
You are given a range of powers and abilities that aid you on your journey, such as Auspex, which bathes the environment in a purplish light that highlights enemies in a bright red silhouette. Shadow Leap allows Bane to teleport over short distances and into cover. However, the most useful ability at Bane’s disposal is easily Shadow Grip, which draws upon a Darth Vader-esque force choke to silently eliminate his enemies. In addition, Bane has access to a fairly average skill tree which enables you to enhance each of your unique abilities by doing things such as reducing noise, increasing the duration of your powers, and even increasing the amount of Vitae – the resource of your powers – you can store from feeding.
Even with the supernatural powers at your disposal, Dark never manages to truly make you feel like the powerful vampire it’s pretending that you are. Being able to hot key abilities to the directional pad substantially eases access to your powers; however, the game feels so unbalanced that you will often find yourself spamming Shadow Grip and Shadow Leap in order to progress through the next mission.
All of Bane’s vampire abilities are simply overpowered for the magical wonders of the demonically inspired A.I. of the enemies in Dark. Dull enemy design and borderline schizophrenic behavior tears down much of the potential enjoyment that players would have been able to experience. You constantly wonder if an enemy will be able to see or hear you, and often times the game boils down into pure trial and error. It constantly shakes you out of any illusions that you’re controlling a powerful vampire and into an unnerving sense that if Bane steps into the daylight he might just sparkle.
Many of the game’s design decisions bring in a stereotypical cliché of vampire lore, and then completely fail to utilize it through actual gameplay. For instance, after clearing out an entire floor of guards, I climbed a set of stairs to find myself blocked by walls of UV light. I was immediately intrigued by the possibility of a new dimension to the stealth formula, but when all I had to do was walk back downstairs and destroy a fuse box effortlessly, it left me wondering why they felt the need to include that section at all.
In spite of Dark‘s flaws, there are a few hidden gems under the bloody mess. It’s easy to get lost in the beautifully rendered Cel-shaded visuals that keep a consistent quality over the course of the game. Additionally, moments when you’re sneaking underneath a floor of enemies and you hear their footsteps echoing above through your heightened senses create the brief illusion that you are a vampire. For a moment, you feel that spark of what Realmforge Studios wanted to achieve, but then it disappears. It becomes the missing reflection of vampires in a mirror, and the illusion falls apart.
The magic is buried somewhere underneath a stream of under-executed ideas. I can feel the energy that radiated from the design document on paper and into the daydreams of what the game should have become. But, Dark is ultimately a poorly-executed attempt to bring the allure of vampire mythology into a stealth gaming experience. Playing through Dark will never make you feel like you’re a blood sucker. Instead, it opts to suck the life and spirit straight out of you by forcing you to drop $49.99, and instantly making you realize that you’ve made a mistake.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which was provided for us.
Dark’s attempts to create a truly engaging vampire experience are heavily weighed down by a lack of polish and design decisions that lack the follow through to create a cohesive game. Any fun that can be had with the game is drained of life early on, which makes playing this experiment in stealth vampire action even more disappointing.