Being a vampire should be frickin’ awesome, right? Set aside the constant craving for human blood and there are plenty of positives… First up is the fact you’re immortal and resistant to pain. Then there’s the superhuman strength. And what of all those other useful attributes that have made vampires the stuff of legend like hypnosis or morphing into wolves and bats? Awesome.
Sadly, the new vampire stealth RPG Dark from Realmforge Studios and Kalypso Media dispenses with most of that cool stuff and somehow manages to make being a fanged assassin a rather more mundane experience. Turns out our protagonist Eric Bane IS susceptible to gun fire, dies frequently and doesn’t possess the strength of a superhero. Bummer.
The game opens with Eric in a club called The Sanctuary; the music is thumping and so is his head. Remembering little of what’s left him feeling so groggy, he encounters security guard Tom, owner Rose and twins, April and June – all of whom have a dark secret. The cut scenes that follow explain - with all the subtlety of a brick - that Eric has been bitten by a vampire and must track down whoever was responsible, else he’ll turn into a mindless ghoul. To be honest, he takes the news remarkably well. The dialogue and voice acting is almost comedic, with barely any effort to lip sync the words that spill from the characters’ mouths, which makes the scene even more humorous. It’s not a great start, to be honest… and things don’t get much better.
Visually, the game looks reasonable with cel-shaded graphics and a minimal colour palette. largely consisting of purple and black. However, the character models are clunky and poorly animated. The levels include varied environments ranging from night clubs to a museum, laboratories and offices – but all are much of a muchness, requiring you to navigate a room without raising the alarm using the ample cover on offer.
Rooms filled with enemies should be a veritable playground for someone with the skills and abilities of a vampire. Unfortunately, the slightly ropey controls, poor cover system and disappointing powers early on put paid to a promising concept. In my mind, vampires are fairly agile creatures… in this game, you can’t even jump. That’s right, there’s no jump button. You can’t leap onto on unsuspecting prey, there’s no scaling walls or dropping silently behind your target. There is the Shadow Leap ability, which instantly transports Eric to a nearby location or ledge but with this needing a recharge after each use, it doesn’t make life easy when trying to evade multiple enemies and escape an area quickly. Besides which, you’re often unable to direct exactly where you want to go, and end up pointlessly leaping just a few feet away instead.
A bit of parkour like in Assassin’s Creed could have been cool, as would Batman’s ability to soar into the skies to a nearby platform to avoid enemies. Even hiding in a box or cupboard like Solid Snake would have been handy too! Alas, your only option in this stealth-em-up is to hide behind tables or walls and wait for an opportune moment to leave your cover. It’s fairly disappointing.
Holding down one of the triggers hugs you to the wall and allows you to take cover. The other activates your vampire vision, allowing you to see through walls and best plan how to avoid enemies and reach your objective.
To be fair, when the stealth element works, the game can be fun. Watching the routes taken by guards, for example, and waiting to sneak past or take them out is quite exciting. But make no bones about it, this is a tricky game and even on the easiest difficulty setting, you’ll find it a challenge. On the hardest setting, you’ll want to pull your hair out in frustration!
The AI is abysmal. Some bad guys won’t react if you wander past them, whereas other eagle eyed enemies can see you from miles off. Before long, however, you’ll realise that there’s little point in painstakingly creeping through a level only to be seen and shot to pieces. You’re sometimes far better off attracting the attention of an enemy, running away and hiding behind a wall ready to pick off all hapless AI bad guys one by one as they come searching for you.
Combat is certainly one of the weaker aspects of the game and involves getting close enough to a target to press a button for an insta-kill. Alternatively, holding said button allows you to sink your teeth into them – this option often not worth the risk as it takes an exorbitant amount of time to drain your victim and, for some inexplicable reason, Eric’s a very noisy eater and therefore likely to attract the attention of a nearby guard. Should you be able to pull off the bloodsucking attack without being discovered, it will fill a segment of your all-important Vitae gauge. Without this you’ll be unable to use any of the powers you unlock and you’ll remain a fairly limp killing machine rather than a reasonably powerful assassin.
This is a puzzle game more than anything else, each room may have a few alternative paths but the trick is to find which will get you to the exit without drawing attention. Otherwise, there’s also no real need or incentive to explore, except to find a couple of PDA collectibles that are dotted about the levels.
There’s nothing more irritating part than having spent the best part of half an hour navigating a level only to be seen and be set upon by a mob of angry, gun-wielding enemies. As soon as your cover is blown, you’re pretty much screwed and destined to play through the entire section again because of the miserly checkpoints.
XP from kills and completing objectives allows you to pick from the various skill trees to unlock inherent, vampiric and passive powers. Many of these have cooldown periods and use your vitae, so some strategy is required when using them. Some of the abilities (Shadow Kill, Domination, Obfuscation, Domination) when fully levelled up, do at least give Eric some decent powers and make you feel slightly more badass!
To summarise, Dark doesn’t quite live up to its early promise but it is a decent enough game if you persist and power up. My initial impressions weren’t great but I persisted for the purpose of this review and am now very glad I did. Unlock some of the better skills, learn the game’s quirks and the experience becomes far more enjoyable. It’s definitely a grower but you can’t help but feel it’s a bit of a missed opportunity.
This game was was reviewed on the Xbox 360.