Dark is a stealth-oriented character action game developed by Realmforge Studios and published by Kalypso Media. Stealth games are hard to come by. Except for a couple staple series like Thief, Hitman, Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell, stealth titles are generally few and far between. There have been some standout, standalone games like Alien: Isolation, Styx: Master of shadows and, Outlast recently but for the most part stealth titles are pretty rare. Even rarer, revolving around vampires.
I was really excited for Dark when it first came out. A vampire stealth RPG. I thought it was too good to be true. After having played the exemplary Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines dozens of times, I felt it was time for a new IP. When it came out the reviews panned it. Granted the asking price of $40 brand new on the 360 was a tad steep for such a wildcard as Dark. I read all the reviews I could find and despaired. I gave up on ever playing the game in my life. Cut forward a year and a bit and lo and behold there it was on the Humble Store for a reasonable asking price. "Only $4.00?" I thought that quite reasonable and I love a good controversy, not to mention the numerous titles I've enjoyed that people hated—the most notorious being Aliens: Colonial Marines. I grabbed it and proceeded to play it, even enjoying it so much at first to commit to a review on this site. I didn't know what I was getting myself into however.
Dark's story is pretty generic and a bit uneven at best
The story of Dark begins somewhat similar to the start of VtM:Bloodlines. There is a fledging vampire who has been turned without the blessing of the vampire society—a place called "Sanctuary". The vampire, Eric Bane wakes up in a bathroom within Sanctuary, with a pounding pain in his skull and a large part of his memory completely absent. He washes his face, finding he has a severe thirst for something he can't put his finger on. His sire is nowhere to be found, apparently having abandoned him. He walks to the bar, talking to April who gives him a drink on the house. It tastes awful and warm, but seems to satisfy his deep thirst. Confused—his mind addled with questions, he is referred to Tom. Tom is a bouncer for Sanctuary. Essentially a front for a safe haven for vampires to learn their abilities, and find information.
Tom informs Eric that he has been turned without being fed his sire's own blood. This is a problem as without his maker's blood, Eric is only half vampire—effectively a "Dhampir". Worse still, is no-one knows who his maker is, or why he was turned. This is a major problem as in the world of Dark, if a vampire doesn't drink his sire's blood and turn fully, he will regress in both humanity and mentality, becoming a mindless ghoul that does nothing but kill and feed. Tom introduces Eric to Rose. She is the wise, beautiful, and deadly owner of the Sanctuary nightclub. Much to Eric's benefit, she also happens to be an information broker. While she doesn't know precisely who or where Eric's sire is, she has an idea. She suggests Eric track down several Ancient vampires—those whose bloodline runs through practically every single vampire. She suggests that by taking in their blood, Eric may become whole again.
The story of Dark is told via various cutscenes, some of which are interactive, with most not. Eric monologues to himself the entire game, informing the player of his thoughts and feelings. Effectively talking to himself, this becomes a little less silly when it's hand-waved as him muttering to Rose via headset. Rose acts as his intel supplier, communicating with him via the headset and guiding him to his next destination. Dark starts off quite promising, borrowing old ideas and mixing it with new ones regarding vampire mythology and the small existence they eke out of society.
This is however the height of the storytelling. While the plot of Dark makes sense for the most part, it loses its mind towards the end. I enjoyed the story for the first half of the game, introducing some interesting ideas of a somewhat dystopian world where humans reign supreme and vampires are almost an endangered species. The ending was a real let down. The build up of the first half of the game was quite competently executed. It was nothing spectacular but it kept me engaged. Towards the end, everything begins to happen too fast, it ignores subplot payoffs hinted throughout, ignores certain established rules and the ending felt like it had entirely "jumped the shark". The potential for the story came unraveled too quickly and ultimately by the end of the game, you are left with more questions than answers. This was especially frustrating as Dark was clearly expecting there to be a sequel, leaving several crucial questions lost due to its spectacular failure to sell well.
Those several aspects combined with the cringe worthy dialogue of some scenes and the cast of sub par voice actors mixed in with roughly three to four decent ones really went a long way to letting the air out of Dark's tyres. The main character's isn't bad, but he's not good either. The entire game he shows barely any emotion, much in a similar manner to Mark Meer's Commander Shepherd. He isn't likable, and neither are most of the characters. While Rose was always a breath of fresh air and April the bartender was always a delight to talk to, I avoided optional dialogue just because of how much I hated several main characters.
The fairly-solid stealth mechanics are Dark's bread and butter
While boasting some light roleplaying game elements, Dark is at its core a stealth game. While the enemy AI is nothing to write home about, they are a formidable foe at times and provide a suitable challenge. Some enemies will move about in a pre-determined circuit, while others will literally stand, staring at brick walls. This may sound easy, but the problem comes when you alert an enemy. While Eric can sneak around, the game will tell you when you're in an enemy's line of sight, indicated by a red circle. They will also hear you walking up to them, so the majority of the time you'll stay crouched. As soon as you are seen, every single guard on the map immediately seems to know where you—they're like a goddamned hivemind. Once you are spotted, a gauge in the bottom right will appear saying "Hostile". Much like metal Gear Solid you can then hide. When this gauge runs out, the enemy will go back to being off their guard and stop searching for you.
If you are behind the enemy, and they've not spotted you, can sneak up behind them and perform a stealth skill. Stealth kills provide extra experience points for Eric and prevent you being seen, however you must then dispose of the body. If an enemy finds the body, it's treated the same as if they have found you. They will start searching and very quickly find you. If you are spotted you can fight, and this is where the gameplay breaks down slightly. While you can generally stay and fight hand to hand, depending on how many enemies are in the vicinity, it's not recommended. It wastes precious time you could be using to hide and recollect your thoughts before planning a new assault on your objective. Most situations you try to fight your way out of will end in death. Eric isn't that tough and you'll need to rely on every nasty trick Eric has to stay hidden and pick enemies off piecemeal.
Depending on how one plays the game, they will be rewarded a certain amount of experience points. Stealth kills award more, as do finding secret collectibles, completing the few meager side-quests in the game and of course finishing an objective without being seen. When Eric acquires enough experience points, he can choose from over a dozen different abilities. The first one of which is a must—the Shadow Leap. The shadow leap works in quite a similar way to Blink did from dishonored. Eric can aim where he wishes to teleport—Nightcrawler style, appearing behind enemies or climbing up awnings, fences and just generally bypassing enemies stealthily. To begin with the ability makes noise when used, so it's ill-advised to teleport too close to an enemy, however this can be offset with later upgrades to the skill.
The next most useful skill Eric has access to is Vampire Vision. this ability allows Eric to see enemies through walls, as well as slowing down the world around him. You will constantly be making use of this skill to remain conscious of where the enemies are. While this ability at first can't located inhuman enemies, it can be upgraded to allow for that. Eric can quick heal himself as well, though his vampire physique allows him to full regenerate health if he hides and rests. There's several other active abilities like the ability to confuse enemies, teleport to them from afar and kill them as well as distracting them. Most of the active abilities abilities have a cooldown period or an energy requirement.
The vampiric abilities are a bit janky and the difficulty is uneven
Eric has a blood pool, which allows him to use active abilities as long as he has blood. Blood can be replenished by feeding on a human in secret. Feeding is noisy but is important to be able to use most of his abilities—with the exception of Shadow Leap, Vampire Vision and Regenerating health. Passive abilities can be bought and upgraded to provide more blood pool, health, longer Shadow leaps and various other helpful buffs. The controls for using all these abilities are for the most fairly simple. The main issue you will find is with Shadow Leap. Occasionally the aiming can be off and takes a while to locate exactly where you wish to jump to, often obstructed by a fence or some similar object. It's minor, but it definitely lead to some pointless deaths while playing.
While the stealth is never impossibly hard, Dark does have an odd difficulty curve. If you're a connoisseur of stealth titles, you'll breeze through the first half of the game, only to be met with a wall—round about the second boss, that may take a while to overcome. The game at this point becomes a serious case of trial and error, with being discovered guaranteeing a death sentence. The game saves regularly at little checkpoint intervals and you can save at any time. There is a caveat though. Between checkpoints you are given two free saves. It's generally a fairly safe bet to save after completing an objective that doesn't trigger an autosave. Don't fret if you use them all up though, for if you reach a checkpoint your two saves are instantly replenished. In that aspect the game is fairly forgiving and open to experimentation with enemies and abilities.
Lackluster animations do a disservice to a great art design
The graphics are the best thing about Dark. Utilizing the cell shade style, the art just seems to pop. Filled with a retro 80's vibe with raves, neon lights and decidedly unfashionable fashion you'd expect to find in a Final Fantasy game, Dark is very stylistically presented. While the detail on the actual models isn't anything to write home about, the cell-shading gives the game this ghoulish comic book hero feel which works great with the game's premise. The villains are all quite varied, with the vamp hunters looking like something out of a Tron film, all lit up and not even remotely conspicuous.
The animations at times look goofy, with the model's mouths often not moving during speech. To top it all off while dragging a body, often the rag-doll physics will prevent you moving it around a corner, unless you take the corer wide. That can be really frustrating and seems to be some sort of issue with the collision mess. Often times the game will take you from a really dark level, only to have the next level be insanely bright in comparison, often forcing one to turn down their brightness. While the graphics aren't anything special, they are adequate
The sound design and voice acting is at best a mixed bag
The sound design is left somewhat desiring, with the music at times drowning out the sub-par voice actor. the main song for the game that plays in Sanctuary and the end credits was quite enjoyable to listen to, until about the fifth visit to the nightclub. The main character is made unlikable by the voice actor's extremely dry reading. Eric Bane sounds like the VA was trying to do his best impression of Christian Bale's "Cancer-Batman" voice performance. I tried to find the Voice actors for both April and Rose, who both deserve a special mention. Rose, the love interest's voice acting was so impressive that whenever I heard her on the radio or visited her in Sanctuary, my eyes lit up at the prospect of hearing a competent voice actor. Both her and April were a breath of fresh air, as was the main antagonist. The rest of the cast is fairly uninteresting, with most of the bosses like Vlad sounding uninterested in their work—Vlad particularly had the worst impression of Bella Lugosi's Dracula ever.
The sound effects were fine, with the combat sounding correct. The stealth also was made quite enjoyable via the bones cracking and people being thrown. One major gripe about the stealth presentation is when Eric does a stealth attack, he often throws them to the other side of them room. It never alerts anyone but it just doesn't seem right for a character that relies primarily on stealth to thwart his enemies.
The Final Word? Dark has a lot of neat fresh perspectives on some tired old ideas and for a stealth game the quality is nowhere near Batman Arkham Series or Styx. It is functional and for the most part not too frustrating. That sudden difficulty curve in the middle does break flow and nearly had me quitting the game to be honest. Dark I would only really recommend to hardcore stealth aficionados looking for a challenge. The gameplay is really enjoyable when it's good, but really terrible when it's not good. To give an idea of the dedication to this game a stealth fan would have to devote, I'd recommend they play Vampire Rain: Altered Species first. They have many similarities in the trial and error, as well as seeming to give choice when there's only a few ways to victory.