Saturday 3 October 2015

IFComp 2015 review: Darkiss Chapter I: The Awakening by Marco Vallarino

This is how I like my vampires: Solitary, dangerous and with vile motivations. As opposed to ubiquitous, shiny and Mormonesque (Twilight).

Admittedly the anti-hero of Darkiss isn't as powerful as a vampire usually would be, but that's because the good guys previously killed him, leaving him with the inconvenient side-effect of weakness. The player's job in this classically styled parser adventure is to get vampire Martin Voigt back into fighting, biting shape.

I think this might be the first time a game has ticked the IFComp rule that a previously released game is OK to enter if it's been translated into a new language. Darkiss was originally released in Italian in 2011. That word 'Darkiss' did stir recognition in my brain when it showed up in this year's game list, and that's because I've previously trawled IFDB for all games tagged or labelled as 'horror'. There, I'd seen in passing the listings for Darkiss, its sequel and its spinoff.

With some help from the location-sensitive hint system, I completed Darkiss in about an hour. It's puzzly, solidly implemented and relishes the protagonist's intent of evil vengeance. As might be expected, it's also just slightly off in some of the translation, but the core translation is resilient. The off notes don't affect game mechanics or player understanding, just the ideal reading of the prose. I only had one comprehension problem in one room, and it doesn't seem impossible that that problem was present in the Italian original.

Darkiss may skew a bit traditional for some. I enjoyed it a lot.

One word of advice: This is a game in which you have to be extremely thorough in searching and re-searching everything you see. However, you don't have to guess at the basic presence of stuff. Just peruse the room descriptions carefully.

For a few more details on the game's trajectory and how it plays – more specific than what I wrote above, but still pretty free from specific spoilers in Darkiss's case – you can dare to

The game is principally set in Martin's lair. He's been barricaded in by both magical and folkloric means. The puzzles are about getting him fit and getting him out.

The familiarity of the lair to this creature who's hundreds of years old is a good mechanism for triggering anecdotes and memories from his past. Martin moons over the torture chamber and his sadistic treatment of previous victims, while less exciting stuff – like the passcode needed to get through a certain door – is correspondingly less easy to recall.

I don't think the tone of the prose is heavy enough that Martin's diabolic ideas will upset players of any robustness. The overall feel has a glimmer of wicked romp about it, though it's obviously not without seriousness. The scenes in which Martin recalls past loves like Lilith from the painting, or Sabrina from the white coffin, are probably the most resonant and Anne Ricey. Speaking of Rice, note the excellent collection of vampire fictions Martin has in his library.

The puzzles mix magical and practical solutions. As I mentioned earlier, collecting the props needed for them requires pretty exhaustive examination of the room descriptions. For this reason I was glad of the hint system. I also felt good when each hint session signed out with a 'No problem!' Even little touches like this emphasise the game's sense of fun.

Darkiss's finale opens successfully onto a sequel that we already know exists (in Italian, at least) as well as functioning as a satisfying vampire climax (YOU'LL GET WHAT I MEAN, NUDGE NUDGE!) to this adventure.

A final comment on that moment of non-comprehension I mentioned earlier is below. This may double as the only spoiler in this review I consider to be genuine. If you haven't played the game yet and this worries you, DON'T READ BELOW:


I found it weird that the treasure room description managed to give the impression of the treasure room being empty of treasure. That's why I didn't think to start digging around in the treasure.

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