Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.
It’s that wonderfully scary time of the year, so we’ll kickstart our gaming special week with a bit of horror and a lot of humor thanks to Spooky Doorway’s micro adventure The Darkside Detective.
The Darkside Detective (PC)
(Ireland 2017, developer/publisher: Spooky Doorway, platform: PC)
Detective McQueen and Officer Dooley of the Darkside Division investigate 6 bizarre cases, taking place in the city of Twin Lakes and its surrounding area.
Familiar things and stranger stories
The city’s name is obviously influenced by Twin Peaks and the two leads might be equivalents to X-Files agents Mulder and Scully, but the stories arent’ nearly as creepy or disturbing as in these TV shows and the police division is actually quite lazy and (in the case of Dooley) extremely stupid. Unlike Thimbleweed Park, there isn’t any drama or a suspenseful story arc. The only common narrative theme that holds the individual cases together is that something from the Darkside, an alternative universe not unlike David Lynch’s twin personalities/souls concept, seeps through to the reality of Twin Lakes. A few characters and storylines carry over from episode to episode, but the cases usually stand on their own.
Funny jokes and characters
Despite not being particularly suspenseful, the cases still offer enough crazy ideas and twists to be entertaining. They might not be as deep and thought-provoking as some Twilight Zone episodes, but they’re not meant to be. The emphasis is clearly on fun dialogues and parodies on specific genres. This works brilliantly, because the writing is witty all the way through, although one has to be prepared for jokes-by-the-second. Fortunately, they’re of a very high quality. Sure, many are silly, e.g. when a talking toilet makes toilet jokes, and the way how Dooley is presented as one of the dumbest officers alive is another indication that nothing is taken seriously. But even if one doesn’t learn much about the main leads and other NPCs, the illusion of playing a cop show about the occult is all present and correct here.
Remember the days and tales
Parodies on the horror genre with guest appearances of ghosts Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecroft or Enid Blyton aren’t the only meta-fictional elements, as the game draws attention to horror clichés and also makes fun of itself, e.g. with one character commenting on the other featuring more pixels or with a book in the library titled “Building Mediocre Mysteries” by the Spooky Doorway team (“Whoever they are.”). There are actually so many pop-cultural references that it’s easy to miss some of them. Just like Thimbleweed Park (although with including the 90ies and more recent media), spotting them is a lot of fun, even if some are very obvious, e.g. with Gremlins infesting a police station.
Classic puzzling for everyone
Puzzles are rather easy, although their difficulty varies from episode to episode. So it’s strange that later cases can be solved faster than the ones before, i.e. the learning curve is quite random. However, despite being less difficult than most point-and-clickers, there are a satisfying number of problems to tackle, some pretty funny solutions (especially in one episode when one has to change between the two realities), items to pick up, to combine and locations to visit. One is never overwhelmed with things to do, and even if some puzzles rely on a bit of trial and error, one is rarely stuck for long. Even logic puzzles are kept at a beginner’s level, which is quite relaxing if one doesn’t want a bursting inventory and too many places and people to keep track of.
Visuals and sounds of horror and comedy
The graphics might look very simple with a low-res pixel art, which is especially prominent in the characters’ faces that sometimes don’t even feature a mouth, but as this is also made fun of in the game (e.g. when simply drawing a line on a face as a beard to distinguish two almost-identically looking characters or when one can try to set the graphics from high-def to virtual reality to your-machine-can’t-run-this in the options menu and nothing changes in-game), it actually adds to the atmosphere. Backgrounds might also look minimalist at first, but with some very nice lighting and weather effects in addition to a few animations, the settings are still varied and atmospheric. Speaking of atmospheric, even if there’s no voice acting, the soundtrack is simply amazing. Low-fi creepy like the best of Twilight Zone, X-Files, and Twin Peaks, this is a perfect fit for a horror/supernatural thriller score, which is again quite weird, considering that everything in the game is quite ridiculous, but in a good way.
A humorous micro adventure that scores big
The Darkside Detective is one of those rare adventure games that are simply fun to play. Witty dialogues, memorable cases to solve, a great soundtrack, and lovely pixel art would already make this a must-play title, even if one shouldn’t expect a deep narrative or much suspense. Seasoned adventure gamers will probably criticize the easy puzzles and the short playtime of 4 hours, but considering that the puzzles are well designed and in some cases rather imaginative, those players will have as much fun as beginners. Movie and literature buffs will also find the many references quite fun. So let’s hope that this is only the start of a series of additional cases McQueen and Dooley will solve in the near future.
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