Darkling Room and THQ Nordic‘s first-person adventure game Dark Fall 2: Lights Out in its Director’s Cut version mixes supernatural horror with sci-fi elements, but does it keep the Halloween spirit alive?
Dark Fall 2: Lights Out – Director’s Cut (PC)
(UK 2009, developer: Darkling Room, publisher: THQ Nordic, platform: PC)
Cartographer Benjamin Parker is sent to Trewarthan in Cornwall in 1912 to map the coastline, but is soon accused of the murder of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappear one night at Fetch Rock.
A different kind of story
Anyone expecting a sequel to Dark Fall: The Journal will be disappointed. There are a few references, e.g. with ghost hunter Polly having investigated the lighthouse mystery and left behind equipment for the player or a lighthouse puzzle box designed by Verney, another occupant of the hotel. But the story itself is a completely different affair, one that starts out to be of a supernatural nature and soon tackles time travel as well as artificial intelligence themes.
One suddenly finds ways to jump between the past, present, and future, which can even go as far as the ancient Bronze Age or a futuristic research base. With multiple timelines, storytelling becomes almost epic, even if it is too ambitious for the low production values. Mixing subtle horror with sci-fi elements, the plot goes in unexpected directions and while its ending is too abrupt and can’t quite pull it off, the game still sets itself apart from a typical ghost story one expects it to be.
Once again Jonathan Boakes’ attention to historical detail is what makes visiting the various locations so rewarding, as there are lots of real photographs and newspaper articles which add to the realism of the mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse keepers. One learns about them from book excerpts and by walking through a museum with photos, videos, and re-enactments of possible past events with mannequins. This evokes an often unsettling sense of place, by mixing fact and fiction to great effect. Of course being able to see the real lighthouse and then each room turned into a museum is a unique experience one doesn’t have in the real world.
Creeping horror or slow-burning boredom
Just as in Dark Fall: The Journal, most of the creepiness comes from slowly building tension, mainly by reading through documents which are found in historical books, e.g. a Cornish sea story that hints at strange voices in a cave one enters later on. Being based on the real lighthouse and its occupants, it’s clear that most of the reading is spent on learning about the individual characters, and having game designer Jonathan Boakes himself as the writer of a book about Benjamin Parker is just one of many easter eggs. Another example is that Matt Clark, designer of Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle and Barrow Hill: The Dark Path and friend of Boakes, is used as a painter for some of the pictures found in the lighthouse.
Creepy sounds and voices as well as ghostly visions from beyond are effective the first time, but just as in the previous game, they occur every time one enters a location, making the repeated scares rather annoying. One should be aware that the atmosphere isn’t as scary or immersive as in the game’s predecessor, which can be seen with the museum which, as in real life, can be a tad boring to explore. The same holds true for the surrounding area of the lighthouse. Sudden footsteps, laughter or other noises feel too random to be unsettling, which might also be down to the lack of darkness in many screens.
Looking for lots of things in many places
The gameplay involves a lot of backtracking and pixel hunting. While the former is to be expected and becomes quite complex due to the time travel mechanics, the latter makes for a rather frustrating experience. It doesn’t help that one can pick up and look at so many objects, especially in the museum where all sorts of souvenirs can be scrutinized and none of them have any use.
With many screens having additional close-ups that are necessary to find essential information, e.g. codes or items, it becomes again difficult to know if one hasn’t missed anything, especially without a hotspot key. The biggest problem is that one is often missing information about what to do or where to go, and while it’s rewarding to explore the world on one’s own, it becomes extremely frustrating to traverse the same locations without having a clue. Granted, some hints are found in notes, but most of the time one stumbles upon objects or symbols by accident.
Hand-written progress and storytelling regress
Just as in Dark Fall: The Journal, one should write down everything one sees and reads, because it could be useful later. Of course with so many documents, it’s not always easy to figure out what information is essential and what isn’t, as can be seen with recipes and maps that might interesting to those who want to learn about English culture, but that are too distracting for progressing in the game, as they don’t provide any clues. It doesn’t help that there are a fair few spelling mistakes and some of the writing isn’t particularly exciting, as can be seen in a very boring smuggler story excerpt. One obviously reads these documents, anyway, in the hope that they could hint at something more significant.
The subpar writing is also found in audio recordings, e.g. in the historical museum re-enactments of past scenes or a very long hypnosis regression session of ghost hunter Polly White who somehow has a connection to historical figures. What should create atmosphere and even suspense ends up in too much talk that almost puts the listener to sleep. There are a few scenes in which one can talk to either living or dead persons, something that wasn’t possible in Dark Fall: The Journal (except when using the Ouija board), but these conversations are again too long and as it’s not possible to skip them, it becomes even more aggravating if one accidentally starts them while looking into or entering a room.
Time travel issues
Mapping out where the various time portals are is just as important as taking notes, but it also highlights the fact how cumbersome the whole time travel mechanic is. It’s obviously more realistic to find the different activation spots, but being able to simply switch between timelines with the press of a button would have made navigation less tedious.
Puzzling all the time
The puzzles aren’t particularly original and the number of codes one has to find out to enter locations shows even less originality. At least one doesn’t carry around too many objects and their usage normally becomes obvious, if somewhat strange, e.g. using a harpoon to reach a piece of paper in a ticket booth. The ghost hunting equipment makes exploration a bit more interesting, e.g. using goggles to see things (like symbols) or speak to spirits one usually can’t see… if one finds them, obviously. However, there’s simply too much time spent on walking around in the hope to find something that helps in another place, which soon results in frustration.
A better version or not
The Director’s Cut has some changes in puzzles, navigation, and story parts, compared to the previous version. Unfortunately, certain codes or numbers are hinted at in documents, but aren’t used in the DC. The same holds true for some photographs that were time portals in the old version, but aren’t used here, even if one can take a closer look at them. This makes it doubly irritating for the player, because one often wonders why certain objects seem important, but aren’t anymore. More ghostly encounters or communication with the world beyond obviously help to better understand the story, but this makes it less interesting for the player to fill in the blanks of the mystery.
Out of time technology
The graphics aren’t particularly good, and even if a few background animations make the environments a bit more lively, they still feel empty. This has a nice side effect, though, as the isolation creates an otherworldly atmosphere, which becomes especially oppressive in the darker areas of the game. With only a few characters to talk to, it’s probably for the best, because they don’t move much. The less said about the laughably bad photos showing the characters’ facial expressions, the better. Thankfully, the music is quite good at evoking an uneasy feeling when exploring the various locations. The sound effects add to the scary moments, even though the voice acting is rather mediocre at best.
A game for the patient explorer and historian
Dark Fall 2: Lights Out – Director’s Cut deviates quite a lot from its predecessor with its time-traveling gameplay and other sci-fi elements. These are actually the most redeeming features about the experience, because there’s even more pixel hunting and backtracking than before. While some of the locations create a sense of dread and the creepy sound design is excellent, most of them are rather boring. One is constantly drawn into a world that mixes fact with fiction, a mystery that is interesting in real life, but doesn’t quite work in a game that has too much playtime ranging between 5-10 hours spent on aimlessly wandering around.
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