Is Darkling Room and Iceberg Interactive‘s first-person adventure horror game Dark Fall: Lost Souls a worthy finale for this year’s Halloween gaming special week?
Dark Fall: Lost Souls (PC)
(UK 2009, developer: Darkling Room, publisher: Iceberg Interactive, platform: PC)
A former police inspector returns to the apparently abandoned Dowerton train station and hotel where the ghost of 11-year old Amy Haven seems to roam around, tormenting the man who couldn’t prove the killer’s identity.
Despite taking place in the same locations as the first game, the third part of the series works as a stand-alone story, although it’s more in line with the original than the sequel, mixing supernatural elements with an unsolved crime mystery instead of a convoluted sci-fi plot. The content is much more disturbing, too, as it doesn’t only deal with satanic rituals of teenagers, child abuse and murder, but also how justice can be bent. As it turns out, the inspector’s guilt about never finding the culprit and instead planting fake evidence makes for an interesting plot device and thus a more interesting main character, at least in theory. As he still remains rather shallow and with an abrupt ending that doesn’t explain much, it’s difficult to care too much for him.
It’s not only the setting that is creepy, but some of the writing as well, e.g. with a scary fairy-tale book that depicts the death of children with rhymes or notes in which seeing angels becomes something much more sinister. Unfortunately, much of the background information has to be pieced together with cut newspaper articles or torn letters, resulting in some arduous and repetitive work. If one wants to, various puzzles or interactions with the environment unlock bonus items in the form of additional paranormal information that isn’t relevant to the case, but adds a bit of realism to the strange goings on that are never fully explained.
Welcoming familiar guests
Just as in Dark Fall: The Journal, one soon meets or rather hears the ghostly apparitions of hotel guests. It’s interesting how some of the known characters are more fleshed out, e.g. actress Matilda Fly or Gloria Grable aka robber Sly Fox, as more background information is used to fill in the blanks of the first game.
These parts are presented in flashbacks or rather memories that can be relived and don’t only serve to explain more of the story, but become parts of the puzzles to be solved, e.g. taking items from the past to the present. The problem with these segments is that one has to listen to various comments of characters in the past that are randomly used in the present. So one notes down snippets of information in the hope to answer specific questions of the spirits correctly, which doesn’t have much to do with logic, but with perseverance and luck.
Finding peace and a happy end
At times it feels as if both The Journal and Lost Souls are intrinsically linked to each other, because one is finally able to heal the lost souls or spirits that haunt the hotel, something that was partly done before, but feels much personal this time by directly communicating with the dead and helping them to move on.
One great example of this can be seen when re-enacting a scene with Sly Fox in which she’s driving in a car, making her remember the past and even giving her the chance to change her fate. Unlike so many ghost tales in which the departed realize they died and have to cut their bonds that hold them, one can discover their dark secrets and turn them into something good, helping them with an alternative happy ending.
Puzzling and not for the faint of heart or weak stomachs
It’s a welcome change in a game that cannot only feel dark and creepy, but downright disturbing and depressing. Unfortunately, quite a few disgusting elements like cockroaches crawling out of walls, under the bed, and filthy wrappers are used for shock value and feel rather forced. This obviously shows in the strange puzzle design, too, as one has to click on living membrane doors that imitate a heartbeat later in the game. Obscurity is the order of the day in most solutions, making the player wonder if the conundrums were just created to confuse and disgust him or her for the sake of it.
For example, one looks at a video with strange symbols, larvae, and a hand, among other oddities that could be right out of the original “Ring” movies. In a room with butterfly cocoons, one turns the light off and sees their insides because they glow in the dark due to phosphorence. It’s an interesting idea, but one usually stumbles upon the solution by accident, as in this case finding a key hidden inside the larvae. Then one has to figure out how cameras in an interrogation room are connected to the correct sequence of questions and answers in the past, making for another very strange sequence.
Cutting lose of logic
Probably the weirdest and most annoying puzzle element is the use of scissors. Notwithstanding the tasteless idea of tediously hunting for eyes in various rooms, it becomes an exercise in patience to pry one loose from a floorboard without breaking the tool. One can choose a lower game difficulty, but this still doesn’t prevent the scissors to break eventually. The trick is to wriggle them around, but the mouse or keyboard controls are terrible and even if one can get more scissors, it means running back to rooms where they can be found. With only one pair to carry at one time for whatever reason, it’s a downright frustrating mini-game that doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t add much to the atmosphere. Trying to connect wires with a limited amount of time isn’t a lot of fun, either.
Even if one forgets about these strange mini-games, there are plenty of other annoying puzzles, e.g. a trial-and-error lockpicking conundrum. Playing Blind Man’s Buff with a ghost might sound scary at first, but as the controls are so imprecise, catching the apparition when it passes by isn’t much fun. In general, the idea of playing children’s games makes sense in the context of the game, but its implementation is often too frustrating, e.g. when one has to play Seven Seas-Huffity Puffity with the same girl in which the player turns around in the right directions that are given to him or her.
Looking for clues and messages
The biggest problem of the previous two games was that one usually wandered around aimlessly, and while there’s still a fair bit of pixel hunting and losing orientation in the vast hotel, at least clues are given more freely. This goes so far that one constantly receives phone messages about new guests arriving at the hotel, so that heads to the reception desk and look into the register, receives a key or a new clue for an accessible room.
But these hints become too numerous towards the end, as one is repeatedly notified that there’s something one needs to see in a specific room, which takes away a bit of the rewarding feeling of exploration the other games offered. It feels as if one follows a walkthrough, one that often doesn’t make much sense, as one is sent from one room to the next, being given one cryptic message after another.
Lost souls and orientation
Despite being a rather linear game in which rooms are only unlocked after certain events are triggered, there’s still a lot of walking around and getting lost. Even if one is given a map early on, it’s only a rough sketch and doesn’t offer a fast-travel option which (as in the other two titles) would have made the constant backtracking more bearable.
What makes progress much more tedious are the very slow camera movements, including some head bobbing and unnecessarily long close-ups of objects and environments. So it takes ages to simply move a few steps forward without having the option to skip the movement animations. This also holds true for cut-scenes, tape recordings or comments by the detective which can’t be skipped, either.
Scary, disgusting and disturbing sights
After so many examples of disgusting scenes, it’s clear that the art design isn’t for the squeamish, but it’s certainly memorable and a far cry from the rather static screens of Dark Fall: The Journal and the rather boring environments of Dark Fall 2: Lights Out. A dark room with only a flickering TV screen and countless blinking eyes on the walls with a hole one has to crawl through is one example. Another one is the aforementioned room with cocoon butterflies, but even more disturbing and scary are the many mannequins one encounters, e.g. in a restaurant that also has leftover bones on plates that refer to Mr. Bones, the accused child murderer. At times the visual design is reminiscent of David Fincher’s psychological thriller Seven, but with a supernatural twist.
Survival horror is another reference, although it rarely works in this particular game. For example, the protagonist climbs a ladder and with each slow step, the heavy breathing becomes more annoying than immersive, which is also true for faster heartbeats that are only effective after a sudden jump scare but not if one has to climb through the same window again.
A shaky camera might work in games like “Outlast” and “Outlast: Whistleblower”, but these are much more intense in terms of gameplay which feels out of place in a first-person adventure when movement is so slow in general. The first two games had more subtle horror and now one encounters jump scares more frequently, usually involving ghostly apparitions, which is effective the first few times, but becomes old very soon. Even the initial strange messages the police inspector receives lose some of their creepiness.
The art of horror
The graphics feature livelier backgrounds with great lighting effects and even the ghostly apparitions are more convincing than in the previous games thanks to better art design. This is complemented by the very creepy sound design that often uses whispering, hissing or screeching voices in the dark. The soundtrack is particularly atmospheric with all sorts of voices included, like children singing and men choirs. Unfortunately the voice acting isn’t of the same high standard, which is sadly true for the main character who rarely hits the right notes.
More than a few bugs crawling around
What is probably more annoying and frustrating are a few bugs that require restarting the game and trying some puzzles again, e.g. after putting together pieces of a newspaper article or when trying to unlock a safe. In both cases, the mouse cursor disappears and one can’t exit the screen. Constant saving is recommended, although it’s pretty cumbersome to use the phone each time, resulting in some unnecessary loading animations.
A mixed bag of terror
Dark Fall: Lost Souls is the perfect example of missed opportunities. Its graphics are a big step up from the developer’s previous titles, while the atmosphere is thankfully creepier than the lacklustre Dark Fall 2: Lights Out with better sound design (minus the terrible voice acting of the lead) and more horror elements.
Unfortunately, the puzzles are often too obscure, navigation is too cumbersome and slow resulting in lost time while trying to find the lost souls in the 10 hours it takes, and one often feels on a trip through a haunted mansion that throws all sorts of hints at the player without much rhyme or reason. A bit less attention to disgusting detail and more to a satisfying story would have done the game a lot of good, too.
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