Published on December 17th, 2015 | by Nick (Catfish_Maw) Walker0
Dark Fear Review
It is no secret that indie devs love them some retro throwbacks. Whether it’s for budget or time reasons, the simplicity of design that such an art style invites, or just good old-fashioned nostalgia, the quality of such titles fluctuate like a wavy MODE-7 intro screen. I blame Cave Story -if you could call it blame– and it’s popularity for the glut of subsequent and similar titles, but from Cave Story onwards the focus has almost always been on emulating classic Nintendo consoles, usually the NES. Rarely do you see a modern game even attempt the feel of an old-school PC game, despite its storied and parallel history to the aforementioned consoles. Enter Arif Games’ Dark Fear, a love letter to those who whittled their childhoods away wrestling with command prompts and switching floppies more than they were actually playing them.
The VGA-ish display ensnared me from the get-go, with the startup boasting a realistic recreation of a DOS command prompt. Indeed the whole of the game’s visuals are a faithful emulation of not just the technical limitations of, say, an IBM PC, but also the style in which pixel art was drawn in early 90’s, Western-developed PC titles. Just about everything you see bleeds another era, from the clunky grammar to the arbitrary score, and I’ve yet to see this period in gaming so accurately recreated on any other android RPG. The motif du jour is brought to an even greater forefront by blending positively antique sound-blaster effects with contemporary-quality music. The resulting dissonance, coupled with the dreadful swoon of the soundtrack, creates a fairly uncommon and eerie atmosphere.
Fear is indeed the name of the game here, and I don’t just know that because they told me on the Google Play page. At times Dark Fear reaches tense moments, shunting them into a fever pitch with jump-scares (screamers, as the kids call them). Although admittedly lazy and quickly hilarious, they will make you jump for at least a moment, and they don’t overstay their welcome, staying evenly spread throughout the experience. As you explore engaging locales, the game centers on acquiring money and pelts in order to buy new weapons and armor, magic resistances in the form of henna tattoos, and potions, while you traverse a varied and interesting landscape talking to bland but suitably crafted characters. It’s a world of occult mysteries, monster-infested forests, and eternal night, brought into the foreground by a silent protagonist hell-bent on nailing all manner of creepy odd-jobs shut, urged by weak townsfolk and beseeched ghosts: classic RPG/adventure stuff. In another game I would claim the formula is cliché, but given the how the art was crafted, it strikes me as more of a stylistic choice, rather than laziness on the developer’s part.
The gathering of resources helps provide a necessary lull between the spooky bits, but they drag on too long, and the battles that are an inevitable result of said spookiness become drawn-out and tedious, especially due to the lack of random damage. What is random damage you ask? Well, back in the days of yore, there was little to give players feedback while in combat, so damage was given a base value, and for the sake of tension and variety the actual damage you would inflict would arbitrarily change around that base value each time you made an attack -a system brought straight over from tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. For instance, a base damage of 35 might give you 32 damage on one attack, and 37 on another. This is a hugely important design choice for Dark Fear to leave out entirely: it makes fights predictable and usually devoid of suspense, since when you’re going to lose you can see it coming a mile away, and the sluggish nature of the battle’s text prompts plus the inability to quickly tap through them equals a slog through an otherwise enjoyable time.
The inclusion of prompts about new shop items, as well as hokey achievement pop-ups, are cringe-worthy for sure, and distract from the inclined build of the atmosphere, even more so than the godforsaken “share this on Twitter” prompt. Ugh. It’s only other flaws are merely those endemic to its genre: adventure games naturally have abrupt stopping points due to the fact that a true puzzle can’t exist in an environment where you lack all the pieces, and this is often the case as you struggle to gather the specific items you have to experiment with in your surroundings. Also, strategy games like Dark Fear, where it’s impossible to miss anything but the most deftly hidden content, have no replay value.
I see these aspects less as problems in the purest sense and more as an homage to the frankly rubbish and equally slow chug of the games that Dark Fear is copying. In that way, I liken it to Digital, a Love Story: that game attempted a similar retro feel, instead opting to convey the nearly lost memories of dialing into BBSs again and again, hoping to extract whatever minute information was contained therein. The game’s facsimile to life on a primitive internet felt real and compelling, but certainly made for a chore of an experience, which is what they wanted. Still, if you’re looking for something to lull you back into the days of drive mounting, Dark Fear is imperative, sure in its goals, and tightly fun, so long as you can stand to reminisce on how slow those aging games could be.
Is It Hardcore?
Summary: A DOS-themed horror adventure game with neat puzzles and chuckle-inducing jump-scares.