Like a brooding vampire attempting to get by in a human world, Dark has decided its best chance of survival is to hide in plain sight. Woefully underfunded and undercooked in comparison with contemporary stealth titles, Realmforge’s supernatural Splinter Cell knockoff uses every trick in the book to
try to disguise its true identity. From the smeary cel-shaded visuals (an aesthetic that hides a multitude of sins) to the way amnesiac lead Eric Bain clumsily ‘warps’ from cover to cover (a shroud of smoke serving as a placeholder to actual animation frames), Dark is a masterclass in blemish concealment. But there are some things that can’t be faked so easily – some parts of Dark yield no reflection when you hold a mirror up to them. Terminally, chief among these is the enemy AI.
Enemy intelligence is the single most important element of a stealth game; indeed, it could be argued that AI is the genre in its entirety. If you can’t rely upon your opponents to behave rationally and consistently, then there’s no reward to be found from outwitting them, no reason to persevere with learning behavioural patterns and no enjoyment to be gleaned from experimenting with what you’ve learned. There’s nothing left but dreary warehouses.
If you put Dark’s AI into a bird, it would fly backwards. Guards move around in laughably basic patterns, fail to notice you hiding behind transparent cover and, when giving chase, lose track of your whereabouts with alarming ease. Getting spotted is actually one of your more viable strategies as, once in a secluded spot, it’s easy to lure guards to their doom one by one using a trail of corpses as bait. Dark restores the balance in favour of the AI drones in the most spiteful way possible: certain guards stand motionless in one location, their gaze permanently fixed ahead, usually at the bottom of a staircase or similar. It’s a cheap, frustrating and artificial way of cutting off creative avenues to the player – and this in a genre where no gameplan should be off-limits to the bold experimenter.
Salvation does not come in the form of player locomotion. For a vampire, Bain is slow, cumbersome and unable even to jump onto railings, and his vampiric powers – such as time distortion, teleportation and temporary cloaking – fail to serve as a counterbalance. His abilities are more commonly implemented as a fix for sub-par level design. It’s thoroughly unsatisfying.
Realmforge is clearly a student of the genre, but budget is king here, and the studio lacks the financial clout to even pierce the flesh of a crowded market. Despite being crafted with noble intentions, Dark succeeds only in sucking the life out of itself.
Dark is out now on Xbox 360 and PC. Xbox 360 version tested.