Dark Fall: Lights Out - Review 1

Use supernatural investigative techniques and ghost-hunting gadgets to reveal the evil presence that threatens Fetch Rock

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Genre: Horror Adventure
Release Date: Summer 2004
Platform: PC

Note:  First published 15 September 2004

Introduction

In the Olympic Games there are some events, such as diving and gymnastics, where points are awarded just for difficulty. If the athlete attempts a difficult maneuver, then mistakes which normally would have cost points, might be overlooked.

This is how I view independent developers. It is one thing for a team to develop a game. It is quite another for a single individual. Not only must they master every skill of art and technology, but they must subject themselves to endless review and repetition of their creation. Pretend you are a beta-tester and must play a game through five times checking every hotspot and combination for bugs. By the third time through you would be totally sick of the game. Now imagine how many times a developer must go through it.

Developing an adventure game single-handedly is not something a mere mortal can do.

So when one comes along and it isn't just a nice effort, but a thoroughly professional piece of work that can go toe-to-toe with the Big Boys, then you can be assured that you are in the presence of greatness.I liked this game.

Installation

Everything went as advertised. There was a warning about two large files which would take extra long. Sure enough, the installation seemed to freeze at just those points, but with a little patience everything completed properly.

When run, the game automatically changes the screen settings to what it needs. When finished, it politely returns your system to its previous settings.

Extra points for installing completely to hard drive. More extra points for not needing the CD in the machine to play the game. Large bucket of extra points to TAC for releasing this without any copy protection. And rare and exotic extra points for writing the whole thing in Macromedia so that it can even be run under Linux by using the WINE utility.

While not normally a category of its own, this work deserves an A+ for packaging and the heartfelt thanks of the community for sanity above and beyond the call of society.

Story

A young cartographer, Parker, is sent to the Cornish harbour town of Trewarthan, where he is to map the lethal rocks that have claimed lives through the centuries. A thick fog rolls in from the English Channel as the faithful light of Fetch Rock Lighthouse is plunged into darkness, putting the lives of those at sea in peril. Parker may be their only hope. Armed with his compass, charts and wits he sets off to uncover the mystery. Along the way he discovers that Fetch Rock and its lighthouse have a very sinister history.

Is time running out? Or does it have an agenda of its own...

The story has everything you need in an adventure game. The introduction both raises questions and involves us personally. More story unfolds with each step of the game. It doesn't require you to do anything out of character, such as wanton destruction of life or property (at least that would be out of character for me). It grips you and you want, no, need to find out what happens next.

The only shortcomings are from the ending being a bit abrupt. While all the major issues are resolved, there are still little things left unanswered. Like who hung all those little plaques in all those odd places and why (personally, I blame Yeesha). But these issues come only after the game is finished and don't affect the game itself.

The story deserves an A-

Navigation

The game, based on the Macromedia engine, is the classic slide-show type (think Myst). Tried, true and quite appropriate for adventure games.

Everything is single-mouse-click. The mini-menu of Load-Save-Quit is permanently affixed to the top of the screen. The inventory is always at the bottom. The whole game can be played with only a single button mouse. The only time you need the keyboard is to type in the name of a save game.

The cursors are small, unique and easily distinguished. There is never a possibility of confusing the “turn right” cursor with the “grab item” cursor.

Hotspots are generous and reasonable. No Hunt-The-Pixel in this game. There were only a couple of places where two hotspots were so close to each other that they may have been confused as one. But in each case, you really wanted to look at both places and so there is little danger of missing something.

My biggest complaint is with a common weakness of slide-show graphics; the lack of peripheral vision. In real life, healthy eyes have peripheral vision and dart around almost on their own. You go into a cluttered room and it is fairly obvious where the path is to the other side.

With this type of navigation system it is sometimes hard to see details diagonally up from you. It is like walking around with a large box on your head and only being able to see through a hole cut in the front. This could be corrected by rendering each scene with a slight fish-eye effect, that it is rarely done that way. The result was several cases where I missed a path or object that would have been obvious had I really been there.

My other frustration is with objects that can be seen from several views, but only have a hotspot from one of them. If it's clickable, and I can see it, then I should be able to click on it. I shouldn't be forced to first approach it from any special direction.

Fortunately, each of these problems only manifested a few times in the game and so were not major issues.

Navigation gets a solid B+

Puzzles
Well conceived and logically implemented.

Most puzzles are logical/twiddly variants of the combination lock. They are logically integrated into the story and have reasonable solutions.

Inventory puzzles are limited, but again, well thought out. The items you acquire are asked to perform tasks that are quite reasonable for them. No Rube Goldberg scenarios here. And again, they are well integrated into the story.

There are also a couple of dialog trees that must be correctly traversed. Again, they were reasonable and quite forgiving.

The overall effect was that everything flowed together wonderfully. I never got the feeling that a puzzle was being thrown in on a whim or just to stretch the game out. This whole game was truly designed.

My only complaint was with a certain puzzle that somehow got past QA. There is an old radio at a certain place and it is obviously missing a knob. But it has no hotspots to indicate that you can do anything with it. Later on you find a knob which looks like it goes to that radio, but again, no hotspots. If you just go ahead and click on the radio while you have the knob, even though your cursor indicates that there is nothing to do here, the knob does install and the puzzle begins. And since all the QA testers from TAC are listed in the credits, we know exactly who to blame :-).

But even with that minor faux pas, it is rare to find a game in which the puzzles are so well integrated into the story line. Without question, the puzzles get an A-

Graphics

Beautifully done with much loving care.

The scenes are 3D rendered. The models were taken from actual buildings and antiques, as were the textures. No stock images were used here.

The graphics enhance the story and never detract from it. They help set the mood most effectively. It is dark and gloomy. You are alone, but not as alone as you would wish. You will want to play the game with the lights off. You will need to sleep with the lights on.

The only complaint is the one mentioned earlier – no peripheral vision. It might be interesting to see if a fish-eye effect could be included in the render large enough to give a wider field of view, but subtle enough to appear natural.

So while perfection escapes us, I must still award an A- to the graphics.

Sound

Performed with a deft hand. Footsteps can be heard just out of sight. Pebbles skitter down from the rocks above. Ghostly voices struggle to be heard in the plane of the living. Never cheesy. Always adding to the ambience.

There is a little music in the game – usually simple melodies or chord progressions. Just enough to add to the atmosphere. And this music, as well, was designed by Jonathan Boakes.

Voice acting was also quite good. No one sounded like they were reading lines. Emotion and character were well focused. Accents were a joy to listen to.

Sound gets an A, not for innovation but for nailing it.

"Addictability"

Yes, I had to finish this game. Yes, I lost sleep over it. Yes, I woke up thinking about it. Yes, I'll be thinking about it for weeks to come, contemplating the many details. A solid “B+” for "addictability."

Conclusion

A tightly integrated game, well thought out and brilliantly executed. An unbelievable effort for a single individual.

If you like adventure games then you need to get Dark Fall: Lights Out. At $9.99 it is an amazing bargain. You need to pay retail for it and you need to figure out how to send more money to the developer. He needs to be encouraged to do another one. Buy the T-shirt.

Final Grade: A-

System Requirements:

    Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
    Pentium III 450 MHz or Better Processor
    128 MB RAM (256 MB Recommended)
    24xCD-ROM Drive (or PC DVD Drive)
    SVGA Graphics Card or better with 32-Bit Color (32-Bit Color at 800x600)
    DirectX9 Compatible Sound Card
    Mouse, Keyboard, Speakers

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