Friday 18 May 2018

Switch Review - The Darkside Detective

With Its pixelated graphics, 80’s jokes and simplistic point-and-click interface ‘The Darkside Detective’ could be a game from the classic era of Adventure games. But despite being hilarious, does anyone actually play these games any more ?

Developed by Spooky Doorway 
Released in 2017

For too long there was the mistaken belief that the point-and-click genre was dead. When LucasArts and Sierra hung up their mouse cursors, many people (shamefully myself included) believed that the much love genre vanished with them. But the reality is it simply retreated into the background. 

It’s easy to forget how big the genre was in the mid nineties, thriving on home computers with some break out hits venturing onto console. 3D cards in PCs and the emergence of 32bit consoles changed player expectations. Flat 2D world’s became less fashionable, made to look dated by real-time polygon environments. While developers tried to adapt the genre even one of the greatest point-and-Click games failed to attract an audience. ‘Grim Fandango’ was criticality adored but a huge commercial failure. Established franchises like ‘Monkey Island’, ‘King's Quest’,’ Broken Sword’ and even ‘Leisure Suit Larry’ lost their appeal in three dimensions. Years later Tim Schafer’s ‘Broken Age’ and Ron Gilbert’s ‘Thimbleweed Park’ proved there was a huge audience happy to return to genre in its original 2D format. However, in the intervening period small developers had continued to make these style of games for a small and grateful audience. Primarily in Europe, platforms like the Adventure Game Studio allowed for the creation of a huge range of stories but in all of them the plot was advancd by a lot of mouse pointing and clicking. Although there were breakout hits that found their way onto Steam and mobile platforms, it was primarily fans of the point-and-click genre making games for those with a similar appetite . As game designer Paul Conway puts it “our target audience are players who loved the classic 90s LucasArts and Sierra point and click games, much like ourselves”. 

As Conway recalls ‘The Darkside Detective’ has humble beginnings, it was “a silly idea myself and Christopher Colston came up with at a game jam”. The two shared a common interest; “We both love adventure games a lot and hadn’t worked on anything together before, so we decided to give it a shot in the time we had.”

At the end of the Game Jam they had a 4 screen concept demo that by their own admission was simple, and had one slightly large design fault. “ the puzzles made little sense” Conway jokes. “We didn’t really expect much more from it, but when we posted it online with some screenshots we got a really positive response.” To the the teams surprise tens of thousands of people started to download the demo and it caught the attention of big websites like PC Gamer, EuroGamer and The Verge. “At that point we knew we had something interesting on our hands” says Conway. Spooky Doorway  expanded taking on  Tracey McCabe as lead developer and Dave McCabe to expand the story and this ‘The Darkside Detective’ was born. Given the genre had its roots in desktop computing, the PC was free obvious platform and the game has been very well received on Steam with 95% of players given it “Very Positive” Feedback. But it wasn’t just customers who fell in love with ‘The Darkside Detective’, critics healed in the praise too. PC Gamer called it “a smart but simple adventure that's exactly the right kind of spooky. It's short, but superb”. However Conway always had his eye on porting the game to consoles and one system in particular had caught his attention. “The Switch really seems like it would lend itself well with its touchscreen and all. “

The game is set in the American city of Twin Lakes where Detective Francis McQueen heads up the Darkside Division; a mysterious department within the police Force. With his trusty sidekick officer McQueen investigates the paranormal activities around town; the cases too surreal or absurd to be looked into by anyone else. However there isn’t an over arching story to the game and many intriguing narrative ideas feel underused. This is partly down to the game being structure episodically, with 6 individual cases that can be played entirely independent of each other. “A lot of our core [audience] are people in their 30s and 40s that played these games as kids” observes writer David McCabe. “We know the time they have available is limited. We kind of created these small, fun, 'I can sit and play and enjoy the story' experiences. 'It’s not too taxing, I had a tiring day; I can either watch one episode on Netflix or play one case of a game’”. As such each case lasts between 30 and 60 minute with that playtime largely depends on how much time a player spends exploring the environment and exhausting all the conversations. “Players can easily jump in and out of the game over a few evenings and not have to keep track of a larger story” adds Conway. “We wanted players to be able to sit down and get the satisfaction of solving a case each time they played.” While this does make the game feel smaller and slightly fragmented it does allow Spooky Door to explore a variety of situations and ‘The Darkside Detective’ is ideally suited to portable play. “We felt that if we could make the cases the right length, you can play one during a commute or after getting your kid down to bed” believed McCabe.   

An hour of play is perfect  for a commute and it does mean the many, many jokes and sight gags never outstay their welcome.  “We injected the game with a daft sense of humour, referential of the 80s and 90s TV shows of a similar ilk” notes Conway. “It was silly, but we had fun making it.” Accordingly  each episode feels like a separate parody. In one McQueen must investigate a haunted library, another focuses on a mysterious lake monster and a lager chapter feature zombies.  The pop-culture references and fourth-wall breaking is so on point that it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t tickle the target audience.  “the humour and also the deep influences come from pop culture we grew up with” admits Conway. “How we learned to deliver humour is partially through the old games, the ‘Monkey Island’ games and the Sierra games”.

Nostalgia for thirty years ago seems to be very much in vogue at the moment. TV shows like ‘Stranger Things’ have made the era attractive even to those who weren't even born at the time. ‘The Darkside Detective’ plays up to expectations, with a synth inspired soundtrack composed by Ben Prunty. Best known for the ambient melodies of the tactical Space RTS ‘ FTL: Faster than Light’, the music he has done for this game certainly amplifies the mystery without being so intense that it’s at odds with the quirky sense of humour. “I was asked to use John Carpenter’s film soundtracks as inspiration. I tried to keep a mostly straight-faced spooky vibe, despite the fact that it’s a comedy game. But when I say spooky, I’m definitely leaning more towards ‘Halloween’ and less toward ‘The Exorcist’.”

Sadly the game lacks any form of voice acting. While this might be reflective of 80’s era point-and-click games it’s something modern audiences really expect. ‘Thimbleweed Park’ and re-releases of ‘Day of the Tentacle’ and ‘The Secret of Monkey Island’ aren’t mute so it’s a shame spoken dialogue is  absent here, especially as the jokes would feel funnier with it.  Like the music the visuals of the game play up to 80’s expectations rather than authenticity. Its pixelated graphics, while wonderful, are a lower resolution than even the first games of the point-and-click genre. However, they are all nicely animated and it’s a pleasing juxtaposition to see blocky characters illumined by modern lighting effects. According to Spooky Door “it’s  a strange mix of old and new [...] uniquely ‘Darkside’”. “We debated it for a while, changing the art style with a higher resolution. Did a few tests with higher resolution and character faces and all that. But it felt wrong to change it” recalls Conway. “The game evolved into essentially being an icon of what adventure games looked like, rather than the exact style of those adventure games.”

While stylised, the faceless characters have divided opinions. Many claim they are indicative of a time when memory was at a premium and facial expression was left to player imagination. But I find it dilutes McQueen’s personality as it’s hard to tell if he is being sarcastic and quick witted or simply grumpy and rude. Either would be fitting, but it’s nice to know what sort of a man you’re in control of.  Arguably the environments present more life and personality, even if each location is small, especially for point-and-click gamers used to sweeping locales. The character sprites even take up a huge amount of the on screen real estate, remaining fixed in size and even fixed in position. 

Unlike every other point-and-click there is no “walk to” command. If you can see an item McQueen will pick it up and there is no way to move him about in a location. While this sounds restrictive, it actually streamlines the game, and really it’s an extension of the “double door click” where in most similar games this teleports you out of a location. There is no on-screen verb menu or action wheel to pick commands from. Instead you use the analog sticks to move a rather sluggish pointer  around the screen and click on anything that catches your eye. If it’s a person - you’ll talk to them, an item - you’ll pick it up and clicking on an environmental object will prompt a description. According to Conway, “It’s a classic point and click adventure game, but a little more stripped back and streamlined."

Every item that you pick up will be used within the episode you're playing, so there's no red herrings; literal or metaphorical. While this does limit the options you do still have to combine items with each other. But even with this demand, the game isn’t  a particularly difficult or taxing adventure.  You may get momentarily stumped, but this typically  is because an a item has been overlooked or a question not asked. A common criticism of the point-and-click adventure genre is that games are filled with illogical solutions to ludicrous situations. If a player feels this way ‘The Darkside Detective’ should be avoided. Many of the  puzzles defy the laws of rationality simply to garner a laugh. For fans though this is all part of the appeal of the genre; especially given that the most applauded game ‘The Secret of Monkey Island 2’ actually features a notorious Monkey Wrench puzzle solution. Various mini-games do break up the exploration, however these could only be described as minor gameplay diversions and are hardly original. ‘Pipe-Mania’ style levels,  a turn-off-the-lights conundrum that would feel at home in a ‘Professor Layton’ game and jigsaw puzzles have all been done far better elsewhere. It’s nice Spooky Door have tried to mix up the game play, but it feels slightly like a way to artificially extend the game’s duration. 

At nearly £12 on the eShop ‘The Darkside Detective’ seems quite pricey for (at most) a 6 hour game. However, compared to ‘Her Majesty’s Spiffing’ - a similar point-and-click style game that’s £10 for 1 hour, it probably isn’t too bad. I certainly found it amusing, and playing it gave me plenty of moments of smug satisfaction when I solved a puzzle. As is true of the genre, it doesn’t stand up to repeated plays but hopefully additional cases could increase its life, should Spooky Door continue the DLC model they started on Steam. 

With its divisive art style, slow pace and demand for 80s nostalgia ‘The Darkside Detective’ clearly won’t  attract everyone. However it does provide yet another game for the ‘Broken Age’ and ‘ThimbleWeed Park’  Kickstarter backers, who proved there is a enlarging audience eager to point and click through quirky comedy.  “[Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer] started shaking the tree of adventure games; players have fallen out and are now interested in finding more” cryptically states Dave McCabe. “It’s nice for the genre. It seems to be growing in popularity; we hopefully can deliver more ‘Darkside’”.

If you enjoyed this review you’ll be delighted to know I’ve co-written a book exclusively about the point-and-click genre. If you’re interested in more head on over to the Bitmap Books website.

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