The point and click adventure game has had a bit of a hard time lately. Long gone are the days of success afforded by games such as LucasArts' Sam & Max and Cyan's Myst series. Gamers demand more interactivity with the character they play, not just the environment they see. Yet there's always the odd game that attempts to bring back the glory of the traditional point and click adventure. And so we come to Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder, inspired by the works of the famous horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft. Unfortunately I'm not sure just how keen Lovecraft would be on having this game credited to him.
The game starts out rather uneventfully with a brief quotation from Lovecraft, just to make sure you know he's influenced the game, and a cut scene with questionable graphics and a voice over that sounds like the announcer is not overly enamoured with the plot either. If you've ever listened to a cheap audio book, you'll recognise the style of reading immediately. The cut scene is set in a mental asylum and explains that you are about to look back at a man's life to see what events caused him to be there. It does start out moderately interesting but already there is a certain sense that the game thinks it's scarier than it actually is. Shortly afterwards you 'wake up' in your bed, in presumably your apartment, to the sound of a phone ringing. The story swiftly unfolds to reveal that you are a police detective by the name of Howard (yes Howard) E. Loreid investigating the murder of Clark Field, a wealthy man involved in the occult. The prime suspect being Loath Nolder, a private investigator who recently went missing. After overcoming the shock of such unique names just crying out to be noticed, we come to the control system. Oh dear, oh dear.
It is moments like these where I wonder if I've accidentally slipped into a wormhole and gone back around 10 years. The developers of these controls seem to have forgotten they had a keyboard in front of them, maybe they didn't or maybe the keyboard wasn't working that day. Whatever the reason, the lack of a need for a keyboard just feels so very wasted. Games like Broken Sword managed to still be great without any keyboard controls, yet times have moved on, when there's a peripheral there that can make things easier for your player, use it! Instead we have to suffer just the mouse. No you can't use wasd or arrow keys to move around each scene (which is always dark and dull looking anyhow), instead you have to use your cursor to scan across the surroundings to see what's available to look at, and whether you can rotate around the room or move to another doorway with a mouse click. It hardly lends itself to making the player feel in control. There isn't even an option to remap any of the mouse buttons to the keyboard.
It's just all very predictable and unexciting. There's nothing inherently wrong with Darkness Within; it's just not very interesting. The puzzles often make little sense and force you to methodically check every single item in a room rather than logically determine what is of use to you. It wouldn't be so bad if the story was thrilling, but the way it's presented here just makes it a slog to get through. There are reams of pages of notes you can read later on in the game but I can't help but think, if I want to read a book, I'll go read a book not play a game. The presentation of the information is hardly thrilling either, there's not a huge quantity of voiceovers and what is there is in monotone. The graphics are distinctly ancient looking and the options to adjust them are limited to resolution and turning anti aliasing on. It really does feel like the game was hidden away from the world for 5-6 years and now it's been unleashed, it just looks so behind the times.
There isn't even an auto save option, and when you choose to quit the game with annoyance (which you will, often) it merely points out to you that you will lose your current progress, no friendly suggestion to save it. It's only a minor thing, but if it's only a small problem, then why has it not already been put into the game? Perhaps worst of all, it has one crucial bug within it that can mean you can't continue with your game. One of its fairly unique features is that you can combine items within your 'mind' to think about them and gather more clues about the case. A number of players including myself have reported that when you put any item on these analysing slots, then drag an icon, from the list of things to consider, over the item, it disappears. Some players have been caught out by this and have saved afterwards, meaning they have had to resort to an earlier save game or to restart the game completely.
Overall the game just has a very mediocre feel about it. It seems a bit like someone just got the basic elements of a point and click adventure game from 10 years ago and assumed that this would do fine. It's a great pity as the thoughts of Lovecraft deserve better than this and so many of Darkness Within's faults could have been fixed relatively quickly, and would have improved the game immensely. Simple features like the ability to move with the keyboard, such as the system seen in Fahrenheit, and an auto save feature would have immediately made this game a bit better. However, if in the past you've enjoyed point and click adventure games such as the CSI series or the many Sherlock Holmes adventure games, then this may well be worth a wee stab.