If someone had shown me screenshots or video of Darkness Within 2: The Dark Lineage and told me it was a game made in 2010 for the PC without me knowing anything about it, I'd have called them an extremely poor liar. It has some of the worst visual design I've seen in a modern game on the PC in quite some time.
Darkness Within 2, from developer Zoetrope Interactive, doesn't really resemble what you'd expect of a modern adventure game. Its big claim to fame is that it's changed the view and control method found in the first Darkness Within to give the player a little more freedom to move around in a first-person view. It would have been nice, then, if they had included any significant reason to do so outside of the puzzles, which are mostly solved through menu screens. It's also a poorly animated mess of a game, budget title or not.
Darkness Within 2 puts you into the shoes of ex-detective Howard Loreid, the protagonist from the first game, who awakens inside an abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods. The only explanation about how he made it here from the asylum to which he'd recently been committed is a letter found on the nightstand by the bed. As Henry regains consciousness and the world swims into view, control is relinquished to the player. If you've ever played a first-person PC title of any kind, you'll instinctively know what to do, as the WASD keys control movement, and the mouse is used to look around and click on interactive items.
The previous title, Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder, adopted a system found in quite a few other budget adventure titles, where player control is dictated by where you click on the screen, and gameplay consists of finding all the highlighted or interactive items before moving on to the next locale. This time around, you've got a lot more freedom to explore, and from the onset, you can freely walk between its two floors, interact with doors to explore small living spaces, pick up and move items like chairs and crates, and so on. With that said, all the freedom doesn't equate to a whole lot. Aside from a few legitimately creepy moments that play tricks on your field of vision, having the freedom to move around the different areas just gives you the opportunity to see that there's nothing worth interacting with. It actually leads to the game feeling a little unfocused, and at times, I wondered what I should be doing next.
Back to the visuals, the only positive aspect is that the game uses the contrast between light and dark to a somewhat impressive effect. It's the only standout element of the graphics; when you pick up an artificial light source, like a lantern or flashlight, the source of light bounces off and shines through the objects around it in a realistic manner. You can tell that a great deal of attention was poured into making this lighting effect work, and it's a shame that the same level of care wasn't applied to other areas.
For instance, the character models in the game are absolutely atrocious. They're all animated poorly, with either quick, jerky movements or little movement at all. Watching a character's face move as he speaks to you reminds me of something from the puppet film "Team America," or the old TV show, "Thunderbirds." I'm half expecting Fox McCloud and company to pop out at some point, if you'd prefer a video game reference point. They're also really ugly examples of human beings. Not every game character should be a super model, but the innkeeper reminded me more of the Locust from Gears of War than anything that remotely resembles a human being. I'm surprised that some of these character designs were given the green light.
Another standout early example is the bookshop owner in the opening town. The character is described to you as a much older gentleman, who is unfriendly to outsiders but loves to talk about the war with which he was involved in years past. When you finally visit him at his shop, he looks no older than the barkeep that made him out to be a geezer in the first place. He's also remarkably friendly, even before you engage him in talk about the war. I suppose you could make the argument that the barkeep was simply gossiping and overexaggerating about the store owner's personality as part of his character, but I get the feeling that the inconsistency is completely unintentional.
Darkness Within 2 finally begins to pick up the pace shortly after your visit at the bookstore, where you encounter your first major puzzle and the beginning of the problems with solving the puzzles. People have complained about this in adventure games for years, even in some older LucasArts titles that are still considered classics. On occasion, you'll run into a puzzle where the solution doesn't really follow any logic, and you end up solving it through chance or a random combination of items.
This happens a number of times throughout Darkness Within 2, but the instance I want to mention here fails for another reason altogether. Inside the bookstore, you uncover a book with a strange lock placed on it. The key for the lock is present, but it's a mix of a combination lock and standard key. You have a series of gears on the key to turn, and then a button to press that will pop out small spines that fit into the grooves of the lock. You need to find the right arrangement of spines along the key in order to open the book. The only way to do so is by listening to the noise each gear makes as you turn it, which is inaudible to the player until you find a device to go along with it.
The device used to do this is a stethoscope, which does make sense. The frustrating side is that the ability to interact with the stethoscope is blocked until you pick up the book and discover the lock puzzle. Both items are placed within the basement of the bookstore, and if you're like me, you'll tend to search every nook and cranny of a new location before even attempting to start a puzzle. The assumption, on my end, is that there is probably a series of items within this one location that I'll need to use to solve said puzzle. That assumption was correct, but for some reason, I'm blocked from discovering that until I uncover the arbitrary timeline the game has invisibly put into play.
This happens pretty often throughout Darkness Within 2, and it forced me to turn on the in-game hint system at times, which I loathe to do in adventure titles because it basically plays the game for me. I might as well be watching a playthrough on YouTube at that point, but I'm only willing to put up with so much frustration. I'm all right with challenging puzzles that require thought, math, or logic to figure out. But I hate when a game needlessly blocks a solution until it feels I should discover it.
That's what kills Darkness Within 2: The Dark Lineage for me, more so than the awful visuals, which I can certainly put up with if the gameplay were remotely satisfying. The game's only redeeming factor is that it often delivers on its psychological horror tropes. There are a few uneasy and unsettling moments that cause you to move the camera back and forth despite knowing that the game can't actually kill or harm your character. That knee-jerk reaction to footsteps coming out of the ether or rattling pipes and floorboards when I should be alone was almost enough to make me come back around to enjoying Darkness Within 2. But then the gameplay would rear its extremely ugly head once again, and I'd be right back to wishing the whole experience were over. Do yourself a favor and skip this one, whether you're an adventure game enthusiast or not.
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