Dark Fall (U.S. version - The Adventure Company, 2003)
For those of you who have been eagerly anticipating the Adventure Company re-release of this game on American soil, let me start with the good news. Dark Fall is not the biggest disappointment of 2003. That belt is still retained by the current champion, The Omega Stone.
But the North American release of Jonathan Boakes' beloved haunted-house thriller doesn't quite live up to all the hype either.
I was so jazzed to finally get this game. Friends in the U.K. had raved about it. Other reviewers had raved about it, nearly universally comparing it (favorably) to Amber: Journeys Beyond which is a personal favorite of mine. And it is certainly comparable to Amber. So comparable, in fact, that a more cynical critic might consider such phrases as "inspired by." Or "clone." Or even "rip-off."
Unfortunately, the game elements "inspired by" Amber are Dark Fall's weaknesses, getting wrong what the earlier masterpiece got right. But there are many shining touches in the original material in Dark Fall that still make it worth checking out.
"Who ya gonna call?"
As in Amber you find yourself wandering around a deserted building that is teeming with ghosts aided by high-tech equipment left behind by ghost-hunters who have already been claimed by the evil menace that lurks inside the haunted hotel and adjoining train station. You even have a variation on Amber's PeeK Unit, this time a little electromagnetic sensor that can tell you when there is a ghost in the area. However, unlike a PeeK Unit, this is all your sensor does. No wonderful images transmitted to you from the many video cameras scattered around the hotel. (To see the images from these cameras, you have to be sitting at the ghost-hunters' computer terminal.) No using it to input data from your location. Nothing. It merely shows you an EKG-like line that jags a little bit when you are near a ghost. Since you are never more than half-a-dozen steps away from a ghost (think the Overlook Hotel in The Shining... this place is the Paranormal Penn Station) the whole device is essentially useless. Fortunately, you can minimize it to the bottom-left of your game screen and promptly forget about it.
Of more use to you are the headgear/goggles you find which will let you see into the realm of the spirits. (Sound familiar, anyone?) At certain locations, the goggles will even let you talk to ghosts, popping up a limited text parser. (In another spot, you use a Ouija board to do the same thing.) To give Boakes credit, the visuals of the goggle-view are wonderful. You get what looks like a movie version of looking through binoculars, except that instead of black screen around the area of the binoculars, you see "reality." You can sweep the view across the entire game screen, watching furniture move or disappear or ghostly graffiti pop into view over the background of the "real world" as you move the goggles around.
Of course, there are differences between Dark Fall and Amber too. In Amber you actually enter the spirit world to live out the tragedies that cause the three ghosts in that game to haunt the house where the game is set. By focusing on these individual stories you get to actually know these ghosts and their heartbreak. You become emotionally invested in them and care about what happened to them.
While Dark Fall tells several individual stories (most of which are set in the last days of the hotel before all the staff and guests mysteriously vanished in 1947), it does so in a more emotionally sterile and clinical fashion: from journal entries, old newspaper clippings and computerized dossiers. Boakes only gives you enough personal details about two of the many ghosts to allow you to care about them. Edith was the manager of the long-defunct Dowerton Hotel, and she pines away for her husband who died in WWII (sound familiar?), spending most of her time playing "their song" on her Victrola with the volume cranked up to 11. George, the hotel's owner was also pining for a lost love who was killed in the War, as well as suffering increasing guilt and paranoia over being responsible for unleashing the evil that was gradually infecting the hotel and adjoining train station.
Part of the difference in focus, I suppose is that although the stories of George, Edith, and the rest of the ill-fated denizens of the Dowerton Hotel take up the majority of the time spent playing the game, they aren't really what the game is about. It seems that back in 1946 George and his "friend" Arther unwittingly released a horrible supernatural evil (the "Dark Fall" of the title) which spent the next year feeding on the souls of those who had died tragically in the area, strengthening itself until it could achieve a sufficiently corporeal manifestation to attack the living. (Maybe a better title would have been "The Shining" Time Station?) After glutting itself on the folks it snatched up in 1947, this Über-ghost has been laying around the place, dormant but strong, waiting for new victims. Now it's 2002 and the hotel-cum-train station has been invaded simultaneously by two ghost-hunters from the local college and your character's brother, an architect who is doing the surveying in preparation for remodeling the old buildings into a modern hotel/nightclub. When these folks disappear just as mysteriously and suddenly, you show up to do battle with the Dark Fall, piecing together decades-old clues to collect a series of runes which you can use to lock it back in its own dimension. This is the actual plotline of the game, and the stories of the Dark Fall's victims are mostly just backdrop.
"Quiet! I smell something!"
One area in which Dark Fall really shines is atmosphere. This is one of the scariest, most nerve-jangling games you will encounter. The graphics of the hotel and its environs (presented in the classic Myst-style photorealistic slideshow manner) are lovely and dark, giving you a real feeling of walking around a long deserted hotel and train station. There is no musical score, which allows Boakes to tease us with unexpected and creepy sounds. Over and over I found myself making little jumps in my chair at the sounds of a creaking floorboard, whispering not-quite-understood voices, furniture moving around in the room above me, or even a sudden strident note from a violin. Apparitions flicker like fireflies or humped scurrying shadows at the edge of your vision, disappearing before you can get a good look. Doors open and close on their own. A long-disconnected telephone rings and when answered, provides only more eerie noises or a legion of voices all crying out in torment.
The atmosphere really is Dark Fall's strongest feature. I thoroughly enjoyed The Blackstone Chronicles. I drooled in ecstasy over Amber. But I can honestly say that without a single drop of blood or gore, Boakes has, in his freshman effort, produced the scariest game I have ever played.
"No human could have stacked books like this!"
For many gamers, the heart of an adventure game is its puzzles. Dark Fall certainly has no shortage of these, though it may seem so at first if you start at the ground floor of the hotel and work your way up as I did. (Actually, this worked fine for me, as I got to spend the first hour of the game slipping into the atmosphere before I had to put my brain to work.) For the most part, the puzzles are relatively simple, if original. I particularly enjoyed finding the computer password puzzle and finding Edith's rune. Locating some of the puzzles may be a bit of a chore, though a fun one. Despite the game's scope being limited to the hotel, the attached train station, and a one-room barn a few yards away, there are some 50+ different locations to explore in your search for the 12 runes, and you will find yourself visiting most of them more than once in your quest as you piece together which bit of information goes with what. However, almost without exception the puzzles themselves are very easy, often overhinted or even with the solution flat-out handed to you on a silver platter. I was never even tempted to find a walkthrough. At least the puzzles were mostly original and fun. There is one glaring exception, and because it was one of the last ones I encountered, it left a really bad taste in my mouth after the fun of the earlier majority of the game. The final locked door I encountered was George's study. And the solution is.... you guessed it. The old "slide-paper-under-the-door-and-poke-the-key-out" puzzle. Again. It seems virtually every adventure game I have played in the last year has this whiskered codger of a puzzle. Now I don't mean to go on a rant here, but.... AREN'T WE ALL SICK AND TIRED OF THIS PUZZLE BY NOW!?! Boakes did add a little twist on it this time: we can't examine the keyhole to know that the key is in it on the other side. Somehow, this little bit of unfairness doesn't make the puzzle any more appealing.
"We came. We saw. We kicked its ass!"
Don't let my negative comments dissuade you from giving Dark Fall a whirl. It is certainly a masterpiece of atmosphere. Play it with the lights out and the sound turned up and I defy you to not jump in your seat over and over. And for a first effort it more than holds its own, certainly providing a better gaming experience than the majority of the crop of 2003 releases thus far (Cameron Files 2, Omega Stone, Mystery of the Mummy, Shadow of Destiny). The game shows a great deal of promise for a fledgling effort, and I expect wonderful things from Boakes in the future. But be warned that there is much here that is highly derivative. It isn't very long or very difficult. And if you progress through the game in the same order I did, the final locked door and the terrible-yet-cliche "Did it all really happen or didn't it?" ending may leave such a bad taste in your mouth that you need a swallow of Old Dow to cleanse your palate.
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