LIGHTS OUT (2004)  
by Bacardi Jim
September 3, 2004


Developer: XXV Productions
Publisher: The Adventure Company

In 2003, wunderkind Jonathan Boakes released his independent game Dark Fall.  Initially self-published and distributed, DF soon caught the attention of The Adventure Company, who purchased the North American publishing rights.  Dark Fall became one of the best-reviewed adventure games of 2003.  When Mr. Boakes let on that he was at work on a follow-up game, anticipation was high in the adventure game community.  At last we have Lights Out, the long-awaited “sequel” to Dark Fall.  Does LO live up to the standards of its predecessor?

Yes, and then some.

Fans of Boakes’s first game will want to know before they spend their money that Lights Out is not a sequel to DF.  Rather, it is a true follow-up, continuing many of the same themes and utilizing much the same style while introducing a completely unrelated story and cast of characters.  This time around, you play as Benjamin Parker, a young Scottish cartographer in the year 1912.  At the beginning of the game, Parker relates (via his journal) that he is in the Cornish village of Trewarthan to map the constantly shifting coastline.  While making his maps, Parker takes note of a lighthouse on a small island just off the coast and discovers that the locals are unwilling to speak of it.  When a passing ship reports that the lighthouse is not lit, Parker’s mysterious employer strikes a bargain with him to take a rowboat out to the island to check on the three lighthouse keepers stationed there.  Parker arrives to find the lighthouse empty, abandoned, with an unfinished meal on the table and a pot still boiling.  Once again, we find ourselves thrust into a tale of ghosts and the supernatural.  Or do we?

It soon develops that things aren’t quite what they seem at the lighthouse.  Without giving too much away, there is more science fiction than supernatural in the story.  To Boakes’s credit, he shows a natural ability to wed the two genres effortlessly, combining time travel, advanced computers and space exploration with ghosts, possession and hauntings into a tasty Cornish stew.  I found the storyline of LO to be far superior to that of DF, providing more length, depth, intelligence and emotional resonance than its predecessor.

Lights Out also beats Dark Fall in the graphics department.  The static, first-person-slideshow graphics are even more detailed this time around.  Boakes utilizes steam, mist and especially sky to effectively evoke a mood of mystery and eeriness.  There are a couple of shortcomings in the graphics department, however.  First, it eventually dawns on the player that they haven’t seen anything move during the game.  There are virtually no animations at all.  Unfortunately, one of the only animations we do see is the face (from the nose up, anyway) of Parker’s employer as he discusses our mission to the lighthouse.  While the details of the half-face are painstakingly rendered, the artificiality of the blinking and the corners of the mouth soon become distracting.  Boakes also uses several instances of a water effect that simply doesn’t work.  In one spot, the player encounters a puddle of water which is supposed to ripple when touched.  The actual result ends up looking more like the player is maliciously poking at a jellyfish.  These are minor quibbles, however.  Overall, the graphic quality is extremely high, particularly given that LO is a one-man effort.

Unfortunately, Lights Out simply cannot compare to Dark Fall when it comes to the scare factor.  This may be a bit unfair, as DF is one of the scariest (perhaps the scariest) adventure games ever produced.  Boakes set the bar so high with his first game that LO seems like a disappointment in comparison.  Part of this stems from Boakes’s decision to eschew any animations in Lights Out.  Many of the scares in DF came from unexpected movement: scurrying shadows, fleeting sprites, moving furniture.  Similarly, many of the jumps in DF came from unexpected and outré sounds.  While the audio work in LO is excellent, it tends to be done more subtly and more for a slow effect of suspense than for outright scares.  The constant not-quite-sub-aural thrumming of the DEOS station is especially effective, producing a slowly increasing irritability and unease which unconsciously leads you to accept that brutal and violent madness might well have occurred there.  The voice acting is also universally at least passable and at times quite good.  Again, this is all the more exceptional when you consider the generally low standards in the genre today and the fact that most of the voices were provided by Boakes himself and his family.  Even his young niece and nephew (I am assuming) turn in surprisingly authentic performances.

Those of you who have read my review of Dark Fall know that one of my quibbles with the game was the relative ease of its puzzles.  Well, Lights Out, despite being a much longer game, has fewer puzzles than DF and the puzzles that are present are considerably easier still.  Despite this, LO manages to be the harder game!  How is this possible?  A couple of factors combine to produce LO’s greater difficulty level.  First of all, there is much more territory to explore than in the confined Dark Fall.  (This is also one of the reasons why LO isn’t as scary… you don’t have the same sense of being trapped in a houseful of ghosts.)  Opening up LO for greater exploration allows Boakes to scatter several clues for a particular puzzle over a lot of ground, rather than relying on the more self-contained puzzle/clue combinations of DF.  The “Verney box” is an excellent example of this, as well as being a clever in-joke for DF fans.  However, and this was a real drawback for me, much of the difficulty of Lights Out comes from the required pixel hunting.  The simple point-and-click icon is quite tiny compared to the widescreen play area.  Even the movement hotspots can be difficult to find.  Thus much of the game is spent beating your head against a rather easy puzzle because you didn’t realize that you had missed an entire hallway you could travel down to find the corresponding clue.  In at least two cases, “action” hotspots are hidden in completely black (shadow) areas of the screen.  While I love a tough game, increasing difficulty by making items and locations harder to find isn’t going to win a designer any points with me.

Overall, though, I enjoyed Lights Out quite a bit.  It may not have packed the scares of its papa, but it more than makes up for it in the story department and does a great job of establishing its own, different atmosphere.  The puzzling was much too easy for my tastes, but that just means it will be right up the alley for a lot of gamers.  Pixel hunting aside, Boakes has given us a beautiful, involving and completely original game at a time when “involving” and “original” are scarcities.  He has successfully avoided the sophomore jinx and established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the future of the genre.  If you are a fan of “darker” adventure games, Lights Out might be the best $20 you spend this year.  

SCORE: 8½ (out of 10)

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