Written by  :  Ola Sverre Bauge (241)
Written on  :  Apr 01, 2006
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars

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One of a kind; deeply innovative; scary as hell.

The Good

I'm scrambling along the wall of a warehouse while the yokels inside are blasting away blindly, shooting out the windows above my head and showering me with glass. Diving into cover and applying bandages to stop the bleeding from grazing shotgun pellets. Miraculously, none of my bones were broken after jumping off the loading ramp and out the window.

I am Jack Walters, and I really feel like all of Innsmouth wants me dead.

Of course, I know it's all in vain, ultimately: I've seen Jack die, hanging himself in an insane asylum some time from now. But yet I want to find out how it came to be, to see it through to the end. And that pretty much sums up how Dark Corners of the Earth does a better job than practically any other Lovecraft-themed derivatives at being Lovecraftian — there really is a feeling of being powerless, naked and afraid in the face of unspeakable horrors, and yet crawling along as best you can.

The thing that emphasizes this nakedness the most is the HUD: there isn't one. In fact, this game makes the very notion of a heads-up display seem downright ridiculous, like a remnant of 80's arcade machines. Instead of cute little icons telling you that You Have Activated Sneak Mode, the visual field broadens to give the impression of heightened wariness: when you're near death from blood loss, color drains from the world.

The game consistently never mentions 'hit points', only blood loss. If you caught the early marketing hype, you may have been given the impression that the simulationism went one step too far, with your character being able to catch pneumonia. That didn't make the final cut, probably for the better. Instead, the game implements localized damage to the head, torso, arms and legs. Locations can suffer heavy or light bleeding, poisoning, or broken limbs; different wounds require different medical treatments. This has tactical implications, as for example heavy bleeding requires the short-in-supply sutures, deterring you from getting too close to shotgun wielders. (To make sure the game is still playable, Jack has the metabolism of a hummingbird; he'll heal within a minute if all wounds have been treated, however untreated poisoning will kill him within four.)

It's also true to the Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying system in that fighting is fast and deadly. Don't expect your "circle-strafing" skills to be much use, you need to concentrate on shooting abominations in the head before they can reload. That is, if you have a gun.

...you don't have a gun. You were, after all, just going to a quiet backwater fishing village to investigate a missing grocery store clerk. And no, there aren't guns just lying around for you to pick up. Those things are dangerous. What do you think this is, some sort of game? Nor are you in possession of Garrett's ability to magically fade into the shadows; you're just a private dick caught unaware.

See, calling this game "survival horror" gives people the entirely wrong impression: it's come to denote a very particular style of gameplay, to the point where a game like Disaster Report, which is not a horror game, gets called "survival horror." That's not Dark Corners of the Earth; it's inventive to the point of practically being a genre of one. There really is little today that resembles it — the easiest comparison would probably be to Alone in the Dark of 14 years past, and that is again largely because of the general feeling of style and genuine frights.

This style is evident from the very beginning of the game: when the first cutscene ends, you may not realize it, the transition is so subtle. Walking along, you can sense Jack's footsteps. No, not "head bob," his footsteps. Go into the house and in the door on your left. Peer into the darkness. "It's too dark to see anything, but from the rotting smell, it's probably a food store," Jack tells you. Outstanding. There should be (darkened) demo booths of that intro sequence, it'd probably make it up in shifted units.

All of this inventiveness goes towards lending the game gravity, making you forget that you're playing a game. You know, immersion. That thing games are supposed to be all about. This holds true to such a degree that at one point, going back to try and make it through a section with more medical supplies felt like I was violating the story. It happened that I had been scoping out an area and just happened to look up, and— well, that would be spoiling it. Suffice to say, things that would just be "look, scary thing" in a less inspired game are lovingly crafted in Dark Corners to sneak up on you when you least expect it.

Oh, and the music: you don't notice it. You only notice what it does to you. It's brilliant.

The Bad

This game is meant to be played in the dark, and they mean it. Fiddling with the brightness will give you a genuine feeling, when appropriate, of stumbling about in a darkness where things are vaguely sensed rather than seen. This also means that you simply can't play during the day.

Looking at the minimum specs, you might think this game was outdated long ago; that's more of an artifact of the game's long development history, but yes, the graphics are a bit two-years-ago. However, it puts newer graphics cards to work on dynamic lightning, subtle visual enhancement and the effects that give the impression of being groggy when you've just woken up, queasy when in a room with a corpse, scared out of your wits or high on morphine.

There's little point in running the game at higher resolutions than 800x600; you're better advised to spend the horsepower on antialiasing instead. The thing is, and I realize this is a cliché, it moves beautifully. I could spend all day, or rather all night, looking at that old geezer in the poorhouse as he gazes out the window. Half-Life 2 might have super-detailomatic ReActor(tm) technology or whatever; in Dark Corners of the Earth you're talking to people—really talking with them—who are brought to life within the story.

Okay. In all honesty, there is one thing that detracts from the game later on: dead bodies simply fade into the air. If there was one thing about the game I could change, that would be first on the list.

The Bottom Line

Look a couple of paragraphs above. "Queasy when in a room with a corpse." Have you seen that in any other game? Is there anywhere else you've played a character with enough humanity to actually be a bit dizzy in the face of death?

You need to play Dark Corners to see that a game can do things previously unthought of. And you need to play Dark Corners to be Jack Walters, scurrying along the streets and rooftops of Innsmouth, trying desperately to stay alive.