Dark Fall: The Journal, a 1st-person point and click adventure game created essentially by one man, Jonathan Boakes, is the better of the two games he and his company have introduced to date. [The second game is Dark Fall II: Lights Out, which was already reviewed by Adventure Lantern and can be viewed in our online archive]
As far as I know, this game entered the consciousness of adventure gamers through word-of-mouth via the Internet, was subsequently picked up by the Adventure Company and went on to become a very popular and successful game which has been translated into 5 languages.
So what is this game all about?
Ghosts and ghostbusters…
“If there's something strange
in your neighborhood…
Who you gonna call?
“If there's something weird
and it don't look good
Who you gonna call?
All right, it’s sooo 1980’s (am I the only one here who is old enough to sort of remember hearing this song?), but I couldn’t help singing. Dark Fall: The Journal is indeed about ghosts and ghostbusters.
Place: Dowerton in Dorsetshire, England.
Time of day: Night. A very dark night.
Your brother left a message on your answering machine, begging you to come to Dowerton right away. He is an architect working on a restoration project there. He sounded afraid…mortally afraid. There was something weird going on in that small town – eerie noises, strange visions, and town’s residents disappearing. Two college kids, the ghostbusters, arrived to study these paranormal phenoms. They have disappeared as well. As he was leaving you the message, he heard someone, or something, knocking on his door. “I have to answer the door”, he said, and then horrible noises ensued as if he was being devoured by a monster. The phone message ends abruptly. You take the last train of the evening and speed through the night to Dowerton.
---Fade To Black---
When you come to, you find yourself in a dark tunnel. A boy is talking to you, but you can’t see him. He tells you to look around. You are at the Dowerton train station, and you are looking at the train platforms and the station hotel ahead. In the dead of night, both look as if they’ve been abandoned for quite some time. The boy tells you they were not always like that, and asks you to please help.
Will you help? What are you going to do? Or, what can you do?
After the initial cut scene and the encounter with the boy, the game is pretty much non-linear. I liked this aspect of the game the best.
The boy (voice in the tunnel) prompts you to go forward and step on the platform. If you try to proceed toward the station hotel, he will tell you not to go there yet and suggests it would be a good idea to have a bit of light first. So you are required to somehow turn on the light for the whole station complex before exploring the place. Once that’s accomplished, you are free to go anywhere, anytime, and in any order. There is no puzzle that has to be solved within a finite time period. You won’t get killed by anyone, or anything. As far as I have observed, there is no event that has to be triggered by something else. You cannot get into certain rooms without the keys, but you are totally free to find those keys at any point in the game.
Puzzles need meticulous attention.
The puzzles in the game are logical and well-integrated within the context of the game. To solve the puzzles, you investigate, collect items, and read displays, journals and books. Unlike the sequel, reading is not excessive so it won’t kill the enthusiasm of the player. You may want to take meticulous notes, because just about all the clues you can collect will be needed to solve the puzzles: graffiti in the toilet, ink blot on the hotel’s front desk, a passage in a book or a take-out menu on the wall.
And that, actually, is one of my few complaints about this game: too meticulous. This is not a fast-paced action-packed game by nature, and you can spend eternity wandering and exploring. However, when every single piece of information you can observe and glean counts toward solving the mystery, information gathering becomes too tedious and no longer fun. You want some breathing room. You should be able to miss certain items, things, events, books, and still figure out the puzzles.
I’ve come to a conclusion that the ending in an adventure game is often anticlimactic rather than a culmination of all the work and excitement. This game is no exception. However, you do have the satisfaction that what you did made some kind of difference.
Pixel-hunting made worse by fixed angle.
Pixel hunting is at a minimum in this game (unlike the sequel), but when it occurs it is extremely frustrating. It happens in the room of the young ghostbusters. There are several things that need to be done in this room, and one of them is to pick up a special goggle that allows the wearer to see the paranormal. It’s in the darkest corner of the room, and worse, you can’t get to it easily because of the navigation method.
The navigation elements of this game are simple. Turn left, turn right, or move forward. You view the scenes from a pre-determined angle. When there is a hot spot, the cursor’s shape changes. You do not have the luxury of panning the scene freely. To find this pesky goggle, I finally had to consult a walkthrough. I still couldn’t locate it, because the hot spot only appears from one specific angle even if you are right on top of where the goggle is hidden.
I don’t see any logical reason why this item was so hidden. It should have been placed on the desk, or somewhere in plain sight. Why do I feel this way? Because, the trick is to figure out what to use it for, and not endlessly click the darkness to find where the damn thing is. The goggle appears again in the sequel, again hidden in the dark, and again found only from a specific angle. Unlike the sequel, however, this is about the only one bad pixel hunting experience in the game.
Low-rez graphics, but (surprise!) it looks good.
The game uses low resolution of 640 x 480 which is a bit surprising considering the game was released in 2002. However, since the presentation of the game is a static (slideshow style), it is sufficient in conveying the eerie, spooky scenes. As you can see in the screen captures, they are not grainy. Besides, considering the game takes place entirely at night, you don’t need to see things crisp and clear anyway.
The sound effects are limited to ambient sounds. There is no music in the background, which can drive you crazy. A lot of people commented how scary it was to play this game, especially during the night. The first time I played, I couldn’t care less. I was intent on exploring the hotel rooms and solving the puzzles. When I played this time around to write this review and pick good screenshots, I was occasionally startled at the harsh whispering, distant singing, and strange noises. As I was going through the game past midnight, I did glance over my shoulder once or twice.
You can turn the subtitles on and off by pressing the F1 key. By default, the subtitles are off. About the only place you would need the subtitles on is the initial tunnel scene where a boy with a heavy Cockney British accent speaks to you. I couldn’t understand a single thing he said when I played the game the first time. But even if you don’t understand the boy, nothing critical is missed and you can still proceed with the game.
The game comes on one CD and installs completely on your computer’s hard disk. You do not need the game disk to play. Lack of fancy graphics means it is very stable.
The very first attempt turns out to be better than second.
Compared to the sequel, the first Dark Fall has a more coherent story, varied though not diverse puzzles, no excessive reading or frustrating pixel-hunting (only one bad one), and a more satisfying game ending. Even though the resolution is only VGA, the graphics are more than adequate to create a dark, mysterious atmosphere. The game is very well put together. The only complaint left is that the game is too short.
My score is 78. It may not be a “must-have” adventure game, but if you do purchase, it is well worth your time. Play at night, with sound volume up.