The story opens on an asylum, and as our viewpoint moves up the gargoyle-warded walls and into the institution itself, we hear the voice of the man into whose shoes we will step: police detective Howard Loreid. He describes how he came to be brought to this place, and his state since arriving. What he reveals does not bode well for our protagonist.
From there we are sent back to the beginning, to guide the man in the asylum down the path to that end. We find ourselves in a dim, brown hallway, with a flickering light overhead and strange images marking the walls, accompanied by an eerie piano theme. The doors to either side seem to be locked, all save one. As for that one... well, that would be spoiling the surprise...
And these are but the first steps, a prologue. The story truly begins, I would say, with Howard being assigned to the case of the fugitive private detective, Loath Nolder, a man for whose intellect Howard holds a great admiration, but who is now suspected of a murder connected to Mr. Nolder’s most recent case.
He will uncover dark secrets, and a group set on a goal that, while obscure (not to mention occult) very much appears sinister. His sleep will be plagued by vivid visions. He will see things in waking life that will lead him to doubt his sanity, and truly terrify him. Things that will, at the end, lead him to the place from which we first heard him speak: the Wellsmoth Mental Institution.
Is he mad, or are these horrors real?
And in the face of such waking nightmares, might insanity be seen as a mercy?
Howard Loreid might think so.
It is a storyline quite clearly influenced by the works of Lovecraft (and indeed, the story is framed at either end by quotes attributed to that author). It is a story of dark and ancient powers, that wait perniciously in the shadows, of secret gatherings by those who would call on such powers, and of the madness that awaits those mere mortals who dare to look open-eyed into the fringes of reality. I even see a parallel in the name of the place in which the game takes place: “Wellsmoth” sounds rather similar to “Innsmouth”, the name of a fictional town in H. P. Lovecraft’s work. It is not, however (that I noticed, at least), a direct usage of his work, but rather an original concept in the vein of Lovecraft.
It is also a story that has been very well-constructed and directed, and has good pacing (although it can be a little slow in places). Additionally, the fear and tension generated by the plot is enhanced by the personal involvement of the main character in the preternatural events in which he finds himself. Howard is by no means a passive, external observer and investigator in these events, as he discovers to his horror – in fact, the more that he delves, the deeper he finds himself, and the worse things become for him.
The conclusion to those events is very fitting, and very much in line with the Lovecraftian themes and perspective. I will admit that, when first watching the concluding cinematic, I found myself a little unsatisfied by the questions left unanswered but, in retrospect, it seems to be more true to the style of the story and its themes than would, I suspect, a more expository ending.
Alas, some of the written word found within the game is a little over-wrought – specifically, there is a tendency towards the over- and liberal re- use of adjectives, which can seem a little heavy-handed in some cases. It may, of course, be the style of the characters showing through, but the problem seemed to me to be a little too widespread – especially given that there is a fair bit of writing to be found within the game (although I will note that it is not required that players read all of the writing to be found). Thankfully, I found this to be a rather minor issue, only decreasing my enjoyment minimally.
This is a good thing, as one of the primary forms of puzzle encountered in this game – and one of my favorites – is the “research” puzzle. These puzzles involve searching through documents (brief ones for the most part, don’t worry!) for “clues” - that is, short words or phrases that are significant to the advancement of the plot – which are uncovered by underlining them with a pen-shaped cursor, and then clicking on a “think” icon. Depending on the current difficulty settings, the number of discovered clues and the total number of standard clues may be displayed at the top-left of the screen.
In addition to the standard clues, at least some documents have hidden clues to be found (perhaps all do – I’m afraid that I didn’t uncover all of the hidden clues to be found in the game). If the current difficulty settings include “Clue Counters” being visible, the discovery of the first hidden clue in a given document will cause a count of the number of hidden clues found and the total available in the current document to appear just below the standard clue count. These hidden clues can help one to uncover more of the mystery, as well as provide the protagonist with advantage at later points in the story.
These research puzzles can be very interesting to solve, and add greatly to the impression of investigation, and, more specifically, to actually taking part in the investigation rather than merely knowing that the character is investigating. Furthermore, the solution of these puzzles adds to the feeling of progression, most probably as a result of highlighting some of what has been learned from the document, providing new “thoughts” in “Howard’s mind” (see below), and at times opening up new directions and new areas to be explored.
It is perhaps worth noting that clues are not always available in a given document from the moment that the document is discovered – in some cases they become relevant only later in the story, and it may be only then that their clues may be found.
As with many types of puzzles, repeated difficulty in uncovering a particular clue or set of clues can lead to frustration, and the application of a brute-force approach to clue-discovery. Luckily, one may underscore a number of lines before clicking on the “think” button (although there is a maximum to the number of underlinings allowed before the “think” button is pressed), and still uncover important clues – this may be less satisfying than spotting the clue and underlining only it, but it can help to resolve a frustrating sticking-point.
Darkness Within has another interesting element, which adds both an unusual form of inventory and another form of puzzle: “Howard’s mind”. This is presented in a large panel, split vertically into two. The left-hand panel lists things that Howard has taken note of – mental notes, essentially – in list form, and sorted for the most part by location. Additionally, dialogs that Howard has heard or taken part in and hints taken are available for recall here. The right side is itself split, with a set of six small panels atop, and a description panel below.
The six panels are combination bins: one can take mental notes or dialogs from the left-hand side, or inventory items from above “Howard’s mind”, and place them into the panels, to be combined (should the combination be appropriate) on a click of the “think/combine” button, just below the panels. When the elements combined are items from Howard’s mental list, the result (if any) may be another such item. Inventory items may also be combined here in the standard adventure game manner to produce a new or changed object.
As with the research puzzles already mentioned, the solution of the puzzles based on combinations found in Howard’s mind can be quite rewarding to solve, and again add, in my opinion, to the feel of taking part in an investigation. Unfortunately, this form of item combination suffers from a classic pitfall of the system: there are a number of connections that make sense (to me, at least), but which do not seem to be valid combinations, and this can be a little frustrating.
As has already been suggested, Howard also carries with him a more traditional adventure game inventory, in which are stored the items that Howard acquires on his path. Naturally, this leads to some inventory-based puzzles, although the focus seems to be the investigative puzzles (and fittingly so, I believe).
One nice inventory feature is the ability to view items in a separate panel. A not uncommon feature in an adventure game, you may say, but it is less common (in my experience, at least) for this view to be three-dimensional, allowing one to rotate and zoom the object being viewed – in order to search for clues hidden on the object.
The inventory panel also holds the button that opens Howard’s mind (so to speak).
Finally, there are a few logic puzzles to be found, which are generally quite interesting and enjoyable, have simple-to-grasp controls, and are attractively presented – and, thankfully, I found not one that I was required to solve more than once.
Overall, the puzzles encountered are fair, interesting and enjoyable. I did find myself stuck at times, but generally because I had missed a clue somewhere, or neglected to revisit a particular location, as I recall. Interacting with the game is quite simple, and can be accomplished
for the most part with nothing more than the mouse – only exiting to the menu seems to require a key-press (the save game system even provides numerical save game names, should one not wish to type a saved game name).
The game is built around a system of nodes – set positions that the player can occupy. At each node - save for particular fixed views – one can turn on the spot and look in all directions (albeit limited a little in the vertical) by moving the mouse in the direction in which Howard should turn.
In any node there may be a number of locations in which actions may be performed – exits to other nodes, objects that may be taken or manipulated and elements of interest that may be inspected more closely, for example. These regions are indicated (in all but a few minor cases) by a change of cursor, the particular cursor indicating (broadly) what form of interaction is being indicated: movement, examination, acquisition (as well some forms of manipulation, such as pushing or pulling), interaction (such as operating a mechanism) and “backing away”, which essentially “closes” a view (for example closing a drawer, or returning from a close-up view to the node from which it was accessed). When an inventory item has been selected for use in the world, that item’s icon is used as the cursor, “throbbing” when held over a region in which an inventory item may be used. Lastly, as has already been mentioned, when underlining clues a pen cursor becomes available.
The inventory (and via its panel, Howard’s mind) is accessed by a right mouse button click – although there are brief sections of the game (such as the first scene) in which the inventory is not available, and right mouse button clicks are answered only with a warning tone.
Within the inventory, certain items themselves can be right-clicked upon. Doing so brings up an interaction interface for them – texts, for example, typically open into a reading interface, which allows one to page through the text (if it has multiple pages), or underline clues (if allowed), while the cell phone opens up an interface from which one can have Howard make telephone calls, whether using Howard’s small contact list or by entering a number of interest.
Graphically, Darkness Within is, for the most part, beautiful. The visuals in this game have been modeled with impressive attention to detail, from the arrangement of the environments down to the fine design-work on individual items, and with a quality that I find rather admirable. This is a feat which might be in part a result of the use of largely pre-rendered graphics (which should allow for more complex environments than would be likely with settings rendered in real-time), combined with some rather effective special effects (such as light bloom) that add life to the scenery.
Each area is populated realistically with miscellaneous items, and arranged in a degree of disarray that suits the location. Papers, boxes and a variety of other items are strewn about a half-renovated house, notes and equipment lie scattered haphazardly over workbenches, and candles provide solemn, numinous light to ancient passageways (although I do wonder who might have lit these lights ahead of Howard...). Blankets on beds are wrinkled, seeming as though used, pictures hang in frames on the walls, and various ornaments and books are found on shelves and mantels.
The textures too are often wonderful, from the peeling paint, rough textures and drab colors of a low-rent building to the dark, vaporous, rough-walled halls of an underground crypt. The materials look right: metals shine convincingly, while stone is duller and rougher of texture, for example. Everything has a slightly weathered, antique feel – the degree, of course, depending on the area in question. This detail-work even extends to the finer features of individual objects: lamps decorated with attractive patterns and colors, a mirror frame lavishly edged, knot-work designs on stone tombs, or the small marks and discolorations on various objects that give the impression of their having seen use and time.
There are occasions on which Howard will direct his vision himself – looking around in panic after a nightmare, for example, or looking briefly about a new area. The “camera-work” used here is very good – Howard’s gaze moves in a convincing manner. Additionally, when the player moves between nodes or acts on a part of the environment, the camera orients towards it; another little touch that enhances the sense of being in the shoes of the protagonist, as opposed to watching from the outside.
A variety of effects add to the effectiveness of the graphics. The sense of motion between nodes is reinforced by the last view of the previous node expanding as it fades out, giving a slight impression of forward motion. Light blooms from sources of illumination as one turns to face them. Fear is depicted by a blur emanating from the center of the screen, leaving streaks radiating outwards – an effect not heavy enough to obscure much of importance, but which I found to contribute to a sense of panic. Topping it off is a grainy filter that produces images that seem more natural than they would without. These effects are not over-used or too heavy, but rather appropriate and in good degree.
There are only three situations in which fault can be found with the graphics. The first two are fire and water (when viewed at close range, at least). Both unfortunately look a little too simple to the eye. The former, rendered using the game’s particle system, might have benefited from a little more attention (such as in employing more complex particle shapes); the latter, at least, is seen seldom enough to be a serious problem.
The third problem area is in the field of human beings. The models appear to have overly-square shoulders and faces that seem a little heavily-ridged, and their movements seem a little unnatural. It is thus perhaps somewhat advantageous that human characters are rarely encountered, and when they are met, are often obscured to some degree by darkness.
Acoustically, Darkness Within is similarly impressive. The music and ambient sounds are appropriate (both in style and effect) to their place and to the mood of the scene – most commonly being understated, eerie and lovely. The (seemingly) simple piano piece that plays in the opening hallway scene, for example, is particularly creepy, and helps to set the mood for this otherwise un-introduced sequence. The ambient sounds too can be quite effective. As with the music, I have an example: a particular house, old, empty and half-renovated, and the creepy house-sounds that aptly haunt it.
This quality is not lacking in the game’s sound effects, either. Whether it be Howard’s panicked breathing, the soft rustle of paper, the ringtone of Howard’s cell phone, or just the gentle, slightly hypnotic ticking of a clock, the sounds to be heard are overall accurate and clear. When Howard moves to a new node his footsteps are often heard, their sound reflecting well the material underfoot, and opened doors produce creaks and clicks that seem to
fit their sources well.
This quality, combined with good positioning in their environment (although not always perfect) and the already-mentioned ambient sounds and music, very much enhanced the sense of reality in this game.
The voice acting, I am glad to say, is actually not bad. In fact, I found the voice of Howard specifically to be very engaging, and thought it a pity that not all of his thoughts are voiced. Another well-spoken piece of voice acting is given for the Lovecraft quotes that frame the story. They are given in a voice that is calm, slightly low in tone, but not over-acted, and are rather fitting to the lines. On the down side, I did find the voices to be sometimes a little soft amidst their accompanying noises.
Between the graphics, sound and music, Darkness Within managed to build a very effective atmosphere. This is a world that often feels worn and lived-in (in those more “human” places, that is...), and slightly old-fashioned (the game is set in 2011, but shows little advancement in technology over the modern day – this is, however, perhaps appropriate for the feel of the game, and didn’t feel anachronistic).
One might think that a (relatively) static viewpoint might not be terribly immersive. In this case, it is not true at all. Between the freedom of viewing direction, the convincing effects (both visual and auditory, and including a flashlight whose illumination bends quite appropriately about the scenery over which it is drawn) and the wonderfully creepy atmosphere, I found myself effectively immersed.
The whole serves to immerse one in Howard’s world, enhancing the impression of reality, leaving one at times almost feeling as though those walls might be touched or the pages of a book flipped through, their texture richly felt by fingertip.
Finally, Darkness Within provides a good range of difficulty options, starting with a basic selection from three levels of difficulty when starting the game, and then providing in-game the possibility of further customization via the game menu’s “Difficulty Options” section.
One such option that is perhaps worth mentioning is that of hints.
Hint provision can be set to one of three states: “Always”, “On” and “Off”. “Always” provides hints whenever they are available, “On” has the game wait for a period before offering a hint (intending that they only be made available when the player is stuck), and “Off”, of course, offers no hints.
Having an built-in hint system of this sort is good and I am quite fond of the options provided. While not all the hints were terribly useful (with exceptions, as I recall), they are nevertheless a welcome feature.
Before I conclude, I would like to mention a few technical problems that were encountered. The most serious of these was a quite noticeable delay when moving between nodes during a large portion of the game, combined with a temporary slowness of response immediately afterwards. There was also a greater delay when returning from the game menu to the game itself. These speed issues may, however, have been related to my having selected graphical settings perhaps a little higher than my system was up to handling – although if so, the degree seems to me to be disproportionate.
Speed issues aside, I also noticed (albeit only once each) a cursor glitch, a minor graphical glitch, and a bug which caused the underlining of a particular hidden clue to increment the hidden clue counter repeatedly, even taking the count above the stated number of hidden clues. Of these, only the cursor glitch was a problem, and that was readily-enough solved (although I’m afraid that I forget as I write this how I achieved that).
To conclude, Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder is an excellent game. The graphics are often beautiful, and all three of graphics, sound and music are excellent. The story is interesting and well-told, and all together produce a creepy atmosphere and an immersive experience, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.
What problems I did encounter were well-outweighed in my estimation by the positive aspects of this game, and therefore are not enough for me to withhold my endorsement. If you like psychological horror, Lovecraftian stories, and investigation holds appeal for you, then this is a game that I very much recommend.
In the end, the game leaves us with the question of how much of what Howard sees and hears is in fact real – or, given the game’s opening quote, how separated reality and insanity truly are. Perhaps it is the sane who truly do not see reality.
If I may offer a little parting advice: Wait until the dead of night, when all others nearby are asleep. Turn off the lights, listen through a good set of headphones, and travel with Howard Loreid through the darkness...
At least one of you may see the light again.