The old railway station in Dorset, England, is the setting for Dark Fall. The station opened in 1880 and closed in 1947, and Dark Fall features an odd amalgam of interior design from intervening 70 years - splendid Victorian wooden moldings and the stark modernism of the 1920s. Players enter the story when they receive a cryptic and disturbing message from an architect brother. The trip begins in London's Paddington Station and ends in the railway tunnel of Dowerton, Dorset. The area, it seems, has a long history of hauntings, disappearances, and other supernatural phenomena. Players must equip themselves with an assortment of ghost hunting gadgets and discover the secrets hidden in Dowerton.
About half way through Dark Fall, an adventure game set in a haunted house, you'll encounter a puzzle in which you have to get through a locked door. Peering through the keyhole, you see something blocking it from the other side. If you instantly recognize that you're supposed to slide a piece of paper under the door, use a screwdriver in the keyhole to push the key out of the keyhole on the other side, and then pull the paper back to slide out the fallen key, then you're in your element. Dark Fall will be right up your alley.
However, if you read the above and thought, "How on earth was I supposed to figure that out?" then Dark Fall isn't for you. It's driven by the sort of maddening adventure game logic that had a hand in killing the genre. But there's no denying this is part of what defined the genre: clever (and often implausible) solutions from some weird corner of the brain most of us never exercise. The key-under-the-door puzzle is a clear indication that this is old-school adventure gaming at its best and worst.
It's at its best because it's the sort of game that rewards exploration and inquisitiveness. There's a lot of backstory here, with plenty of opportunities to dig as deep as you like. There are red herrings among the clues to keep you on your toes. There's a lot to see and do that has nothing whatsoever to do with solving puzzles. Like Myst, you're missing the point if you're just trying to barrel through to the end. If you're a goal-oriented gamer, you're probably not going to appreciate Dark Fall, where the gratification comes not from the actual solutions, but from the languid process of uncovering them. The point is the journey, not the destination.
But it's at its worst because it's often difficult and deliberately obtuse. Many of the solutions aren't near their corresponding puzzles. And, many of them aren't identifiable as solutions until you've already played much farther, at which point you're liable to forget what you saw unless you've been taking copious notes. Even then, it's not necessarily clear that, say, the random splotches on an ink blotter in the lobby are the key to solving a strange lock box in a second floor room.
Moving around is laborious, and it's easy to lose track of where you are, and where you're trying to go. For instance, early on there's a clue written on the wall, but you can only see a corner of it. To see the whole clue, you need to cross the room and peer through a hole in a toilet stall. You can't simply turn your head to the right. It's there, you want to look at it, and in real life, you'd just pivot your head 20 degrees. But in Dark Fall, with its ruthless 90-degree turns, you cannot see the clue until you've hunted around for hotspots, this one being a toilet, of all things. It's a classic example of the game getting in your way like a roadblock, forcing you to make a longer trip via a mandated detour. This is one of the reasons adventure gaming is a moribund genre.
It's also old-school gaming at its worst in terms of the limitations of the technology. Dark Fall takes place exclusively on static screens with limited interaction and minimal movement or animation. It's the sort of game where you know early on you're never going to interact with anyone because the engine just won't support it. The ghosts are just tiny points of light (referred to as "energy orbs" in some of the backstory you'll find), which are about as scary as Christmas lights. There are a few occasions where ghosts will comment on what you're doing, just sort of chatting with you while you walk around, more random narrators than any sort of undead presence. There are some instances of interaction through a text parser that could have been fleshed out a bit more; as it is, they're little more than pointless gimmicks.
For the most part, the artwork is good, helping to create a wonderful sense of atmosphere. The game takes place in and around an English hotel that's been abandoned since World War II. Where the artwork and lack of animation fail, a subtle and effective sound design takes up the slack. For instance, in many games like this, in lieu of interacting with characters, you learn about them through their journals. While you read a journal in Dark Fall, the sound of your breathing is played. At one point, you come to a passage that mentions V2 rockets over London; the game plays the faint sound of a mechanical drone, presumably the ghostly echo of a V2 overhead; simple, but effective. There are also some genuinely spooky moments and even a couple of "boo!" surprises, all the more startling because of the games staid technology.
Depending on your tolerance for hackneyed horror stories, you'll find the main plot either familiar or cliched. And, even if the obtuse puzzles don't spoil the game for you, the game's ending terribly anti-climatic might be a letdown. For all the fruitless wandering you had to do and all the potential frustration of linking puzzles with their far-flung solutions, Dark Fall doesn't really take you anyplace special. But if you've made it that far, you're obviously in it for the journey, not the destination.
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