I’m starting sort of an odd trend. The last game I reviewed, Divine Divinity, came out over ten months ago. Now I’m reviewing Dark Fall: The Journal, which came out over a year ago. But while Divine Divinity is simply a game that took us forever to get a hold of, we have a much better excuse for Dark Fall. You see, it came out over a year ago in Europe, and it’s only now reaching the United States. So why did it take so long to get here? I have no idea, but I’m glad it finally arrived.
In Dark Fall you play the same sort of anonymous hero as from the Myst games, someone who ends up trying to clean up other people’s messes. One night your brother calls you, and he sounds strange. He talks about hearing things and seeing things, and he says someone is whispering his name and asking him to open his door. Then he says he’s going to do it, and the line goes dead. Talk about ominous. And talk about stupid. But even though your brother doesn’t seem especially bright, you decide to charge out and see what’s going on.
Where you end up is the Station Hotel, a combination railroad station, hotel, and restaurant where a bunch of people have disappeared off and on over the last century. In 1947 seven people disappeared one night (including the entire staff), and since then the place has been closed down -- that is, until recently when the owners hired your brother to survey the site and determine if it could be refurbished.
Most of the game involves exploring the hotel and the surrounding area, and that’s where Dark Fall works best. The guy who wrote the game, Jonathan Boakes, has a great eye (and ear) for creepiness. This isn’t a game where things jump out at you and the “horror” comes from goriness. This is a game where lights flicker and boards creak, where you see a shadow even though nobody is there, and where there’s always the sense that something might happen, and that you should be ready for it. To put it in terms of movies, Dark Fall is like The Blair Witch Project rather than Friday the 13th.
Also, since the hotel was quickly abandoned after the disappearances in 1947, many objects were left behind, and so you can read notes and journals to learn more about the people who disappeared, plus view the hotel as a museum to learn more about the World War II era (including that people ate something called “pig’s trotters,” which doesn’t sound good). Sometimes an excess of background material (especially material you have to read) can bog a game down, but here I was fascinated, and I found myself caring way more for the people from 1947 than for my brother, the door-opening dolt.
The puzzles are also nice -- not great, but nice. They’re well thought out, they make sense, and you’re allowed to fiddle around with them all you want, but too many involve pressing buttons in the right order, and I would have liked a little more variety. Also -- and it seems strange to say this -- Dark Fall might be a little too friendly. There is an abundance of clues for each puzzle (including a helpful ghost), and there isn’t any way to lose the game or die. Most of the time I’m happy when I can’t die in an adventure, but here it takes away some of the tension, especially in the final sequence. You shouldn’t be able to defeat a dark, evil presence that makes people disappear, without there being at least some chance that it’ll make you disappear.
Dark Fall has two other (possibly) minor problems. First, it’s not a big budget game. The voice acting isn’t very good, and, when you pick up some goggles that allow you to see ghosts, you’re not treated to a bunch of full motion video or anything like that. This is a game where you have to let your imagination do some of the work. Second, for some reason many objects and exits are deliberately placed so they’re difficult to find. Pixel hunting is my least favorite part of playing adventure games, and Dark Fall has a couple doozies. When I finally broke down and looked at a walkthrough, it was so I could find the cellar to the hotel, and let’s just say finding a cellar shouldn’t be a difficult task.
But overall Dark Fall is a commendable first effort from Jonathan Boakes. It has lots of style and substance, and I’m looking forward to his follow-up adventure, Dark Fall II: Lights Out (scheduled to be released in the next few months). I just hope it doesn’t take an extra year to get here.