The time has finally come. In the fall of 2016, ‘Unfold Games’ released a teaser trailer for a puzzle-platform based psychological horror that blew me away. It has been three years since the initial release of that trailer, and quite a bit has changed, but the game ultimately surpassed my expectations. Darq appears to profoundly borrow concepts from other games, such as, ‘Little Nightmares’ and ‘Limbo.’ If you enjoyed those games, just as much as I did, then Darq is right up your alley! You can watch and compare both the original trailer here and the most recent released trailer here. Was Darq worth the three-year wait and did it live up to the trailer? Let’s find out.
Before I get into the details of Darq gameplay, I wanted to provide some interesting insight into the game’s distribution drama. In the first week of August, Epic Games Inc offered Wlad Marhulets, the sole developer behind Unfold Games, for Darq to be exclusively distributed in the Epic store and not on Steam, according to PCGamer. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Epic Games, it released high-grossing games, such as Fortnite, which drove revenue over $2.5B in 2018 with over 250M active players, growing Epic Games closer in size to Steam’s creator, Valve.
The controversial issue behind Epic Games is that it has been offering exclusive deals to developers to not put their content in the Steam Store and only their own, providing better margins for the developers to make more money. It’s not unheard of that some corporations go to war with each other in this dog-eat-dog gaming world, but Epic Games has been offering developers better terms for their games, offering developers 88% in revenue, instead of the 60% like Steam, according to Gameinformer and Polygon. Now, that’s a pretty good deal if I don’t say so myself. A 28% increase in pay is a good chunk of change for developers to miss out on, given the same platform benefits! Who could refuse that offer? This appears to be the strategy Epic Games plans on sticking with for a while, and I know why, it’s because it’s working.
If Wlad did accept the Epic Games offer, then Darq would have been pulled immediately from release from the Steam store and put exclusively into the Epic Games Store. Luckily, this was not the case. The indie developer of Unfold Games realized that he would be losing quite a good chunk of change but his morality and integrity of breaking a promise after so many years to the players, who expected to purchase the game on Steam would have ruined his credibility before it even started meant much more to him. Gamers may forgive, but they never forget. I believe this drama exposes the double standard of Epic Games that money doesn’t always bring happiness to the individual or the company despite it, possibly helping long-term. Honestly, this made me happy. He seems like a pretty stand-up guy to me!
Let’s get out of the business drama and down to the game nitty-gritty. You play a lanky teenage protagonist named Lloyd who becomes aware that he is dreaming. Lloyd explores throughout his dream, giving in by his subconscious that turns into a nightmare. Desperate to escape, Lloyd must withstand the many obstacles of his mind to return to the waking world, bending the laws of physics to manipulate the dream world to devise ways not to be caught by enemies and solve various puzzles to survive.
Darq immediately immerses you in the bleak monochromatic dreamworld, starting in the Lloyd’s (the protagonist) home. The aesthetics are desolating and beautiful. You can tell right away that the small team of developers truly cared about the atmosphere of this game to immerse the player, especially after a massive redesign that the game underwent.
The user immediately begins playing without an initial title screen and direction, leaving the user confused but in an immediate sense of wonder. The beginning gives the user a sense of haziness of what happened from the very first moments of the game. It’s like that feeling when you wake up and try to remember the details of the dream or nightmare from 30 seconds prior but have quickly forgotten, so you try to fall back to sleep, hoping that you will recall and relive it in your subconscious, but in this case, Lloyd wasn’t asleep at the beginning of the game… or was he?
Darq doesn’t seem to give much guidance or details in where Lloyd is from, and the period the backstory takes place, leaving the player theorizing throughout the entirety of the game what exactly is happening to the boy. I love being able to use my imagination and speculation to theorize a timeframe, in which, Lloyds world seems to be set in the 1950s but with a touch of modern. Games like Darq, allow me to incorporate my own beliefs and thoughts, in this case, between each of the seven chapters and then discussing them with others.
Throughout the game, I noticed that each of the enemy characters and chapters were unique and themed primarily based around a hospital setting. Some enemies are wheel-chair bound, blind, missing limbs, but the majority of them had skin that looked rotten and were unable to see, covering their face with their palm. One enemy that caught my attention and confirmed my speculation the most was in chapter five. Lloyd needed to stealthily steal a key from a half-man, from the head down, and from the head up, half-bird, a raven to be exact, while wearing a hat as he creates potions. I internalized that particular scene and came up with the theory that the half-man/half-bird character was none other than a plague doctor. This means there must be an airborne disease set in the protagonist waken world. The object that Lloyd took from the enemy plague doctor in the scene was a key. Perhaps this symbolizes the doctor has taken Lloyd’s freedom away? Did Lloyd run away from a hospital? Is he sick? What could it indeed mean? Who knows. That’s one aspect of what makes this game so fun!
“When you’re good at anticipating the human mind, you leave nothing to chance” – Jigsaw
Darq is Dark
Honestly, puzzlers are not necessarily my favorite genre but what quickly drew me in was the dusky nightmare that felt like I was stepping into a game created by Tim Burton himself. I wonder if Darq’s setting takes place in Kentucky and revolves around Mr. Unlucky? – My Tim Burton fans, you’ll understand that reference. But really, Darq’s aesthetics and artwork were, well, dark…and hauntingly beautiful.
Darq takes you through a 2.5D level design dream interpretation journey challenging the users from beginning to end to manipulate the monochromatic environment to progress through seven chapters. Most puzzles were intuitive but logical, while the mechanics were simple and easy to understand, allowing the player to think about those applicable to them. Throughout each chapter, the layout and perspective of the rooms changed from various locations, such as inside a hospital or train station, allowing the user to walk up a wall, jumping onto a mechanism, or using a level that shifts the camera and world around you, but the majority of the puzzles are based on spatial recognition and defying-gravity. One aspect that you will see during every chapter was reminiscent of actual dreams, such as, the clocks stopped or continuously moving, which symbolizes an overwhelming task or emotion in the woken world, or the letters and symbols changing form. Each chapter is structured and thematically disturbing in its own right, which gives you a perspective into the manifest content of what the harsh reality Lloyd may live in. Plus, it doesn’t help that Lloyd looks like a mix of Pugsley and Uncle Fester from ‘The Addams Family.’. Poor guy.
Despite all of its strong points, Darq does have a few annoyances that make the game complicated. In a majority of the chapters, solving puzzles requires a fair bit of back-tracking along with Inside and Limbo based mechanics of trial and error is found within this game. But, to be fair, a puzzle that expects you to die once to figure it out is lousy, especially when you are playing an entire game based around them – *spoiler alert*, The final phase of the game was the epitome of this. Darq consists of a handful or two of stealth mechanics moments, but it almost seems pointless to have them. You can “stealthily” walk right next to the creature you are trying to bypass, as long as they are facing away from you, but the moment they meet towards you – SURPRISE! You are instantly dead, but luckily, you are in a dream, so you can come back to life as many times as you like. Or, you can be like me where you walk right behind the creature, hide, unhide, continue to your destination, repeat, obstacle solved. The basis of the game is simple, defy the world to solve puzzles. Walk, change perspectives, interact and mesh with objects, change aspects, solve various level difficulties of puzzles, again, change aspects back.
Additionally, I would have liked the enemies to have been a little more diverse and unique. Figuring out each enemy can be bypassed is a little too easy, especially when the only indicator to ‘hide’ prompts up. Another implementation that I would have liked would have been to interact with the enemies more to complete or progress to the next puzzle, such as, trapping the older woman and steal a wheel off her wheel-chair to use or create a type of gizmo with. Alternatively, even taking potions from the half-bird/half-man to put you in a deeper sleep to more of your subconscious to figure out puzzles to transfer in between different sleeping states or particular areas of your psyche. Especially since Lloyd isn’t given a weapon throughout the entire game, instead, the creatures just seemed sort of a raged displacements primarily used for progression preventatives but appeared to be more used for a short prevent and aesthetics to give the user a better sense of what is happening in Lloyds waken world. The ability to solve puzzles or finish a chapter then a random cinematic playing of a suppressed memory of Lloyds mind would have been incredible, especially with the beautiful graphics that Darq offers, not only to get a better understanding of him but to even feels like you received more of your money’s worth. Overall, Darq lacks jump scares and nor did I feel like the majority of users will be, “likely on the edge of their seats for a long time.” – Official Darq Website. However, do not allow this to be a deal-breaker when purchasing Darq; it’s the manifestation of aesthetics and bewilderment that truly helps make it a memorable game.
Darq does a brilliant job with Freund’s conceptualization of the unconscious. If you are or were once a psychology major, like me, or plain out fascinated with the human mind, then this game could be right up your alley! Notably, the life and death mechanics of Lloyd’s subconscious. In this case, trauma, terror, and perhaps even aggression relating to death, then Lloyd’s will to survive to live for the meaning of life. The defense mechanisms described by Freund are implemented in this game flawlessly, which are, displacement, projection, symbolization, condensation, and rationalization. Heck, I would love to learn more about what other users could relate to, if this were to be played for educational purposes, for example, for a behavior science class. Using the students hypothesize and synopsis to conclude how they interpret a character like Lloyd in his conscious and subconscious mind, especially without using a dream book to explain the individual meanings.
“The journey is more important than the end or the start, and what it meant to me will eventually be a memory” Linkin Park
The subconscious mind scans information from your memories at its disposition and gratification. It creates emotionally and compelling instances for the individual to experience and revel in. However, when drastic measures are taken, a transference takes place from the conscious to the subconscious, and those instances end up in negative emotions and do not always end up cheerful. The user is immersed in the psyche of a young boy named Lloyd. Manipulating your surroundings to defy gravity and solve various level difficulty puzzles in seven chapters to escape his dreamscape. This is Darq. The puzzle-platform game that excels in graphic quality and the lighting system in the monochromatic nightmare is remarkable. Darq’s autosave/checkpoints do not need any improvement, which is much appreciated because of the constant trial and error mechanics that are implemented into the game. The main issue I had with this game, especially when you become so immersed in it, was the length. I finished the game in a little under two hours. I expected a longer play duration for a game that took three years to complete, despite the game being entirely redone.
Depending on how quickly you solve the various skilled leveled puzzles that change per chapter to become more difficult or require more back-tracking will rely on your length duration to completion, but I will say that the moment you figure out a time-consuming puzzle after that light bulb turns on in the old’ noggin is a very gratifying feeling. The replayability is limited. At every level, there are hidden rooms to search for secret dream journals, which would allow you to retrieve some of those extra achievements in Steam. Despite the game taking three years to complete a short play duration, the experience the game brings is unique in its way and not a knock off nor repetitive. It is chilling yet beautiful, thought-provoking, and the sounds were rigorous. I would have loved for more music to be playing throughout the chapters instead of it feeling absent, but what made the game feel more alive were the spot-on sound effects. The sound effects alone were more than enough to make me feel uneasy a considerable amount of times.
The music, oh man, the music! Wlad Marulets wrote the game score. You can listen to the end credits score here on SoundCloud. My love for contemporary classical, ambient minimalism, and post-minimalism is deep and fierce! Darq’s music sounds inspired by Danny Elfman, which doesn’t surprise me. It looked like Tim Burton created the game himself. The piece sounds like it was not only inspired by Danny Elfman but from Olafur Arnalds and Max Richter.
Darq is artistically haunting and succeeds in creating an unsettling atmosphere that was gratifying as well as forever being memorable for me. You will immediately feel bad for Lloyd and want him to succeed in waking up to complete his journey through his nightmare, but the gameplay is short-lived, and having the user interpret their thoughts in the story is required from the very first second of the gameplay begins until the very end. The puzzles were, again, intuitive, not overly discouraging to solve them – even when timed. Luckily for me, I love timed and thought-provoking games like Darq, but I know not many users would enjoy playing a game feeling confused about who is who and what is what.
Again, I would like to thank Unfold Games for keeping their promise and deciding not to take the deal with Epic Games. Darq is currently $19.99 in the Steam Store, but if you are on a budget, then you might benefit from waiting until it goes on sale. I would love to see any DLC’s (downloadable content) to come out for Darq soon with more chapters, more intricate puzzles and more deceptive interactions with enemies – hopefully, this will happen quickly, given the duration of the game’s release. Also, the Darq website, which you can find here, offers merchandise to purchase, which I would buy if I knew there would be more addons to make this game a nationwide hit possibly.
Darq is a strong debut game from Unfold Games. I will be looking forward to the next game Unfold Games releases with great interest!
Platform: PC (Reviewed)
Publisher: Unfold Games
Gameplay – 4/5
Aesthetics & Design –5/5
Sound Effects & Soundtrack –4/5
Performance – 5/5.. I am currently using the AMD Radeon VII
Game length – 2/5
I beat it in about two hours. Mostly due to trial and error and back-tracking.
Overall Rating – 3.8/5
Moor Insights & Strategy Game Reviewer Zane Pickett wrote this article.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.