STAFF REVIEW of 2Dark (Xbox One)

Monday, April 3, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

2Dark Box art If questioned what game started the survival horror genre, most probably answer Resident Evil, and while that game did help propel the genre to new heights, the classic franchise Alone in the Dark actually arrived a few years prior, yet it still goes unnoticed and forgotten. While it did spawn a few sequels, it also brought us a terrible movie that I wish I could forget. Frédérick Raynal was the one who created the iconic series, and he now returns with a new gritty horror game, 2Dark. In an attempt to mix survival horror, stealth, and point-and-click elements, 2Dark is a great premise with an eerily dark and gruesome storyline that tends to hit a little too close to home being I am a father with a child.

2Dark opens with Mr. Smith, a police officer, taking his family out for a camping trip in the 1960’s. He begins to set up their tents as his wife and two kids go in search for some firewood. Moments later Smith hears cries coming from afar, something you never want to hear in the woods with your family. He eventually finds his wife but she’s been gruesomely decapitated with the kids nowhere to be found. He hears them crying out only to see a truck speeding off with the children in the back crying for their father.

It’s a dark beginning to a game that makes me realize that I don’t want to ever imagine going through something like this as a father myself. In a single night Smith loses his whole family, so understandably he’s become a shell of his former self in the years following. It’s now the mid 70’s, and while no longer a cop, he continues looking for his children. There’s been a string of kidnapped children in the city of Gloomwood where he resides, so he takes it upon himself to do what he can to save the kids and solve what’s going on, as maybe it will lead him to the answers he desires about his own kids that he has not seen in many years.

It doesn’t get much more bleak and dark than that, and the opening totally hooked me for what I had hoped to be a strong narrative going forward. You are tasked with not only saving as many children as you can in each of the few levels, but you’ll also need to find evidence of what’s going on in the bigger scheme of things so that you know where to look next. So, while you need to save all the kids you can in each level, it feels weird that it’s almost more important to find information of a possible child trafficking ring, as you won’t be able to progress without doing so.

2Dark utilizes a top down perspective where the layout and background is made of 2D sprites, but all the characters are 3D and have a unique visual style that looks as if they are stylized in a ‘chibi’ fashion, meaning their bodies and limbs are small but have slightly oversized heads. It’s an interesting visual style that definitely makes it its own flair. The overhead view is how you know where to hide in the dark with stealth, and it also allows you to have a broader viewpoint of everything happening around you. Don’t let the pixels and weird chibi-like characters fool you though, as 2Dark’s backgrounds fit the disturbing content with plenty of blood filled rooms and other gore-filled backdrops.

My biggest complaint is that it’s almost always too dark to see or appreciate any of the artwork. Yes, I get how ironic that is with a game titled 2Dark, but the darkness leads to many unfair deaths and an unrecognized effort when a large portion of your environment is completely pitch black. This deep darkness means you need to always have a light source with you, be it your trusty lighter or flashlight, but as soon as you do so you’re unable to use stealth, so it’s an odd design choice indeed.

2Dark’s tutorial is cleverly laid out at Smith’s home when he returns one night seemingly locked out of his residence. This is where you learn the basic mechanics of searching and finding items only to then be introduced to the abomination of the poorly designed inventory system that you’ll be wrestling with until the credits roll, but more on that later. Smith’s house is essentially your hub between levels, as you research all the information and leads you’ve uncovered so far that assist you to plot your next area to search for children and information to find.

The first level will take you to an abandoned amusement park, the perfect backdrop of a creepy and dark kidnapping that you will search by yourself. You witness someone taking a child into a rundown building and you take off to save them. You'll also notice an even creepier funhouse that will eventually show you how unforgiving 2Dark can be with handfuls of enemies and unfair pit traps. There are a handful of instant kill traps hidden inside in the darkness, so you best have your light source out at all times.

It’s near impossible to see in the dark, as your lighter barely lights up anything, even directly around you, and your flashlight takes batteries to use, so you need to constantly balance using your flashlight and turning it off when it’s not needed. Because Smith’s visibility is so poor, you’re going to constantly run into the 'death' pits and one hit kills before you even encounter an enemy.

By poor design, the first level is actually one of the harder levels, so as long as you can get past this first test you should be mostly fine afterwards. Littering the opening level with such unfairness when players are still learning the core mechanics is very off putting though, as I felt that I wanted to give up after a few dozen tries.

Enemies will patrol the area, and while you will find weapons like a crowbar, knife, and even a gun, combat is not recommended as most enemies are bullet sponges. This is where you need to learn very quickly that stealth kills (and later on, traps) is how you’re going to have to defeat the bad guys if you want to survive. When you’re in the darkness enemies won’t see you, but in a lit room they’ll spot you no problem and give chase. They’ll also hear you if you’re within their circle of awareness (which has a visual cue) unless you hold Left Trigger to tippy-toe silently past. Sneak up behind an enemy and you can execute them with a one-hit kill, so you’ll have to rely on this tactic to take out your enemies.

Bosses are even more difficult, and without a full clip of ammunition you’ll want to avoid open conflict whenever possible. Combat in general is very clumsy and not very reliable, maybe by design to force players into the stealth element of the game, but it simply doesn’t work well when you need it to and just feels awkward.

When you do manage to find one of the children they’ll instantly know you’re there to help them and follow you, something I don’t imagine happening if they’ve been previously kidnapped. Most kids will instantly follow you, except for the odd skittish child that you simply need to use candy to lure them to follow you. Yes, you read that right, you use candy to lure a child that was previously kidnapped to follow you. Sure, it makes sense in a way, but it feels off-putting given the context. If needed you can even pick up and carry a child if you don’t want to wait on how slow they are, again, another odd depiction of carrying a kid over your shoulder given the context.

You can have the kids follow you like the pied piper, or get them to stay put somewhere as you clear the path forward with your stealth executions. I’m not used to games that allow children to be killed, but even more shocked when you can actually see the murders, something I was totally not expecting. The kids can, and will, be killed if you get them in harm’s way, so you need to bring them back to the beginning of the level to get them to safety.

The majority of your time with 2Dark will be played through experimentation, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then restarting from your last save when something goes horribly wrong. Luckily you can save at any time you wish by having a smoke from your inventory, but that surrounds you in a light source (your lighter) and doesn’t pause the game while you wait for it to save.

You’re going to die a lot, so prepare to save your game whenever you reach a new area in the level, as you’re never sure what’s hiding in the dark (e.g. instant deaths) or when patrolling enemies are going to surprise you. There’s no difficulty option, but it’s definitely on the more challenging side, I just hope you remember to save somewhat recently, because reverting to your last save when it was over a half hour previous is disheartening.

And now we get to the crux of 2Dark that made me want to stop playing it nearly every time; your inventory. Your inventory is represented as a column along the left side of the screen, visually showing you everything you’re currently carrying. Levels have you picking up lots of items, even clues for unlocking the next stage. As you pick up more items the inventory expands, literally to the point of taking up a quarter of the screen. It also doesn’t allow you to drop or hide items, so when you’ve already looked at a clue it will still sit there taking up valuable screen real-estate. Another issue is that even when you use a consumable item, the blank box where the item was stays there and doesn’t shrink.

There are context menus that can be used with the shoulder buttons, as Smith can hold a light source in his left hand and a weapon in the right hand, but the problem is that the game doesn’t pause when you’re fumbling around with your inventory, resulting in many deaths as you try to escape chase while switching weapons. There will be more than one instance of you accidentally turning on your flashlight as an enemy walks past because of a wrong button press, guaranteed.

Worse still, say you need a key to open a door, you need to be holding that item in your hand, as it’s not simply good enough that you’re carrying it in your inventory. So imagine having to do that while being chased or in the midst of combat. You can move items in your inventory with the Y button, and even combine certain items like the gun and ammo or the flashlight and batteries, but when you inevitably move the cursor to the wrong item, you’re going to be confused why something isn’t working.

During boss fights this poor inventory system makes things a hundred times as worse, as you can’t simply reload a gun with a simple button press, you need to drag the bullets to the gun in your inventory, and keep in mind the game doesn’t pause when doing so. You’ll want to get in the habit of organizing your inventory so that it makes the most used items much more accessible, but it’s tedious and you shouldn’t have to resort to this in order to overcome poor design. The inventory management is painful and is by far the biggest frustration and drawback of 2Dark.

Even though I took issue with many of 2Dark’s problems, such as poor voice acting, unfair deaths, and one of the worse inventory management systems I’ve experienced in recent memory, I can see the appeal of it. Its' replayability will come down to saving as many children as you can while collecting all that you can find, in the fastest time, but for many, that won’t be enough for much longevity. Once you learn how to deal with 2Dark’s issues it does become easier as you learn, it’s simply not as fluid as it should be nor as fair.

2Dark seems to suffer from an identity crisis, unsure if it’s trying to be more of a stealth game or lean towards horror roots. I was impressed by the very dark and mature subject matter, especially since 2Dark holds nothing back, adding to its atmosphere, but certain design choices seem odd or simply in bad taste. It’s a gritty tale surrounded by average gameplay, and even though it has some serious hindrances, I think that some will find the stealth gameplay engaging and fun, but for the average gamer many of the mechanics behind 2Dark are 2Difficult to deal with.

Overall: 5.7 / 10
Gameplay: 5.0 / 10
Visuals: 6.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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