US: 19 Jan 2010
In the early days of gaming there was constant discussion over whether or not story was important in games. The modern consensus is that story is important (though not always necessary), and few games illustrate this point better than Dark Void.
The story is one that we’ve all seen before: an everyman is transported to an alternate world where he must save an oppressed people from evil aliens. But this time he has a jet pack. Part The Rocketeer, part Flash Gordon, Dark Void is an homage to the pulp sci-fi of the 50s. From its story to its visual style, it’s obvious where the inspiration for this game came from. But it’s also more than just an homage; the Void is a fascinating world even when viewed without the nostalgia, so that makes it all the more painful to watch as this wonderful new universe is wasted so completely.
The game is split into three episodes. The first episode introduces us to the Void. We learn a little about it, mostly about the portal in the Bermuda Triangle that connects the Void to earth. Appearances by Nikola Tesla, the U.S.S. Cyclops (a U.S. Carrier that supposedly disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle), and journals by Amelia Earhart help anchor this fantastical world to our own, and set an expectation for more references to Bermuda Triangle mythology (which never come). The second episode introduces the Survivors, a ragtag group of humans in perpetual war with the alien Watchers. The final episode is where everything begins to fall apart.
Up until that point the plot moves at a very purposeful pace, allowing us to get sucked into this world. The characters are just archetypes—the hero, the guide, the love interest, the chosen one—but the retro visual style is, ironically, a fresh look for games. And it’s not so much that the characters that keep our interest, but questions linger about the world itself: What is the Void? Who are the Watchers and what do they want?
By the time we get to the third episode, it’s as if the developers realized that they would never finish the game in time if the story continued at its current pace. The third-to-last level feels like the halfway point in the story. So everything speeds up, and the game starts to rush through its plot so fast that nothing makes sense anymore. What seems like a big twist halfway through becomes inconsequential a few minutes later. The word “adept” is thrown around like its important, but we’re never told what an “adept” is or why they’re special. We’re introduced to a group of natives that worship the Watchers as gods but never learn anything more about these people. Where do they come from, why don’t they join the Survivors? In fact, it’s never clearly established why the Survivors are fighting the Watchers in the first place. The ending is nothing more than a jumble of confusing scenes because the game does such a poor job setting it up. We get hooked into this interesting world, but all of the questions that hooked us are never actually answered.
It’s sad that the story takes such a sharp dive because the game is quite fun. It’s a solid, though average, shooter: Guns feel powerful, the action is fast and satisfying, and the use of vertical cover is, at the very least, a refreshing twist to the now tired cover-based third-person shooter genre. The aerial combat is the big selling point of the game. Your little jet pack is quick and maneuverable, but never feels weak. Switching control schemes on the fly can be jarring at first, but that jolt is part of the fun. When the hero takes flight his limbs flail about like he’s barely in control; he looks like you feel. And even later, once you’re a master jet pack pilot, these character animations keep the combat feeling hectic.
But even solid gameplay can’t make up for the fact that entire chapters of the game seem to be missing once it starts its mad dash to the end. What’s more unforgivable is that the missing sections are the best part of any action story: the final battle. We’re told it’s time to attack the alien’s home base, a massive tower, that this next fight is the final push. Instead of a grand battle, the next level finds us already atop the tower and already fighting the final boss. Since there’s no build up to this boss it doesn’t feel like a finale, and when the credits roll, they’re an unwelcome surprise.
So much about this game is unique: the art style, the new twist on an old mechanic, the jet pack dogfights, and especially the score, which sounds both sweeping and distinctly otherworldly. But despite all its successes Dark Void feels like an incomplete game. What’s there is creative and fun but incomplete, nonetheless.