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Review #326

Dark Fall: Lost Souls
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Developer: Darkling Room
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 12/11/2009 (Europe)
Sneaky Legal Way For North Americans To Get it Early: Gamer’s Gate

If you’re a long time reader, then you know I’m a big fan on Jonathan Boakes’ games. Dark Fall: The Journal took the number nine spot on my “30 Spookiest Games Ever” countdown, and The Lost Crown would have ranked even higher had the game been out when I originally did the countdown. The Lost Crown would go on to win three awards from us in 2008, which included Best Story of the Year, Best Adventure Game of the Year, and Best PC Game of the year. He also helped out with Barrow Hill which was a big favourite of mine in 2006 and it too went on to win some awards from us.

So it may surprise you to learn that well…I really didn’t like this game. It wasn’t at all scary like previous games and I actually found myself bored for most of it, possibly because I had figured out the plot in the first five minutes of playing. So what went wrong? Is there anything in Dark Fall: Lost Souls worth experiencing? Read on to find out.

Let’s Review

1. Story

I had two big issues with the plot. The first is that characters were all very unlikeable and shallow. The second is that Boakes has usually made games based on realistic hauntings and ghostly occurances. Lost Souls however was “Jacob’s Ladder meets Silent Hill.” This really didn’t work for me because instead of being an, “Oh crap, this has potentially for actually happening,” I was instead thinking, “That is a lot of scissors and mannequins.” It was just so over the top, I couldn’t get into it or enjoy it.

You are playing as “The Inspector,” even though he hasn’t legally had that title for at least five years. He was the main person on a missing child case. The girl was never found and the believed killer had to be released when it was revealed that The Inspector faked and planted evidence. Now The Inspector finds himself in Dowerton, the setting of the original Dark Fall after a pill and vodka fueled bender.

The Inspector believes Amy, the missing girl is here, and so she is, but in spectral form. This is where the Inspector’s earning of, “The stupidest protagonist of 20009″ award comes in. You see, not only does The Inspector not know what is happening to him, even though the game is not at all subtle about it and hits you over the head with it multiple times as you play, he also seems unable to understand that Amy is a ghost even though he has seen her do many well, ghostly things. Because things are so obviously out of whack and The Inspector is utterly clueless up until the end, I spent most of the game going, “Oh my god, this is bad.”

It gets stranger, as half the game is tacked on content that has no relevance to the main plot. You see in Dark Fall: The Journal the game makes it abundantly clear that when you beat the game, you release all the souls trapped in Dowerton by the thing here. However, you end up saving three “people” and a baby by going back in time as that person and changing their history for the better. Yes, you are playing Quantum Leap with apparitions. This too really destroyed my suspension of disbelief. Worse yet, these bits really had no bearing on the actual main plot of the game and ended up feeling like filler to pad the game’s length. The only thing I can think of to excuse this is that Lost Souls doesn’t really take place in Dowerton but a Jacob’s Ladder version of Dowerton, but that’s also flimsy at best.

Most disappointing of all are the two endings. You have a chance to free Amy by taking her place, or leaving her there to rot. Now, throughout the game the good aligned ghosts you encounter hit you over the head with, “HOLY CRAP, AMY IS BASICALLY EVIL INCARNATE. SHE IS THE SODDING ANTI-CHRIST. EVIL EVIL EVIL EVIL EVIL.” Yet, it is obvious from both endings the smart choice is the wrong choice. Yes, it gives you a “good” ending, but the ending is also very weak, very abrupt, and is also footage you could get earlier in the game. It’s ultimately unfulfilling and leaves the gamer disappointed, especially compared to the endings of Boakes’ previous games. The “Sure, I’ll take your place ending” is longer, and is obviously the one you are meant to take. However this ending is the “bad” one (in terms of what happens to your character) and just cements your protagonists as the stupidest guy in gaming this year. This ending too is pretty unfulfilling as your guy just screams in horror as the Dark Fall gets him and you’re given nothing else, especially how Amy can come back after being dead and molested (not in that order) for half a decade.

The story ofDark Fall: Lost Souls was a HUGE drop in quality compared to other Darkling Room games, and I have to admit, I was really disappointed that this was the follow up to The Lost Crown, which was easily one of the best settings and stories in horror adventures. I was left cold, annoyed and most of all, bored with DF:LS and I’m still a bit bitter about that.

Story Rating: 3/10

2. Graphics

The visuals of DF:LS are actually quite nice. There is a lot of detail to the backgrounds, and although the game has eschewed more realistic locations for something you might find after opening a LeMarchand Configuration, I’m still impressed by the level of detail and all the things there are to look at in the game. Lost Souls has gone panoramic this time, so there is even more to look at and see. Real world locations are very well done and even the more surreal bits still look quite nice.

The only downside I can think of is that the poster of Amy you encounter throughout the game is a girl with long black hair and the ghost Amy is blond with pigtails. A bit of a continuity error there, I suppose. Also, “Have You Seen Me?” Amy looks a bit like a Deep One.

I won’t deny that the game is very pretty and you can definitely see a lot of graphical improvement over the previous two Dark Fall titles. It’s odd to call a game filled with bloody leeches, severely mangled roadkill and lots of rusty scissors “pretty,” but there it is. It also doesn’t hurt that I love the setting of a haunted railway and hotel.

Graphics Rating: 7.5/10

3. Sound

I love the music in Boakes’ games. So much so that I have purchased the soundtracks to the first two Dark Fall games, along with The Lost Crown. Although the tracks are not something you would hear in a club, be able to sing along to, or even properly hum without people around you thinking you’re a bit Norman Bates, the music is sublime in its super creepy haunting factor and it’s perfect mood music for things like reading a scary story or a Hallowe’en party. The music in this game is equally freaky and does its best to make up for the plot’s issues.

The sound effects are great too. Creaking of doors, the gnashing of teeth, the very creepy noises in the pupae room (You’ll have to experience it for yourself) and the occasional whispered chanting or ghostly noises you’ll hear all really add to the overall feel of the game. There were many times when the plot was eye-rollingly bad, but the noises helped to draw me back in. Clearly, the audio is the strongest aspect of the game and the one thing I can truly say I loved bout Lost Souls.

The only downside is the voice acting. In the past, the voice acting in the game has ranged from quite good to acceptable. Again, The Lost Crown was definitely the best of Boakes’ games so far in this aspect. I have to say that although The Inspector sounded exactly like what one supposed a middle aged frumpy British detective to sound like, the rest of the cast was hit or miss. I enjoyed the voice actor of the astronomer, but found the rest of the cast to be lacking. Mr. Bones was okay, but Sly Fox was ghastly and sounded like a seventy year old woman with bad lungs instead of a twenty-something sex pot gangster. Amy was actually the worst simply because her lines were delivered like the actress was completely stoned. Poor delivery, no emotion, and very phoned it. It’s too bad the voice acting wasn’t anywhere near the quality of the sound effects and music, and this only served to drag the game back down. It’s too bad that unlike 99% of adventure games out there, I couldn’t use my mouse or the space bar to skip through the actual talking and just read the script through the subtitles. Nope, you’ll have to sit through all the bad acting. Sorry.

An otherwise amazing collection of tracks and sound effects marred by some subpar voice acting

Sound Rating: 7.5/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Back in May, when I interviewed Mr. Boakes about this game, I asked if he had ever considered developing games for the Wii or DS. Well, it appears he took that question to heart as a good chunk of this game has eschewed the typical point and click aspects of the adventure genre and instead uses motion controls like one would see with a Wiimote or the DS’ stylus. For example you will click on a mattress, hold the button down and then move your mouse in a direction to push the mattress away. Another example is dislodging a doll eye from floor boards by moving a pair of scissors up and down to dislodge it. This all sounds well in theory and it’s a nice change from the usual mouse clicks, but sometimes the controls don’t work exactly as you would want them to or the game doesn’t recognize your movements at first. Still, it’s nice to see this departure from the adventure game cliches.

Of course, those cliches are still intact as there is plenty of the usual point and clicking to find objects or interact with the background. Because this aspect of adventure gaming remains unchanged since the early 1980’s, you probably won’t be surprised to hear this is solid and works fine.

Like with all adventure games there is clicking on objects to use them, add them to your inventory, or take them from your inventory to activate something else in the game. There are also puzzles to solve, although the majority of the puzzles are putting together torn up newspapers to make it readable, or finding the right object to use with another object.

There are two big departures in DF:LS besides the Wiimote style controls that occasionally popup. The first is that there is no need to combine items. I rather liked that. The other is that you can die in this game. There is a puzzle in one room where you have to connect these wires in time or a shadow monster will eat you. This adds a bit of pressure to the puzzle and it’s really the only creepy part of the game as the monsters noises and slow movements towards you can be quite distracting.

The game froze on me twice. Both times my character stopped moving and there was a constant loop of walking noises. The first was right away in the first five minutes of the game, and the other was with the last ghost I helped. After picking up a bottle of gin and turning around, the game froze. This seems to be connected to the panoramic visuals, but as it only happened twice in the six to eight hours it took me to beat the game, it’s not that big of a deal. Still, I advise you to same regularly.

The only other thing worth noting here is that your phone controls a lot of things that range from your flashlight to loading or saving the game. There was one time I went to hit “settings” so I could have subtitles on, and accidentally loaded an older game, losing about 15 minutes of progress. I blame that on me rather than the game though.

Overall, DF:LS is a solid game with the only real gameplay issues coming from the new motion controls. It’s Darkling Room’s first time trying these, and it does feel better suited to a Wii or NDS than a PC game, so maybe that will happen down the road.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 6.5/10

5. Replayability

Most adventures games are an exceptionally linear affair, and no matter how good they are, there’s rarely a reason to play one for a second time unless the story is exceptional. As the story is pretty much rubbish, Dark Fall: Lost Souls falls into this category for the most part. However, this game has a lot of randomization elements in it. Certain codes and numbers will be different on each play through. This means that the game is still very linear and will unfold in the same manner, but at least you’ll have to hunt for the new codes, patterns or constellations instead of just going off your notes from the previous game. This does indeed increase the replay value of the game, but with a bad story, a lot of the game feeling like it was just tacked on, and a few others issues, you still will probably consider this a one and done type of game unless something about it really grabs you. It is nice to see the randomization element though. More adventure games need to do this so it feels somewhat new each time you play it.

Replayability Rating: 5/10

6. Balance

Besides the plot of the game, the other big problem I had with Dark Fall: Lost Souls was here. Not only did the game have an inordinate amount of backtracking, but the game moved at a snail’s pace. I was actually shocked you couldn’t click through the dialogue and just read it like in nearly every other adventure game. Considering the voice actor quality and the slow pace at which they delivered their lines, this could have been a Godsend. It also didn’t help that a lot of the comments were repetitive and so hearing the same exact lines a half dozen or so times just made it worse.

As for the puzzles, I found the game to be way too easy. There are two difficulty settings, but I played the game only on hard and found myself whizzing through the game. This is primarily because the majority of the puzzles can be divided into three categories:

1) Use object A on background item B.
2) This article is cut up. Put it back together.
3) Pick the right line of dialogue to say to the ghost.

Now there are a few other puzzles out there. There is a telescope puzzle, the fuse puzzle where you can be eaten by a foul beastie and the final puzzle at the end of the game, but really those are the exceptions to the rule and 90-95% of the puzzles in the game fall under the above three categories. This really added to the dullness of Lost Souls. Perhaps if they were a bit harder, it would have helped, but the real key would have been variety and a better story.

When the hardest part of a game is trying not to swear when you have to backtrack through the same few locations for the hundredth time, there’s an obvious problem. There just wasn’t any challenge or substance and that really breaks an adventure game.

Balance Rating: 4/10

7. Originality

This is another area where Lost Souls takes a hit. The game was so obviously a riff on both Silent Hill and Jacob’s Ladder that I had figured out the plot almost immediately. From the name of your cell phone stalker on down, the game’s plot should be instantly recognizable even if you haven’t encountered either of those products before, because it’s been done several dozen times. It also didn’t help that there were no real outside the box or creative puzzles here. Everything in this game has been done in many other games, including other Darkling Room titles. This felt so generic and phoned in throughout my entire playthrough, I found myself actively looking for something that didn’t feel like it was cribbed from somewhere else and then stuck piecemeal style into the game.

After the incredible creativity shown in The Lost Crown, this was a huge disappointment. The only thing I can say was new here was the motion controls, and even that’s been done in several of The Adventure Company’s Agatha Christie games.

Originality Rating: 3/10

8. Addictiveness

I feel really bad because I generally really like Darkling Room titles. However, Lost Souls felt longer to play through than The Lost Crown, and that game was 30+ hours long while DF:LS is only six to eight. That’s how much drudgery this game was. You have shallow and unlikeable characters, an obvious evil little girl you are still supposed to try and save, very little puzzle variety and a pretty weak plot. All those things combined to make this more of a chore than anything else. I can’t deny that the actual game itself if solid and I loved the music and sound effects, but the esoteric aspects just kept turning me off from beginning to end. The only reason I finished was because I kept hoping things would turn around.

Addictiveness Rating: 4/10

9. Appeal Factor

I’m not really sure who is going to like this. This game is quite different in theme and in metaphor from the other Darkling Room games and I personally prefer a realistic haunting type game to one where I expect Pyramid Head to be revealed as The Dark Fall itself (”It’s Rape Time!”). It’s both very easy and not at all scary, which should also leave both adventure game and horror fans cold. The puzzles are all mostly the same and that lack of variety can hurt a game as well. However, Darkling Room has a pretty good reputation with adventure game fans and the game is well made, so people who can ignore the story and repetition should still be able to have fun with that. More than that, I specialize in ghost stories and folklore outside of gaming, so I’m also probably being a little harsher (and more knowledgeable) than the average person would be to Lost Souls’s plot.

This is definitely the worst of the Darkling Room games, but it’s still a solid adventure game that should keep the average aficionado of this genre content. Horror fans should definitely look elsewhere and even horror adventure fans will probably find this weaker than other offerings out there.

Appeal Factor Rating: 5/10

10. Miscellaneous

With multiple endings and a lot of randomization that makes each playthrough feel a little more fresh than the average adventure game, Darkling Room has at least put some technical excellent into Dark Fall: Lost Souls It’s also worth noting that there are a number of Easter Eggs or bonus items hidden throughout the game. Each of these items is a file about supposed hauntings in Dowerton, and no, it’s not a real location in the United Kingdom. Still this is the most atmospheric that the game gets and I had more fun reading these files than I did playing a lot of the game. Boakes is definitely much better at realistic “real-world” haunting type situations than boogey men or trying to go for a survival horror atmosphere in a point and click setting. I only found six of these, so there may be more. To help you find one, try “Boakes” on the Ouija Board when you encounter it. As well, there’s another bonus item clue in one of the screenshots in this review. Good luck finding the rest.

All things said, I have to give Dark Fall: Lost Souls a thumb in the middle. It’s technically sound but it just doesn’t hold up in regards to story or puzzles.

Miscellaneous Rating: 5/10

The Scores
Story: 3/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Sound: 7.5/10
Control and Gameplay: 6.5/10
Replayability: 5/10
Balance: 4/10
Originality: 3/10
Addictiveness: 4/10
Appeal Factor: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 5/10
Total Score: 50
FINAL SCORE: 5.0 (MEDIOCRE GAME!)

Short Attention Span Summary
Dark Fall: Lost Souls is not a bad game, but it IS a drastic drop in quality from the other games developed by Darkling Room. The game is technically sound, with a well made engine that lacks a lot of the slowdown issues that can grip other panoramic adventures games and there are some novel controls for pieces of the game. At the same time, the story is pretty bad as it is obvious within the first few minutes where things are going and what all the secret revelations will be. It also doesn’t help that your protagonist is one of the stupidest in gaming or that every character you encounter in the game is equally unlikeable. The puzzles are also very repetitive and the game is fairly easy, so you get a boring story and no real challenge. Dark Fall: Lost Souls is best left to adventure game fans who will like just about anything in the genre, while it will no doubt be a disappointment to horror adventure fans and Darkling Room fans in particular.

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