Darkest of Reviews
I received an unexpected gift for Christmas, courtesy of my friend J.B. / digital_pariah, who you may remember as one of the players from our RPS Ascension game of Dominions 3 (which I am terribly behind in talking about here on Space-Biff!). It was the time-traveling romp Darkest of Days, a game about anachronisms that strikes me as an anachronism itself. It’s a much-ignored gem from 2009 that, for the most part, looks as though it has arrived on your PC after an arduous time-bending adventure, in which a serviceable gaming engine from 2008 stole the discarded textures of 2005, kidnapped Harry Turtledove’s doppelganger to pen the plot, and then decided on a pit stop in 1862 to get the Battle of Antietam just right.
Any game that channels that one good part from Timecop is a game in which I’m interested, and it’s fair to say I was looking forward to Darkest of Days in the same kind of way that I used to look forward to having my modern army men gun down my pirate Legos (read: very much). I didn’t expect it to spin me around and teach me a life lesson (or at least try really, really hard to). The review, in three parts, follows.
Part One: The Game
A traditional review; mechanics and early plot; no real spoilers.
Of all examples of time travel across all media, this is probably the one that contains the fewest musings, mentions, or instances of paradox. Oh, it tries now and then, but in terms of the actual time travel, Darkest of Days plays it pretty straight: You’re Alexander Morris, a soldier set to die at Little Bighorn. At the very moment Custer hits the dirt, you’re plucked from time to fight for a time-travel-capable corporation. Or something. Their job is to preserve time, which they will do in this instance by saving people who were supposed to survive battles but who have now mysteriously been transferred to the front lines to die. Again, or something. These people were important because they were scientists, or the ancestors of scientists… hey, most of the time it isn’t very clear. How the corporation — KronoteK, but let’s just forget that — knows that anyone has tampered with time rather than just being altered in the present to fit the changes to the past, is a mystery.
So after learning how to fire a bolt-action rifle and lob a grenade (and apparently made a bit more resistant to small-arms fire, though nobody mentions this), you’re deemed fit for service and unceremoniously chucked into World War 1 and the American Civil War. Of the game’s five time periods, these are the two in which you’ll spend roughly three-quarters of your time (unintentional pun). Levels generally consist of you trying to find and save someone, while killing loads of enemies, with the exception of some enemies who glow blue. This indicates that they’re supposed to survive the battle (for the sake of the continuity of time), so you should shoot them in the leg instead of the head. This can become quite difficult when making a massive charge on an entrenched enemy position, at which point those enemies you need to preserve are sticking only their heads out from behind the sandbags.
The recreations of historic events are simply staggering, and this is where the game shines. Squaring off in line-formation combat against Confederate troops is pants-wettingly terrifying, and looking over a ridge at a massive German assault force at Tannenberg is breathtaking. The WW2 POW camp succeeded in being affecting and desperate, and the Pompeii levels have me convinced of the depth of the tragedy that took place there in year 79. All this works because the engine is quite good at fudging these sequences, with distant soldiers replaced by sprites, weapons fire sending up convincing plumes of smoke, and just-good-enough AI.
However, there are cracks. The narrative sways between good and evil varieties of camp, trending from joyous romp to eye-rolling far too often. Most of the time you go back in time equipped with period weaponry and given modern implements later, but once you’re armed with a futuristic homing assault rifle, nobody seems to notice that you’ve just won the Civil War in fifteen minutes of horrific slaughter. Fair enough, but after gloriously turning back hundreds of charging Germans with a grenade-mortar on full-auto, going back to muskets and revolvers for the next mission is all the more disappointing. Enemies can see through the same foliage that regularly impedes your vision, and more than once I instinctively took cover behind tall grass, cornstalks, or bushes only to be gunned down by a half-dozen musketballs. And some of the missions are simply dull, especially in comparison to the ones that are tightly-scripted looks at some of history’s bloodiest fights.
Since this is a traditional review, I must give a tagline and final score. So here I go: Great engine that accomplishes some fantastic set-pieces, but the corporation’s name is a lame pun. Twenty-six out of thirty-five. Space-Biff! recommends it. Buy it now.
Part Two: The Intended Message
Some thoughts on the story; loads of spoilers; but they’re such dumb spoilers that you can fully enjoy the game knowing the ending, sort of like with an action movie. Such as Timecop.
I’m glad that 8monkey Labs decided to try and say something with their game. I certainly got something out of it, but I don’t think it was what they intended. Come with me on a journey of explaining.
In Darkest of Days, there’s another evil corporation. Or something. If you mess up by killing one of the people who should survive a battle, they might time-warp to your location to hassle you. They aren’t very adept soldiers, but they are a bit more menacing than a musket-toting teenager from Georgia. (As an aside, I would sometimes intentionally kill people I shouldn’t — those glowing blue people you’re supposed to ensure survive — in order to get future-soldiers to warp to my location so I could kill them and take their better guns, thus solving the problem of having a bolt-action rifle yet again). This evil corporation turns out to be — dun dun dum — KronoteK from the future. Unlike your current corporation, which is obsessed with keeping time from changing, the future version wants to change the timeline to erase some sort of mega-problem.
Well, that seems fine to me. I was under the impression that we were maintaining the timeline because if something big enough changed, the universe would blip out of existence. But if we can change the past so humanity doesn’t wipe itself out, we may as well. After all, if they’re willing to mess with time, I’m sure the mega-problem on future-KronoteK’s mind must be nothing short of extinction.
But then we get to the requisite endgame exposition. Someone from future-KronoteK shows up and explains that the same scientist-dads we were trying to save developed a virus that a Middle Eastern lab (the way this is explained ingame warrants a whole extra discussion) turned into a mega-virus. Around two billion die. Future-KronoteK agrees that time travel shouldn’t be used to change time, but they will make this one exception.
Well, this doesn’t sit right with me. Nuh-uh. So humanity is still ticking? Well, then why are we changing the timeline? Just because more people died, it’s justifiable to mess with chronology? There will always be a “biggest tragedy ever.” Once we’ve resolved the virus-kills-two-billion thing, why not make sure the horrors of the 20th Century never happened? If we keep going, suddenly we’re traveling through time to the Fateful Morn of 22 September 1975, when Doctor Hatburn scraped his knee. John Crowley wrote a book about this exact sort of progression.
The only way I can see justifying potentially ending the universe (which I’m not ruling out just because the other folks in this game don’t think about it) is if it’s basically ending anyway. Lesson not learned.
Final score for the intended meaning: 47% more stinky than fighting a future-soldier with nothing but a muzzle-loader.
Part Three: What I Got Out of It
In which I commit atrocities, because I care.
Given a choice in games, I always play as the good guy. I’m a Jedi, not a Sith, at least on my first playthrough. In Darkest of Days, you’re not the hero. It does tantalize you with the idea that you might be, placing you on the “good” sides of its central battles. At first you fight for the Union, taking out those slave-holding Confederates. And you fight on the side of the Russians against those good-fer-nothing Germans. Then, about two-thirds through the game and almost without annunciation, you swap sides. Suddenly you’re mowing down the same men you fought alongside, all because the battle was supposed to end a certain way, and specific people who survived thanks to your heroics were meant to die in the mud of the battlefield. And those heroic mistakes require brutal solutions.
I’m not convinced that this was intentional, but it did succeed in undermining my heroic ideals for Alexander Morris. He doesn’t look quite so flowery when, rather than ensuring the survival of beleaguered Russians against an onslaught of Germans, he’s working towards their mutual obliteration.
It’s this recast character, made to do awful things, that enters the final set of levels, finding himself in Pompeii in in 79 AD. Forecast: overcast.
Ash rains down from the sky, further beclouding your vision with every passing minute. Civilians scream and run in all directions, stumbling over each other and rushing around you and your men on all sides. (This is, incidentally, the first time you see civilians. The armies of the Union and Confederacy were devoid of camp followers, and the battlefields empty of onlookers. The towns that were occupied during Tannenberg were never shown. Even the prison in WW2 was a POW, rather than concentration, camp. Thus far, your violence has been exclusively performed on soldiers.) The only ones holding their ground are a few Roman legionaries, and they’re also visibly shaking as they realize that their shields aren’t of any real use.
See, you get guns right off the bat. The powers-that-be at KronoteK are in a race against their opposition, and since everyone is going to die at Pompeii anyway, you may as well just shoot everything that moves, collateral be damned. (Although one of the loading screens does mention that the citizens of Pompeii were frozen in an “action state” by the ash, none of them mention the long-term effects of later archaeology teams finding tens of thousands of bullets and spent magazines everywhere, let alone droves of dead future-soldiers). Of course, you aren’t encouraged to kill the fleeing civilians, but there isn’t any penalty either. Soon they’re being unavoidably cut down in the crossfire, as terrified by the impossibly-armed and -armored soldiers battling among them as they are by the volcano erupting above.
At first I tried to preserve the civilians. And then, after an entire mission of watching the poor wretches be cut down by wayward rounds, something snapped. They were going to die anyway. Naturally, my first impulse was to wish to save them, but of course there was no way of accomplishing that. So I did the next best thing. At this point, I was carrying a gun that could incinerate anything I pointed it at. Quick, relatively painless death, compared to asphyxiation by ash. So I used it. I used it on the furutre-KronoteK enemies we were battling. I used it on the brave remaining legionaries who decided to stand and fight. And I used it on every civilian I could, ending their terror.
I felt quite good about this. Even when I couldn’t do anything to help, I could at least extend this little mercy.
It wasn’t until later that I considered that maybe this was the way that tyrants thought when they held lives in their hands. The lives of scared, helpless little people, who would choose death if they were aware enough to do anything other than scrabble for life, and all of them in my hands, just waiting for benevolent and powerful me to make the decision for them. Vainglory, I think now.
I loved Darkest of Days. I loved it because despite its amateurishness, it had a certain shine to it. And I loved it because it gave me something to think about, something that I’ll be thinking about for a while yet — even if the game didn’t mean to do it.
Final score: worthwhile.