Horror Horrorer Horrorest
You know that part of some of my reviews where I say something like, “This new game is from designer X and he designed games Y and Z”? It’s meant to give you a sense of why you should be interested in that person’s new game, because he’s produced something awesome and recognizable in the past. Sadly, this isn’t the case for the creator of Dark Darker Darkest, whose main distinction is that he designed a game so bad that I didn’t bother to review it, because my mother taught me to always insert something positive into my criticism and I just couldn’t manage it that time. And since you’re already switching tabs to ask Goog-El, patron goddess of all knowledge, what I’m talking about, the designer is David Ausloos and the offending game was Panic Station.
But here’s the good news: Dark Darker Darkest is a hell of a lot better than Panic Station, and the foremost proof is that I’m reviewing it at all! It’s actually rather brilliant in a number of ways, though I fear it might be brilliant the way unpolished diamonds are brilliant, because some of its luster is hidden beneath blackened slag. What follows is a list of three things I really like and three things that could have been improved about David Ausloos’s latest efforts to scare you silly.
(Good) Horror #1: Its Conflagration Includes a Conflagration!
There’s more to Dark Darker Darkest than first meets the eye. In this case, what first meets the eye is the goal of breaking into the mansion of Dr. Mortimer, inventor of the zombie virus that’s ravaging the city, in order to steal the good doc’s antidote and save the day like the big damn hero you’ve always suspected you are. As you might expect, this means there will be zombies, and special super-zombies like distressingly fast dogs or security guards who sort of remember how to use guns, and the constant dispassionate monitoring of your efforts by Dr. Mortimer through his army of ceiling-mounted cameras. Sometimes he’ll even alert an extra zombie horde to your presence, or release a zombie-bird into the house. Just to screw with you. He’s like that. I mean, he released a zombie plague on a city and you’re complaining about him sending a half-dozen zombies into the same broom closet you’re hiding in? Come on.
But as in many of the best horror movies, there’s more standing between you and your goal than just that primary threat. Zombies are nice and all (read: boring and overused, mostly because their “artificial intelligence” is straightforward enough that it’s easily simulated in board games), but much like the additional concerns of the freezing Antarctic in The Thing, a Weyland-Yutani android in Alien, or the menagerie in Cabin in the Woods, there are plenty of other obstacles to overcome as you traverse Dr. Mortimer’s poorly-kept mansion.
For instance, in addition to a horde of grabby zombies, you’ve also got to worry about hacking Dr. Mortimer’s system in order to break into the secure lab that’s hiding the antidote. And maybe engaging the doctor in a climactic throw-down the instant you do. And contending with the effects of zombification if your survivors get bit. Oh, and dealing with the outbreak of a raging inferno once you linger too long in the mansion, and desperately switching between smothering the flames to create safe passage for your crew and laughing hysterically as a horde of zombies burns to death. There’s plenty to keep even the most jaded horror fans on their toes, especially when you’re running from a particularly nasty horde and the only escape is through a room hollowed-out by fire, and you’ve run out of ammo, and you really need to hack that extra door and should you search more to find the right access key or should you bite the bullet and advance the time track to force it open? Decisions, decisions.
(Bad) Horror #1: Conflagrations Still Require Rules
Okay, so there’s a ton of variety in just the basic box of Dark Darker Darkest. Loads of rooms to explore, heaps of items to discover, dozens of miniatures and monsters, bosses to fight, a million and a half tokens, trackers… lots of stuff.
The problem with all that stuff is that each new concept requires new rules. And the rules… well, I’m not going to call them horrible, but they aren’t exactly elegant either. It’s one thing for the game to employ a unique set of mechanisms for every little thing, but some clunkiness in how they operate together, paired with a somewhat shoddy rulebook filled with half-explanations, misprinted page references, incorrect player reference sheets, etc., combines to create a game that takes a good while to learn. Even once you’ve figured everything out, it can still seem a little top-heavy at times. There are different sets of rules for placing new hordes of zombies depending on when and how they appear; rules for placing and moving fire once it breaks out; rules for when zombie hordes react to your movements, and entirely different rules for the reactions and movements and abilities of special zombies; and to top it all off, once the game nears its conclusion, the rules governing how you take actions and work as a group changes completely to a strange and un-thematic system that allows the boss monster to react appropriately depending on how many players there are, but feels mechanical and stilted — because although the system technically works, it feels wrong to toss out the system you’ve been using the entire game (and to suddenly prohibit searching and putting out fires, for some reason) instead of fine-tuning the way the boss monster works in the first place.
To its credit, Dark Darker Darkest’s worst offenses only matter because this is otherwise such a good game, dripping with theme and threat. Even so, a little more polish wouldn’t have gone amiss.
(Good) Horror #2: Group Dynamics
The way Dark Darker Darkest handles its group dynamics to raise tension and manage game flow is genuinely clever, and centers around two mechanisms.
First is the multitracker. At the beginning of each turn, players are arranged into groups depending on where they are in the mansion. So three characters huddled together for safety are formed into a group of three, while the two others scouting a hallway are paired together, and you have to decide which group will act first. Members of a group can move apart and take their actions in any order, but their actions can’t run together with members of another group. Best of all, nearby groups of zombies react once a group has finished acting, not after everyone has finished their moves, which makes the mindless horde seem just a touch less mindless, and actions a tad more real-time than the usual humans-go-then-zombies-go method. It requires a little more planning than many other games require in order to effectively space out and search the mansion and keep everyone safe, and that’s great for a survival horror game.
Now, maybe you’re thinking everyone should just stick together to alleviate your action-planning woes. And you’re right, a single big group is easy to manage — except for one or two other details that Dark Darker Darkest throws at you. For one thing, you don’t have much time; spend too long looking for the items you need to hack open doors and break into the laboratory and the game ends in total failure, not to mention the mansion starts burning down. For another, while large groups bring some natural advantages — it’s easier to search a room with a big group, or to kill zombies when you have a lot of guns pointed at a horde at the same time — large groups are also more likely to attract attention, spawning more hordes or causing the appearance of special monsters. Most of the time you’re best served by carefully managing the size and composition of each group, bringing survivors together to search rooms or fight enemies, then break up to creep past security cameras. This forces an interesting dynamic that’s always nagging at the back of your mind as you take every action. Very cool.
(Bad) Horror #2: The Meta Group Dynamics
This isn’t a very good criticism, but it’s one I can’t help but have anyway.
See, I don’t find horror games very, well, horrifying. I don’t feel any real dread or terror playing a cooperative game (exception: Space Alert). Unlike a movie, it’s not as though something can really jump out and make me scream (not that I scream); I roll a die and say, “Well, a zombie horde breaks through that window” instead of flipping out and shouting “Shitballs!” so loud that my neighbor complains to our landlord. Joke’s on her, the landlord’s my uncle. Not that this ever happened.
And anyway, most cooperative games are tested to beat a competent group of players two out of three plays, so there’s very little shame in losing. When I’m losing a cooperative game, I don’t feel fear — in general, the prevalent emotion is mostly a vague sense of annoyance at whichever player is mucking things up for the entire group. Never fear.
But you know what makes me feel fear in games? The threat of losing to a friend. The dread of a trusted buddy, or my wife, or my mom, shouting that she’s a traitor and now we’re going to die, and we totally didn’t see it coming because of her sweet smile and the cookies she said she’d bake us later if we went into that dark room. The one good thing about Panic Station, which I still remember to this day, was which of my loved ones was the infected player and how well they played all of us.
So even though it’s a weak criticism, I wish Dark Darker Darkest had been semi-cooperative, or had some sort of hidden traitor role (“Oh no, Lucy is Dr. Mortimer’s bastard daughter! And a zombie!“). Because that alone would have quadrupled my enjoyment of this game, and made the already-lovely group dynamics a hundred times as tense.
(Good) Horror #3: Body Horror
This is getting silly-long, so I’ll be brief for this last bit. There’s one last element of Dark Darker Darkest that I absolutely love — the fact that you can gradually transform into a zombie.
As you kill enemies and solve the little hacking puzzles that open doors, your character gains experience. Eventually they’ll be able to develop skills. The firefighter, for instance, starts out competent at moving through burned rooms, but gradually he can learn to sneak past Dr. Mortimer’s cameras, take less damage from fire, use healing items more efficiently, and stamp out fires better.
Unfortunately, if he contracts enough virus tokens, he starts to transform into a zombie, gradually losing his more effective skills. So he’ll forget the nuances of firefighting, but remember the basics of creeping around — meaning he’s forgetting his more technically-demanding abilities while remembering those that are a little more feral.
This system is fantastic, and does a superb job of conveying the idea that your characters are often in more danger of transforming into zombies than they are of actually getting beaten to death. Sure, your guys can also eventually lose enough health that they’ll just die, but just as often the real threat of a zombie horde is that your character token will get removed from the game, and one more anonymous zombie will get added to the location in your stead. And while it’s happening, you’ll gradually lose your memories of your better skills, all while scrambling for a taste of the antidote. Brutal.
(Bad) Horror #4: I Want More
This complaint is small, but I wish the zombification element had been fleshed out, and that it happened more often. Because that’s how cool it is.
If you haven’t been able to tell, I’ve been having a great time with Dark Darker Darkest. There are definitely ways it could improve — the rules could be clearer, some of the mechanisms could have been smoothed out, and I really would have liked for there to be some sort of human threat looming over the proceedings — but this is one of the better horror games I’ve played this year. If zombies, haunted houses, evil doctors, body horror, and undead birds are your thing, Dark Darker Darkest is something to keep an eye open for.
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Dark Darker Darkest may be dark, but purchasing it through this link (which, incidentally, supports Space-Biff!) is the opposite of dark, whatever that might be.