It’s hard work being an evil genius. You’d think a big baddie would be all about taking it easy and having fun, spending the time to enjoy the things like creating an army of mutant crocodiles with laser beams sewn to their heads, but as Cid – the local, unfriendly neighbourhood demon of Darkestville – will tell you, being this bad takes effort. If you want to terrorise the village population in a suitably over-the-top megalomaniacal scheme, then you’re going to have to get up very early in the morning. Especially when there’s a pack of Demon Hunters after you.
That’s the intriguing storyline set-up behind Darkestville Castle, an old-school point and click adventure that clearly harbours fond memories of Monkey Island, Sam and Max, and Day of the Tentacle. For those of you young enough to have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, allow me to explain. Point and click adventures were the defining video game genre of my youth. Home to a plethora of classics, the genre is, funnily enough, all about pointing and – shock, horror, gasps etc – clicking. Your protagonist scarpers around multiple environments – usually confined to one or two screens – collecting random objects and attempting to use them to solve obscure puzzles. There’s usually some eminently odd and bizarre NPCs to chat to on the way and all sorts of, usually comedic, narrative hijinks to be a part of.
Darkestville Castle emulates the genre’s conventions to the letter, which depending on how much you enjoy these games is either a massive turn on or a horrific turn off. First off, those obscure puzzles. Boy oh boy, Darkestville does not disappoint with its eclectic puzzles. Take this as an early example: Cid the Demon needs some ink in order to doctor a manuscript. Who has a pot of ink? Why, the hotdog vender, of course. But he doesn’t want to just give you the ink, that would be far too easy. He wants something spicy to increase the tastability of his flaccid dogs.
At this point it’s a case of going through Cid’s extensive inventory to check out all the objects you’ve collected up until this point, surely one of them will do the trick? A bottle of whisky perhaps? No. Some soap? No. Peanuts? Don’t be ridiculous. A screwdriver? Not on your nelly. Right then, in that case you’d best go back through all the screens you’ve visited and find a suitable item. Fast-forward forty seven minutes of painful screen clicking until the correct object is found: a smelly coat. Yes, that’s right, the hot dog vender needed a smelly coat to flavour his hot dogs.
Does that sound like a fun puzzle? If your answer is yes, than you’re in luck, Darkestville Castle is 100% the game for you. If the above puzzle sounds equal parts frustrating and very stupid, then you’d best give the adventures of Cid and friends a miss. Personally, I find myself rather uncomfortably straddling the fence. Sometimes the puzzles prove to be the right amount of weird, developers Epic Llama giving you just enough information to nudge you in the correct direction, so that when you solve the puzzle there is genuine sense of satisfaction to be had. More often, the solution is nonsense only arrived at by trying every possible object combination till you stumble on the right answer with a bit of dumb luck and some patient perseverance. Whilst I’m not a massive fan of it, that approach to puzzle solving defined the golden age point and clicking.
From a visual perspective, Darkestville Castle is a nostalgic delight: Bright, bold, and full of Saturday morning cartoon character. Indeed, if I didn’t know that we were in the much-despised year of 2020, I would swear that we had teleported through time to find ourselves in the glory days of LucasArts. There’s much to be enjoyed here, from the chunky character design to the rich pallet of colours that bring Darkestville and it’s inhabitants to life. Some locations are overused and a little on the empty side, but overall it’s like looking at the daft digital baby of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and The Secret of Monkey Island.
Just like the aforementioned Monkey Island series, Darksetville Castle is intended to be funny, but its success rate in mimicking its forbear is decidedly less clear. Humour is subjective, so take my opinion here with a pinch of salt, but I found Darkestville far too desperate in its attempts to be funny. Epic Llama throw everything at you all the time – ridiculous anecdotes, insane subplots, silly puns, fourth wall breaking – but little of it successfully lands. The comedy timing of the gags is inconsistent throughout, very few of them successfully ninja-chopping the funny bone.
This issue is exacerbated by the decision to include both text and voice over. It’s an odd choice, with one medium often spoiling the punch line of the other. Sure, you can change that in the options, but the default setting should be the optimal one. Overall, there’s just too many gags, at times it felt like I was watching Eddie Izzard on ketamine. Now, I love Eddie Izzard, but sometimes a bit of light and shade is necessary for comedy to work.
The voice over work is a little marmite too; Cid manages to impressively walk the thin and precarious line of being both charming and annoying with aplomb, but the results in the rest of the cast are less successful. Some of the later demons proved so grating that I found myself simply reading their text and skipping through the voice. Overall, much of the dialogue felt flat, like the actors delivery was recorded whilst reading from the script for the first time. There’s also odd irregularities in the quality of the voice recording, some characters almost seeming to have an entirely different voice at times, whilst others sound like they are stood in a different room to the protagonist. It’s a minor detail, but one that stands out in a video game genre that relies so heavily on talking to people.