You know that bit in Inception when Ariadne and Cob are strolling through the streets of a city in her dream, the one where Ariadne alters the dream and folds the world at a 45 degree angle, allowing the pair to walk up the brand new wall that now exists? Well, spooky puzzler Darq is a bit like that. It’s like Inception if Christopher Nolan’s finest had actually been directed by Tim Burton in the ’90s. It’s proper weird, then.
Darq begins with little to no explanation. Your character, Lloyd, emerges within a dark, dingy and sepia toned apartment building. You are left to your own devices, with no tutorial, context or scene setting to speak of. After a few minutes of staring blankly at the screen, waiting for something to happen, I hesitantly nudged the thumb stick – causing Lloyd to lumber off in the instructed direction. “Aha!” I thought, “First puzzle solved. This is going to be easy.” Now, at the end of the game and with a very sore and tired brain I can tell you how very, very wrong past me was: Darq is a mind meltingly obscure and occasionally painfully confusing experience. This is a game that, at its best, is an intensely rewarding puzzler and, at its worse, a complete slog.
There are three types of puzzles that make up Darq. The first are most accurately likened to a point and click adventure; explore the level, collect random items, then try and combine said random items, in random ways with random objects. It’s all very random. Take a wrist watch that can inexplicably be used as an impromptu bridge. I mean, I know Darq is set in a dream world but really? These puzzles are the low point of the game and are solved through the tedious method of just trying every item you’ve collected until something works. With no dialogue to lean on, the game can’t clue you in to what you should be doing, meaning dumb luck is the order of the day here.
Then there’s the puzzles that allow you to traverse the environment. These are much more interesting. Meet a wall and Lloyd can walk up it with a tap of a button, the level rotating to a new normal as he does so. The best puzzles incorporate this mechanic to force you to think outside of the box – a seemingly inaccessible section can be easily reached if you come at it from a different angle.
Things become increasingly complex when Lloyd uses mechanisms that enable him to rotate the side-scrolling world, revealing elements that were hidden and allowing access to new paths. There’s some outstanding puzzles that utilise both these mechanics to push the boundaries of your brain. No spoilers here, but these cryptic conundrums provided many a fist pump when the puzzle finally clicked for me.
The final puzzle type is much more traditional and anyone who’s played a few video games will be a deft hand at wiggling levers, panels and cranks to join together puzzle pieces.
Each short level utilises combinations of these puzzles to varying effect. Level with too much collecting items to use for unexpected purposes drag, whilst others that challenge you to rotate the world around you in ever more complex patterns are great fun. One highlight challenges the player to race around a train carriage’s floor, walls and ceiling to use Lloyd’s body as a conduit to ensure a fuse keeps on burning on route to detonate a stick of dynamite.
What isn’t so fun, is Darq’s tedious obsession with trying to be a psychological horror. You’ll find monsters from the ‘trying hard to be Silent Hill’ school of design lurking around each level. Half-naked women with lamp shades on their heads, creepy wall clambering children, shambling zombie creatures with bags for hats; it’s a hodgepodge of ideas pilfered from much scarier games and films. There’s nothing wrong with a spot of idea pinching, but all these spooks lead to is some boresome stealth. Hiding in a gap in a wall whilst the slowly tottering zombie creature shuffles its way past is neither scary nor engaging, it’s just an obstacle to get past before getting to do something fun, like reaching another puzzle.
The need for scares also results in one of the worst pieces of game design I’ve ever experienced, one in which trying to complete the section made me so nauseous I had to lie down. This section sees Lloyd having to manoeuvre a ball around a circular maze, whilst the view spins 360 degrees. Each rotation of the camera reveals a monster sneaking up on our protagonist, whilst also hiding from view the puzzle he’s trying to solve. The turning of the screen combined with the spinning of the maze was like being trapped inside a small boat on a stormy sea – vomit inducing. Whilst I appreciate that the effect might not be so potent on everyone, for me it was a complete deal breaker.
Aside from struggling to keep my lunch down, there’s another aesthetic issue that dampened the enjoyment that I had from playing Darq. Whilst the greyscale visuals provide the game a distinctive look, they also serve to hide vital items. Often I wouldn’t even spot an item until many minutes of frustrating backtracking and fruitless searching had passed.