How do you make mechanics out of a dream? You could give them an obsessive lens such as Neverending Nightmares, or remove logic out of the equation like LSD: Dream Emulator. It’s almost hypocritical. Game mechanics by their nature are rule-driven compared to the surrealism of dreaming. That isn’t to say it’s impossible, just requires a different way to view things. Today, we’re going to try another game that explores dreams. This is DARQ, and you know it’s serious because it uses a Q instead of a K in its title. The first creation by Unfold Games, it’s the type of horror game that brings the tropes of the genre for better and worse. Let’s find out if it’s worth joining the pantheon of horror.
DARQ is a story in seven chapters about a boy named Lloyd trapped in perpetual dreaming. Trying to finally wake, he is forced to explore industrious settings and deal with the monsters that plague his nightmares. It’s a straightforward premise, especially as part of gaming’s obsession with puzzlers about kids in spooky worlds (Limbo, Little Nightmares, Heart of Darkness, etc). From abandoned theaters to run-down hospitals, there is a desire to explore the morbid in a way that is implied and open to interpretation. This is helped by its sound design. The world is industrial, full of cacophony, which the game’s harsh sounds like to remind you. It works overtime to add chaos to the game, especially at the game’s finale. The parts that are scary are definitely emphasized, so it would be weaker without it. It can get to the point of sensory overload, but I can only imagine how drab the game would be without it.
The biggest problem with DARQ is a simple one: it’s not that scary and focuses a lot on jump scares. Jump scares alone aren’t the problem, I’m not against them. While there is skill and craft in perfecting a jump scare, the majority of DARQ’s follow a simple formula; Loud strings and a temporary loss in player control. This means the game’s most upsetting parts feel inconsequential. Recurring monsters aren’t scary because of design or narrative, but simply because loud noises are unpleasant. There are some spooky moments that are earned, but the majority can be removed from their context and change nothing. It’s an insecure horror, uncomfortable to let its setting do the heavy lifting. After all, why interpret what you see when it’s not engaging?
DARQ might fit the mold of notable puzzle platformers, but it is more accurate to forgo “platformer” in its description. Rather than jumping, Lloyd can walk on walls, shifting to solve puzzles and explore places. Levels also come with levers, pulling you into the foreground and background or changing the direction of the world. It’s a novel approach to 2.5D, forcing you to violently shift the world and adding to its dreamlike nature. This extends to puzzles as well. While straightforward, dream logic comes into play. This can include using a snake as electrical tubing or turning a watch into a bridge. These puzzles can turn cruel, but those moments (like its jump scares) are fleeting. Since each chapter is a small vignette with straightforward solutions, there isn’t a lot of difficulty in its challenges.
There are also collectibles to be found, specifically pages of a dream journal. I couldn’t find one and it was hard to feel compelled to search for them with its flavor of horror. It will grab you enough to play through a single 2-3 hour playthrough, but going through it numerous times to find a collectible isn’t interesting. Playing through DARQ isn’t a challenge or chore, but it doesn’t feel as mind-bending as its premise would have you believe.
Performance & Graphics
Minimum System Requirements:
OS: Windows 7 / 8 / 10, 64-bits
Processor: Intel Core i3-530
Memory: 4 GB RAM
Graphics: NVIDIA Geforce GTX 260 / ATI Radeon HD 4870
Storage: 3 GB available space
Recommended System Requirements:
OS: Windows 7 / 8 / 10, 64-bits
Processor: Intel Core i7
Memory: 8 GB RAM
Graphics: NVIDIA Geforce GTX 660 / ATI Radeon HD 7850
Storage: 3 GB available space
Like the other horror games in this style, DARQ is all about muted color palettes. It’s expected and gets the job done, working as expected with the settings you traverse. Where this flounders is with monster design. They aren’t very scary and can remove intended terror. People with lamps for heads could be scary, but giving them old-fashioned dueling pistols is silly. It’s a difficult thing to balance, making something dreamlike but not to the point of cartoony. It almost works, like the sheer weirdness of a man that’s half-tuba, but usually it’s uninspired. This is especially true for its main monster: a bandaged woman in a wheelchair. I feel like I’ve seen this before, and not in a good way. The most successful part of its aesthetic is its transitory animation. The suddenness of being pulled into the foreground, the tentative steps onto a wall, these moments add a nice weight to movement.
The game does runs smoothly, though there was one noticeable game-breaking bug. Thanks to the way that perspective shifts can go, I was once shot through a wall and stuck beyond the game’s boundaries. Since the game only saves when you complete a chapter and I was almost done, I lost 20 minutes of progress. This is the only time it happened, and will probably be patched in the future.
While there are moments where the spookiness clicks, like its hectic climax, the rest is forgettable. It will give a fright once in a while, but that shock quickly disappears. It’s the fluffy type of horror, something with the trappings but not the depth. It’s not an amateur production, but it is less eerie than it should be. Horror is subjective, but I cannot suggest DARQ for its scares. Playing it made me crave the more refined games in this genre. If you’re a streamer who needs a game to scream at, this will do fine. Just don’t be surprised if you forget about it the moment you turn it off.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The one scare during a puzzle in Chapter 5 that was well-earned. I had to cover my eyes for a bit.
Novel approach to 2.5D.
Cacophonous sound design
Overreliance on jump scares.
Uninspired monster design (especially its main antagonist).
About Gavin Herman
Gavin Herman is a critic with experience in editing, journalism and video game PR. He's still too afraid to ask what this Fortnite thing is all about.