What’s the best way to start a horror game? Most go for the slow build to something awful (Dead Space, Resident Evil 7, Outlast), and that’s a great way to build a sense of unease, luring players into a measure of security before unleashing hell. The next most popular option is to kick off with something horrid (Resident Evil, Dead Space 2) before easing off somewhat to make the unending nightmare seem almost welcoming. Both of these routes require a deft touch to make them work, a great audiovisual connection to really sell the impact of the horror. 2DARK, created by Alone in the Dark visionary Frederick Raynal, attempts the latter route, but its touch is often fumbling and awkward, committing the cardinal sin of any self-respecting horror by being a bit dull, and not all that unnerving, let alone frightening.
2DARK kicks off with a flashback of our protagonist Smith having a camping holiday with his wife and children, and suffice to say it doesn’t end well. His wife is beheaded and his children are bundled off in a shady van. Smith chases it in a futile effort, and we leave him at this lowest of moments to jump forward several years. He’s still unaware of the fate of his children, but is adamant they are alive somewhere. In the meantime, he’s on the hunt for child kidnappers in the appropriately (if ridiculously) named GloomyTown, hoping to assuage his guilt by investigating the reasons behind the spate of kidnappings by rescuing other children whilst desperately hoping his own may be among them. It’s a strong setup for a horror, and takes on a subject matter that’s not often explored in games. So why does it just not feel right?
Perhaps it comes down to the visual style? A top down viewpoint with pixel-inspired sprites and settings can still make for an effective horror. You only need to look as far as earlier this year at Subterrain for a top down view horror that instills a sense of dread. And Lone Survivor provides proof that a well-utilized pixel visual style can still unnerve. 2DARK certainly has the aesthetic of a creepy, grim scare-a-thon. The opening level, for example, is an abandoned funhouse, filled with deadly traps, rats, decrepit flooring and worn-looking carriages. Add some twisted child snatchers who won’t think twice about gutting you, and you’ve got the recipe for tense, visceral experience.
The level’s design, visually-speaking at least, is fine, a genuinely well-realized bunch of horror movie settings. They may be a touch cliché, but presented in a top down format, often cloaked in pitch black darkness, that hides grisly traps and worse (until you sweep a flashlight over it, or restore power), means there’s an aspect of the unknown to these levels that comes closest to coating the experience in a sense of unease.
What doesn’t work on a visual level are the character models. In cutscenes and artwork the characters have a Cabbage Patch Kids body shape, with the big old cartoon eyes and everything. In game, they share a similar look, only pixelated, and in both cases, it damages the potential impact for suspense or scares. I can understand the need to set out a design stall that helps 2DARK stand apart from the hulking mass of spooky, scary games on the market, and making your character’s look almost cutesy in a game that features some grim subject matter, and horrible death, could have a certain deliciously dark comedy to it, but in 2DARK it’s just hard to take seriously.
Maybe it’s the actual game aspect that hampers 2DARK? Well, perhaps. It’s an interesting mix of puzzles, stealth, and almost-literal babysitting in escort mission-esque rescuing of the children. You can equip an item in each hand, though one usually has to be a light source so you don’t go bumbling into a grim death blindly, and the inventory is ever-present in the left hand side of your screen, accessed via the D-Pad. This means your selections occur in real time, a move clearly meant to build panic and tension as you fumble to pull out your weapon as a fiend is about to round a corner unexpectedly; and on the odd occasion early on, this works quite well, but as things start to escalate, the trick begins to wear annoyingly thin. It becomes frustratingly fiddly rather than tense.
Smith interacts with the level’s points of interest by letting out a small ‘hmm?’ sound, a genuinely smart and helpful way of letting you know there’s something hidden in the dark that’s worth investigating. It also helps out in the light, because the visuals aren’t always clear enough to define what an object is, and that leads to needless wandering at times as you try to figure out what triggers an objective.
Enemies need to be dealt with by avoidance or by surprise, because in most cases, if you have anything less than a gun in-hand, you’ll be facing an insurmountable task as they tend to be bloody tough bastards head-on. As with much of 2DARK, you’ll learn the best way to defeat them by good old trial and error. You’ll die and fail a fair bit as you learn where not to step, who not to bump into, and what not to touch, and like many of 2DARK’s issues, a sound concept only goes so far without the proper execution. Frustration, boredom, and eventually apathy arrive far too quickly as trial and error becomes tedious and emphatically dull. The kids not only need to be led to safety, they have to be led swiftly or they’ll grow more and more terrified, alerting nearby nasties to your presence. Again, smart and tense to begin with, less so later on when you’ve failed to rescue them because you took one wrong turn after planning for ages.
More successfully-implemented is the save system and dearth of useful weapons and equipment. Smith can take a smoke break to save progress, a neat idea for a save system, reminiscent of classic survival horror, and it has a clever side effect to gameplay too. Smith may start having a coughing fit while smoking, which means that if you chose an inopportune time to save, it could spell disaster. Meanwhile, the scarcity of batteries for your flashlight, as well as ammo for your gun, means you really have to plan your usage. This obviously ties into the greater trial and error style of 2DARK, but it’s one of the few aspects of it that ultimately still makes sense in the long run.
Despite handling the horror side of things poorly, and having some mechanical issues that diminish the impact left even further, there’s some potential to 2DARK’s formula, mainly from its story and settings. It’s just tough to see that promise behind a wall of inconsistency.