T.E. Lawrence once wrote, “All men dream, but not equally”. Well I damn hope none of you have dreams like those experienced in this puzzle/horror game by independent studio Unfold Games. This Complete Edition of the 2019 hit proves itself as the ultimate way to play this puzzler, whilst allowing new audiences to engage with the melancholic wonder of DARQ.
With unique mechanics, puzzles and an art style that envelops the world, DARQ is a short yet sweet exploration of the human psyche.
Story – Dream-bending Madness
DARQ is the kind of puzzle game that is not interested in serving you its story on a silver platter; there is no dialogue or clear story beats. It is far more interested in enticing the player into the world, its collective fever dream and trapping you there, for its short 3-4 hour run time.
The story follows Lloyd, a man who begins each level by falling asleep, each time awakening in an uncanny hellscape, where the strange has been dialled to 10.
Each level takes place in a unique environment, ranging from a theatre to a moving train. Each level is infected by enemies that epitomise the lucidity of Lloyd’s imagination, as one level has a being with a trumpet for a head as an enemy, whilst another sees the player hiding from a menacingly slow woman in a wheelchair.
This surrealist method of presenting a narrative is exciting and rarely seen in the industry. Unfold Games presents a thought-provoking experiment that exhibits the advantage of operating as such a small studio; DARQ is the result of an unfettered mind.
However, I would have enjoyed more clues as to the ongoing narrative, even if there isn’t supposed to be one. This is where games such as Little Nightmares succeed, as they dangle carrots of an ongoing narrative that don’t really make a lot of sense but invite theorising.
There was a distinct lack of theorising as I went through the game, something I do naturally for most titles. The world is detailed and intriguing, but I think it could ask more questions of the player, and that’s something I’d hope to see in a potential sequel or Unfold Games’ next title.
Gameplay – Rejecting The Laws Of Nature
The gameplay of DARQ reflects the world that it is built into. Movement in the dream space is warped; the player can traverse walls and ceilings, defying gravity in the process. Most of the puzzles rely on this simple mechanic, alongside a unique mechanic for each of the nine levels, including the two DLC levels.
These level-based mechanics include an ability to switch the camera direction, controlling a moving head and my personal favourite, an uncontrollable rotating camera, which was simply genius. My enjoyment of the title stemmed from none of these mechanics becoming overused or outstaying their welcome. Each level ranges between 5 and 20 minutes which is ideal, as it rarely falls into monotony, as so many puzzle games often do.
The one exception to this, however, would be the second DLC level, “The Crypt”. It had a great premise, and the first optional DLC, “The Tower”, was a personal highlight; however, I felt the second dragged on and was the first time I found myself truly frustrated with a few puzzles. “The Crypt” is Unfold Games’ attempt at difficulty, and the studio succeeds, but they also fall foul of the fun part.
Notably, there is a stealth mechanic that at first, I liked, but it soon became apparent that it was artificially adding length rather than being an important mechanic in its own right. The stealth mechanic just doesn’t quite fit; it would fit if it could commit fully to the horror genre, but that isn’t how I or Unfold Games seem to see DARQ. Rather, it should be seen as a puzzle game in a horror world, and an artificial mechanic such as stealth is only reductive to the experience.
The game also relies on its item usage, which is a strong point; each item you find seems to have been placed strategically, as not to frustrate the player. This is because the easy part is finding the items; deciphering where to put them is a different story. In the dream space, items may fit where at first glance, they shouldn’t. For example, a watch is used as a bridge and a trouser belt as a rope; these placements amongst others may frustrate some, but I found it both amusing and engaging, adding variety to an often formulaic genre.
How many times in a puzzle game have you had to find a piece of wire to complete a set? In DARQ, the player character is that piece of wire. It’s constantly changing your expectations and asking you to adapt to solve these puzzles.
I hadn’t the pleasure of playing through the original during 2019, but now I can see why it had such success. Its star feature is the gameplay, and it is especially impressive when you remember that the majority of the finished product was made by just one person.
Graphics and Audio – Melancholy Personified
Graphically, the title is a product of its art style and genre. If you’re looking for a vast improvement for the next-gen versions, you’ll be disappointed, but the art style remains as hauntingly stunning as ever.
The use of monochrome has exploded since Tim Burton first arrived on the scene, and too often I see all kinds of media use it as an artistic style when they really needn’t. However, DARQ is exactly the kind of game where it fits perfectly, accentuating the strange rather than being reductive.
The sound design is just that; strange. It uses a dark ambience for the majority of the product, which is effective and chilling, but it gets into the bad habit that a lot of horror media does, which is that loud noises do not equate to fear. If I’m jumping at a loud sound rather than the jumpscare that follows it, the sound has failed.
Too often, the sound fluctuated from soft to loud instantly; there was no real creation of suspense, the scares weren’t earned, rather they felt like a trick. This was a real missed opportunity for me, sound is such a key part of horror, and this was another example of its muddled identity. Too often it doesn’t seem to know whether it is a horror/puzzle game or a puzzle game in a horror world and a refusal to commit to either prevents it from achieving that next level of brilliance.
As fantastic as the game is at times, I know it could’ve been so much more.
DARQ: The Complete Edition was reviewed on PlayStation 5. Review code provided by Evolve PR.