My friends and I don't know what exactly to expect when we queue up our first game of Dark and Darker. We all love ttrpgs, we all enjoy dungeon delves, and we all like the occasional team brawl. The game seems like it could be a real winner, even if the attacks are slow and some mechanics seem clunky.
We drop into our first level as a cleric, a fighter, and a wizard. While still figuring out the buttons, Eric the fighter hops down into the first hole in the floor he sees. By the time I get down there, there are four skeletons surrounding him. I hear him shout on discord “Wait, am I dead already?” Just before I see the monsters closing on me.
We party wipe in thirty seconds.
We queue up again instantly.
Level 1 Heroes In A Level 5 Dungeon
Dark and Darker is shameless in its delivery: you are in a very bad dungeon, you are in over your head, and the dungeon WILL kill you. It doesn’t even feel like a threat, it's more just a statement of fact. Some of the initial monsters can wipe out half of your health with a single unblocked hit. Darkness obscures deadly traps and makes the hallways feel claustrophobic. Slowly, a swarm of bugs closes in, shepherding you into smaller and smaller areas.
(A disclaimer: This review was written after 2ish hours of gameplay and approximately 10-15 attempts. This is a dense game with a lot of nuance, so this is very much just a ‘first impressions’ sort of article.)
You play as a gullible fool/hopeful adventurer who has decided to drop into this horrible dungeon. Loot? Glory? Heroics? Who knows, but you only have ten or so minutes to try and grab whatever treasure you can and get out. If you die down in the dungeon? You get nothing. However, if you manage to find a spawned blue portal, you can escape back to the surface with blessedly better gear and maybe even some cash.
There are red portals too, that bring you to a dungeon-under-the-dungeon, but… but I can’t think about that yet. My hero still doesn’t have boots much less a mace that doesn't have rust on it.
I will point out again that Dark and Darker will kill you and laugh while it does so. A skeleton hitting you from behind can down a character near instantly. You can block with shields, but you have to aim the shield so your head isn’t exposed to an overhand swing. Zombies belch out toxic gas that follows you around, sapping your health if you can’t escape it. One game, I felt like a pro after clearing three rooms. So I broke open a pot, a skeleton crawled out of it and killed me where I stood.
These cursed things were the end of at least two of our missions. So close to owning boots...
The first time you play, the attack animations and movement in general can feel incredibly slow and clunky. At first I thought this was part of the game being in alpha, but by the time we finished it felt like a deliberate choice, forcing players to think through their actions. Hitting specific parts of a body adds or subtracts damage Combat is not hack-and-slash, but something you have to approach methodically.
In my first few games, it felt unfair how quickly I found myself on the floor. But then, occasionally, our plucky team of three fools/heroes would clear a room of nearly a dozen monsters with only a little damage, and I can honestly say the thrill that ran through us in those moments of success was amazing.
Slowly, ‘the dark swarm’ (Aka: the battle royale circle of death) encroaches on everyone, forcing you to not just stay in one place. As the level timer ticks down, everyone moves about trying to find safety, or a blessed portal out of the dungeon.
Ye Olde Dark Zone
Of course, we haven’t talked about the most dangerous monster in the dungeons of Dark and Darker: Humanity. Yes, this is a PvPvE game. A game on the standard map has up to 18 players in it, so six teams of three adventurers leave the tavern at once before being dropped randomly into the map.
I know, I know, this sounds a lot like a Battle Royale, and it can feel like one too! Except, I wouldn’t say this is attempting to be Fortnite, but instead taking a lot of queues from The Division’s Dark Zone. You don’t have to kill everyone else. On the contrary, many dangerous areas can be a lot easier to clear if more people are dividing up the room’s many monsters amongst their own number.
The problem of course is that friendly fire is on. And most players aren’t friendly.
Something that's amazing about Dark and Darker? How so many characters start without boots, and you are all killing each other for cracked goblets and barely functioning swords. Can't we get along? For just like five minutes?
The goal of everyone is to go as deep as you can, get as much loot as possible, and find an escape portal as they start to appear. So yes, you don’t have to fight other players, but there’s always the chance that the other team found a nice amount of gold, and you still are coming up empty handed. Or maybe you are worried they’ll find the portals earlier than you, and teleport out to leave you in a scarier and scarier dungeon.
A side note about this part of Dark and Darker - I really, really like the idea of it… in theory. However, as of right now in the alpha testing, I have yet to have run into another friendly player. I think everyone’s just so excited about the idea of playing this demo and wanting to test out what everything does that there isn’t much negotiation or tentative alliances yet. Maybe that will happen in later levels or as the game matures, but for now? Trust no one.
Once More Into The Dungeon My Frenemies!
Fortunately, standard games do have you organize into teams of three, and all my games took place with my fellow writers. It’s a fun bit of the game that I think will become a lot more interesting once you start collecting gear and unlocking new traits and spells: that minute or two in the tavern where you are coordinating. There are six different classes, each having their own advantages and drawbacks.
I played as a cleric for support and undead smiting, Eric took the front as a fighter to defend us, and Adam was a wizard for blasty spells. Standard D&D sort of set up to try and cover all the bases.
Remember how I said friendly fire was a thing? We found out the hard way when Adam’s chain lightning arced back over our team. Or when he fireballed Eric. Or when he magic-missiled me until I fell over.
We know that Adam team-killed us at least three times during our gameplay. By accident. Yes, it's that sort of game. Magic is meant to be wild, and so if you don’t aim right or know your spells, you can accidentally heal enemies or blast friends.
On the other hand however, you can - if you are smart about it - resurrect your teammates as well. It’s simple! Just strip off their armor, take their soul out from their chest, and then sacrifice some of your very valuable life force at an altar in the dungeon to summon them back! It takes about a minute to cast, and they come back naked and nearly dead, but… hey, it's possible!
Frustration or Jubilation: Which Will Win?
By now, I probably haven’t painted the kindest picture of Dark and Darker: it’s difficult, purposefully obtuse, and sometimes outright unfair. Several games dropped us into a small alcove next to a horde of zombies or flying skulls, not giving us time to prepare before one of us was already on the ground. The best we ever did had us ready for a portal to appear, just for the closing Dark Swarm forcing us into another part of the map and a waiting trap by other players.
There is no music. The combat attacks and animations of the enemies can sometimes feel slow and clunky in comparison to other FPS games. Out of all our times playing, only once did one of our team of three live. ONCE.
And yet, as I sit here writing this, I am champing at the bit to try again.
Two things. First, you will see this loading screen often because you will be dying a lot. And second, my friend Eric used 4ssbutt because his normal screenname SummerKnight was considered to be censored for some reason. There are still a few bugs.
I’ll be honest, I have no idea why Dark and Darker has this effect on me. Many of the individual components of this game would have me not interested in the game at all, yet when it all comes together, it all just clicks. There’s no music because you need to use noise cues to know when a skeleton is assembling itself nearby. The combat is slower because it's trying to get players to plan out shield blocks and spell counters and dodges. The fact that you die in just a few hits is to keep tension high.
Yes, there were many rounds where my team just bit it horribly, and it left a bad taste in our mouth. But the attempts where we found a jail filled with zombies and cleared it despite being outnumbered? When we coordinated all our support spells to make Eric a hasted killing machine? When we turned off lamps and used the murderholes in doors to look around and set up ambushes correctly?
When you manage to pull off a successful mission, even if its just one teammate surviving with a handful of loot… Dark and Darker gives you a sense of triumph and camaraderie that other games wish they could manage.
Love It Or Hate It, You Have To Try It
Will you like Dark and Darker? Honestly, I have no idea. This is a game that the developers Ironmace are making with a very specific idea in mind. While many games are being crafted to be more frictionless and easier to jump into, Dark and Darker is marching to the beat of its own drum. I kind of love that.
When we finished playing the game, Eric summed up his first thoughts like this: “This is a game that some player is going to really, really like and go really deep with. I don’t know if that player is me, but I know this game is going to have some really dedicated fans”.
We’re going to play again while the Next Fest is still going, just to see if we can actually steal some loot, equip better gear, and start doing better. We’re determined to ‘win’ at least once. The satisfaction of small victories in this game is so intense, it's hard not to go back for more.
Then again, there’s a lot of pitfalls that the game might fall into as it develops. Will it be dominated by a toxic fanbase? Will it feel too obtuse and uninviting to new players, or will fans ‘break’ the game by finding there’s only a few successful builds? By no means am I saying we have a sure fire hit in Dark and Darker. However, what I can say is that we have a game that stands out as something unique, even refreshing in how it approaches the genres it's drawing from. I’m excited to see what the developers might have a chance to accomplish.
For that reason, if you have any interest, any spark of curiosity about this game, I highly recommend giving it a shot. Maybe you’ll fall in love with trying to master a class like Adam did. Maybe you’ll bounce off like Eric. Or maybe you’ll be like me, who keeps getting frustrated by failure, but can’t help coming back for just one more round.