Last Half of Darkness: Shadows of the Servants review
A new adventure has recently emerged onto the independent gaming scene that will look extremely familiar to some, and for good reason. Last Half of Darkness has been around in one incarnation or another since 1989. Yes, that’s right -- back in the dinosaur days. The producer has been revising and updating it ever since those early years, and the game has developed its own small but very dedicated group of fans.
My own introduction to this title dates to its first CD release in 1996. Though I was a bit late to the party, I liked the game and had fun playing it at the time. The story, while a little basic, was a pretty good one. The interface was mouse-controlled, and its simplicity allowed it to play on virtually any machine, especially as the developer did a good job of making sure it kept up with newer operating systems. The puzzles were a little challenging, but not enough to hold up progress for long. But best of all was the prevailing cheesy high camp horror. This was a night with Elvira or the skin-challenged Crypt Keeper.
Now WRF Studios, formerly known as SoftLab, has re-issued Last Half of Darkness once more, but this time around they have created a whole new chapter to entice even old-timers. I suppose they figured they had finally gotten the first game honed to perfection and went wild with a pseudo-sequel, subtitled Shadows of the Servants. Has the game lost its high camp feel and tongue-in-cheek approach to horror? One look at the DVD-style box lays all fears to rest. Nope, this is still Saturday Fright Night in all its squealing glory. There’s the proverbial decayed-looking lady with glowing eyes, a mangy, moss-ridden manor, and of course the requisite swamp. Oh, and not to be forgotten… it has monkeys -- dead ones, to be specific -- dead, evil, demonically possessed monkeys. Yep, life is good for fans of horror schlock.
The big question now is can this type of game make it in today’s gaming market? Absolutely. None of what made the original so enjoyable is missing. This isn’t a contender for game of the year, but in many ways it’s better than you might expect, and it’s a fun, simple diversion. This is the spookhouse on Halloween night where garish make-up, dark corners, and creepy things rushing at you in the dark still make you jump, even as you are giggling at the silliness.
What takes the game past a novelty act and makes it worth a few nights of game time is the non-linear storyline and play. It takes a bit of getting used to, as gamers have been hand-held through most current games down a linear path -- enter a new room, check everything out, take a few notes, solve a puzzle, and get a story-building cinematic before moving on to the next environment. Not so with Shadows of the Servants. You’re free to wander wherever you want, in and out of every room, through secret doors, into swamps, and even into a nightmare. Your travels can feel a little aimless at times, but it’s not as daunting as it sounds, as it all makes for a good romp.
Still, it took a little while for this reviewer to let go of my search for a predictable game plan and just get into the exploration. But once I did, I experienced something I had missed from many titles lately: a light, engaging bit of gameplay. It did feel a bit odd to have only a vague idea about much of the story until the later parts of the game, but if I had gone back for another look in one room, I would have gotten there sooner. It didn’t matter, though, as by the end I felt pretty confident I would beat the ghoulies and ghosties, save the estate, and allow restless souls a long night’s peace at last.
The story is actually quite entertaining; like a classic Eerie magazine saga. A pet monkey brought back from the wilds of Brazil had been bitten by some unknown creature and was near death. Feeling responsible, the good lady doctor brings the little fellow home hoping to heal his wounds. Unfortunately, when he recovered, the little guy was not quite his usual friendly self. No, it seems something dark had taken over and what was once a sweet-faced chimp was now a marauding beast attacking at will and scaring everyone on the estate. Finally, with great sorrow, the owner was forced to put her beloved pet to sleep. And because they felt a little afraid, they burned the small corpse. Big mistake. They always come back, you know.
Flash forward to the modern day estate, where the spirits of the good doctor and her two daughters are looking equally worse for wear after years of crumbling away, as they continue to be afflicted by the curse that Jaja the monkey has malevolently brought upon them. This is where you come in. You have been lured here to do what no one else has been able to do: complete a voodoo ritual and release the curse. Good luck, as there are evil entities who do not wish to be banished and are throwing curves at you as you move through the place. The daughters hid many of the ingredients and placed instructions you’ll need in obscure places and cryptic messages. Without these, the dreaded “Servants” would destroy everything to maintain their hold on the place.
The game is point & click like its predecessor, with simple node-based movement and no panning. The puzzles are inventory-based for the most part, though there are many abstract poems and such to decipher as well. The puzzling is a bit more of a challenge in this version, though once again, nothing is so daunting that it will hold up your game for long. There is a maze included, though at the risk of giving away a small spoiler, nothing is quite as complicated as it appears, and even this is fairly easy. There are plenty of clues to every challenge you face, as well as some ghouls who offer helpful tips when asked.
The look of the game is probably its weakest feature. The graphics are hardly poor; just not quite up to today’s standards. In some areas, the lines are clean and the art is well-defined, while in others they are so grainy they resemble old versions of Doom. On the plus side, the coloring, lighting effects, and small cinematics enhance the atmosphere and suit the gameplay well.
Last Half of Darkness has quite a few characters in its storyline, which resemble those found in old hand-drawn horror comics. Like the colors and lighting, these characters complement the mood of the game nicely. The voice talent used for these entities is a mixed lot, ranging from adequate to pretty good. Many feature the sort of echo effect you would expect in late night spook fare, complete with raspiness and plenty of reverberation. The overall effect resembles a carnival sideshow, which adds further to the atmosphere.
In the end, I had a good time, felt a few shivers, laughed at many of the spooky encounters, and felt pretty happy with my victory over the dark side. And the nasty dead chimp? I sent him to monkey hell! This game won’t be making anyone’s list of favorites, but it’s a guilty pleasure with enough going for it to make the game worth playing. If you want to spend 15 or so hours exploring a creepy New Orleans manor inside and out, engage in some fun puzzling and giggle nervously like a little kid every time something leaps out from the dark, then get hold of Last Half of Darkness: Shadows of the Servants, available only from the developer’s website. Settle in for some enjoyable camp -- just don’t forget the popcorn, and turn the lights out if you please.