The original Dark Fall was one of the nicest surprises of 2002. A low-budget game produced almost singlehandedly by a first-time developer, only picked up by publishers after seeing its independent success, Dark Fall was a neat little package. It told the story of an anonymous protagonist exploring the abandoned, skeletal remains of a haunted WWII-era train station in Dowerton, England. The design was occasionally rough and the graphics looked several years out of date, but Jonathan Boakes’ passion for the world he was creating came through in every aspect. The puzzles were clever and the plot was intriguing, but what really drew players in was the rich, foreboding atmosphere that captured an authentic sense of place superbly. And the game was scary, a testament to the power of a deft artistic vision over fancy graphics.
Dark Fall II: Lights Out followed soon after, abandoning the train station for a science fiction-tinged tale of a haunted lighthouse in a game that lacked some of the magic of the original. But now Boakes has returned to Dowerton in the series finale with Dark Fall: Lost Souls. This story stands alone from the rest of the series, tethered only by the shared location and a few references that will put a smile on the faces of devoted fans. New players will have no trouble slipping right into the game’s tale of a disgraced police inspector searching for a missing girl named Amy, who disappeared five years earlier. As you discover early on, The Inspector (the only name we’re given) was caught manipulating evidence to “prove” the guilt of his prime suspect and was fired from the job. Still hoping to clear both his name and conscience, he goes to look for Amy near the place she vanished, which of course brings him to the Dowerton station.
The decision to return to the original setting could have backfired; part of the joy of the first game was exploring the station and unraveling its mysteries, and going back over the same territory seemed unlikely to provide the same novelty or sense of fascination and discovery. It is a credit to Boakes’ imagination and skill as a designer that this is not the case – the old station still feels fresh and untamed. The architecture will be familiar to returning players, but it’s clear that a lot has happened in the period between games. Weeds have overtaken previously clear paths, and entire rooms have collapsed, now lying in ruin. And something is definitely amiss: Dowerton Station has gone from spooky to downright disturbing. The first Dark Fall had creepy sound effects and the occasional disconcerting graffiti on the wall, but Lost Souls has rooms full of mannequins in the fetal position just outside the range of your flashlight, hallways decorated with syringes and scissors stabbed into the walls, and ghosts that actively stalk the halls, flashing in and out of view.
All this makes the game much more surreal and visceral, likely to make you jump out of your seat during key moments of its ever-present tension. If that’s your bag, you’re in for a treat. Each time you enter one of the guest rooms in the hotel for the first time, you’ll hold your breath as you click to go in. What horrifying sights will greet your flashlight in this room? Or worse, will you be attacked by the Dark Fall entity itself? The halls take on a new, foreboding malevolence this time, because where the horror was mostly in the past during the first game, it is now here, and it’s after you. Boakes is a master at manipulating the player and scaring the crap out of them. Even though actual moments of danger are few and far between, the game makes sure you can never be quite certain when you’re safe and when you’re not. As a result, Lost Souls is by far the scariest point-and-click game I’ve ever played.
It doesn’t hurt that the production values are worlds beyond the original’s. With a modern engine that uses 360-degree panoramic environments and vastly improved background art, the train station really comes to life. The graphics, while still mostly static images, run at a higher resolution and are significantly more detailed. The textures are rich and show an authentic wear and tear – the floors are littered with trash, and the walls are cracked and water-stained. Atmospheric effects add to the sense of depth, such as motes of dust floating through the air, catching the moonlight. It’s all gorgeous – in an appropriately bleak, ominous way – and very immersive.
The sound design in the series has always been excellent, and here Boakes is at the top of his game. The ambient effects, from creaking doors to ghostly whispers to eerily jolly big band music playing through static on the radio, are all top-notch and really ratchet up the tension, keeping you spooked even when nothing is happening on-screen. Also nice is the recycling of a few of the more memorable sound effects from the first game, such as the quiet, dissonant burst of violin that suggests the presence of the Dark Fall, helping to tie the games together aesthetically. The voice acting isn’t quite as successful, with some characters falling flat (The Inspector himself is the most egregious example) and many lines recycled to the point of being obvious and annoying. Thankfully, there isn’t much dialogue overall, so it really doesn’t sting too badly.
Players guide The Inspector with typical first-person point-and-click controls. The cursor will point off-screen or into the background when movement is possible, indicate hotspots where items can be picked up or used, and show scenes that allow a closer, detailed view of something. There is no free-form camera panning, but hotspots at the edges of the screen rotate the view smoothly by 90 degrees, rather than the abrupt and often disorienting camera cuts in the previous games. This means that keeping your bearings is easier than in the past, so you won’t find yourself wondering which side of the room you’re looking at anymore.
As nice as that is, it also means that navigation is slower than in the previous entries – turning can take a couple of seconds instead of instantly changing, and while that doesn’t sound too bad, it adds up, especially when the game has you traipsing through areas you’ve already explored several times. The station’s scope is too small for an instant travel method between areas, but a way to skip the turning animation might have been nice for when you just want to get somewhere quickly. The layout doesn’t help, as navigation is often arbitrarily hampered. For example, the main station platform, which is something of a hub for all the areas in the game, is littered with debris and other obstacles, meaning that the path from one door to another five feet down might require five or six movements instead of one or two. The inconvenience is acceptable since the game world is so absorbing, but it can get tiresome over time. I should also mention that every once in a while you’ll come across hotspots that are much bigger than they should be, and occasionally these will bump right up to the screen-edge hotspots, which can be confusing. Not a deal-breaker by any means, but a periodic source of frustration.Continued on the next page...