Adventure Gamers Awards
“Everyone has secrets. Everything has secrets.”
The premise for DreamCraft Entertainment’s Dark Secrets certainly sounds promising enough. A man named Arthur, who has just inherited an antique shop following his father’s sudden demise, returns to the small, secluded Scandinavian village where he grew up. He hasn't been to Calmwood in five years and intends to sell off the 'countless strange and mysterious' items in the shop and return to the city as soon as possible. However, he soon discovers that not only his father, whom he hated, but the entire village has been hiding something all this time, and Arthur is determined to find out what it is. Unfortunately, the adventure itself is so flawed that the biggest mystery is how it managed to be released in this state in the first place.
The game starts with an optional prologue that doubles as a tutorial with some instructions for basic movement and how to access the menu and inventory. Players find themselves in a dark, moonlit forest, carrying only a torch and a cryptic map. Within the restrictions of invisible walls, you are free to walk around in full first-person 3D using the WASD keys for movement and the mouse for looking around. It is possible to stray from the path a little bit to admire the surroundings, but the goal is to find the 'final resting place of your birth', whatever that may mean. It is immediately evident that the developers have devoted a lot of effort to creating realistic looking environments with real-world physics. The way the grass moves in the wind, and the light/shadow effects play on the objects around you are impressive, although the lifeless characters you encounter later are very static in contrast. Unfortunately, this also tends to make the transition times between locations quite long; even waiting to leave your shop to enter the village can be tedious.
It is also immediately obvious that English is not the native language for its indie developers, as the script is riddled with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. This is a pity, because it is very hard to take a game seriously if you have to keep guessing at what is actually meant. For a mystery thriller, there isn't much tension in this game to begin with, but what little exists is completely ruined by the faulty and sometimes ridiculous texts you read. The music doesn’t help here, either, consisting of light and sweet, forgettable tunes that vary with the location but don’t do much to establish an unsettling atmosphere, even in a crypt and another skull-lined location. The sound effects are adequate and appropriate, including scraping noises, the banging of a door closing behind you, toilets flushing, rattling sounds when handling a crank and the occasional unseen dog barking in town, though there are no voiceovers of any kind.
After the prologue, Arthur receives the phone call telling him about his father's death and inviting him to return to Calmwood. During conversation (either on the phone or in person), you see the face of Arthur’s counterpart up close, showing emotions like anger, fear, doubt or joy, with the text displayed underneath, along with the character’s name. In many cases, however, the name listed is simply "Arthur" instead of the actual speaker, which can be confusing, as it is then up to you to figure out which sentence is spoken by whom. When Arthur finally arrives in the village, both to attend the funeral and to see if there is anything worth selling in the shop, he doesn't seem to remember where the shop is and it is up to you to stroll through town (granted, it's only a few streets) to find it.
A few inventory-based puzzles later, Arthur eventually discovers that a few worthless trinkets are all that's left, apart from a mysterious box he himself found when he was a little boy. Back then, neither he nor his father were ever able to open it. After the funeral, Arthur finds himself intrigued with the box, and decides to learn more about its origins. This means talking to several people in and around the village, such as his sister Anna, a museum curator, a police officer and an old man who does not want to reveal his name. Each supporting character is only available to you at the moment you need them, and they stand around as if frozen in time, waiting for you in an uncanny manner.
The village isn't large, containing maybe thirty buildings, most of which remain closed throughout the game. You will get to visit the antique shop, a cemetery, one house in the village and one just outside, and a small commune on the outskirts of town. The village looks good at first glance, but after a while you notice that all the windows have the same draperies, the paintings are the same everywhere (including inside the museum) and even the dozens of sticky notes have only one of three different messages on them. It's a shame the developers didn't put a bit more emphasis on diversity instead of making sure every drawer can be opened, every faucet can be turned and every toilet flushed (even if there is no use for doing so). Such details are nice, but there are so many other things that are more important in creating a positive first impression.
One such element is an intuitive way to interact with objects or people. Dark Secrets requires you to stand really close to a hotspot before it highlights, which can be a bit awkward as the manoeuvering isn't always very smooth. Interaction is done entirely with the mouse, but it can be very hard to highlight a hotspot at times, especially when an object is below you, and you may need to walk backwards and forwards a few times before succeeding. In fact, this problem makes it very easy to miss key objects altogether. Similarly, the items in inventory can be rotated 360 degrees, and some conversations require you to point to a particular feature on one of them. This doesn't work very well, and more often than not you'll end up just selecting the object itself. This is quite frustrating, as you can end up in an endless loop of asking the same questions over and over again until you get it right.
Another type of puzzle – and there aren't a lot in this game, as you spend most of the time simply roaming around looking around for something to do – is a lock-picking challenge that gets repeated (with a different solution, of course) several times. These can be solved strategically, as each tumbler influences some of the others in a pattern, or by simply continuing to fiddle with them until they all line up. The inventory-based puzzles are mostly logical and easy, though there is some item combination required, and the default “look” option in inventory means you continually need to select “use” before attempting to equip an item. Elsewhere, the clues for some code-breaking puzzles seem too obtuse and illogical.
And then there are the bugs. Even after a first patch that fixed the most severe launch problems, there are far too many glitches remaining. These range from mildly amusing ones like a weird pattern on the moon, body parts moving through desks and walking upside down and backwards on the ceiling; to fairly annoying ones where you end up inside a ladder and can only ctrl-alt-delete to end the game; to game-breaking ones where someone you are supposed to talk to never shows up. During some conversations, certain dialogue options are only available after selecting one particular answer, and if you choose another you will never be shown that path. Once you end the dialogue, that person will disappear and you can't go back to talk to them again. The trouble is, sometimes the appearance of another person depends on that dialogue option you never knew was supposed to exist. As the game is quite low on hints about what you are supposed to do, and the plot progresses slowly, you can spend a lot of time walking around searching for someone who wasn't there before or a building that you can only now enter.
If you don't find anything new to do, it could either be because you simply overlooked something or because of a bug. You’ll never really know which. Once you are convinced the problem isn’t you, all you can do is revert to an earlier saved game and hope for a better result. So the advice is as always: save often, right? Wrong. Since there are only four save game slots, there is no option but to overwrite previous saves. In doing so, you might overwrite a non-bugged state, forcing you to replay from the beginning if you encounter a fatal glitch. This makes just playing through to the end a very frustrating experience, especially since that ending is a disappointment in itself. The plot initially deals with such issues as bullying, coming-of-age, animal abuse and the difference between what people choose to display on the outside and what they are really like on the inside, but there are a few plot holes and Arthur's actions don't always make sense, leading to a sudden and somewhat silly end after only a few hours (not counting the restarts due to bugs).
Somehow, through it all you kind of get what the developers had in mind, and it’s clear they spent a lot of time getting the 3D environments looking good and the physics engine doing impressive stuff. Unfortunately, these attributes are buried under the mountain of problems, and it’s simply inexcusable to release a game this flawed instead of spending a few more months testing, fixing bugs and translating properly. Even if all the bugs were resolved, however, Dark Secrets still wouldn't be a very good game, as the unconvincing characters, boring and frustrating gameplay, and lacklustre story would make it mediocre at best. Originally announced as a four-part episodic series, it is completely unclear at this point whether there’s more to come, as the finale really doesn’t tease of a new installment. If there are sequels in the works, however, let’s hope the developers take more time to get it right, because the many problems in this debut adventure are certainly telling.