Adventure Gamers Awards
Note: Since launch, three additional bonus cases have been released, free to all owners of the game. This review covers only the original six cases.
Paranormal events and the occult have always fascinated audiences, across many different mediums. From The X-Files or Twin Peaks back in the day to the more recent Stranger Things, we never seem to grow tired of unexplained phenomena. Being a great fan of all the above, I never miss the opportunity to get into a good series or game that delves into these areas – preferably combined with some clever humor to lighten the mood. So when I heard about The Darkside Detective, I was pleased to have the opportunity to interview the developers, and was once again delighted to jump back into the world of supernatural mystery, this time playing as detective Francis McQueen of the Darkside Division.
Originally conceived during a Galway Game Jam in 2014, The Darkside Detective is the creation of Irish indie developers Spooky Doorway. Now significantly upgraded and expanded from its original incarnation to include six different mysteries (so far), it's a collection of "micro-adventures" whose approach of offering smaller, bite-size cases was a deliberate choice, designed to emulate more of a TV show format than a traditional game. While this means there is no single unified storyline tying everything together, the game handles its anthology concept quite splendidly, with each case bound to keep you grinning in between all the laughing out loud.
The Darkside Detective features the various adventures of Francis McQueen, the sole member of the Darkside Division of Twin Lakes City, a place where "cultists crawl, where demons dwell, where the occult… occults?" Whatever the evil threatening his town, Frankie is ready to take on any case, no matter how bizarre or obscure, whether he needs to summon demon portals or deal with bickering ghosts. The lack of a single story arc may disappoint some, but I found that cases taking around 30 to 40 minutes to complete was just about the right amount of time. During my playthrough, I finished the full game in approximately 3-4 hours, with one large time gap between cases at one point, which made me thankful I didn’t need to remember where I’d left off when I was finally able to return.
When first starting up The Darkside Detective, two things immediately made an impression: the art style and the music. The 'fat' pixel art is the work of Paul Conway, who’s known for his pixel art creations, although normally at a more detailed level. The chunky pixels here, however, are highly reminiscent of the genre’s olden days and really capture the desired atmosphere. A someone who appreciates good pixel art, this style appeals to me quite a lot, although here it's perhaps a little too static in most scenes. The lack of details actually helps establish a more mysterious setting, especially with the characters missing any kind of facial features. Played against backdrops ranging from haunted libraries to mysterious mansions, some with inclement weather effects outside, The Darkside Detective is a visual pleasure that will delight you at every step of your journey.
The soundtrack is from Ben Prunty, best known as the composer of FTL (Faster Than Light) and Gravity Ghost. Despite the change of pace from his more space-related games, he absolutely nails the music here. Taking inspiration from the ‘80s and particularly John Carpenter, each case has its own 'theme' piece written specifically to accompany that scenario. Some cases are filled a little more with harps and choirs, while others use more eerie synth tracks. When moments of quiet are followed by ominous bass notes, it enhances the atmosphere a lot. It's all executed so impressively that listening to the soundtrack is something I’d enjoy greatly even when not playing the game. However, in combination with the art design, it creates a perfect harmony and adds some seriousness to an otherwise silly world.
No matter how good it looks and sounds, of course, the most important ingredients that will make or break any adventure game are the writing and accompanied gameplay, and here again The Darkside Detective is largely a success. Written by Dave McCabe in collaboration with his wife Tracey McGabe, the Lead Programmer for The Darkside Detective, the paranormal cases are not only creative in their own right (like trying to catch gremlins that are hiding throughout the police station!), but this distinctive world is also filled with witty jokes, small gags, and puns. Repeatedly throughout my exploration of Twin Lakes, I had many chuckles and never felt any of the cases were tedious or boring. Quite the opposite.
Though the Darkside Division is a poorly funded and underappreciated department, Detective McQueen is one of the few who realises what’s going on the city, and his character is entertaining to play, like being Mulder from The X-Files. However, what really completes the picture here is Officer Dooley, who frequently (except when he believes there’s danger involved) accompanies him in his investigations. Dooley is truly a joy to have around, and is one of the most amusing ‘sidekicks’ I’ve seen in a long time. Like their early awkward encounter in a small closet, I cannot stress how hilarious the combination of McQueen and Dooley are in certain settings. It’s a shame that there’s no voice acting to support it, but this added dynamic elevates the script from ‘fun’ to ‘brilliant’, almost reaching a level of Sam & Max amusement for me at times. I spent a considerable amount of extra time just trying to see if I could get all the jokes and puns.
Fortunately, the streamlined gameplay is also delivered smoothly, with very little pixel hunting required. Though you move from scene to scene by clicking on exit arrows, within each location you don’t actually walk around but remain standing in place. Left-clicking interacts with characters and items, while dragging inventory (from the top of the screen) allows you to either combine items or use them on hotspots in the environment. As you navigate each scene with your mouse, the smart cursor indicates when you can either ‘look’ at something or interact with it in some way, such as talking to another character by changing to a ‘chat’ balloon. If you ‘look’ at something that can be picked up, it will automatically be added it to your inventory.
The game is largely story-driven, playing like an interactive detective mystery for the most part, but there are obstacles in your path that will need to be overcome. Puzzles mostly consist of inventory-based challenges, with the odd other logic-type minigame sprinkled in like a slider to re-route an electrical circuit. Though sometimes you’ll need to follow steps in precisely the right sequence, the puzzles are generally logical and fair. I didn’t get massively stuck anywhere, but the difficulty balance is maintained with just enough challenge to make you earn your progress. You’ll often get clues in the dialog, so for those who tend to skip over most conversations, it can be harder to find the little hints that’ll unlock the next step.
All in all, I had fun playing The Darkside Detective. I love the pixel art style and excellent soundtrack presented here, supported by an entertaining series of cases that suit the world of the occult and yet deliver plenty of laughs in the process. I wish we could hear the hilarious banter fully voiced, and the lack of movement can feel a little constricting at times, but this is nevertheless a memorable combination of story, art and music in a very enjoyable adventure. Its anthology structure doesn’t allow for in-depth storytelling, but it’s a great game to play in bite-sized chunks. Really my biggest ‘criticism’ of the game is that there just aren’t enough chunks, as I’m eager to spend more time with Francis McQueen and of course Officer Dooley. And with the developers aspiring to create new cases for these partners-in-crime-solving, even that disappointment may yet disappear. I sincerely hope so, as I look forward to laughing my way all the way through even more supernatural investigations in Twin Lakes.