Adventure Gamers Awards
Darkestville Castle is the first adventure game from developer EPIC LLama, though you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell. This is an accomplished genre debut that, while it doesn’t bring anything new to the table, offers up an enticing premise and often very funny story as you take control of a demon progressing from prankster to saviour who must try to stop an outbreak of worse-than-him troublemakers. There are setbacks in the execution, like some questionable puzzles and generally forgettable voice acting, but it’s easy to be won over by the endless jokes, entertaining characters and vivid locations.
The demon in question is named Cid. A permanent grim affixed to his face, sporting a tricorn hat and cape, he crash landed on Darkestville in a comet when he was a baby and grew up with the primary aim of causing chaos. Perched high in his castle, we first meet him checking through his agenda of evil: cutting someone’s hair, creating mutant chickens, making pies go sour… It soon becomes clear that Cid is more of a pest than anything, and the townsfolk have begrudgingly put up with his antics to this point. Besides, he has a well-worn teddy bear at the end of his bed. How harmful can he be?
One citizen, however, has had enough of Cid’s mischievous ways. Enter Dan Teapot. Dan traps Cid inside his castle and hires three demon hunters to capture him. Trouble is, Dan isn’t exactly the brightest bulb, having attempted to do this exact same thing 147 times. Plus, it’s 11pm on a Wednesday, which is far too late for him to be out. Suffice it to say, Dan’s plan doesn’t work out for either party. He ends up locked in the castle basement, while Cid finds his pet fish mistakenly captured by the demon hunters in his place. What begins with Cid trying to recover his pet soon spins out of control, leaving Cid no longer the only demon in Darkestville.
This is a story packed full of humour and Cid is undoubtedly the best character, but he meets a whole load of others along the way. There’s the vegetable monster who hates vegetarians, the feeble cookie-selling imp and the union-touting pig, all of whom manage to stand out due to their unique personalities, or at least quirks. It’s never a dull moment when chatting, thanks mostly to the biting wit of our protagonist. Whether it’s bonding with the local drunk over flamethrowers, warning a blind man about an incoming shipment of winged tigers, or discussing with the mayor why Cid’s plan to resurrect a sea monster to solve the sewer problems meant he lost the election, the back-and-forth jokes are great fun.
One noticeable issue, however, is the lack of female characters. You’ll only need one hand to count them all on your fingers. This is fantasy world full of different demons, creatures and humans, and it’s a missed opportunity to make most of them male. It’s even more bothersome that the most prominent woman, Foxy the demon hunter, is the generic male fantasy: tall, impossibly slim waist, huge breasts (and a tail, but she’s not entirely human). One of the dialogue options when talking to her is “you look pretty.” As an individual she’s decent enough – a talented alchemist among her group – but overall the female representation on offer is weak.
All characters are fully voiced, which is great, though the performances are a mixed bag. Cid is a standout – the way he pronounces “evil” and expels his manic laugh made me smile each time. The three demon hunters are also solid, conveying a nice combination that’s part pert, gruff and fanciful. The performances are rarely bad (exceptions being the mayor and his receptionist, both of whom are grating), but they don’t sound overly distinct, nor are they memorable. I could also tell that some were voiced by the same actor, though when the credits rolled I discovered that the same chap had done at least half the characters. That’s commendable, especially since I didn’t realise the extent of it, but it is noticeable to an extent.
In your travels you’ll visit a graveyard, the marketplace, a beach, a secret hideout and more, all of which are brought to life through vibrant hand-painted 2D cartoon art. Backgrounds make great use of different colours, like the warm candle-lit glow of the tavern and the gloomier blues of Cid’s castle, with a massive moon and clouds just outside the window. The graphics straddle the line between simplistic and intricate, but probably lean more towards the latter thanks to good use of shadow and extra detail. Things like drifting fog, flies buzzing around bins, and the lapping of water all help enliven the scenes.
Perhaps more attention could have been given to the character animations. Though I like Cid’s design, he doesn’t exactly emote when he’s talking since his mouth and eyes don’t move. In fact, most characters just bop slightly or cycle through a basic animation. It makes for an uninteresting show during conversations, which aren’t always short. There are times when the animation is more considered, like when a bird meets an untimely fate or when Cid runs, but these are few and far between.
Traditional pointing-and-clicking is the order of the day here. Clicking hotspots will let you choose to grab, inspect or talk to them. Personally, I’m a fan of an even simpler interface, since I don’t need to be told that I can’t talk to a bath tub, but it works well enough. It’s never difficult to find all the selectable items on-screen, but if you do overlook something then a button in the top-right will highlight them all. I especially appreciated that a lot of interactive objects aren’t fundamental to progression, they’re simply there to inspect and get a witty response in return. My only niggles – and they are minor – are that the large interface icons needn’t be constantly present in the corners, and it’s not clear if you’ve already exhausted a dialogue option.
Like other classic-style adventures of this kind, Darkestville Castle has plenty of puzzles to solve. You’ll be picking up items, combining them and using them on things like no-one’s business. The learning curve is reasonable and the game does a good job of cranking up the difficulty as you progress. In the beginning you’re confined to the castle, which makes for a subtle tutorial, but it quickly branches out and lets you explore the surrounding area at your own pace. Some puzzles work better than others: figuring out how to cheat at a dice game, distract an eager demon hunter, and uncover an explosive prank are all enjoyable pursuits.
What’s less entertaining is the over-reliance on fetch quests. There are far too many of them and the items people ask for are so esoteric that it makes them stand out even more. Cid’s self-aware commentary about the “arbitrary and random” things he’s collecting is amusing, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Also, some puzzles I completed through guesswork. For example, I knew I needed an animal’s body part to help make a potion, but it was only after doing something seemingly unrelated involving a wolfman that I was able to find it. If that requirement was signposted anywhere, I completely missed it. There’s one section where you must engage with an interdimensional portal’s customer phone line, which is humorous, and it would have been nice to see more variety like this.
From the design of the clouds and chapter cards to the format of the final puzzle, it’s obvious that Darkestville Castle was strongly influenced by one of the genre’s greatest cartoon adventures, The Curse of Monkey Island. That inspiration is felt even more in the music, so much so that MI3’s composer Michael Land should really be expecting some royalty cheques in the post. The score is great to listen to, often mixing lively drums and horns with strings for a pinch of mystery. Trouble is, there’s not that many different tracks and I got a bit tired of hearing them by the end. It’s especially annoying in the final third of the game, which takes place in an entirely new world – a lot of it feels misplaced, evoking themes that contradict the locations.
It took me around seven hours to complete Darkestville Castle, though I can see it taking longer for those less familiar with adventure game logic. With a delightful premise, fun characters and a variety of beautiful locations to explore, I enjoyed the majority of that time. There’s a slight drop in the middle where you have to revisit the entire town for a second time, but momentum soon picks up again. With some more thought given to the gameplay and greater audio variety, this could have been something special, and I hope to see more adventures from this developer with lessons learnt here. As it stands, Darkestville Castle is pleasantly entertaining for young and old alike, an undeniably funny romp that thrives on the cheekiness of its devilish lead.