Adventure Gamers Awards
The interface is similarly basic. Moving the mouse pulls Ann around the screen, like a cat chasing an unseen laser pointer. Left-clicking (and sometimes holding the button down while you move) interacts with hotspots, though you won't know what things are interactive until you try, and right-clicking brings up a menu to adjust settings or exit. Your interactions feel very physical, from clicking switches and turning knobs with a tentacle to flying around to herd glowflies. There's no inventory as such, although on a few occasions you do gather objects from the environment. To use these in the same area, you can click and hold to grab them in your tentacles and fly them where they need to go. If used elsewhere, a giant mechanical claw crane swoops down from the sky to whisk them away and then returns them to you when required. Sometimes you'll need to go to a shop that exchanges some of the objects you've gathered for others.
This all works well for the most part, although some areas can be tricky to navigate because they have several layers. You mostly fly around at the same depth, but sometimes you need to get at things that are further back on a more distant plane. At one point in a church, for example, I initially flew right past a chain that I needed to pull, taking a while to realise that I had to first go to a particular spot to make Ann fly deeper into the structure to access it. One of the low points of the game (at least for me) was having to navigate an ice maze covering a ruined city to get a part I needed. This involved several layers of ice with only subtle distinctions to show where the boundaries were, no obvious way to find how to get from layer to layer, and not even any clear indication of which layer the part I needed was actually on. Fortunately, such frustrations are the exception rather than the rule.
That sequence is, however, part of a more general issue with this type of exploration-based gameplay: it's not always apparent what you can interact with, what you can then do with it, or even what kinds of steps might be useful to take. It's to Dark Train's credit that I didn't often get stuck, but every so often it took me a while to realise that (for example) flying past those stars in the sky would let me draw shapes in the constellations, and that doing so might be a useful thing to do.
In a world that's this whimsical and strange, where pretty much anything can happen, I'd really have appreciated some kind of system that subtly highlighted points I'd missed. When you're expected to hang the moon in the sky, then find a way to cast its image on the lake below, all in order to complete the scene and trigger something else unexpected to happen, a little guidance here and there would have gone a long way. Then again, this isn't a game for those in a hurry: although you could probably get through it in less than two hours if you knew exactly what you were doing, it took me more like five to explore it all, and I rarely felt like I was just spinning my wheels.
Despite all the apparent randomness, there is nonetheless a sense of progression and purpose. The train starts out more or less completely non-functional, and it's your job to first get it moving, and then to get more and more of its systems working, finding ways to achieve tasks like replenish the batteries or water supply before other challenges come along for you to overcome. Through experimentation, these objectives become puzzles to solve as you work out the logic behind what you see and plan out ways to make something happen.
Sometimes these tasks are almost mundane, such as operating an ironworks to cast parts you need elsewhere, while others involve hunting down a vampire bat for its jewelled eye, shooting pieces of debris out of a tornado with bolts of lightning, and persuading a giant crab to play nutcracker. For the collectors out there, a number of screens also feature hidden (and sometimes tricky to obtain) boxes that reward you with blueprints for parts of the game.
Ultimately, Dark Train is (appropriately) about the journey, not the destination. Ann grows over time, evolving from initially struggling to get the train working to mastering its systems and occasionally helping out those she passes. She has a nest on board that gradually develops to feel like home, and she even gets a tattoo at one point. And all the while she's exploring the magical worlds inside the train, drawing Sputniks in the sky, getting chased by mechanical sharks, and playing a spider-silk harp.
At times it feels like you're acting out a play written in an alien language, meaningful in a way you don't quite understand; at others, it's enough just to play and be rewarded with the sight of the sun shining through an ice-encrusted church or a port city that looks a little like a steampunk Venice by moonlight. The world, too, is full of startling contrasts between a grey industrial reality with a strong flavour of Cold War Eastern Europe and an indoor fantasy world that is still often quite dark (what with the vampire bats and sharks) but can also be beautiful and allows Ann to exist unbound. These experiences, not simply getting to the end of the line, form the game's heart.
Dark Train is quite unlike anything else I've ever played, conjuring up a darkly magical vision of life beyond the Iron Curtain that could so easily have come across as grim and grey, but transcends that to showcase how wonder and imagination can still flourish, even in an industrial wasteland dominated by work and duty. It can perhaps be a little too abstract at times, leaving you confused and directionless, and its meaning is for you to decide, but the experience is undeniably memorable and enchanting. If you're in the mood to be taken somewhere new and different, I can definitely recommend boarding the Dark Train.