Darq looks at first glance like a surreal, creepy horror game in the same vein as Limbo and Inside, but at it’s heart it is really an intricate puzzler wrapped up in a dark art style with some nasty scares in there to keep you on your toes.
You play as Lloyd, who starts the game in his rundown house, and the only thing he can do is go to bed. At this point, he literally has an out of body experience and is presumably transported to some nightmare world of his sleep where he needs to try and escape. I say presumably, because very little is explained in Darq, and that’s not a bad thing. The story is left very much to the player to interpret, there is zero dialogue in the game, and only some secret Dream Journals to find, which obviously stress the fact that Lloyd is asleep, but they add nothing to the plot. There are hints scattered around thoughout, in terms of repeating sounds through levels, some connected visuals and themes, but it’s up to you as to how you think it all fits together.
The same sense of discovery takes place with the controls. There is no tutorial, and no hand holding. You will see a prompt when you can interact with an object, but how that interaction takes place is not always clear. Lloyd walks on a 2D plane, can interact with objects that are next to him, pick things up that go into an inventory, and that’s about it. It took me a few minutes to stumble across one of the games main hooks, Lloyd can shift his gravity, and walk on walls, turning the whole scene 90 degrees. He can do this on any flat surface, so each room you encounter has the possibility to be explored in 4 different perspectives, which makes the puzzling a lot tougher to figure out. Its takes a while to get your head around, but becomes second nature as you progress. Later levels introduce a “jump in, jump out” mechanic where Lloyd can move to another plane and he can shift parts of levels by rotating and swapping them, the world of his dreams is very malleable.
Which is all well and good for the mechanics, but they are all just a framework for what this game really is, a puzzler. And boy, it delivers on that front with a mix of real head scratchers and dexterity based conundrums that really had me stumped at times. Sometimes the puzzles are simple “put x here” style puzzles, but more often than not they require a lot of exploration, experimentation and use of the weird physics of the world. Each level is a small, self contained world, and you may have to explore a large amount of it to be able to solve the first in the chain of puzzles that lead to your escape. The first world has you collecting gears to get a door open, which seems pretty standard stuff, then the second level just says “Nah, bored with gears now, let’s try something new” and it means each level has it’s own distinct identity. One standout for me was a street level where I simply could not progress until I realised that I was missing a contraption at the literal centre of the world that changed how the whole thing worked.
While the puzzles are generally satisfying, there were some occasions where I was just getting frustrated, and the eventual solution was so obscure or required way too much speed and accuracy with a control scheme not built for it. These were few and far between though, the vast majority of the game was more me not seeing something than the developers being particularly obtuse.
So what about the horror side then? The world is genuinely creepy, the art style is amazing and the atmospherics of the sound design all make it pretty disturbing. And when the first enemies appear, they are nicely grotesque. And don’t get me started on the character who seems to be linked to Lloyd who keeps popping up. Others have complained that Darq relies on jump scares for it’s atmosphere, but I actually think they are used pretty sparsely, and are great when they come. Even if they cause you to mess up, you only lose minutes of gameplay when you restart. And there is one standout moment that stayed with me where I have never felt so much panic as I tried to complete a maze from a drawing I had scribbled on a piece of paper. You’ll know what I mean if you play it.
The same is true with the stealth sections, which are very few and easily navigated, they just add to the tension rather than detract from the experience. With the enemy design being so unsettling but seemingly connected to the overall story, I had no issue with these minor moments. The creepiness of the piece is ratcheted up by some of the items you use as well, in one section you have to gather up severed arms to hold levers for you, but it all makes sense and fits in with the world Lloyd finds himself in.
One of the things that I did enjoy, maybe as I am an older gamer, was tha for some puzzles I was having to take notes or draw pictures and I ended up surrounded by bits of paper. It was a bit of a nostalgia kick that I can imagine some people might get annoyed with, but I loved. As from the start, the game doesn’t want to hand you anything.
It’s a short game, but again that is no bad thing. There are 6 main levels, all themed very differently, and it took me about four hours to get through. There is a secret to find on each level, and while I stumbled across one of them, I had no desire to go and find the rest. This Complete Edition though bundles in two pieces of DLC, The Tower and The Crypt, and these nicely extend the experience. The Tower feels like a natural extension of the game, it’s a self contained piece set over 5 floors with a lift to get you between them, and has you searching for five severed heads to make your escape. The puzzles felt all tightly tied together, and the ending scene was great.
Which brings us to The Crypt. This follows on directly from The Tower, and is a much more expansive level which also introduces a huge new mechanic. You now have control over a body and a disembodied head, and it makes the level very different from what has come before. The difficulty of the puzzles is also massively ramped up, not only in figuring the solution, but also in executing it. I’ll admit I had to look some solutions up, and I still struggled with the dexterity required. But the developers Unfold Games do warn that the puzzles here are tough, they are definitely not for the faint hearted.
Overall, I enjoyed Darq. It’s a great puzzle game with a distinctive art style and drips with atmosphere. The main game is pretty short, but this package complete with the DLC is satisfying enough without overstaying it’s welcome. Just please, don’t make me do that maze puzzle again………..