Dark Fall: The Journal

Developer/Publisher:  XXv Productions
Year Released:  2002

Review by Steve Ramsey (July, 2002)

If this isn't the creepiest game around, then I don't know what is. It demands to be played with the sound turned up and the lights turned down, and everyone else in bed. I guarantee that you will feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise and your skin tingle more than once.

It is also exceedingly subtle in the way that it goes about creating an atmosphere in which you can't help but be spooked. Things don't leap out and go 'BOO!' accompanied by a loud crash of music; rather, silence is punctuated by a myriad of small but devastatingly effective sound effects - a creaking floor board, a guttural moan, a beating heart, a discordant violin, a disembodied voice.

Present danger
These occur against the backdrop of an old deserted railway station and hotel, where 12 unexplained disappearances from years gone past seem to have been joined by some more recent ones. You arrive on a train at the behest of your brother, having received an extremely disturbing phone message. He talked about ghosts and that "it" knows his name. Then he opened the door .... The place is deserted when you arrive. Drape the whole thing in darkness and you have a recipe for an exceedingly edgy adventure.

It's all the more remarkable because Dark Fall is by and large the backyard creation of just one man, Jonathan Boakes. According to a website interview, he played Myst years ago and decided he wanted to make games just like it. In my opinion he has done better.

Dark Fall reminded me most of Amber, another intelligent and sophisticated spooky tale from several years past. That may well be deliberate. The game eschews the more elaborate graphics of current day adventures in favour of the same rendered 2D graphics that worked so well with Amber. The atmosphere generated means there is nothing sterile or flat about the game world that is created, so the lack of sophisticated graphics is not really noticed. The strengths of the game are perfectly well played out in the settings created.

Old places
The gameplay itself involves poking around in the old buildings, uncovering bits and pieces of what went on and what is still going on, and putting them together to move forwards. If you like taking copious notes and drawing diagrams, if you enjoy reading all manner of things including menus and hotel messages and diaries, if rummaging in garbage bins is not beneath you, and if you don't believe that reading someone else's e-mail is an invasion of privacy, then play on. You will need to do all this and more.

The openness of the game, particularly when you begin, is refreshing. I began by looking for something to solve, but after several hours I had solved little. I did, however, have lots of information and drawings. I had in effect the pieces of a jigsaw. Very little was simply laid out, but many of the pieces were obviously related and others clearly belonged together. Everything you learn might be useful and you will need to draw together information gathered from all over in order to solve the puzzles. Careful attention to what you see and what you find out will enable you to start to unravel the plot, and to move forward. Several gadgets you may come across will also be of use.

You can complete just about all the puzzles in any order, although solving some, or finding the right information, will provide keys to others. And whilst you can access the path to the end game simply by finding the right pieces of information, you won't get very far if you haven't done all your homework.

New friends
You might be assisted by a small boy called Tim. He will meet you at the train when you first arrive, and will help you find your feet. Thereafter, he may be able to provide some suggestions if you ask him just right.

The puzzles in Dark Fall all fit quite well within the storyline, and whilst there were many I had to come back to, there are plenty of clues if you pay attention. They include puzzle boxes, combinations, secret messages and cryptography. There is a musical puzzle, although you won't have to recognise tones, and a sound recognition puzzle. Some of the puzzling is more subtle - examine or move the right object, or perform the right combination of actions, and something that was not apparent will appear. And looking and listening carefully is a challenge in itself.

There is also some leeway in the puzzles. I missed finding some information in a particular location, but from things I learnt elsewhere I was still able to piece together the solution. Also, I didn't find a particular inventory item until quite late in the game, but it didn't stop me from learning much of what I needed. So whilst some items are necessary to advance, roadblocks for lack of an item are limited. If you miss something, there is plenty more to do in the meantime.

Past lives
The detritus of those who are no longer there is more than just a set of clues for the puzzles. It also serves to build characters where none exist (at least not in the ordinary sense). The lives and loves of the past inhabitants (and perhaps a little about Mr Boakes) are revealed through the scraps you find, ensuring that the hotel is alive in spirit if nothing else.

And there are plenty of those. You will hear them more than you will see them, at least until you find the necessary equipment. Some you can communicate with, if you can ask the right questions. Many haunt particular rooms, and will talk to you though you cannot answer. Some of what they say may help you. Then there are those that just breathe, and those that seem to be creeping after you. As for the guttural yowl, I bolted up a ladder the first time I heard it outside a door, and the darkness that moved along a hall towards me did nothing to calm the jangled nerves.

The endgame is not really an answer, rather the culmination of everything you have done and found. Sometime before you get there you will have worked out what you are trying to achieve, and at some other point why. Nonetheless, the end does provide some surprises. The plot is a canvass that is fleshed out as you go, and how that occurs will depend on what you learn and when.

Dark Fall plays entirely from the CD but as most of the scenes are predominantly static, lag is not an issue. Inventory items appear at the top left of screen, and are used by simply clicking. A cursor will indicate direction, when something can be examined or moved, and when an inventory item can be used. Subtitles can be toggled on and off with a single keyboard stroke. Small buttons for save load and quit are at the top right of screen. You can save as many times as you have space on your hard drive, saved games being only very small text files.

Dark places
The game world is not that colourful, but then vibrant and vivid colours would be wrong for the feel. Thankfully, despite the darkened palette, and the fact that the game takes place at night, you won't be groping around bumping into things except when that is part of the game. I did turn my screen brightness up a few notches, but was able to see perfectly well.

There is a whole lot of useful information on the CD, and I suggest you read the tips section before starting. It isn't hints (although they are on the CD too), but rather the sort of stuff you would expect to find in a printed manual. If you need technical help, or just want to ask a question, Mr Boakes puts many game companies to shame by the speed at which he responds.

I confess I was utterly engrossed in this game. I played using a pair of Stax electrostatic headphones, with the computer hooked up to my stereo amplifier, and in a darkened silent house the game was all the more powerful. Sound is certainly a big factor. Things that go bump in the night are scary for a good reason.

A thoroughly absorbing and satisfying adventure, all the more remarkable given its humble origins. Don't play it to finish, play it to savour. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 95/98/00/XP/ME, Pentium 233 minimum or equivalent, 32Mb Ram (64 recommended), 24 x CD ROM (or PC DVD), SVGA capable graphics adapter, 32 bit colour at 640x480, Mouse, Keyboard, Speakers