Dark Fall: Lost Souls

Developer:  Darkling Room
Publisher:  Iceberg Interactive
Year Released:  2009

Review by Steve Metzler (August, 2010)
Spooky enough for you?
Lost Souls is the third installment in Jonathan Boakes' Dark Fall series. It is set in a fictitious English countryside town called Dowerton, as was the first game in the series - Dark Fall: The Journal. All of the happenings in this game take place in Dowerton train station and the station's hotel. You assume the role of a detective inspector, reopening a case that was closed all the way back in 1947. Well, sort of. As with all games penned by the inimitable Mr. Boakes, things are not always quite as they seem to be. And as with all things game related of late, Lost Souls went completely under my radar. It was in fact released almost a year ago, and I only just happened to spot it in a shop on a recent trip to the U.K.

Darkest yet
Jonathan Boakes' previous effort, 2008's The Lost Crown utilised the Wintermute game engine, and so does this one. If you have a wide screen monitor like I do, don't make the same mistake as I did and tick the 'Maintain aspect ratio' box as you will then be playing the game in a letterbox. It displays just fine in wide screen aspect (I didn't perceive any stretching effect at all), and the shadows are much more frightening when they occupy the whole screen [cue muhahahaha].

Whereas The Lost Crown was mostly rendered in black and white with occasional splashes of colour, Lost Souls is done in full colour, though the overall tone of the game is so dark that the colours rarely leap out at you. But it's good to see a darker tone and theme again for the third game, as this is what Jonathan Boakes excels at - scaring the living daylights out of us. The second game, Dark Fall 2: Lights Out, wasn't nearly as scary as the first and that made it less impressive in my mind. So we're back on the unimaginable horror track again and, in a word, Lost Souls is... visceral.

He does it with sound, he does
The way you are primarily frightened in these games is through sound. Not necessarily the overt kind of "Boo!" sound, though this game contains a good few of those moments too. But rather these subtle, ambient sounds for which Mr. Boakes is so famous. Things that go bump in the night. They absolutely creep you out. You need to play these games with the lights turned down and the sound turned up to get the maximum effect.

Inspector Gadget he's not
Better red than dead
The high tech ghost hunting gadgets that were the mainstay of the first game and The Lost Crown are notedly absent from Lost Souls. But I suppose this is due to the fact that your character is not here to hunt for ghosts, but rather to ostensively close a case that was abandoned 5 years ago. On the anniversary of the disappearance of a young schoolgirl called Amy, you return to Dowerton station in an attempt to gain closure. It's not really giving anything away to reveal that your character is a drunken schizophrenic, as some starting inventory items and frequent flashbacks indicate. This has a bearing on the way things play out, and that's all I have to say on that score.

Speaking of characters, I thought all were voiced rather well with the exception of your character, The Inspector, which is a pity. He was obviously meant to be portrayed as a bumbling, pompous sort of bloke. But the realisation was over-cooked and strained. And sorry, but the game suffers a bit for that.

The devil is in the detail
I'm going to spend a bit more time dissecting the puzzle design than I normally do, because aside from the story, that is what an adventure game is all about. The first item of note in this respect is that Jonathan took a leaf out of the Miller brothers' book and, as with Riven, almost every puzzle that has a numeric solution is randomised for each play of the game. In a way, this is a noble attempt to nudge players towards actually understanding the puzzle solutions rather than just following a walkthrough by rote when the going gets tough. So kudos for that. On the other hand, it's hell for us walkthrough writers ;-(

The puzzles themselves are pretty standard fare. Most are of a practical nature, which is good. I don't recall that there were many abstract puzzles incorporating the likes of sliding tiles. However... one puzzle of this type that involved a series of rotating wheels was copied directly from The Lost Crown. That's more than a little bit lazy in my book. There are a few good puzzles that revolve around moving between the past and present to put a lost soul to rest, as the title suggests. These were done quite well.

57 channels and nuthin' on
The game interface is realised via a mobile phone, which occasionally doubles as a light source (and, in doing so, provides a few really scary moments when you must use it to illuminate a completely dark scene). In fact, the text messages you receive throughout the game from a character named ECHO keep you focussed on what you must do next, and this was also a good bit of game design to cut down on the aimless wandering that is inherent in some adventure games. But there was one questionable bit of interface design in there that made me resort to a walkthrough. A chair had a newspaper on it, and that was the only obvious hotspot in that close-up. But just a few pixels above that was a hidden hotspot whereby you obtained a farthing coin that was necessary to complete the game. Not fair, and that took the game down a peg all by itself. Really, issues of this nature should be weeded out during play-testing.

Virtual satisfaction
What it boils down to in the end is another well-realised effort to keep us on the edge of our seats for a few evenings. I enjoyed this dose of Dark Fall much more than the previous one. Though I suspect this particular story line has drawn to an end, who knows? If there's more in store for us in this vein, please bring it on, Mr. Boakes. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2010. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows XP (SP2/SP3) or Vista, Pentium IV 1.4 GHz (or AMD equivalent), 512 GB RAM (1 GB RAM Vista), 128 MB DirectX 9.0c compatible 3D accelerator video card, 4x DVD-ROM, 2.5 GB hard disk space, DirectX 9.0c compatible sound card