Darq: Complete Edition comes with an intriguing premise: a young boy is trapped in a seemingly endless recursive nightmare that wouldn’t look a jot out of place in a Tim Burton collection, and the only way for him to escape is to bend the laws of dream physics and solve increasingly surreal puzzles. In practice, it’s a game that doesn’t quite reach its full potential, even in this DLC-inclusive Complete Edition release, but it’s nonetheless an interesting way to spend a few hours and an impressive feat for what is mostly the work of a solo developer with no prior experience.
Each level of Darq sees Lloyd, our unlucky protagonist, “wake up” into some strange place: a subway station where the trains run up and down the walls; a rainy city block where severed arms claw at whatever they can grab hold of; an industrial tower that turns into organic, flesh-walled hellscape at the flick of a switch. But when you know you’re dreaming, like Lloyd soon realises, you can use that to your advantage, defying gravity and the rules of time and space as you see fit. Why can’t a little wristwatch you just picked up suddenly become big enough to bridge a broken floor?
Darq plays out in the familiar mould of an atmospheric 2D puzzle platformer (think Little Nightmares or a less brutal Limbo), with perspective and subjective gravity being the cornerstones of its puzzles. Any vertical surface can become a floor when Lloyd walks up or down it, rotating the whole world around him accordingly. A seemingly blocked path might just need you to go along the ceiling instead; a switch that apparently does nothing probably wants you to flip the world upside down first.
In combination with more familiar item- and exploration-based puzzles, this changing gravity can lead to some incredibly creative puzzles, where there’s always more to any given room than first meets the eye. One particular highlight sees you switching control between Lloyd’s body and his severed head, a medley of levers and wall-walking (or rolling) letting them lead one another through a labyrinthine crypt.
And yet, it’s a concept that never feels like it’s explored to its fullest. Each new level introduces new ideas and twists on the basic idea, but comes to a sudden end just as its starting to play with the most interesting applications of that idea.
Take the aforementioned subway level, as an example: there’s a room with a switch, which cycles the adjacent space between four different rooms. Navigating through them all to find the necessary items to move is all about using the floor and ceiling of the switch room in order to access different parts of the others, while dealing with the fact that, depending on which room you’re coming from, you can’t always access both sides of the switch. It’s not an especially difficult or complex puzzle in itself, but it acts as a good tutorial for what you can do with this wall-walking business, and teases more complex iterations of the same idea.
But that’s the whole level. Once you finish that one main puzzle, you’re done, and it’s on to another level that introduces its own new gimmick without ever really expanding on the one you’ve just touched on. So it goes throughout all of Darq: a constant stream of interesting mechanics that never really get to flourish.
Logic puzzles of the block-sliding and Tower of Hanoi ilk (among others) bring a bit of variety into the mix, but again, they tend to stick to their simplest forms. The odd stealth section here and there sees you hiding from instant-kill enemies, but—for better and worse—they’re limited to picking the right moment and hiding in clearly-marked hiding spots while you wait for the enemy to pass.
This Complete Edition of Darq includes two DLC chapters that, to their credit, do take the game’s basic ideas a little bit further. That rolling head thing I mentioned before is one of the new levels, and while words can’t do it justice, it’s a nifty piece of level design that sees you moving these two different pieces of Lloyd independently, sometimes following different tracks, other times crossing paths. But even though the added levels are a step up from those of the base game, they still don’t feel like they come close to delivering on the potential in Darq‘s concept.
That’s a common theme that runs into the narrative, too. Darq is deliberately opaque, built exclusively on surreal environmental storytelling without the slightest hint of exposition. As Lloyd fumbles his way through nightmare after nightmare, Darq starts to paint a picture of loneliness and isolation, of medical horrors and facing one’s own mortality. But then a very sudden, very abrupt ending brings the whole game to a close before any of these ideas can really make any impact.
Maybe that’s the point—while it’s very much open to interpretation, terminal illness is a common theme running through the imagery—but Darq‘s ending is too sudden, after too little build up, to leave much of a mark. (And in a truly bizarre twist, there are collectible “Dream Journal” pages throughout the game that you can’t read, and that don’t affect the ending at all, despite getting a trophy called “Enlightenment” when you complete the game with a full set.)
This leaves Darq: Complete Edition in an odd place. It’s an intriguing game in concept, with an abundance of eerie atmosphere and some clever ideas at play, but it struggles to reach its true potential. If you like the sort of moody puzzle games that Darq follows in the footsteps of, the couple of hours you’ll spend in Lloyd’s dreamworld are certainly worthwhile, but this is a nightmare that, strangely enough, feels like it’s over too soon.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.