It would be nice to think that the Acorn platform was about to get a new game to
rival the quality of the latest Sony Playstation titles - something to surpass the
software that takes a team of designers, graphics artists, musicians and programmers
to produce. But, realistically, it's just not going to happen, short of someone
having some spare money to dispose of. Expectations are always high, however,
and so when Eclipse released DarkWood at the 1995 Acorn User
show there were inevitably people who were disappointed, having been hoping for
better graphics, better sound, better programming, better gameplay...
The first thing that strikes you about DarkWood is the inappropriateness
of the title. Despite the implications of mood and atmosphere, the game is
completely lacking in either, due almost entirely to the brightly-coloured
cartoon-style graphics used throughout. These graphics vary from the good to the
downright awful, with most being somewhere inbetween the two extremes. Some show
nice attention to detail, with eyes in paintings that follow you, whilst others
demonstrate trigger-happy use of flood fills.
Unusually for a game like this DarkWood uses a roving camera which follows
the player around, floating some distance up and behind their head, pointing
the same way that they do, although it can be moved back a bit or configured to lag
behind a little for dramatic effect (although this makes the game a bit confusing
to play!). Games with constantly moving and rotating cameras like this tend to
require either a very fast polygon plotting
routine or a fast computer, or preferably both. Since DarkWood doesn't
really have the former, you're left requiring the latter, unless you fancy
playing whilst being unable to see more than a few metres ahead of you. You have the choice
of incredibly slow, very slow or just plain slow graphics, with the difference
in speed being due to the level of shading applied to them. Even on a Risc PC
700 the game is all but unplayable with any setting other than "none". The
game also features a "distance fade out" effect, which, whilst a nice (if
unoriginal) idea, is implemented simply by not plotting some pixels, which
produces a rather strange, unsubtle effect, especially in the low-resolution
mode in which the game runs - still, it might work if you're using a TV I
suppose. And all this said it's still the best home-grown effort yet seen,
and it isn't too bad at the end of the day.
Despite its speed, and various plotting imperfections - especially noticeable
when the roofs of the texture-mapped buildings appear without any walls beneath
them - the roving camera is still a "nice thing", and is a first for an Acorn
game like this. It allows some very nice, dramatic, rotating zoom-ins when you
enter and exit buildings (since a static viewpoint is used inside buildings),
and avoids the problem endemic in many similar games of being unable to see
exactly what your character is doing, and where they are standing.
The land in which the game is set is a strange mix, with some features being
highly detailed, and others displaying an amazing lack of attention. You can
destroy the bushes, squash the flowers when you walk on them, watch the birds
fly, play with the rabbits, observe the bouncing mushrooms(!), and generally
watch the inhabitants of the region going about their lives, and yet you can
attempt to follow a character through an open door and unexplicably be
unable to enter yourself, despite the fact that an identical door on a different
building can be passed through. Also, you can watch people enter a building,
then follow them, but once you get inside they will have mysteriously vanished.
This does rather spoil the unusually good feeling the game gives of being "alive".
There are plenty of other examples of inconsistent attention to detail.
You can enter a supposedly dead and barren land, and yet watch lots of brightly
coloured birds fly around, even though there is no vegetation at all.
One of the things I hated most about this game was the shoddy playtesting. I can't
bear games which crash whilst you play them - it entirely removes your confidence
in them, for you become eternally paranoid about having to save after every
little move. And DarkWood is really quite good at crashing. In the four or
so hours of play it took me to finish the game it crashed about five or six
times - just go and stand to the right of the castle entrance
if you have the game to see what I mean, or try leaving the castle through the
front entrance as the jester. Sometimes objects you have can strangely "go missing", too, and
it's easy to make the game impossible by destroying an essential object.
A slight attempt has been made at having selectable characters - you get to "find"
an archer who joins you, although you can easily get by without him, and you can also get a "joke" character whose only real use is to crash
the game and tell poor jokes (you can also use him to help with a puzzle if you like).
In-game music is quite good, although I don't suppose it will be to everyone's
taste. It is, however, very limited, with only two tunes, and it does slow the
game down a surprisingly large amount. There are a few run-of-the-mill sound
effects including, strangely, one you only get when you enter your house at a
strange angle near the edge of the door!
Despite all these complaints, the game is still essentially quite good fun to
play, despite the silly way in which your characters lose energy all the time
just by existing - which essentially imposes a tight time limit on the game,
made all the more senseless because of the way many extra energy awards are
entirely random. Well, I enjoyed it anyway, although it was over far too quickly.
"A Massive Arcade Adventure" cries the slogan (see picture above),
but "A Not Especially Big Arcade Adventure" would be more accurate. The straightforward and
incredibly obvious junior-school style of some puzzles doesn't help, but then there are enough slightly less obvious ones to keep the game fun. The control method, too,
is a bit dodgy, since you have to use both the keyboard (to
move), and the mouse (to select objects and generally "do things"). It breaks the
game flow considerably, and makes some actions seemingly pointlessly tricky to perform.
So who should we blame for the game's imperfections? Eclipse, I say. Yet
again they fail miserably to properly playtest their releases, being happy to
release bugged software - the first version of DarkWood was so poor that
you couldn't even save your position! To my mind, Eclipse are synonymous
with a lack of quality and bugged software, despite their friendly, helpful
nature when you speak with them or write to them. Anyone who wants to experience
this first-hand should buy Xenon 2, which is so incomplete that some levels
have whole long empty sections!
In summary, there are things about DarkWood which are poor or substandard, but despite all this the game is still fun way to while away a few hours and it's also original in a way which very few games are. And, since Eclipse have had the good sense to sell it at what
should be regarded as a "budget" price of less than 25 pounds (you can pay as
little as 20 pounds if you shop around), it does represent good value for
money. If you're at all predisposed to arcade adventures then I'd say it
was a very worthwhile purchase.
Review by Gareth Moore, ©1996
Unit 1, The Shopwhyke Centre, Shopwhyke Road, Chichester, PO20 6GD
Tel. (01234) 531194
Fax (01243) 531196
Recommended Retail Price: 25 pounds
...this page last updated: 20/10/96...
...back to the top...