I Can’t Escape: Darkness (PC) review
- Very strong atmosphere - a sense of tension and fear, with hope slipping away
- Procedurally generated dungeons keep the game fresh - especially important when dying and restarting is an expected mechanic
- Well structured - pressing ahead without equipment is possible, even if your survival odds are lowered
Not so much?
- While the dungeon layout may vary, the same elements are used from game to game, and familiarity offsets some of the tension
- The tile-based layouts and sprite-based graphics hold a very old-school appeal; if you're hoping for something that looks more up to date you will probably be disappointed
There is no avoiding how simple an emotion fear is, and I Can’t Escape: Darkness’ atmosphere cuts straight to that; but it is in danger of perhaps being too simple itself.
There is something primal about a fear of the dark; humans rely so heavily on what we can see that we when were left without light we imagine horrors in the darkness. Fancy Fish Games are pretty aware of this it seems, with their exploration/puzzle/horror game I Can’t Escape: Darkness leaving you fearing everything you can’t quite see…
The escaping in question is from an ancient ruin – you begin as an explorer falling into an Aztec-esque complex, with your exit blocked and an unseen guide telling you to head deeper in if you wish to get out. The world is presented as a tile-based dungeon, explored in single steps, side steps and 90 degree turns… but before you reach for the graph paper, it’s worth mentioning that the dungeon is procedurally generated each game.
The dungeon moves in real time though, meaning that you do need to pay attention to your surroundings. Rats roam the upper levels and can prove slightly more than an irritation, although can be killed with a couple of blows from a heavy stick that always spawns next to you; the further down you go, other creatures will threaten you instead, and these are rarely hittable, let alone killable. This is a strange inverse approach to gaming; with a weapon you feel empowered against threats, but it soon becomes a false hope, and you become comparatively powerless the further your advance, regardless of how well geared you become.
The exploration and the puzzle side of the game go hand in hand. Each floor has equipment to find which might give you more of a chance to escape, and if possible should be grabbed before descending; though weak floors can give way if you don’t spot them, and you can end up on lower levels faster than you’d like. Rooting things out can also involve hitting buttons on walls, finding keys, and navigating traps, all while trying to keep a source of light around…
… and this is where the game’s horror element plays its hand. You begin with a battery powered torch – nothing rechargeable, unfortunately – in the fairly well-lit first floor. However, the deeper you go, the less light is available, with the torch often having to see you between burning sconces (which, when/if you find the lighter you can light yourself if needed). And while not being able to see is inconvenient, there is something in the darkness – or rather, something that is The Darkness – ready to attack if you stray too far into the shadows.
In terms of atmosphere, the game maintains a strong sense of tension throughout. Music is kept to a minimum, with notes and chords playing more often, accompanying the sound of things laughing in the distance, breathing from the shadows, or general growling. Going back to the primal fear of the dark, you are left anticipating what might be waiting for you just out of sight… and your imagination is largely adding teeth to whatever it sees waiting to try and eat you.
The other source of tension is from the rogue-lite elements – not only is the dungeon randomised, with you hoping a floor won’t give way or a zombified rat won’t attack when you’re not paying attention, but you’re doing this with permadeath hanging over you. It is pretty much expected that you will die regularly, restarting often and hoping not to repeat your mistakes.
While there is a save-and-resume function to allow for a break (though it’s likely even a long session won’t be too long; my personal best was just under three quarters of an hour before getting crushed), there is no save to cushion you from mistakes. Did something wrong? It’ll likely kill you before long – learn for your next run.
And here’s where some of the atmosphere gets lost again. For all of the tension the game builds, you will also find solace in seeing patterns from game-to-game. Some of it is essential for balance – you find a better weapon on the first floor, a lighter and key on the second and so on – because the game wouldn’t work if equipment and the places it is needed were in the wrong combination. But some becomes a matter of prediction – see a button to press in a corridor’s dead end? Trigger it with a rock, the floor there will collapse when it is used… to give one example that became predictable enough to remove any uncertainty and thus worry.
More broadly, it also meant that you explore the levels to find where the same collection of elements is placed. It may not make it easier, but you’ll know what you’re trying to find. It is likely that given time you’ll learn how to handle each area comfortably, and while escaping will still be an achievement, it does explain why a New Game+ has been added to give players a further challenge.
I Can’t Escape: Darkness looks pretty old-school with a tile-based dungeon and sprite graphics – initial thoughts turned back to Dungeon Master from the late 80s – but its great strength is in creating a very, very tense atmosphere, pressing players to keep moving towards things they’d rather not meet anywhere, let alone the dark. The permadeath and randomised dungeon layouts add a lot to replayability – and you’re encouraged to keep replaying, given how many ways there are to die – but this can also lead to passing familiarity with the building blocks the dungeon is made from, which can also kill any tension that has built up.
There is no avoiding how simple an emotion fear is, and the game cuts straight to that; but it is in danger of perhaps being too simple itself.
I Can’t Escape: Darkness will be available for PC, Mac and Linux via Steam from tomorrow, September 17th.