is essentially the product of J. Allen Williams, something he describes as
both his dream and his nightmare. He has written of it having a life of
its own, doing to him instead of the reverse, and pondered on whether it
provided a positive focus for his somewhat obsessive compulsive
tendencies, or merely created a demon that tormented him in his dark
studio basement for almost a decade.
I have no idea how to make a computer game, much
less one involving full motion video in a predominantly nonexistent
setting. I don’t know how long it should take, or what difficulties might
be involved (although you can get an idea by googling DARKSTAR and
finding interviews with Mr. Williams). I am sure though that anything
taking 10 years to complete, whatever the reason, could very easily
consume me, and I suspect in my case I would long ago have choked it out
of existence. The fact that Mr. Williams saw it through to the end is not
a reason to buy the game, but it does need to be acknowledged.
I should also acknowledge that I wanted very much to
like DARKSTAR, it being both science fiction and full motion video
(or FMV). I like both a lot, and you don’t see much of the latter these
days. That is probably because of the effort involved, but for a while
they were much in vogue (think games like Phantasmagoria, Dark
Side of the Moon, The 7th Guest, Black Dahlia,
the later Tex Murphy games and Gabriel Knight 2). I like the
“real world” nature of FMV, as you play among and with real life actors. I
enjoyed Zelenhgorm when it came out but despite optimistically
being touted as Episode 1, there never was a two. More recently we have
the Casebook series and the rather excellent Yoomurjak's Ring
trying to breathe a little life into FMV adventures, but nothing else I
can think of. Now we have DARKSTAR.
I did have some difficulties actually playing the
game, enduring lock-ups, non-responding cursors and iShell failures. The
first two were now and then, but the latter was far more frequent.
According to the website, iShell is the authoring software and relies on
Quicktime, “...and PCs have countless programs, conflicts and settings
that can conflict with Quicktime”. Suggestions were uninstall and
reinstall Quicktime from the disc, turn off hardware acceleration, and use
another machine. I didn’t do the latter, but I did do the first two; I
also made sure I had updated drivers, that things weren’t running in the
background, and I unplugged from the local network. I still got iShell
(Editor: an email received from the makers
after this review was published stated that these problems "seem to be
mostly isolated to Windows 7" with XP/Vista having fewer issues and
the Mac almost none.)
I can accept it was probably something else about my
configuration, but this seems to be a frequently encountered problem by
other players, and as a rule I do think games need to be a little more
robust and a little less fussy. It is simply a matter of restarting the
game, but it’s a frustration that detracted from the experience.
Which, despite these issues, is one I did enjoy, in
a B grade science fiction kinda way. Mr. Williams has described his game
as “a psychedelic, back-stabbing, time-travelling, camp-comedy, horror,
instant-cult-classic science fiction adventure" and that is as good a
description as any.
Slightly Iridescent Mother Of No-one
It’s also a good way to approach DARKSTAR.
You need to think Buck Rogers, not Ellen Ripley. If you do, then the
acting is more acceptable and the dialogue more explicable, the music less
bombastic and the wisecracking robot companions less corny. If you don’t,
all of those things may test you.
The out-and-out puzzles probably won’t, being not
terribly difficult, but other environmental situations and conundrums most
definitely will. DARKSTAR takes place mainly on board the Westwick,
a dead starship floating in orbit around Theta Alpha III, and it’s a big
starship. You need to work out why it has no power, get into those bits of
the starship you can’t access, and eventually get down to the planet.
Having amnesia doesn’t help. Nor does the fact that someone appears to
want you dead, and has laid traps throughout the ship.
You need to explore, and explore thoroughly. There
are buttons to be pushed that are crucial to unlocking parts of the ship
much later in the game, and failing to press them will mean you can’t
progress. But you have to find them to press them, and there is often
nothing to indicate what you need to look for and where. So look
everywhere, and press everything.
Which will at times result in your death (27
possible times according to the game guide). I have never been much for
conundrums that I don’t know will kill me and then offer me no way to back
out, and there are some of those here. Not everything that will kill you
is unseen or unseeable, and at least one I was involved in did allow me to
change my mind, but not all. Dying requires you to restore a saved game,
so save often (it helps with any iShell problems as well). Saves appear to
Save games also help being stuck. At one point in
the game I found myself locked on a platform, with the only apparent way
out being to swim. Only problem was that swimming gets you eaten, and I
couldn’t find a way to control not being eaten. Having checked the game
guide it seems I needed to have activated certain objects in order for an
exit to be open, all of which were no longer accessible to me. I restored
at an earlier point and moved on, but without that earlier save I was
I am always careful to suggest there might be dead
ends, as it is often just my failure to ascertain the correct way forward,
but reading over the game guide suggests it’s a possibility. Death for
instance will inevitably occur at another point on the planet if you don’t
have a particular item with you. That item is on the Westwick, and
assuming you even realise that item is your problem, there does not appear
to be a way back. You can eventually travel back in the shuttle that
brought you, but not until it has replenished its water supply, which you
don’t control. I let the game run for some time in the background, but
time passing did not appear to have an influence on the tanks being
filled. Progression through that level appears to be the requirement, but
the death point will prevent you from that progress.
Somewhat Impulsive Mouldy Old Ninny
This may well prove the biggest issue for some
gamers. Some may say we have become a little soft in adventure gaming,
with many games preventing you from leaving an environment until
everything necessary is accomplished, and many showing you all the
hotspots should you choose to see them. There is none of that here, and
finding things is an essence of adventure games, and in a number of
earlier games (Dracula Unleashed, The Last Express) a
failure to do something at one point prevented you from successfully
completing the game, so that isn’t new. Nonetheless, it may not be
welcomed by all.
There is some redundancy built into some puzzles,
with more than one opportunity to find the relevant clues. There is also
more than one opportunity to lose an item you need (which can be fatal),
so think hard about some of your choices.
There is a maze (called a labyrinth) which also
involves the only “timing” part of the game (i.e., you need to do
something as you move past it), and there is a timed sequence at the end
of the game which gives you plenty of time if you have discovered all of
the necessary passages, but (according to the game guide) not nearly
enough if you haven’t. So once again you need to explore thoroughly.
Inventory items will be used in the right place
simply because you have them. You don’t need to do anything other than try
and interact with the relevant part of the environment (e.g., a locked
chest). A little arrow cursor will usually be the clue. You don’t collect
a lot of items, about 20 or so, but some are critical.
Not everything is. I missed finding a part of the
ship, but that did not prevent me from finishing the game, and the game
guide indicates that one fairly sizeable task can be skipped altogether.
There is also a lot that you will do which is about revealing the
backstory and the plot, and which adds nuances and detail, but which you
don’t need to complete the game. However, completion is a relative concept
– getting to the end is not the same as revealing all the twists and turns
of why you got there in the first place.
The plot behind DARKSTAR is both simple and
complex. The simple version is that in 2185, the President of Earth has
sent four starships into space in an effort to have at least one travel
through time to undo what has resulted in the destruction of humanity. The
complex version is, well, more complex, and finding it out is part of the
adventure. So enough said. Remember what I told you at the start about how
to approach the events, and it’s a rollicking adventure indeed.
One thing I will say is that despite the passage of
over 400 years, we Aussies have not been able to escape our past.
Strange Implement Manifesting Overlord Notions
You unlock aspects of the story as you find the
biolocks that have put the ship in lockdown. There are 10 of these, and
there is a map of where they are (if you find it), and each time you find
one you get a new video chapter of events past. The various logs and
messages you find fill in other aspects, sometimes from different
perspectives, and there are also apparitions triggered by some activities
that give glimpses of events as well.
Lest you think the biolocks are just a story device,
note what I said about the ship lockdown. Unless you find all 10 biolocks
and release them, you aren’t going anywhere.
I mentioned the music and it is both magnificent and
not so. It is quite grand, being rock opera in places and symphonic in
others, but for me it often didn’t “fit”, creating a disconnect between
what I was seeing and what I was hearing. However, there is no doubting
its grandeur, and I turned it down low and just had it softly in the
background, turning it up at times when it sounded particularly impressive
or particularly suited the events.
You can fiddle with some other settings, but
although there is a graphics menu item you can’t do anything graphically
from within the game that I could see. The game also captured my screen
resolution, converting it to a very low resolution, which made the gaming
world larger but degraded the video quality, making it quite blotchy.
However the FAQ on the website indicated that holding down the “shift” key
and starting the game forced it to accept my screen resolution, which
produced a smaller gaming environment but much improved video quality.
Whatever resolution you pick, the game world itself
is smaller than the screen, surrounded by a border containing information
and menus. It also contains a utility that shows a schematic of the
Westwick and can tell you where you are (though it doesn’t operate in the
labyrinth). You can have the border permanently displayed, or you can hide
it, causing it to pop into view only when you move your mouse outside the
game world. The latter helps the immersive experience, although that is
reduced somewhat by playing at less than full screen resolution.
The game is first person perspective, and movement
is point and click. Like the Myst games, you move from node to
node, with a transition occurring between each node. You generally only
travel short distances each time, but not always. It can occasionally
cause you to end up where you don’t want to be, but turn and go back and
try again. On occasion I found it fiddly to get where I wanted to go, and
in some places there is only a small delineation between two possible
places to move (meaning I missed a place I could move), but as the game
went on I got better at managing both of these things.
You have 360 degree panning at each node, and a high
degree of movement both up and down, by “dragging” the game world (hold
down the mouse key and move the mouse) around your fixed perspective. If
you aren’t “turning” around, the mouse remains free to explore the game
world for hotspots.
While described as an interactive movie, and while
there are times when you do just watch, DARKSTAR is most definitely
a game. It is also a decent length game. It consists of about 14GB of data
(be patient when it installs), and contains over 13 hours of cut footage,
and it easily took me twice that long to play. The direct path through the
game is probably much shorter, but as intimated earlier, getting to the
end is not about getting there the shortest way. You would be doing the
game a disservice to simply romp to the conclusion.
Overall, I did have fun with DARKSTAR,
despite its frustrating aspects. It harkened back to earlier games that I
remember playing with relish, and was different than most things being
produced today. It spoke to my liking of the big space opera, and things
slightly cheesy. It certainly had its faults, and it will probably not be
for every adventure game player, but what is? If you like the sound of the
above, some time aboard the Westwick as Captain O’Neil might well be for
P.S. – the section titles will make sense if you
play the game.
I played on:
OS: Win 7 professional, 64 bit
Processor: AMD Phenom 9500 Quad Core CPU 2.2 GHz
Ram: 4.00 DDR2 400MHz
Gx card: ATI Radeon HD 3850 512Mb
DARKSTAR can be purchased
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