Technological advance is an inherently iterative process. One does not simply take sand from the beach and produce a Dataprobe. We use crude tools to fashion better tools, and then our better tools to fashion more precise tools, and so on. Each minor refinement is a step in the process, and all of the steps must be taken.
— Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, "Looking God in the Eye"
Darkout’s premise is sort of a ‘what would you do?’ How would you survive if you crash-landed on a hostile planet, with nothing but the wreckage of your escape pod to help you? Sure, you’re a high-tech scientifically-minded person with a futuristic pistol, but once you’ve ploughed through your ammo, how will you get more? There are no shops, no sophisticated manufacturing facilities. Basically, anything you need needs to come first from your brain, then from the raw materials around you.
So yeah. Darkout stands on the shoulders of giants. Without Minecraft’s survival and crafting and Terraria’s move to the 2D side-scroller, there probably wouldn’t be a Darkout. Thus, my choice of quote to start the review – it’s the latest iterative innovation in the Minecraft-em-up genre. But that’s not the only reason the Chairman’s words resonated when I played Darkout. See, the big thing that really differs in Darkout is the linear progress. At first, you have the all-important combinator – a sort of futuristic 3D printer – which is salvaged from your escape pod, but other than that, it’s all just whatever you find in the world around you. Chop a couple of trees down, make the logs into wood, and the wood into wooden blocks and wooden walls, and you’ve got what you need to build a little shelter to stop the swarms of monsters from repeatedly killing you. Once you’ve got your shelter up, grab a couple of buckets of tar from a nearby tar pit, use it with the wood to fashion a few crude torches to keep away the shadows (in which the shadow creatures can spawn). All the while, you’re researching new technology, slowly crawling up the tech tree. It is this progression that really adds a new layer to the game.
Of course, tech trees are hardly groundbreaking innovation. It’s just the way that the tech tree works in Darkout that is kind of novel. Like all of these sort of games, you spend a fair amount of your time below ground, mining resources and (I like to imagine) humming folk tunes to yourself. It’s very possible that you’ll start hollowing out the earth pretty close to your home base – perhaps even right underneath it. Over time, these huge, man-crafted caverns can be paved, lit and used for an underground lab. Or maybe filled with generators, with wires running up inside carved ducts to your luxury pad upstairs. The world is your oyster, as they say. Why do they say that? I have no idea.
Graphically, it’s leagues ahead of any of the competition, doing away with the cutesy, blocksy style of Minecraft and the slightly Japanese 8-bit look of Terraria. Not that this is saying much – shrouded as it is in darkness most of the time, there’s not a massive amount of variety in the graphics throughout the world. For a game that’s about exploration as much as it is about survival, there is remarkably little to really find, at least in the early game. Controls can be a little wonky, too – shifting stuff from the inventory to the quick-use slots, all of which are critically important, results in the item being dumped on the floor. Controls are not really fluid or intuitive, either, and the chances are good that you will, like me, unleash a spittlestorm of indignation the first time you’re killed far from home because you needed to swap your primary weapon into an unusual quickslot for a moment, and ended up trying to build a wooden platform instead of hit an attacker with a longsword. Combat itself generally consists of waving melee weapons in the same motion over and over, Diablo 1 style. Shadow creatures are easier to kill when brought out into the light, but this rarely really has an impact on gameplay. Sure, you’ll pop glowing jars of goo all over the place in your mines to stop the little critters from spawning, but that’s really it for the innovative light-darkness system they’re so proud of.
A game like this really lives and dies on its crafting, and while it’s greatly rewarding to see your home go from a ramshackle wooden hovel to a floodlit, platinum-walled cyberfortress, the system isn’t without its flaws. It can take a huge amount of time to get to where you need to be to gather some critical resource, either deep under the ground or to the furthest reaches of the world’s surface, and convenient transportation comes only after many hours of gameplay. Turning your iron ore into a metal battlesuit requires standing next to the furnace to make iron ore into an iron bar, then moving so you’re next to the smelter for the next bit, trying to remember whether steel bars are considered resources or components, then navigating through the not-quite-slick menus to make sure you don’t create too much and leave yourself too short on iron to finish the suit. It’s extremely micro-managey and pretty fiddly, and some design decisions are mystifying. Wiring your base up to your generators is generally only achieved after half an hour of head-scratching, as is getting batteries into your flashlight, filling barrels with tar, or just about any of the many tasks you try to perform. One morning, I was planning to head out to finish building a stone mine-head near my base, and in the process of preparing my weapons I actually ended up dropping two swords and picking up my bed. Fiddly, confusing and awkward controls are, it would seem, par for the course.
But! The devs are keenly watching, and regularly patching. Hopefully, the brave and slapdash misadventures of we proud pioneers will mean a smoother experience for the post-patch gamers of the future. And there is fun to be had here. Starting each game day with a plan in mind, there are always resources that need gathering or new caverns to explore. With a passable and well-voice-acted storyline, and at a pocket-friendly price, Darkout is not a leap forward in originality but is a diverting amusement.