The horror adventure genre has been almost single-handedly sustained of late by a Brit called Jonathan Boakes, who most recently spooked us with The Lost Crown, a gadget-heavy ghostfest that pre-empted Paranormal Activity’s ‘let’s set up cameras and capture scary crap happening’ plotline. Mr Boakes not only writes these games, he also designs, develops, animates, produces and voices the main characters, sometimes with a little help from family members and pets. Impressively, the results are very good indeed. Not just good, but usually scary enough to warrant an emergency pair of rubber pants on constant standby.
Boakes brought us the first installment of the Dark Fall series back in 2002, and even after seven years I still have fond memories of playing that game alone with the lights off and the sound all the way up. For those unfamiliar with Dark Fall, let me describe a typical moment. Your exploration of a haunted hotel in the creepily deserted town of Dowerton leads you down a grubby old corridor, lit on both sides by a row of flickering candles. Suddenly you’re frozen in place, and the candles begin to extinguish themselves one at a time, eventually plunging the hallway into total darkness. A terrifying noise floods from your speakers - frantic sobbing, heavy breathing - then the flames burst back into life, to reveal…nothing at all.
Boakes’ games are filled with moments like this. He’s a master at creating terror with little more than a sinister shadow or a distant scratching, and the latest Dark Fall is no exception. Don’t worry if you haven’t played the previous two games, as Dark Fall: Lost Souls introduces a new protagonist, a police inspector on the trail of a missing girl called Amy. Although you explore the same Dowerton train station and hotel as the first game, the story is completely independent and the place has changed quite significantly since our last visit. The inspector’s hunt is a tense, fraught affair and Boakes’ skill as a storyteller shines through at all times. You’re instantly plunged into the policeman’s nightmare as he scours the lair of a local homeless man known as Mr Bones, and the full backstory is gradually revealed through a number of newspaper cuttings and books that are scattered around the world.
You control the inspector from a first-person viewpoint, although your perspective is sadly fixed - no 360 degree freedom here, which can make exploration a little stiff at times. However, for the most part this interface works fine. Dark Fall: Lost Souls’ graphics are both atmospheric and suitably grungy, and the environments are filled with all kinds of disgusting details. Rarely will you encounter a room that isn’t overrun with broken old furniture, creepy mannequins, flickering televisions and sometimes even pulsing, bloodied creatures. There’s a certain dread involved each time you enter a new room, which makes exploration both exciting and fun.
As well as exploring the station and the run-down hotel, you’ll regularly be faced with a variety of puzzles that tip both ends of the difficulty scale. The majority are thankfully intuitive, well-implemented and just the right degree of challenging. Adventure fans will instantly be familiar with the usual mix of item collection, code deciphering and reassembly of torn fragments, all hallmarks of Boakes’ work. He’s rather wisely steered away from the excessive note taking of the first Dark Fall, and even provided a map of the area to minimise any possible confusion as you navigate the various rooms and corridors. This allows the player to fully absorb themselves in the game, without scrambling every two minutes for a pen and pad. However, Lost Souls is a very linear game with the occasional hard-to-find hotspot, which may frustrate less patient gamers and force the occasional use of a walkthrough.
Dark Fall: Lost Souls’ adventure segments might hit the mark, but of course this is a horror adventure - which begs the question, is it actually scary? Well, played in the dark with the sound turned up, this is probably Boakes’ most terrifying title so far. As already mentioned, a lot of the fear comes from the unknown and unseen. Bumps and groans from other parts of the building, childish laughter that pursues you through the haunted corridors, and those damn mannequins that are seemingly the only remaining inhabitants of Dowerton. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there are several moments that raised the hairs on my arms, including a ghostly game of statues and a puzzle that must be solved while a tormented ghost creeps up on you. There are a few cheap ‘boo!’ shock moments, but these are forgivable considering the pervading menace and choking atmosphere that inhabits Lost Souls’ world.
One final observation. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but I sensed that Boakes has taken a lot of inspiration for Lost Souls from the Silent Hill series, something that has never been evident in his previous work. From the pulsating, living blobs you encounter, to the crud-streaked rooms and fenced-off corridors that could have come straight from Silent Hill’s otherworld, there seems to be some kind of genuine homage going on here. The comparisons don’t stop there either - the plot itself, a man with a dark history searching for a lost little girl, is strikingly familiar. Even Lost Souls’ map is reminiscent of the Silent Hill games, featuring a bold strikethrough of any rooms that are inaccessible.
Any fans of adventure or horror games should definitely grab themselves a copy of Dark Fall: Lost Souls, and all of Boakes’ earlier works if they haven’t done so already. Those with knackered old PCs have no excuse either - Lost Souls ran perfectly even on my netbook! Not surprising, considering the system requirements ask for a mere Pentium 4 or equivalent with half a gig of RAM. Finally, I’ve heard rumours of a special edition boxset containing the first two Dark Fall games emerging soon, which will certainly be worth checking out in those long winter evenings. Just remember the drill: lights out, sound up, and keep those rubber pants within reach…