Press » AdventureLantern.com Review by Ugur Sener

01.12.11

DARKSTAR™ – The Interactive Movie
Publisher/Developer: Parallax Studio
Writer/Director/Producer: J. Allen Williams
Genre: Panoramic Adventure
Release Date: 11/5/2010

You open your eyes to find yourself in a small cryogenic sleep chamber. A soft voice greets you as you slowly return to consciousness. The voice belongs to the main computer of the spaceship Westwick. You struggle to remember why you might be on board this particular spacecraft, but you have no memory of entering the ship or climbing into the sleep chamber.

The computer addresses you as Mr. O'Neil. That must be your name. The machine tells you that you are the captain of the Westwick. You have been in suspended animation for 312 years. The extended time you spent in the chamber has irreversibly erased your memories. You have retained some basic knowledge about running the spaceship, but all of your event-related memories are gone. Everything that made you Captain John O'Neil is lost.

You climb out of the chamber and look around the cabin. You know that you must have been assigned to this ship for a reason. Three centuries ago, you were asked to do something of great importance. You concentrate, but you cannot remember any details about your mission. There is only a single word that flickers in the back of your mind. A faint whisper from a past life. ‘Darkstar...’

There are three other chambers next to yours. A beautiful woman is asleep in the first one. Her name is Paige Palmer. She is the Westwick's pilot. You feel strangely close to her. Perhaps she wasn't just another crewmember. Perhaps three centuries ago, you meant something more to each other. The second chamber is empty. Looking out the window, you can see that the spaceship is in orbit around a planet. The computer indicates that Ross Perryman has left the Westwick to explore the planet. The final chamber belongs to the ship's navigator Alan Burk. In horror, you discover that Alan is dead. Judging from the state of his corpse, he has been deceased for a long time.

You know that Alan was not supposed to die. You and Paige were not supposed to remain asleep for 300 years. Something must have gone horribly wrong with your mission. Unfortunately, Westwick's computer can offer no explanation. Log files have been purposely deleted by another crew member. Nobody is available to answer your questions, but there must be clues somewhere around this vast ship. You will have to explore the Westwick and discover the truth on your own. DARKSTAR beckons.

Developed by Parallax, DARKSTAR is an independent first-person FMV adventure. After a decade of development, DARKSTAR finally arrives offering an immersive sci-fi experience. It may suffer from a few technical issues, but with its engaging storyline, interesting locations, and compelling atmosphere, DARKSTAR is still a very strong adventure offering.

The game begins as Captain O'Neil wakes up in a sleeping chamber on board the Westwick. The cryogenic chambers are only safe to use for a period of fifty years. Having spent over 300 years in suspended animation, O'Neil has suffered irreversible brain damage and lost all of his memories. To make matters worse, the ship has been damaged, causing it to go into an emergency lockdown. Taking control of the captain, you will have to explore Westwick and figure out what happened. If you can survive long enough, you might discover some answers and maybe even repair the ship to complete your mission.

Amnesia might be an all too familiar plot device in a video game, but it is used very effectively in DARKSTAR. With no recollection of the past, O'Neil has to slowly explore the ship and try to find clues about himself and the nature of the Westwick's mission. The video logs and notes you find along the way provide valuable clues, but you can never be certain which pieces of information are reliable. It is clear that someone has tampered with several important documents. The story you piece together from the crew member logs appears to be incomplete. Someone has gone into a great deal of trouble to make sure you hear a specific version of the truth. It'll be up to you to decide what to believe.

The majority of DARKSTAR takes place on the Westwick. The spacecraft makes for a very interesting setting for an adventure game. You get a chance to explore numerous rooms, discover hidden corridors, and play with hi-tech gadgets. It is clear that a great deal of care has gone into the design of the spaceship. There are many items of interest in each room. As you peel back each layer, you discover clues to help you repair the ship and fully understand your situation. Some of the information is redundant, but this seems to be a deliberate design choice. If you miss an important video log at one location, you might be able to find a document that gives you the same piece of information in another room. Along the way, you also come across two highly entertaining robots. The antics of these deranged machines add a welcome touch of humor to the game.

At the beginning of the adventure, most areas of the Westwick are inaccessible due to the emergency lockdown. As you investigate the ship, you come upon a number of special ‘biolok’ devices. These devices scan your hand and give you access to different regions of the spacecraft. In addition, unlocking the bioloks allows you to view videos that reveal the back story of the game. The videos explain what happened to Earth and why the Westwick's mission is critical to the survival of the human race. You also discover the nature of a mysterious black hole called DARKSTAR. Themes of war, betrayal, and time travel along with a desperate struggle for survival make for a very compelling backdrop for the adventure.

The videos in DARKSTAR feature real actors. Clive Robertson takes on the role of Captain John O'Neil. The game also features Peter Graves as the narrator, Beez McKeever as pilot Paige Palmer, Trace Beaulieu as Ross Perryman, and Frank Conniff as navigator Alan Burk along with the entire cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The background videos from the biloks alone represent a significant amount of footage. There are also numerous videos that advance the plot as O'Neil explores the ship. It is evident that a significant amount of effort was put into writing the script and filming the videos. DARKSTAR is meant to be as much of a movie as it is a video game. For the most part, the performances are believable and compelling. The videos help create a highly engaging sci-fi atmosphere that is sustained throughout the game. However, a few of the movie sequences could have used some streamlining. In particular, some of the scenes that involve space battles drag on a little too long and do not add any real value to the game.

The gripping story and the strong atmosphere are great reasons to play DARKSTAR. The game does an excellent job of piquing your curiosity and keeping you interested in what is happening to O'Neil and the rest of the crew throughout the adventure. The intensity gradually rises as you reach the later portions of the game and start exploring areas outside the spaceship. You become increasingly aware of a nemesis that is actively trying to foil your efforts to complete your mission. DARKSTAR throws in a number of plot twists before you ultimately reach the game's conclusion.

The interactive portions of DARKSTAR are played from a first-person perspective. The game is designed as a series of nodes that you can investigate. You can move the camera by holding down the left mouse button. The mouse icon turns into an arrow to indicate that you can walk in a particular direction or interact with a hotspot. If you come across an important item and click on it, O'Neil will put it in his 'asset inventory'. The items in your inventory can be viewed on the bottom left corner of the screen. You can scroll through the list of items and bring them up to take a closer look. If you are carrying a particular gadget that will help you solve a puzzle, O'Neil automatically uses it at the appropriate moment.

The puzzles in DARKSTAR generally involve gaining access to different areas of the ship, discovering clues, and trying to repair the Westwick. The simple interface allows for a relaxed gaming experience. There are no action sequences and no button-mashing is required. However, that does mean the game is easy. The development team has done an excellent job of hiding things in plain sight. You will have to carefully examine each area to make sure you do not miss any clues. There are secret compartments and tunnels that can be easily missed if you are not paying attention. For me, the only problematic puzzle was a sequence that takes place inside a labyrinth. The maze felt needlessly large and overly challenging to traverse. Otherwise DARKSTAR 's puzzles seemed fair and manageable.

It is worth noting that DARKSTAR has a strong soundtrack. The relaxed background music you hear as you explore the ship nicely complements the sci-fi setting and enhances the mood. The rock themes played during the heated space battles likewise seem very fitting. In addition, the sound effects from the mechanical doors to the laser guns feel appropriate and expertly handled.

Between the massive spacecraft and the areas you get to explore outside the Westwick, DARKSTAR offers a significant amount of content. It can easily take over twenty hours to complete the game on your first attempt. DARKSTAR also features a number of different endings, giving you a reason to play through some parts of the game several times. Certain key events unfold differently based on your actions. If you do not have the right item in your inventory or if you step outside the Westwick before investigating a critical area, your adventure might conclude prematurely. There are also some optional areas in the game. You do not need to explore all of these locations to successfully complete DARKSTAR, but they provide more information about the characters and help you better understand the game's story. The optional content may even provide a couple of clues to help you survive a certain sequence.

It is also possible for O'Neil to meet an untimely demise by triggering one of the traps spread throughout the spaceship. Typically, these kinds of death sequences are a cause for complaint in an adventure game. However, the traps help enhance the atmosphere in DARKSTAR. Some of the death sequences are quite interesting and worth triggering just to see what happens. In addition, their presence adds a layer of depth to your unknown enemy. After all, what kind of person would allow O'Neil to climb out of the sleep chamber alive, but set elaborate traps so he is likely to die as he explores the ship? Most importantly, the death sequences are not so numerous that they start detracting from the overall experience. If you remember to save frequently, you should not have any problems.

Despite all its strong elements, DARKSTAR suffers from a couple of technical issues that can be frustrating. For instance, even on a PC that exceeds the system requirements, you will occasionally notice a marked delay between when you click on the mouse and when O'Neil actually performs an action. The game appears to take too long to load the animation. While this issue does not seriously hurt the gaming experience, it can be annoying and should have been avoided. The game also crashed a number of times during my first playthrough on a Windows 7 system. Fortunately, this issue seemed to be resolved by switching to the Windows Vista compatibility mode and may not be a concern under other operating systems. Nevertheless, it would be a good idea to save regularly in order to avoid excessive irritation in the event of an unexpected trip to your desktop.

It is also frustrating that you cannot skip some of the movement animations. In certain areas, each time you instruct O'Neil to move from one part of the ship to another, you have to watch the movement animation. While this is certainly acceptable the first time you explore a particular area, it would have been nice to have the ability to skip the animation if you happen to return to the same location.

Finally, the game's interface could have been a little cleaner. Buttons are available along the top portion of the screen to handle features such as saving your game. There are also buttons along the bottom for viewing the videos revealed when you find and open a biolok. It is possible to keep these buttons hidden as you explore the ship and have them appear only when you bring the mouse icon to the top or bottom of the screen. However, the space allotted for the buttons still takes up a chunk of the screen and effectively reduces the size of the actual play area. It may have been a better idea to have the top and bottom menus appear when the player moves the mouse over to the appropriate portion of the screen and display a larger play window.

It may not be perfect, but DARKSTAR is still a solid adventure game with a compelling story and a strong atmosphere. Westwick and the locations outside the spaceship are fun to explore and represent a substantial amount of content for you to discover. The game is very effective at getting players to care about the story and urging them to reach the conclusion. If you are a fan of adventure games and science fiction, DARKSTAR is a very easy recommendation.

By Ugur Sener