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Review by flotsam – January 2, 2010

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

DARKSTAR 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 failures.

(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 be unlimited.

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 seemingly stymied.

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 you.

P.S. – the section titles will make sense if you play the game.

By Flotsam