Press » JustAdventure.com Review by Alexander Tait

02.08.11

DARKSTAR™ – The Interactive Movie
Publisher/Developer: Parallax Studio
Writer/Director/Producer: J. Allen Williams
Genre: Panoramic Adventure
Release Date: 11/5/2010
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Darkstar is what everyone who grew up in the “glory days” of adventure gaming has been clamoring for years. Despite a lot of negative press about “interactive movies,” there is a lot of ground support for this type of game. Just mention Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within or Tex Murphy: The Pandora Directive on a blog and there is an overwhelming amount of positivity and goodwill expressed. However, there are more movies in this adventure subgenre that seem to be somewhat more ill-fated. Temujin, Tender Loving Care, and Voyeur are a few examples of more poorly received titles.

So, where does this new title fit? Is it a contender for the throne or will it be quickly forgotten? Or perhaps it will be a mixed bag like the Phantasmagoria series.

One thing that can’t be criticized is the dedication of the team that made this game. They have been toiling on this from as early as 1995, when it was going to be a movie without the interactivity elements! And who exactly has been working on this you might ask? Well, nothing less prestigious than (most of) the Mystery Science Theater 3000 team. I’ve never seen anything from these guys but they have a pretty amazing reputation in sci-fi circles. This has finally come to fruition after 15 years under the direction of Jeffery Williams, aka J. Allen Williams.

I was fortunate to receive a special “press box” game packaged in a large flatbed PC-size box which included a shirt, picture cards, the soundtrack, and even some popcorn! Yep – you read right – POPCORN!! The game is a 2-DVD affair, not surprising considering all the video in it. Included on a fancy USB is information about the game and a game guide/walkthrough. Don’t forget to view the sensational “Darkstar Book” that contains promotional material and artwork about the game.

Darkstar’s graphics, while good, are not mind-blowing but they are the best of their kind. The full motion stuff is pixelated at times and is probably compressed (a lot!) considering the game was due to be released on 6 dual-layered DVDs at one point! The backgrounds are well-rendered and look pretty up close. Sometimes, at a distance, it is unclear that there are points of interest that warrant further attention. There is an odd half-second delay from clicking the mouse to a change in anything on the screen. I was really disappointed by the “screen within a screen” approach that this game took for the videos. I would have found it far more immersive if the video had filled my screen. The overall graphical presentation is certainly streets ahead of that from the golden age of FMV such as Gabriel Knight and Phantasmagoria.

I found the sound to be good…in theory. Despite the ability to alter the relative levels of speech, ambient sounds, and music, I found the dialog frustratingly difficult to understand. Especially the main character played by Clive Robertson (i.e. you!), who mumbled his lines at every opportunity. I would have given my left arm for some subtitles because, to be frank, I often had no idea what was going on because I couldn’t understand what was being said. That said, the sounds are suitable and the music is quite atmospheric – just what we’ve come to expect in modern science-fiction.

Many will enjoy the wonderful tones of Peter Graves, who narrates throughout the game. Sadly, this was his last project before passing away.

Acting really is a mixed bag – there was some very good and some almost hammy acting in the game. Initially, Rush was reported to be allowing some of their music to be included in the game – what a coup that would have been! I imagine many sci-fi fans have musical leanings that appreciate the sounds and concepts of Rush (many of which are sci-fi influenced). Unfortunately, licensing issues prevented that from happening. However, the 2-CD soundtrack is simply amazing too – all original music ranging from progressive rock pieces to hard rock guitar hero rock to subtle classical and ambient sounds. I heartily recommend you listen to it and see just how professional a soundtrack can be! The music is a benchmark for all future games.

LATE BREAKING NEWS: I am told the Lace Mamba release will have subtitles!

Darkstar contains many of the traditional aspects of adventure gaming: puzzles, inventory items and, unfortunately, a very confusing maze. It’s point-and-click all the way, which is usually the favorite gameplay style for adventure gamers. Navigation is a little confusing – sometimes it’s not clear how get from point A to B. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dreaded maze. There were numerous times where I became disoriented because of the dizzying camerawork and layout of the maze.It's probably the most challenging maze I have ever experienced.

Once at a “hub” between movement points, there is full 360-degree panning in all four directions. That really adds to the immersion.

Also problematic is not including different icons to show what the protagonist might do. Sometimes acting on an item means “pick it up” but at other times it means “use item” which results in instant death without warning. Finding the action points on computer panels is particularly difficult, where there might be two hotspots but you end up clicking on what you think is a hotspot and missing something that seems like it’s just part of the hotspot you’ve already found!

Essentially the game is ten chapters, each requiring unlocking a “biolok”. This results in a lengthy exposition of video that furthers the story – in fact, there are 13 hours of footage in the game! As always with FMV games, there is a limited degree of interactivity compared with more traditional point-and-click games. Be careful in the game and save often because you never know when one of your actions is going to result in a grisly end. It’s a shame the creators didn’t include an autosave just before this occurs. I became frustrated numerous times when something seemingly harmless resulted in my death and retracing steps. I’m definitely not a fan of dying in games without a safety net. It lowers my enjoyment when I consider saving before every action I take. The puzzles fit in well with the story and most experienced gamers will find they are manageable.

Anyhow, basically the story is thus: in 2185 A.D. the world is about to be blown up by Martians (not what you’re thinking!). Your character, John O’Neil, wakes from cryosleep in the year 2499 on the spaceship Westwick, which is orbiting a strange planet known as Theta Alpha III. Sleeping so long has caused a form of amnesia. You have no recollection of the beautiful woman in another cryotube or of the mummified remains of a man whose hand has been violently severed. Your quest is to find out who you are, what happened to the crew, and what happened in the 312 years that have passed.

Thankfully, the game seems very stable. I experienced not a single glitch. That’s pretty amazing for a modern game. There is no patch for it, either – something almost unheard of in this modern age. It would be awesome, though, if somewhere down the track, there were a subtitle patch released. The good news is that future versions of the game are anticipated to come with subtitles.

Darkstar was released on November 5, 2010 through the Darkstar website and as a downloadable through Strategy First.

Jeffery and his merry men (and women) are to be commended for a truly ambitious project. Despite some obvious design flaws, this is a cinematic experience in the true sense of the word. Although I found it confusing, the backstory and exposition are second-to-none. This has been a labor of love for these guys, and it shows. More than ever, I am led to wonder how professionally-made, “big studio” games can be as mundane as they often are when a group of talented underfunded individuals can create something of such artistic merit.

This game is exactly what fans of FMV have been waiting for, with its depth of story and high-quality production across the board. This game deserves a B for most non-adventure gamers, an A- for fans of adventure games, and a solid A for people who rue the loss of FMV.

As mentioned, the game can be downloaded from StrategyFirst (www.strategyfirst.com/games/2538-darkstar.html) or a hard copy can be purchased from The DarkStar store (www.darkstarstore.com). The base price is $29.95, but there are many additional items that are available for purchase. I'm told popcorn isn't one of them!

Minimum System Requirements:
PC
* Windows XP/Vista/7
* Pentium 4 2.0 GHz or 100% compatible CPU
* 2 GB RAM
* 14 GB hard disk space
* DirectX 9.0c

Mac
* Macintosh OS 10.3.9 or higher
* Processor: Intel 1.8 Hz
* 2 GB RAM
* Memory: 2 GB RAM
* 14 GB hard disk space