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Friday, May 17, 2024

Dark and Darker proves extraction shooters don’t have to be shooters at all

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I’ve never much liked FPSes, but I’ve put up with them for years because what I do like are team deathmatches and battle royales and PvPvE extraction. These formats are almost exclusively found in shooters, so I’ve resigned myself to Warzone 2 with my crew even if gunplay will never be my forte. Dark and Darker—an old school style RPG dungeon crawler with sword and board combat, magic, class levelling, looting, and is also a co-op extraction game—was made specifically for me. And not just me, evidently, as its open alpha is currently one of the most-played games on Steam.

Dark and Darker calls itself “unforgiving” and “hardcore” first and foremost and after I immediately died to sword-wielding skeletons in my first few runs before ever having the privilege of being killed by a player, I’m inclined to agree. (The tutorial does note that a lower, “normal” difficulty is not yet in the alpha.) 

In extraction game fashion, you’ll fight and loot AI enemies like skeletons, spiders, and mummies as you explore its two current maps, competing with other players to escape through exfil portals as a circle of “dark swarm” closes in around the dungeon. You can queue up for solos in the Goblin Cave map, take a party of up to three into the Forgotten Castle, or pay a 100 gold ante for the high risk, high loot version of the castle.

As the fighter class, I’ll start most rounds with the default sword, shield, and torch, loot a nearby chest in hopes of some boots or a helmet, and then get on with killing the closest AI baddies. If I’m lucky, I’ll amass a small handful of gold trinkets and miscellaneous weaponry to jam in my inventory Tetris-ed pockets. If I die I lose it all, but if I manage to worm my way through the oppressively narrow corridors, floor spike traps, and other players I have a shot at locating a glowing blue stone on the floor that will open an exit portal. (Be aware, co-op folks; these things admit one person only, not the whole squad, which seems quite stingy for a game best played with pals.) You can also take a red glowing portal to head deeper into the dungeon for further challenges and rewards, but I’ve not gotten that brave yet.

Things get a bit less harrowing in a well-balanced trio of Fighter, Cleric, and Wizard, (or Barbarian, Rogue, or Ranger) but even so, death is only a couple missteps away in Dark and Darker’s classically claustrophobic dungeons, which make me miss the open air of other PvPvE romps.

If I do escape, I immediately sell all my loot in the merchant menu and shove the gold coins in my stash while I take on the next run wearing only what I brought out on my back. This is where Dark and Darker is most similar to Escape From Tarkov; buying incrementally better gear from merchants and working towards permanent class upgrades is a familiar grind. I’m not one to throw around the word “Sisyphean” but the threat of my loot boulder tumbling down the hill seems even greater than other extraction games. Instead, I strive towards level-gated perk slot upgrades and swapping my active skills for the Fighter and Rogue characters I’m levelling.

The malaise of melee 

Dark and Darker’s first-person melee combat is a bit like Skyrim—slash, step back, slash, block, get hit with an arrow despite blocking, repeat. It means I spend a lot of time doing that W and S waltz with a skeleton while knowing I may stumble backwards into an enemy player (or hell, just a closed door) and have my run cut short. Weapons have a series of automatic combos indicated by your reticle—diagonal right, diagonal left, then a thrust for the sword a Fighter starts with—so it’s above the monotony of yon Tamriel melee, but not as skill-based as Chivalry 2.

That’s the common denominator in my complaints so far. Dark and Darker’s punishing enemy damage, from AI and players, demands a lot more skill than its combat system allows me to exert. This is no Chivalry 2, nor a FromSoftware game. Every fight I’ve been in so far has been clumsy—unwieldy brutes slowly sidestepping while weapons collide with walls, barrels, and sometimes what I was actually aiming at. The fact that there’s no way to fully block an attack (at least with base-level gear) means the first one to land a hit is probably going to win, and so far, that means archers are very powerful. I’ve died often, and though I’m prone to hubris, even I feel the skill ceiling pressing down on the back of my neck. 

Dark and Darker’s clunky brawls make me a bit wistful for the FPS games I dislike, in fact. My preferred sword and sorcery genre doesn’t have the same history of competing corporations squeezing yearly online PvP releases out of a popular series. There are few accepted standards for melee combat in the way of commonly understood “good gunfeel.” I want to imagine what Dark and Darker would play like if the likes of Torn Banner, FromSoft, and TaleWorlds had a decade-long arms race over sword combat dominance in the 2010s.

In any case, it’s not fair to heap those expectations at the feet of a studio launching its first game, even one comprised of a “merry band of veteran game developers” as Ironmace calls itself. It’s a ways off being a blueprint for the future, but the staggering number of folks jumping in to try it gives me hope that Ironmace will massage Dark and Darker into something genuinely enviable.

Despite the constant death and the slightly stodgy swordplay, I’m going to clock several more evenings of co-op with friends or randoms during Dark and Darker’s alpha, which will remain open until February 13 as part of Steam Next Fest. Its prior test ran from December 16–26, so I’ll have to hope that another isn’t too far away in the spring. 

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