Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder

Reviewed by  Mark Hasley

I recently completed another adventure game.  This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy, except that I really enjoyed this game.  I have been enjoying a lot of the newer games lately.  I seem to constantly be writing positive reviews and wonder if I have either lost my perceptions, lowered my standards, or simply stopped paying attention.  After letting these possibilities concern me for a while, I have simply come to the conclusion that I am, and all other adventure gamers are, lucky to be living in a time when adventure games and adventure gaming are on the upswing.  It seems to me that there are a lot of truly impressive, high quality games out there.  It further seems to me that Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder is simply another of those very good, very well made, and thoroughly entertaining games.  I will simply have to continue writing positive comments about new games until a lousy one comes along.  At any rate, I can without hesitation state that Darkness Within is another one that goes on my personal 'Keep and Replay' shelf.  It’s another excellent game.

The story is well crafted and takes place in the town of Wellsmoth.  The gamer takes on the character of Police Detective Howard Loreid.  It is rapidly shown that Detective Loreid has had some sort of breakdown, and is on some sort of leave from the police force.  Whether or not the breakdown was the result of the story being played, or was caused by some other occurrence, is a bit vague.  The vagueness is the result of the fact that, as the game begins, Howard talks in third person and tells his story as a series of flashbacks.  This is further complicated by that fact that he tells the story from his room in Wellsmoth Mental Institution.  He is, or at least may be, mentally unbalanced.  This becomes a factor in the game and further complicates the player’s decisions as to what to believe.  Crazy or not, Howard’s tale involves a murder and his attempt to solve it.  His most likely suspect appears to be a respected private detective named Loath Nolder.  From there the gamer, playing as Howard, becomes more and more deeply involved in a complex, weird, and eventually very frightening story that he can’t seem to quite solve.  Loreid begins as a seemingly normal detective doing normal police work.  However, as the clues slowly pile up, and the ideas and details become more and more complicated, the story moves from a simple murder mystery to another type of story entirely.  Since the entire game is based on and reflects the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (indeed he gets a credit at the end of the game), there is little doubt as to the type of story with which the player will wind up.  The joy and eerie excitement of getting to the end is what makes the game so much fun.

Once the game is begun, the ESC key is used to access the main menu.  Here there are the usual 'New Game, Load, Options, Credits, and Quit' buttons.  However, the 'Options' button opens several opportunities for individualization.  There are 'Video, Gameplay, Sound and Advanced' sections.  In the 'Video' section it is possible to adjust resolution, gamma correction, noise effects, full screen effects and an auto-configure setting.  The 'Gameplay' section allows a gamer to alter cursor style, mouse sensitivity, dialog speed and choose to watch some tutorials.  There are three separate 'Sound' adjustments available.  There is even an 'Advanced' option section that allows the adjustment of particles, shader effects, glow effects and antialiasing.  (I’m sure that these latter settings are extremely important, but I have no idea what they accomplish.  I left them all at the default spots and therefore can provide little additional information.)  There was no setting to choose the option of subtitles, but they do appear.  I assume that they are automatic and cannot be removed.  In honesty I like having subtitles, so I didn’t work very hard at getting rid of them.  There are also fifty save slots available.  They can be written over.  I do not play for very long chunks of time, but I found the fifty slots to be more than enough.  Once the game starts, there is one more adjustment required.  The player must choose to play at a particular degree of difficulty.  His options are either the 'Standard' (with immediate hints and research available), 'Detective' (with hints that are shown later in the game), or 'Senior Detective' (with no hints available).

Obviously, this is a wonderful game for any player who loves to tweak a game to its electronic perfection.  I am not the kind of ‘computerite’ who knows what all of those terms mean, but there is a lot available to adjust.  I played the entire game as 'Detective', with only minor sound adjustments, and was more than happy with the results.

Once all of the adjustments are made and the game is actually played, it’s fairly straightforward, but still quite interesting.  As noted before, the game is, at its simplest, an old-fashioned point and click game.  Of course, the developers have seen fit to add lots of clever and entertaining 'doodads' that add to the enjoyment of the game.  A simple right click causes the inventory bar to appear at the top of the screen.  Any item in the inventory can be examined and may also be placed on the 'Examination Board' (my term) and turned right, left, up or down.  This is often helpful, and a few times it is absolutely necessary.

As the game proceeds, there are a lot of clues discovered.  These consist of, but are not limited to, things that Howard actually sees, items found and placed in the inventory, and a large number of documents that must be carefully read and completely examined.  As the player reads the documents, it is often necessary to use a special stylus to underline parts of those documents in order to learn which items mentioned are really important clues, and which items are simply parts of the ongoing narrative.  Most uniquely, there is a 'Think' icon (in the shape of a brain, of course) that allows the gamer to combine all types of clues in such a way as to develop a completely new clue.  This clue will then be posted, with all the other clues, on the sheet of information that stays in the inventory.  As I reread all of this, I recognize that it sounds a bit cumbersome.  Be assured that in the context of the game it all seemed natural, logical and simply fun.  When I came to understand that I needed to combine several different ideas in order to develop another clue, and that only then could I directly solve an element of the case, it added a good deal of realism to the game.  It seemed to be exactly what a real detective would do and, in fact, it seemed to be what I always have done with a white legal pad and a large group of sharpened pencils.

The game seems to be a fairly linear one, which can cause some minor confusion.  There appear to be a number of points in the game that must be completed in order to trigger the next step.  That means that the gamer can go all over the place, but can only go to the specific next place after certain functions have been accomplished.  This can get a bit confusing, since some areas and ideas that weren’t active or usable before they are triggered can be active after the trigger point is reached.  The gamer sometimes has to go back to the same spot a few times.  But the travel part of the game is easily accomplished since there is one of those maps with spots on it that, when clicked, zaps Detective Howard to that spot.  This technique has been used in dozens of games, and is always welcome to me.  It’s especially helpful toward the end of the game when the player doesn’t want to wander on foot any more.  He just wants to get to the conclusion.

As is usually the case in games that I really like, the various elements of mood and tone are extremely well executed in Darkness Within.  The music is eerily perfect, and changes from serious to weird to frightening in exactly the proper places.  There were several times when I knew that I was being manipulated, was fully aware that the sounds I was hearing were responsible for the nervous flutters I was getting, and yet I still didn’t want to go through that door (there are a lot of doors).  The ambient and background noises were equally worrisome and creepy.  The majority of the game is played while searching old houses, ancient tunnels and caves, and at least one old graveyard.  All through these locations floors creak wonderfully, hinges squeak eerily, water drips gloomily, and things really do "go bump in the night".  The graphics add to this whole sensation, because they are meticulously detailed and quite dark.  Detective Loreid, and therefore the player, can’t always be sure what he’s seeing even as he is looking at it.

While I have spent a lot of time on the technology of the game, please remember that it is based on the stories of H. P. Lovecraft.  The gamer will find himself exquisitely immersed in the frighteningly Victorian settings that not only Lovecraft, but also Poe, Doyle, and so many other authors loved so much and developed so well.  Every building, indeed every room, is so carefully detailed that as the player proceeds from spot to spot, his nerves thump a bit and very often he doesn’t want to enter the next dark, gloomy, scary room.  The graphics provide such a magnificently creepy setting that several times I had all the feeling that I used to have as a child when, on the movie screen, Vincent Price or Peter Cushing was about to do something really evil.  I knew I wouldn’t actually see the bad parts, but I also knew it was going to be really horrible.  There are very few exterior scenes in this game, but those that do appear are equally grim and gloomy.  The weather is always dark, gray and somehow foreboding.  There are also a number of brief episodes where Howard is sleeping and the game is played in his nightmare (I know it sounds weird, but it works...  I promise).  These scenes are quite vague, blurry, and nightmarish.

I’ve always found it difficult to explain why some of these scary games work and some don’t, but it is probably the details and how the developers tie everything in together.  A specific example in this game is, believe it or not, the lampshades.  In one of the first houses that the player enters and searches, the oppressive gloom is really obvious.  After a while I noticed that at least part of the eerie feeling was caused by the music, added to the dark gloomy colors and lighting, and the spider webs all over the place.  I then realized that there really weren’t any spider webs.  It was just that all the lampshades were of a particular net covered design.  As the light shined through the shade, the net design shown on the walls.  It looked like spider webs.  It was a simple and even a silly effect, but perfect in the context of that specific old house.  These kinds of details appeared throughout the game.  As strange as this sounds, even the various fonts used in the many documents seemed perfect.  They were always appropriately old-fashioned and slightly offbeat.  The appearance of the document always reflected the messages in them.  I’ve become rather picky about detail and anachronisms, but found very little to question here.  The game simply looked and sounded exquisitely frightening.  The details added to those feelings and never detracted.

As far as the puzzles go, when described as a practical matter they weren’t very unique.  There were inventory puzzles, a few sound puzzles and lots of documents to read and figure out.  There was the usual preponderance of all kinds of keys in all kinds of places.  There was one really entertaining circle combination puzzle that took me two frustrating but pleasant days to figure out.  Even more interesting were several 'go to the inventory pages and combine clues' puzzles.  These were impressive because not only could the player combine 'things', but he also had to combine thoughts, things he’d seen, and ideas he’d gleaned from the readings.  This was all done on a special inventory page with a ‘Think’ icon.  I found these puzzles and this idea a great deal of fun even though they were reasonably difficult at times.  As in all really good adventure games, the puzzles never really stuck out as arbitrary puzzles.  They were perfectly meshed into the context of the story and the pace of the gamer.  When I had to open a specific drawer to get a key, it was because I needed that key at that time.  When I finally found a document, it was the document I had been looking for.  The puzzles were found in the spots they should have been found, and the solutions to the problems were all reasonable.  Even the various documents, which sometimes had to be read carefully and be underlined with that special device in order to find the precise clues mentioned above, seemed well done.  I missed a few ‘hidden clues’, but tended to find correct ones with little problem.  All in all, I found the puzzles to be of varying but reasonable difficulty, well fit into the game, never boring or insulting, and generally very well done.

One item of gameplay that seemed really pointless was the fact that the game keeps score.  Since I purposely avoid reading the game manuals if it is possible (and it was in this case), I had no idea that there was a score being tabulated while I played.  It seems that speed, the number of clues discovered, and the number of ‘secret clues’ are all combined into some fractional score.  The player’s score is posted at the end of the credits, but doesn’t seem to make any difference to the playing of the game.  I never discovered why score was kept or if there was a prize.  All I can figure is that there are people who like to rather arbitrarily keep score.

I did have a few minor quibbles with the game.  It is one of those games that require specific triggers to set the next step in motion.  That means that every once in awhile the player has to return to a spot or item that is active now, but wasn’t when the player was there earlier.  That situation can be a bit irksome.  I also found that some of the documents (there are many of them) were far more complicated than they needed to be.  The player in this game rapidly comes to understand that all of the notes and letters must be read and evaluated with extreme care.  When that isn’t really necessary, the extra work seems somehow unfair.  My only other concern is really a puzzle, not a problem.  The game is set in the year 2011 and I never understood why.  There is not even a hint of science fiction about the game.  There is not a hint of a future.  Indeed all of the material that is dealt with is quite old.  I did spend much of the game wondering why this is when it is.  I really never got an answer.

My final problem with this game is a problem I’ve had with lots of adventure games but have never written about before.  When the player goes into all of these old, abandoned, molding, and beat up structures, how is it that someone has always been there, just prior to his arrival, and has lit hundreds of candles or dozens of torches?  Every time Howard goes to a house or building, he has already learned that the people are gone or dead, but the rooms are lit with candles and lanterns of every shape, color, and size.  Why don’t some of these old places burn down?  Most people don’t care about this, and perhaps I shouldn’t either, but I thought I’d mention it.

That then is Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder.  It is a pleasantly gloomy, wonderfully eerie game with a fine story, excellent details, and reasonable difficult puzzles.  It has a few new and unique elements, while it utilizes old elements very nicely indeed.  It is a truly fine game that provides excellent value for the cost.  Rumor control says that the company is planning two more of these ‘Lovcraftian’ games.  I will keep this one to replay, and will be anticipating the other two until they arrive in the marketplace.  If anyone likes a creepily good pure adventure game, Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder is for them.

©  April 2008  Mark Hasley

Full View Screenshot

Visit the  Official Darkness Within Website  to learn more about the game, enjoy a video trailer, download a demo and see more fantastic screenshots.

Developed (2007) by  Zoetrope Interactive  and published by  Lighthouse Interactive.

Rated:   T   for Teen 13+  (mild blood, violent references)

Minimum System Requirements:  Windows

Where To Buy This Game:

Walkthroughs or Hints:

"MaGtRo's Walkthrough" available here!

Mr. Bill's  Adventureland
Copyright © April 2008
All Rights Reserved