I’ve heard of vampires having problems entering homes, seeing their reflections in mirrors, and cleansing their sins with holy water, but I’ve never seen one fumble with the simple act of biting a person’s neck like Dark’s Eric Bane does.
Bane is an unintentional vampire parody. When he feeds, he generates loud slurping sounds and splashes blood all over, alerting anyone nearby. When he runs, he clops along like a Clydesdale on a city street, again drawing suspicion. When he flees from the guards he alerts, he can transform into smoke and float up to a building’s second story – but he doesn’t have the athletic ability to jump over a two-foot-high barrier, often leaving him cornered and riddled with hot lead.
In fairness to Bane, when we first meet him, he’s stumbling around a nightclub with no knowledge of who he is or why he’s there. He’s not a blackout drunk; he’s a newly turned vampire who can’t remember his past – an unfortunate side effect that affects most new recruits. As luck would have it, the nightclub is a sanctuary for vampires. Everyone on staff is a fellow bloodsucker, and they help Bane find his footing. Before he can truly grasp what has happened to him, the nightclub’s staff issues him a warning: If he doesn’t drink the blood of the vampire who bit him, he’ll transform into a ghoul. The kicker: Bane has no idea whose fangs were in his neck.
The game clings for dear life to Bane’s desire to not turn into a ghoul. Hunting down the creature who ruined your life is a fine plot point, but the pursuit is muddied before it even gets underway. Within the same conversation where Bane learns of his fate, the nightclub's owner, Rose, suggests he drink the blood of "an ancient and powerful vampire" instead. That might work, she says.
From this point on, Bane’s quest turns into a typical video game boss hunt, with a new ancient vampire waiting for him at the conclusion of each level. The story that accompanies this journey turns into an abysmally long slog, free of character development and points of intrigue. The narrative’s only entertaining aspect is the horrible dialogue. In one conversation I had with Tom Barner, the nightclub’s head of security, I was informed that “the cool thing about vampires is we can do some pretty cool s---,” Tom’s vampire power is his ability to “see through s---,” and ancient vampires “can do some really kinky s---, man.” Bane is a giggle-worthy tool himself, saying “Pretty. Pretty,” when he looks upon a statue of two topless women holding each other seductively.
Dark would have been better off if all Bane did was walk around and comment on his surroundings. Controlling the clumsiest vampire in existence is a challenge, to say the least. Since his fangs are new, he really isn’t capable of much. He’s forced to hide the entire time. Yes, this is a stealth game starring a vampire with the finesse of Robocop.
Like most titles of the stealth variety, Bane cowers behind a sea of waist-high structures that litter most of the environments. Enemies patrol most of these areas, making it a game of waiting, observing patrol patterns, and striking at the right time. When Bane sneaks up on an adversary, tapping the A button kills them (usually with an overly dramatic move like a backflip kick to their face), and holding A feeds on them.
Who is our vampire protagonist hiding from? Mostly security guards, including those wandering the halls of a green environmental company. Their boss is overly intent on protecting this company’s shrubs, barking an order to “shoot first and ask questions later” to his underlings. Later, Bane confronts vampire hunters outfitted with high-tech Iron Man-like armor, and ghouls that look menacing but are hardly ever a threat.
All of the enemy types move along their paths slowly, and their AI can be erratic, especially if they are alerted of your presence. One foe heard me feeding on one of his security friends and yelled, “I’ll get you,” but rather than shooting at me, he turned around, pointed his machine gun at a cupboard, and stopped moving altogether. I finished devouring his comrade, then drank his blood next. Another enemy in the same area managed to get stuck on a chair. Rather than attempting another route to free himself, his legs glitched out and flopped around like octopus tentacles. I made a run for him, but he shot me dead from his floating position.
The AI isn’t the only game-breaking force working against Bane. In the environmental company stage, he sneaks undetected to a UV light generator. His goal is to shut it down, but he instead stops dead in his tracks, holds a finger up to his ear to activate his phone, and talks to his assistant for a good 20 seconds. I lost control of him at this point, yet the enemy AI remained on patrol. One guard stopped right in front of me with his gun held up to my chest. When the conversation ended and control was handed back to me, the guard opened fire and I died in a flash.
Yes, these moments are infuriating, but they can also work to the player's advantage. If a hallway is designated as a waypoint, and Bane can reach it, he’ll almost always trigger a story break. When he’s talking, bullets no longer affect him. In one such instance, three enemies who were unloading rounds in front of Bane magically disappeared, and he was granted safe passage to the next room.
Most mission objectives push Bane to reach new areas. He’s periodically asked to do some incredibly dumb things, like create a distraction by placing smoke bombs in trashcans. Nothing says badass vampire like a carefully placed smoke bomb, folks.
When Bane flees from conflict, the enemies stay on alert for approximately 90 seconds. That’s a long time to cower behind one object, hoping the security team doesn’t investigate your area. In my first few hours of play, I found safe locations to hide in until the alerts ended. Some of these locations are rooms that the enemy cannot enter. They aren’t vampire safe havens, or areas the enemy shouldn’t be able to reach, but rather zones the enemy isn’t programmed to interact with. Their pathing ends at the doorway. So there they stand, peering in, almost looking as adorable as a dog sitting at the window as its owner drives away.
I got a big kick out of these moments. When the alert ends, all of the enemies who are standing by the door turn around and walk back to their designated paths. Bane can quietly sneak out of the room and pick them off one by one as they head back to their areas.
Bane’s stealthy maneuvering (or the players’ ability to cheese their way through situations) nets skill points that can be exchanged for new vampiric powers, and upgrades to passive and inherent powers. Beefing up Bane’s arsenal takes the bite out of the brutal difficulty, mostly because powers make it easier for the player to exploit the enemy AI or thin the herds upon detection.
I grew particularly fond of the shadow grip ability, which chokes foes from a distance. I also invested my points into quieting Bane’s footsteps (even at the max level, he’s still a noisy fool), speeding up his sneaking, and upping the number of powers that can be stored and unleashed. The bad news: Most of these upgrades are locked until the final acts.
Vampire vision turns the screen into a painful sea of color. You'll need to use it frequently.
Powers are effective, but cannot be spammed since developer Realmforge put a cooldown timer on their usage. The waiting period is not as long as the alert status, but it does make Bane look like an inept vampire, incapable of doing anything without having to take a breather between actions. Furthermore, Bane can only use a power if he has a filled Vitae meter. Vitae is only obtained by drinking the blood of enemies, or ordering a Bloody Mary from the nightclub. If Bane doesn’t have Vitae, he’s just an ordinary guy hiding behind cover.
Speaking of the Bloody Mary, Reamforge included a recipe for this drink in the game’s manual. I mixed one up. It’s tasty, and oddly enough, the best thing to come out Dark’s packaging.
I’ve played a lot of bad Xbox 360 games for achievements, but hardly any are as unpolished and poorly executed as Dark. It’s easily one of this generation’s worst titles. Even when the stealth is working moderately well, the slow pacing is a killer, and no amount of blood sucking brings satisfaction. Most levels were completed through trial and error, failure after failure, and then success coming from exploiting an AI bug or an odd design decision.
The entire experience concludes in a fitting way: with Bane running in circles against a boss. He cannot raise a fist against this menacing figure. He can only run in circles. Before long, the credits roll, and the cowardly vampire vanishes, leaving nothing but misery and shame in his wake.