Developer: Homegrown Games
How can you criticise a game that's purposefully designed to be crap?
I asked myself that question several times while playing Into The Dark, an indie horror FPS from Austrian studio Homegrown Games. Knowing that their low-budget title (built using FPS Creator, no less) would probably attract a lot of flack for being rough around the edges, the canny team decided to embrace their lack of resources as an opportunity rather than a hurdle. Into The Dark was therefore billed as a B-Movie grindhouse homage, which was nothing less than a stroke of genius.
The hammier the voice acting is, the more authentic it becomes. The less realistic the monsters and models are, not to mention the special effects, the better the pastiche. As the jokes get more painful and the source material reaches for increasingly offensive and exploitative references, Into The Dark becomes better, not worse.
But here's the problem. Even if Homegrown Games succeed in their mission statement, they'll still have produced a bad game. The big question, therefore, is whether Into The Dark is "so bad, it's actually good."
Players assume the role of Peter "Pete" O`Brannon, a disgraced ex-cop who ekes out a living as a private eye for an insurance claims adjuster. However, in fine grindhouse style, his latest investigation into a mysterious scientist quickly descends into an outrageous battle against mutants, conspiracies and zombies galore. Trawling through some fairly expansive levels, you'll be attacked from all sides by the hellacious hordes, fending them off with all manner of firearms and occasionally being bushwhacked by some nasty jump scares.
You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll kiss fifteen quid goodbye. A host of titilating secrets and Easter eggs are also up for grabs for dedicated adventurers, not to mention references to all manner of bizarre and exploitative things. Zombie strippers. Black and white pornography. Tentacle hentai. McGuyver. It's all here.
Some of these moments are incredibly effective (for the record, I jumped and laughed out loud a couple of times), but behind the schlock-horror trappings, Homegrown Games had some seriously big ideas for Into The Dark.
Levels can be approached with either brains or brawn - though you can optionally batter your way through it with simple gunplay, the instruction manual hints at a world of possibilities and puzzles. Perhaps you can bypass a difficult battle by clearing a cluttered shortcut with explosives? Maybe you could learn Latin to teach yourself the ability to resurrect the dead? Depending on your approach, you'll learn different perks and change the strength of future enemies, thus granting you even more options in later levels.
In theory, this should have been brilliant. On paper, it should have worked. In practice... it's totally awful.
Most of Into The Dark's puzzles are awkward, backtracking-heavy affairs that are either incredibly unintuitive or aggravatingly finicky to pull off - making steaming through the enemy hordes with a shotgun infinitely preferable. Especially since the shotgun appears to have infinite ammo (a glitch, perhaps?). Perks, such as necromancy, might be fun when you accidentally discover how to use them, but they're barely-explained and all too easy to overlook. There's apparently even a sanity system at play here... but I couldn't work out what it affects or how it's integrated into the gameplay experience despite hours of trying. Into The Dark's best ideas are thoroughly wasted, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
For £15, Into The Dark is insultingly primitive. Enemies appear out of thin air before your very eyes, showing no hint of intelligence and spouting continually-repeated voice samples. Level geometry is hilariously boxy and bland, exhibiting numerous clipping problems all the while. Spelling errors are rife. Lines of dialogue often overrun, resulting in a jumbled garble of noise. It also looks pretty dull; though decent by FPS Creator standards, it's a symphony of greys and browns, all muddy textures and rectangular rooms.
Every time you almost manage to engage with Into The Dark, whether its on a humorous or horror level, its cheap and nasty design manages to pull you right out of the experience. Most of the time it isn't "so good it's bad," instead, it's just bad.
Hammering through the campaign as quickly as possible will also help to bypass some of the most offensive aspects of its design and presentation. The voice acting is probably the worst I have ever encountered in my entire gaming life (let alone my stint as a critic), which is absolutely fine for a while. After all, plenty of old B-Movies featured terrible delivery from hopeless actors, which was part of their charm. Listening to O'Bannon phonetically stumble through his lines with nary a hint of emotion might be fun at first, but after an hour, you'll be good and ready to lobotomise yourself with the nearest blunt instrument to hand.
Since Homegrown Games are an Austrian studio, I suspect that the German language version will be much more competent.
Despite the commercial GamersGate version being much more stable than my borderline-unplayable review build (sorry for the delay: I had to abandon it), Into The Dark is still chock-full of glitches; from dead save files to your gun jamming if you try to reload or fire it during cutscenes. I frequently found myself falling through floors or being dumped to desktop at the game over screen despite following the manual's advice to the letter, losing upwards of 20 minutes of progress in the process. I always attempt to take an indie game's humble origins into account, but there comes a point when I can't recommend spending good money on broken product.
It's likely that Into The Dark will attract a cult following over the coming months (especially in Europe), and that there'll be no shortage of people willing to tell me that I've made a mistake - or worse, that I don't "get" it. For the record, I have a special place in my heart dedicated to awful old movies and understand what Homegrown Games were trying to achieve, but ultimately, I'd like to conclude with one simple fact.
For £15, you deserve a better game than this.
- Some effective jump scares and humourous touches
- No shortage of hilarious (if exploitative) jokes, secrets and Easter eggs
- A few great ideas shine through from time to time
- Cheap and nasty gameplay experience; action is painfully mediocre at best
- Wasted adventure/puzzling aspects, perks and abilities poorly-explained
- Woefully weak sound design and voice acting
- Drab, nasty and primitive visuals, major clipping issues
- Glitchy, buggy, awkward and horrendous value at RRP
The Short Version: Into The Dark hides behind its grindhouse B-Movie pretensions as an excuse for dismayingly shoddy design and presentation. Some good ideas are wasted by awful execution, resulting in a game that wants you to love it more than you'll realistically ever be able to.
Even though I'm a massive fan of bad exploitative movies and I appreciate what Homegrown Games tried to achieve, I simply can't bring myself to recommend Into The Dark. You're better off using the £15 RRP to buy Re-Animator and spend the change on a superior indie title.