How can you describe A Dark Room? It is truly unlike anything I've played before. The style is simple: black and white screens, all lowercase letters, just text and ASCII maps to move around. But the game designer was able to accomplish so much with those elements and you are drawn into the game so deeply that you feel like you are living it out. The game only takes 2-4 hours to playthrough, depending on the choices that you make, and I remember during my first playthrough being so immersed in the game that I pretty much finished it in one session, all the while my family went about their Saturday morning around me.
You play the main character, who at the beginning of the game wakes up not really remembering how they got there. A friend helps take care of you for a little bit, but shortly you are working together with her, collecting resources, crafting equipment and stepping out of your little camp to explore the world. You can recruit others to help you and you can also find resources out on the map, but you will have to fight your way through monsters and men to get them. The combat is RPG style, with you selecting an attack, then having a cool down period before you can pick another one. There are consequences to dying, but not so severe as to set you back much, rather you will just want to get out there and try again.
I'm struggling with what to write about this game without spoiling portions of it. Also, it is hard to compare it to anything because there is nothing quite like it. I would just recommend playing it for 10-15 minutes and I'm pretty sure you will be hooked after that.
There is some replayability to this game as well, after it is over the game suggests that you try again with a new strategy, one that I didn't even consider on my first run. Doing it this other way yields a very different experience and a different ending as well. Finally, after you beat the game you can read the designers' notes, which provide a lot of insight into what just happened.
This is one I might come back and give 5-stars to at some point, depending on how it grows on me and what it feels like playing it again after awhile.
EDIT 08/11/23: So this is me coming back to give this game 5 stars. It has really stuck with me. While it isn't IF in the traditional parser or choice-based style, I think the foundation and spirit of IF is there, along with some RPG elements. So many great things in this game. Worthy of a Top 50 vote.
This is a truly wonderful game. I don't give out five star ratings often and when I do it means that I'll be voting for it in the next IF Top 50 list that Victor Gijsbers complies every four years. That's how much I like it.
The game is set in a fairly standard fantasy-style world. It begins with you as a student at university on the day you have to pick your "major": Magic, History or Combat. Then the rest of the game spans the next 13 years of your life as you graduate, start your career, try to find love (as the author states, the game is part dating sim) and deal with whatever else life might throw your way.
I don't want to give anything else away without warning, but I have to discuss the plot and mechanics in more detail. Relatively minor spoilers to follow, I don't think your enjoyment of the game will be lessened by reading them before playing, but maybe go play the game for 15 minutes first and then come back and finish the review. ;-)
(Spoiler - click to show)
At the end of the 13 years on your first playthrough (there will be many), one of your old classmates, Jo, shows up to tell you that the world is ending. A magical comet will impact your world later that day just outside your city, destroying everything. Jo uses a relic, a magical stone/gem, to stop the comet, but they aren't satisfied. Other bad things happened over the past 13 years that they couldn't stop, and they think you can do better. So they use another relic to send you back in time to the beginning of the game, but with the knowledge of what is to come you have to find a way to save some, or all, of the world. From there you get to live your life again, and again, making different choices, learning what you can until you are able to stop the comet too. If you do then you've reached the end, but still the time-bending relic appears and you are given one more choice: be satisfied with what you've accomplish and stay in that timeline, or put your hand on the relic and start over again. Maybe next time instead of just averting disaster you can make a better life for others too. Maybe even find someone to spend the rest of your life with, after the comet is destroyed, that part of your life you haven't lived dozens of times over. Thus begins the real game.
I imagine that time-loop/"Groundhog Day"-esque games can get very cliched. And certainly this game doesn't really deviate from the usual tropes. What makes it great are two things: the emotion/heart of it (to be discussed more after I end the spoiler section) and the way that the author worked the puzzles into the game. Each playthrough you aren't just making life choices, you are trying to find new ways to discover knowledge, to learn the secrets you need to know to save the world. Discovering something on one playthrough will open up new options to you on the next. I'm not sure, but it seems that on some playthroughs, randomly or through some mechanism I didn't figure out, there are certain options available to you that aren't on other playthroughs. When those popped up the temptation for me to explore a never before taken path was too great and led to some really sweet moments. All in all, puzzling through how to construct my ideal timeline was fabulous and there were plenty of "Aha!" moments, more common to parser puzzlers, that gave me great enjoyment upon their discovery.
This game was marvelously implemented, the text always adapting to both what had happened recently and many cycles ago. I'd love to see how it was coded. It took me 21 lifetimes to figure out how to destroy the comet and an additional 8 on top of that to reach an ending where I was happy to stay.
What really makes this game great though is the heart of it and the emotions that it evokes. Usually, a game described as a "dating sim" would not be up my alley, but in this game it feels less like a gimmick to scratch a romantic itch and more just the tale of true human connection. And beyond romance, their are plenty of options for just making a friend, or helping strangers. Chances for selfishness and self-sacrifice. Triumph and sorrow at what your friends accomplish, and in how they choose to live and die. Every character has depth if you want to know it, and as you do you feel a real connection to this world.
As far as I can tell this game was just published unceremoniously to itch.io, not entered in any comps. This day in age it feels like any game that I play that wasn't entered in a comp is at least 10 (if not 40!) years old. I think this game would have had a great chance at winning any comp it had been entered in and it wouldn't surprise me to see it on the next Top 50 list!