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About the Story
Long forgotten proceedings have changed the coastal area north of Altenkirchen forever. Now, almost a century later, the proceedings have begun again. You're about to discover the sinister secrets of this place where the wild north sea meets the last tails of the headland.
21st place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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As D'ARKUN combines horror and mystery, which are two of my least preferred genres, I'll mention I still enjoyed it, because it gave me several good chances to. I'll tackle the programming side first. On realizing D'ARKUN was, in fact, in Dialog, I realized it was the first Dialog game I played. I had clear chances, since others have appeared in IFComp. I left my first run-through thinking "Wow! How did the author do that?" to some parts I found unusually smooth. Now the programming side is well more than competent. It certainly gave me ideas of stuff to do in Inform. And I think Dialog uses very well the information of what programmers need and use from the Z-machine, as well as more data on what players find improves their own experience. So Dialog and such aren't bound to support arcane ways of doing things just because Infocom did it that way, when maybe Infocom only did it that way due to hardware limitations. Hooray, progress!
But there's neat stuff which the author seems to deserve credit for. The big boost I saw in D'ARKUN was the "find" command, which helps make a big in-game world such as D'ARKUN feel much more accessible. FIND X moves you to X's location, if you can make it there. This is something I implemented as a debug command in some games, but it was tricky, and it felt smooth here. It even rejected my attempts when I dropped climbing gear needed to bridge gaps or travel between towns. This all set the table for a much more pleasant experience than I feared, but it would have been good in Inform as well.
D'ARKUN takes place in a small set of villages near the north tip of what was formerly East Germany–a great spot for an obscure, distant cult to take hold and go about their business for years without anyone noticing. You generally ride your bike between them – I'd have liked maybe a menu or shortcuts here so I didn't have to type "ride to altenkirchen," but I did enjoy not having to do this too much. Though I was maybe sort of hoping for nudges to say, okay, you spent enough time here.
After a good competent start on my part, I went to the walkthrough very early on this one. Enough was signposted in the game and not the walkthrough that I enjoyed reading the auxiliary materials that popped up to give atmosphere. They provided stronger atmosphere than some passive verb construction during action sequences ("some hands are grabbing you") – which looks like a translation thing that's easily fixed. And I think sometimes it was hard to follow the why's of the walkthrough. I had to search instead of look at a lot of things. HINT mentions this, but still, it was a bit of a nuisance to me and one of the relics of ancient text adventures that is on the author and not Dialog.
The puzzles that appeared were not super-esoteric. A lot revolved around using the climbing gear judiciously. But stuff like mixing the right liquid for the final bit felt like trial and error. Still, once I dropped down into the final tomb-ish area that there seemed no way back from, it was appropriately creepy, and the escape was believable. The bad guy was, indeed, bad (a variant on "What you think is evil is actually power you're just too scared to use" that always seems to be effective) and information along the way built up to who he was and what he was trying to do. Diaries scattered around also gave me an idea of past events, and perhaps the most interesting part for me was a chair you could sit in for a psycholgogical evaluation, which was simultaneously creepy and useful.
I'm at a loss to say too much about mystery/horror games, as I don't really grok their conventions and so forth. Other reviewers note D'ARKUN is even more in the Anchorhead vein than I'd guessed, while still being its own game. I can't say, because I haven't played Anchorhead--in fact, Cragne Manor with a walkthrough was enough for me! But D'ARKUN plus a walkthrough (even one that doesn't get all the points) worked as a positive experience for me, as an outsider. The password-protected PDF, of a map you unlock on your second day (D'ARKUN uses sleeping after performing tasks as a way to provide chapter breaks of a sort,) is a neat way to make sure people don't spoil too much too quickly. I did find the light-requiring puzzles tricky given the time you could keep the lamp lit. I wound up save-and-restoring, even with the refill I found later. But they weren't too bad, and I was able to accept not seeing a lot of the game beyond the walkthrough that got you half the points. I had some idea of places I hadn't explored, and the ending was satisfying enough.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
I’m bummed I already brought up the comparison in my Ghosts Within review, because now that I’ve played D’ARKUN, I’m turning into the Boy Who Cried Anchorhead. The similarity is even clearer this time out, though, as while the former game had a dreamlike vibe very much its own, in this long Dialog game we’re firmly in remixed Lovecraft-plot territory. There’s a decayed mansion with secret passages a-plenty (including an attic telescope), a seaside town with more than its share of creepy inhabitants, nightmares that grow worse as the days go by, a wicked inheritance dredging the sins of the past into the present day, and – natch – tentacles galore. While D’ARKUN has its weak spots, with a thinner-than-it-needed-to-be story and some underclued puzzles in the back half, it very much scratches that old Mythos itch.
Starting with that plot, the impetus for getting the protagonist to this accursed stretch of the German coastline is a new one on me – your student character is on vacation and managed to rent the world’s worst Airbnb – but after an eldritch encounter all thoughts of relaxation are put aside as you start delving into the mysteries of your rented house. This shift happens too abruptly for my taste, as there isn’t much time spent establishing why you’re suddenly climbing down cliff-faces and looking behind paintings, except that there’s not much else to do to pass the time (if the cosmic horrors hadn’t materialized, one wonders how you’d have spent your holiday).
Exploration is almost immediately rewarding, though, and it’s just fun to find a madman’s scrawled notes or hidden compartments in the family mausoleum. This first half of the game is well paced too, as new locations gradually open up as the clock moves forward (the accompanying map is really evocative), and you work through satisfying puzzles that aren’t too tricky: there’s a well-implemented set of climbing gear that allows you to clamber around obstacles, and while there are some objects that require SEARCHing to find, the ABOUT text gives fair warning. There is a tricky light puzzle, where you need to make good use of the handful of turns your lantern has before it runs out of oil, but copious use of UNDO saw me through.
I found the second half didn’t fully pay off the promising opening, though. Partially this is due to the implementation starting to feel less polished: I started running into disambiguation issues, there are some guess the verb issues (figuring out how to use the syringe was tortuous), and to get to one location I think you have to type RIDE TO SIEBENSCHIEDERSTEIN, which should never be required of any player. There are also more NPCs to deal with, and they’re drawn rather thinly, without many dialogue options or much in the way of interactivity to make them feel like anything other than contrivances. Beyond implementation, the clueing also starts to get thinner: there’s a puzzle involving getting past a guard that feels like it involves reading the author’s mind, a maze that has a clever twist but will probably get brute-forced, and at another point progress requires you to get into what looks like an unwinnable situation and spend several turns waiting before a deus ex machina rescues you, rather than undoing or restoring to safety.
More impactfully, I didn’t feel like the plot really cohered. It gestures in the direction of enough Lovecraftian tropes that I can see where things are meant to be going – there’s a horrifying ritual, an extradimensional temple, a surprise or two – but the stakes are sketchy, both for the world as a whole but also for your character. A bit more polish and a bit more focus on the subjectivity of the protagonist would have made D’ARKUN a very worthy Anchorhead-alike; as it is, it’s a good time but requires the player to fill in some blanks.
Highlight: the creepy mansion is a good example of the genre; it’s not too big, but dense with creepy scenery and not-too-tough exploration puzzles.
Lowlight the recipe puzzle is neat in theory, but required more trial and error than I wanted – there are clues helping you figure out what the mixture is supposed to look like, but there’s some vagueness in the puzzle (Spoiler - click to show)(I got the potion to look “shiny”, as the notes said, but still needed to add another dose of the relevant ingredient) that made it unsatisfying to solve.
How I failed the author: this is a long one and it took me a couple days to work through it, so that’s perhaps contributed to my feeling that it’s a bit scattershot.
Looking at the map of this game, I thought it would be a decent length, not too unwieldy, especially given the brisk pace up to the point where the map turned up. Instead, I felt it was fairly expansive. Not because there are so many locations, but because of the amount of exploration needed to thoroughly interact with each area. I was really enjoying the puzzles, and I felt like they were just the right difficulty for me. I first became frustrated when I realized that the "examine" command wasn't revealing everything about the places and objects. Instead, you had to use "search" in some situations to know if you could interact or not. Sometimes the two were interchangeable, sometimes completely different, which means you have to try both on everything. I'm not sure if this was intentional, because it doesn't seem like it's reflected in the walkthrough. The game felt like it got harder as it went, and I started to check the hints and then the walkthrough with increasing frequency. There were places where the directions each one gives didn't match up. I did like the hint system, but sometimes the way it was worded caused me to misunderstand what I had to do. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) at one point, the hint reads that you have to look at the bottom of a statue for a way to activate an exit. I tried many, many commands before I found out that I needed to visit another location first. Using the command "look" never actually does anything. I was way over my head by the third act, struggling to know what my objective was or what area to revisit. I enjoyed the story, but even though it included horror elements and gloomy locations, I didn't really feel a sense of immersion. It felt more like an intellectual exercise than writing that creates a mood. I got the impression that a translation caused some unusual phrasings, and possibly compromised the effectiveness of some descriptions. My favorite parts were interacting with the NPCs who are able to provide some background information. There were also numerous written documents you could collect, and they all added to the story nicely. Still, I feel like I should have had more of a visceral response to this piece given the sorts of things it describes. To me, the very best games create an atmosphere or a feeling, and wanting to re-experience those sensations again is what motivates me to replay them. I was hoping "D'Arkun" would be one of those, but for me, it wasn't.
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