Review: Darkest of Days (Xbox 360, PC)

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As an aspiring physics teacher, playing through Darkest of Days reminded me of a philosophy of education lecture that I’ve recently sat in on.  For two hours, the professor talked about John Dewey — an influential American philosopher — and planning.  John Dewey is best known for his pieces about educational reform.  Specifically, the professor talked about the importance of planning when implementing a certain method in teaching and the difference between “doing the right thing” and “doing things right[ly].”

In video games, when a developer does the right thing, I sometimes like to think of a game that has new mechanics and an interesting storyline.  I expect a game that innovates.

When a developer does things rightly, I think of a game that is functional, works well, and has high production value.  I think of a game that has a story that I can buy into.  Most importantly, I think of a game that is fun to play.

You can have the best intentions in the world, but still mess things up.  It all comes down to planning.  Your game might be on the cutting edge on several levels, but if these ideas are not implemented correctly, you end up with a seemingly unplayable mess.  This is what happened when 8monkey Labs made Darkest of Days.

The premise behind Darkest of Days is that it sends the player to various points in time so that they may take part in some of history’s greatest battles.  As a time traveler, you have access to futuristic weaponry and are allowed to use this weaponry at certain points in the game in order to blow away armies of bad guys.  I guess this is one of its hooks.

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This all sounds interesting at first, but the story doesn’t make much sense.  The loading screens include blurbs of text which are supposed to flush out the story a bit more, but they only make things worse.  When I’m about to be sent back into time to fight confederates, I don’t want to see a loading screen that tells me that the first rule of time travel is to not do anything that may alter the future. Things like this really kill my motivation in a game.

I’m being sent back in time to make sure that a certain side wins a battle in the Civil War!  There has to be a good explanation as to why we’re breaking this rule, right?

Unfortunately, the game never really does a good job of explaining this.  I have to fix certain events in the past so that the correct outcomes occur, but you’re never really told how these events were altered in the first place.  This is just something I had to accept.

The main protagonist is the silent Alexander Morris, a soldier who was injured in the Battle of Little Big Horn.  Once Morris is injured, a glowing sphere appears, and a man in storm trooper-like armor takes him to his new base of operations somewhere (and sometime) in the future.  In the following cut-scene (and many loading screens afterward), it’s revealed that Morris was transferred to fight under General Custer’s command earlier than he was “supposed to.”  Morris’ transfer papers were also lost on the way to Washington D.C.  These two events make Morris expendable with respect to history’s time line.

This is not a joke.  This is actually how the game explains it.  And yes, it’s terrible.dod 2

The graphics are not particularly good, nor is its voice acting and interface.  However, I think the number of active characters that DoD is capable of having on the screen should be noted.  The folks at 8monkey Labs designed the Marmoset engine in order to support large numbers of characters on the screen to make the battles feel more authentic.  With the Marmoset engine, you’ll see more characters on screen compared to what you’ll see in a Halo or Call of Duty game.  Unfortunately, the AI is not very good.  I felt ignored on the battlefield, and everyone seemed to be walking around aimlessly.  The AI is so shallow that I was able to run through groups of enemies and make it to my next checkpoint.  My teammates never really seemed to be of much help.  But that’s all right, because my enemies didn’t seem to be paying attention either.

Another drawback of putting so many characters on the screen involves the premise of DoD.  I thought that seeing fields full of union and confederate soldiers in an FPS would be cool.  However, five minutes with Civil War era weapons proved me wrong.  Using single-shot muskets to kill squads of soldiers is not fun.  The Gears of War-like reloading mechanic they implement comes off as “tacked on” and doesn’t help either.  Hitting reload at the correct time just speeds up the reloading animation.  If you mess up, your gun jams (which results in a longer reloading animation).  This whole thing made me wonder if they played the game to make sure it was fun before releasing it.

DoD makes an attempt to spice things up by placing enemies and allies in the battlefield that are “important to history.”  These VIPs have to survive the war that they’re partaking in.  To the player, the VIPs are surrounded by a blue aura.  So for every level, Morris is provided with a fistful of ping pong balls called “chasers” which knock out each VIP, taking them out of action.  This mechanic comes off as a feeble attempt at making the gameplay seem like it’s deeper than it actually is.  The VIPs only get in the way, and the rewards (weapon upgrades) you get from saving them are hardly worth it.

DoD is plagued with a bunch of technical issues.  The save system is not very practical because it would save my game once I reached a checkpoint or completed an objective.  A save system like this one is usually par for modern games, but games usually make sure that you’re actually “safe” before saving.  If you complete an objective during a gunfight and die, you’ll be right where you stood when the objective was completed when you respawn, most likely surrounded by gunfire.  At one point in the game, I was in the middle of a gunfight on a bridge.  The game decided to save in the middle of the gunfight.  However, for some reason, a plank of wood or ground fell out from underneath me as the game was saving.  When I respawned, I was in the air and fell into water.  I was stuck down there and had to reload my game.  To fix this problem, I reloaded and ran forward immediately upon spawning.  Nobody should ever be put through an experience like that.dod 3

At first, I was a little impressed with the environments and the expansive terrain that the game provided for me to explore.  Unfortunately, the game didn’t do a good job of guiding me towards an objective.  There’s an abundance of invisible walls which make environments much larger than they appear to be.  DoD is also the first time I’ve encountered “death walls.”  There was a point in the game where I was stuck because I had literally made a right when I should have gone left.  The game killed me whenever I walked by a certain boulder.  I kept trying to get past the rock thinking that maybe enemies were shooting at me.  And of course, the save system had made a save near the death wall, so I thought I was in the right place.  I was hot under the collar when I googled the solution to my problem (and I wasn’t the only one experiencing this issue).  Invisible walls are like slapping a baby’s hand when you don’t want it to touch something.  Death walls are like cutting it off.  There are better ways to guide a player through an experience given a large environment.

By now, you’re probably noticing a pattern in this review.  It seems that for every step 8monkey Labs took forward with Darkest of Days, they took about five steps back.  This isn’t a very fun game, and this is one of the cases where you could actually read a book by its cover.  The game’s title screen is barren and the game has 1000G of achievement points spread over thirteen achievements.  Is 8monkey Labs saying that there’s only about thirteen things that you can do in the game that’s worthy of any kind of reward?dod title2

I understand that 8monkey Labs is new to the development scene.  I also understand that Darkest of Days is the first game that Phantom EFX has published that didn’t involve cards or slots.  However, the only way I can recommend this game is if you’re hungry for achievement points.  If not, you’ve probably put more thought into this game than any human being should by reading this review.

Playing through this game was frustrating at every turn and I never looked forward to booting it up.  It reminded me of how important it is for developers to stop once in awhile and ask themselves, “Is what I’m making fun?”  Above all, this game is a reminder of how any good idea can turn into a bad one if executed poorly.  The time I spent inching my way through this game was truly the darkest of days.

This review is based on an Xbox 360 version of Darkest of Days provided to us by Phantom EFX.

[Phantom EFX link via IGN]

[YouTube Achievement video via AchievementHunter.com]

[Images courtesy of www.darkestofdays.com]

Author: Ryan Gan

Ryan is Managing Editor and Reviews Editor of SideQuesting. In 2004, he began writing about his video gaming experiences in a blog at 1Up. He began writing for SideQuesting upon its inception in the Spring of 2009. Ryan is an educator by day and writes critically about games by night.

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