Dark Fear is the latest title from the relatively unknown developer Arif Games. In a testament to the increasing variety of gameplay styles and tropes appearing on the margins of Steam, Dark Fear mixes up the classic point n’ click adventure with light RPG elements and a heavy emphasis on horror. The player is an unfortunate soul who arrives in the mysterious world with no memory of themselves or where they are, locked up in a cabin in the woods. From there, the game expands into a large-scale adventure that brings the player face to face with an assortment of mythological enemies, and more than a few jump scares.
From the outset, Dark Fear does a good job of using a classic 256-colour palette to create an authentic aesthetic of PC games in their infancy, reminiscent of the early days of adventure games such as Black Cauldron (1986) and Uninvited (1986). The game’s characters and environment have been constructed well, with the backdrops offering a consistent range of spooky locations. In terms of gameplay, the game’s tasks are divided between solving puzzles, combatting monsters and hunting for resources. The game’s narrative progression is tied to solving a sequence of puzzles which are typically simple but satisfying to solve, while combat occurs at scripted instances of the game. Combat and hunting work similarly, as both make use of a moving cursor that sweeps from left to right, and clicking at the moment the cursor passes over the highlighted green boundary to successfully complete the attack / hunt. Hunting is used in the game as a means of generating much-needed funds to upgrade weaponry and armor, which are necessary to clear the harder enemies the game offers up.
Dark Fear starts off strongly with a mission to escape from the locked cabin inside, and fight your way past some wolves to escape into the game’s town and central hub. The early stages of the game are well-structured with a good balance of activities. The local figures in the town provide stories of horrors for the player to slay, and direct their path as the game’s world begins to open up. In particular, the strongest part of the game is just after the prelude, where the player is given a quest to slay the blacksmith’s daughter, possessed by a powerful and vengeful spirit. The game balances combat, puzzling and hunting well at this stage, and the climax with this sequence against the possessed girl resolves in an effective and startling manner. The resolution of this plotline is absorbing and unique, but following this the game begins to settle into a more mundane pattern of fighting bigger monsters and grinding for gold to upgrade gear. This is where the game’s flaws begin to show.
The most major issue of the game is this: Dark Fear took me just over four hours to complete, but more than half of my time was spent hunting. The hunting minigame is enjoyable enough to begin with, but is easily the most tedious and least involving aspect of the game. Hunting has no peril and no surprises, literally requiring the player to watch the cursor move across the screen and click in the right places. There is very little variation to this task, with nothing other than the player’s time at risk. The rewards for freshly hunted animals are paltry, and so it is necessary to continue farming for resources to meet the game’s inflated upgrade costs. This would not be quite so damaging to the gameplay experience, except that upgrades are absolutely necessary for progression in-game. This is because armor provides a static increase in HP necessary to tank enemy attacks, and the rapidly scaling health levels of the game’s monsters require the player to always be at the peak of available upgrades. Since combat is a scripted event with a set number of fights, there is no other means of earning money, leaving hunting as an endless and uninteresting chore to artificially extend the game’s playtime. I can think of no greater gaming sin than this.
The game’s plot loses much of its scope after the encounter with the demon girl, too. The subsequent quests involve combat with a variety of mythical beasts, but they never have the same sense of dread or build-up that the first tale offers. Instead, the enemies are just simple obstructions there to be dealt with. Here, the game makes the mistake of lacking consistency and structure with the monsters the player faces, culminating in a particularly absurd scenario where an Ogre has to be battled before another fight with a Werewolf. A key issue with horror games that too much threat diminishes the sense of fear entirely, as once the game has escalated to this inconsistent mix of mythical and supernatural beings the player is no longer fragile or under threat. Here, Dark Fear would have benefitted from keeping the mythic enemies the player faces more strictly tied to the central narrative, and on a smaller scale.
One final criticism goes out against the music in the game. Where the graphics do a good job of offering retro PC charm, the music is absolutely terrible. The music is a classical orchestrated affair with real instruments, but is deeply generic and conveys nothing, merely a blanket of sound murmuring under the gameplay. Investigating this further, the front page of Dark Fear presents a notice for players who wish to stream the game that the music has been licensed from a third party, and advises any streamers to play the game without sound to avoid copyright claims that may otherwise dent their monetization. This clarifies my position that since the music was sourced elsewhere, it lacks any kind of thematic connection to the game, and is alienating to the core gameplay experience. The music is off-putting precisely because it doesn’t belong. The tragedy is that this could have been corrected by creating a synthesized MIDI score that would comport with the game’s retro design, a task that any remotely equipped musician with a PC could do. Instead, the developers opted for the lazy and contrived option of sourcing the music elsewhere, and leaving the choice to mute the score in the hands of the streamers. This comes off as a careless decision and suggests that music was not considered a vital component of the game’s development, much to the detriment of the product overall. The experience of horror in game is a nebulous thing, often created through the culmination of several ambient elements, from narrative, visual design, gameplay and sound. If any of these aspects are missing, the horror just never materialises in the mind of the player.
To conclude with Dark Fear, the game offers brief moments of throwback gameplay, and remains at its strongest when the player is tied to the task of exploration and puzzle solving. That more than half of the game’s playtime is involved in a remedial and extremely dull minigame is a severe dent to any enjoyment than can be taken from the title, and the slipshod approach to music and sound would suggest that the developer needs to revisit fundamental aspects of game design before returning with their next title. For the player, the horror in Dark Fear comes more from its inflated length and terrible score than the forces of evil waiting to be slayed.