I’m a coward when it comes to nightmares, so Darq’s premise of a psychological horror game set in a lucid dream was enough to make me uncomfortably squirm in my chair on its own. My brain already loves to put me through the wringer with restless dreams, so I was worried that Darq’s subject matter might be too much for me. But its somber monochromatic visuals and puzzles that bend the laws of physics were too alluring of a sirensong, and I’m glad they pulled me to play it because, even at its most bleak, Darq is beautiful.
Darq fixates on submerging you in a dreamscape and doesn’t elaborate much in the way of a backstory. There’s no initial title screen, even; instead, a decaying apartment with a boy quivering at the center. This is Darq’s protagonist, Lloyd. He’s at the mercy of his unconscious mind, desperate to wake up – but I only know even those few details from perusing Darq’s official website. The story is intentionally opaque to replicate that “fuzzy details” feeling when you try to recall a dream from memory – more thoughts and feelings, less plot and exposition – which works in its favor.
Most of my enjoyment of the story came from theorizing with others about what it all meant, the kind of mystery that fuels a good water cooler chat. While that ambiguity might not appeal to everyone, I loved internalizing each chapter; processing and speculating on the meaning behind them. For example, while analyzing the set-dressing on one level, I noticed there was a recurring motif of physical illness. An intensive care unit (ICU) can be heard beeping away periodically in the background, while several enemies are wheelchair-bound and sickly. Maybe Lloyd is asleep in a hospital? Who knows. All I can say for sure is Darq’s narrative is cryptic without delving into pretension, and I relished taking it all in for my own interpretation.
It would be easy to undercut that mystery if the gameplay wasn’t up to snuff, but thankfully Darq’s mechanics are pretty clever. The trial and error puzzle-solving nature of games like Limbo and Inside are here, yet there are not quite as many brutal fail states. Throughout each chapter is a smattering of levers that shift the camera’s perspective or change the layout of a room. Sometimes, it’s as simple as hitting a lever so that a drawbridge shifts to a perpendicular angle letting Lloyd walk up to it and onto the ceiling. While in other cases, turning a crank might swap out a room for a completely different environment.
You will spend most of your time fiddling about with these lever-based puzzles, and they’re pretty enjoyable. Even the very first puzzle is a real noggin-scratcher and one I struggled with. There was a barred gate, and the only way to get past was to power up a giant mechanical contraption that was missing three cogs from its engine. So I examined the level from top to bottom, searching for the cogs in question. Simple enough. The first came easy, and the second was just gated behind a simple sliding jigsaw puzzle nearby. However, it took me far longer to figure out how to get the final cog, which was suspended from the ceiling.
It was a bit frustrating, but my chagrin was born of negligence because the solution was right in front of me. I just had to walk up the walls and onto the ceiling to grab it; it was a brilliant little eureka moment. A reminder of an essential aspect of Darq: Lloyd is inside a dream. Here, logic need not (always) apply; the fabric of this world sometimes requires manipulation to proceed. Kind of like Valve asking you to start thinking with portals in its own puzzle game, a shift in perspective is key to progression here.
Stealth is also a big part of Darq but, unfortunately, it isn’t as successful in this regard. At one point, there was a grotesque creature that only responded to touch. All I had to do was hug the walls as it slowly patrolled to and fro – pretty standard stealth game fodder. The trouble is, this took place in front of a puzzle that I needed to access several times. So I had to sit there twiddling my thumbs as the beast crept by at an agonizingly slow pace. Try to bolt past, and you’ll get tackled and met with a game over. These sorts of encounters are all over Darq, and they get old, fast. Monotony is a sure-fire way to kill potential scares.
Darq isn’t as scary as it wants to be, and those occasionally tedious enemy encounters aren’t solely responsible for this. While the cracked kitchen floor tiles and stained wallpaper of Lloyd’s apartment accentuate the industrial monochromatic aesthetic, they’re more creepy than scary. Tonally, it’s akin to Eraserhead, David Lynch’s 1977 surrealistic tour de force; an incredible stylistic influence, but I wouldn’t say that film is intended to be scary, either. As I guided Lloyd from dilapidated train stations to rain-slicked city streets, a low, ominous electrical hum accompanied me. Out of view, yet always present in my headphones. Unsettling? Absolutely. Scary? Not quite.
Trouble is, Darq clearly wants you to be afraid of it, as is evident with its jump scares. For example, instead of just letting me breath in the air of a hauntingly beautiful stage theatre, it will periodically toss in a cheap, booming jump scare that kills the mood. Suddenly, the unsettling, dream-like vibe is ruined by loud noises. If I sneak up behind you and loudly scream, you’re startled, not scared; and that’s done ad nauseam here.
While the scares miss the mark, Darq was too tantalizing a mystery for me to walk away from. My initial playthrough took about four hours to complete, with the first hour or so being inflated by the tough puzzle I mentioned earlier. Upon completion, I dove right back in to see what secrets I could discover, and the next playthrough didn’t last 40 minutes. Once you know the puzzle solutions, you’ll blast through the campaign with ease. But brevity is one of Darq’s strengths. It’s short, sweet, and loaded with little quirks and details scattered throughout that you might not notice initially. Collectible files that flesh out the story are also tucked away in each chapter, and you better bring a fine-toothed comb if you want to find them all. Thus far, I’ve gathered a measly two files out of the seven chapters in Darq.