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Graphics: Dark Earth is filled with rich, compelling imagery that accentuates the perpetual darkness in which mankind is immersed. The pre-rendered graphics literally thrust the player forward, wondering what imaginative surprises await on the next screen. Even in its 256 color mode, the game contains an extraordinary amount of vivid detail, merging stylistic architecture and machinery highly reminiscent of settings imagined by science fiction author Jules Verne with a strangely ancient, yet post-apocalyptic world. Remarkably, the backgrounds are more than mere eye candy; they immerse the player in somber, uncertain times, and masterfully establish a believable alternate reality. From the majestic splendor of the Great Square, the Palace, the Great Temple of The Sun God, and the Builder Palace, to the damp sewers and mystical underwater ruins, the game contains scene after scene of unforgettable artistry. Without a doubt, the designers lavished a considerable amount of talent and care into the game’s backgrounds. Unfortunately, the game’s polygonal characters contain significantly less detail, and at times seem glaringly out of place in the high-resolution surroundings. Still, they move smoothly, and are accompanied by some nice visual effects, including real-time shadows. The game is not very hardware intensive, and should run well in 256 colors on a Pentium 75. To run the high-color version, 32 MB of RAM is required. Lastly, monitor settings are configurable on-the-fly within the game, allowing you to adjust brightness, contrast, and color saturation.
Interface: The developers must have afforded as much attention to implementing a streamlined interface as they did to creating gorgeous graphics. The main menu allows players to start a new game, return to the game in progress, load a previously saved game, set character shadowing and combat settings, replay cinematics, and review the text of conversations. Arkhan is controlled with the keyboard or joypad, and the mouse is used for navigating the inventory and menu screens. Movement is accomplished with the arrow keys, the spacebar serves as the action key, and backspace summons the inventory menu. The action key performs most important functions, such as conversing with NPCs, placing items in inventory, opening doors, and operating equipment. The inventory contains weapons and items, and simply placing something in Arkhan’s hand will cause him to use it; players can also program the number keys to activate objects without opening the inventory screen. Combat is simple, though the inability to configure the controls will probably be a sore point for some players. To begin or end a battle, players press “C.” Pressing Ctrl in combination with an arrow key executes an offensive or defensive maneuver. While there are no options to bypass combat, you can simplify it by first selecting automated combat in the character setting menu, then holding down the Ctrl key during battle. This is a good option for players who want to involve themselves in the adventure, but are not interested in or particularly adept at fighting. The on-screen interface displays Arkhan’s current mood, life force, and contamination, and, by allowing the player to adjust Arkhan’s emotional state, effectively assists the player in planning and implementing strategies. Thankfully, save game icons are scattered abundantly throughout the game, and can be used at the player’s discretion. Save wisely, and you will not find yourself replaying significantly large segments of the game.
Gameplay: Dark Earth adheres to the traditional adventure game format, requiring players to gather items, solve puzzles, and talk to NPCs to obtain information. However, it effectively introduces combat to the tried-and-true mix, creating a successful hybrid of diverse genres. There is an undeniable immediacy to the adventure, due in no small part to the inclusion of combat. In addition, the disease progresses in real-time, and his quest to be healed adds to the urgency. Controlling Arkhan is simple, though it can be tiresome searching for objects by continually humping walls, shelves, and tables (some of the visual clues could be more prominent). The combat dynamic also takes some getting used to. At first, it seems as though Arkhan is not responding to the controls quickly enough; after some practice, though, his moves can be effectively timed against those of his opponents. There are problems with character integration, as Arkhan gets caught on the edges of walls, NPCs, and other objects too easily, and never navigates stairs convincingly. Finally, the game is tremendous in scope, with over 250 locations to visit and nearly 100 characters with which to interact. I actually wished the narrative had been condensed a bit, as there were several lengthy sequences of walking here and there, to and fro, back and forth, engaging in some rather drawn out conversations. Nevertheless, the story, action, and puzzles were involving enough to propel me through the game without ever feeling fatigued.
Sound FX: The sound effects are simple WAV files, and while they serve the general purpose of providing audio cues, there is nothing notable about the quality. One agreeable aspect of the sound is how it suggests the makeup of the next screen. For instance, while climbing the steps to the practice room, I could hear Arkhan’s comrades engaged in mock battle. There are also some pleasant ambient effects, but overall, the sound quality is average. What depresses the score for this category, however, is the terribly inadequate voice acting. The characters are overplayed, and sound entirely unnatural. This is noticeable from the first conversation between Arkhan and Kalhi, and continues throughout the adventure — there is not a redeeming performance in the entire cast. At first, I cringed when Kalhi giddily uttered to Arkhan, “Your Sunseer father really gets a kick out of history!” Later, I laughed when Zed ferociously yelled at Arkhan to see Phrovost Dhorkan. (Give that man some decaf!) By the end of the game, though, I simply rolled my eyes whenever someone spoke. There are many factors that can negatively affect the immersive quality of a game, and dialogue that sounds like bad actors in a studio is high on the list.
Musical Score: The music in both the cut scenes and the game is very subtle and atmospheric. Like many recent adventure games, there are extended sequences that contain no music, then a rush of percussion or a slowly creeping measure of strings will heighten the tension and foreshadow key events. Though electronic in nature, the music is very orchestral and used in a cinematic sense. No CD tracks are included with the score, nor are there any memorable themes; still, what is there is commendable and compliments the game well enough to earn an acceptable rating.
Intelligence & Difficulty: Veteran adventure gamers looking for a challenge are going to be disappointed; however, the game is ideal for beginners. The infrequent combat, which employs a simple set of controls and generally involves battling significantly weaker enemies, is not at all problematic. Until the end of the game, I had no trouble defeating a single opponent. The puzzles, which entail collecting and using the proper items, logically compliment the story, and there are no mind-numbingly difficult enigmas to solve. However, because the level of challenge rarely approaches the boiling point, advanced players will lose interest. For example, early in the game, Arkhan is presented with a riddle: “Move three times to the right honoring the Sun God, then twice to the left, honoring his emissary the Moon.” Hmmm… Later, his progress is halted by a locked cabinet. A little experimentation with the inventory reveals that a parchment found under his father’s bed operates the lock. When used, an animation literally shows Arkhan moving the mechanism three times to the right, then twice to the left. Essentially, that is as hard as it gets. The game does most of the work, even to the point of automatically assembling items Arkhan has collected into useful objects. The most rigorous element of your conversations with NPCs will be staying awake through the sometimes lengthy discussions. There are no dialogue trees, you just press the spacebar repeatedly and listen, though you can vary Arkhan’s mood to encourage different responses. Still, I would argue there is nothing wrong with a game directed at the casual, or novice, player. Ironically, the designers ignored this objective when fashioning the game’s finale. In a severe miscalculation that defies the rest of the game, Dark Earth concludes with one of the most arduous final battles in recent memory. First, players must navigate a maze of wildly spinning blades, then fight a powerful creature that cannot be killed, all while trying to determine the solution to a complex switch puzzle. Tell me if this sounds like fun: While you are facing a series of levers that open a large gate, Thanandar, the final boss, will thunder up and begin mercilessly bashing Arkhan from behind. If you can turn around without getting killed (not an easy task because each quick blow stuns Arkhan), you can attack Thanandar and temporarily knock him out. While he is unconscious, you have to determine the precise sequence for throwing the levers and opening the gate. More often than not, you will find yourself desperately watching Arkhan’s life force diminish, then land smack dab at the start of the maze. It is so intensely frustrating, it nearly ruins the satisfying release of dramatic tension one usually feels upon the completion of an adventure. In the book about bad end-games, Dark Earth’s climax is Chapter One.
Overall: Dark Earth is a solid entry into the maturing genre of action and adventure game hybrids. I loved the stylistic graphics and strong narrative, and felt the combat blended into the traditional adventure game format admirably. Unfortunately, experienced players will not find the puzzles, inventory management, or NPC interaction challenging enough to warrant more than a cursory glance. If you are new to the genre and would like to test your metal with a quality title, Dark Earth provides sufficiently engaging gameplay and a clean, well-conceived interface. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about that final step. It can be a doozie.
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