Forget the throwaway one-liners of graphic adventures such as Lucasfilms' Monkey Island series or the exotic tomfoolery of Westwood's Legend of Kyrandia. The new adventure from U.S. outfit, Cyberdreams, is an altogether more sinister affair.
Although it's not without its visual gags and flippant wordplay, most of Darkseed is embued with a dark and menacing atmosphere, a situation which is reinforced by using the gruesome straight-from-your-worst-nightmare artwork of H.R. Giger. In case the name sounds familiar, that is because Giger was the inspiration and design guru behind the stunning first Alien movie, creating both the atmospheric sets and the acid-slavering xenomorph itself, so if you've seen the movie you'll definitely know what to expect here...
In case you missed our preview of the game a couple of months ago, Darkseed is an out-and-out sci-fi adventure. As such, it's a terribly bleak affair, with a very uncheery and depressing scenario. The game begins with an animated intro depicting your on-screen alter ego, Mike Dawson, having a rather vivid nightmare in which aliens implant an embryo in his brain.
The upshot of all this is that Mike not only has a headache from hell when he awakes from his nightmare, but that he also has approximately three days to get rid of the embryo before it emerges, Alien-style, from the insides of his brain.
Apparently, the house Mike has just bought (which resembles something straight out of the Addams Family or Psycho) is an intergalactic transdimensional thingammy, which is at the centre of a sinister alien plan to invade the Earth. To save the day, it's up to make (and, indeed, yourself) to find the cure for his gargantuan hangover, discover and destroy the interplanetary portal wotsit and thus avert the threat of alien invasion forever. Hurrah!
HEADACHE FROM HELL
Of course, the most obvious thing to do when you've got a headache is to take some aspirin, so each morning Mike has to be guided to the bathroom to stuff his face full of headache tablets. He also has to take a shower - a reflection on American hygiene Standards, maybe, or the fact that Mike appears to sleep in his clothes at the end of each day's adventuring! Failure to do either of these will result in the premature ending of the game.
Once refreshed, it's down to the business of solving the game's puzzles and slowly piecing together what the hell is going on. Mike doesn't immediately know he has been impregnated with an alien embryo, but he'll soon discover the incredible truth and from there on in it's a race against time to find a cure before his head explodes in an eruption of blood and sinewy flesh.
Most of the game's puzzles are fairly logical, and require you to do or fetch 'A' in order to solve, move, or find 'B'. For instance, a locked chest requires you to find the crowbar in the garage before you can open it, and you will need to get a library card before you can go to the library and receive an important message hidden in a book.
Many puzzles, however, are time/event sensitive, which can leave you hanging around for a while with nothing to do. You've either got to allow some time to pass before you can get something done or be in the right place at the right time.
For instance, on the second day you must collect the package from the postman or else you'll be unable to enter the aliens' universe through the cracked mirror. The package contains the missing splinter from the mirror, so if you miss the postie when he rings the bell, that's it. He won't leave it on the doorstep for you to collect later on!
Other avenues of exploration are also opened up once a prerequisite action/event has taken place - for example, the house's secret rooms can only be accessed once you've discovered the house's blueprints. Even if you know where the hidden doorways are, you won't be able to open them until you've found the plans.
Because of this, it's important to save your game position on a regular basis. There's a lot to miss as you explore your new home and the little town of Woodland Hills. And once you've crossed over into the Gigeresque alien world, there is even more to find and discover.
In all, more than 75 locations have been crammed into the game and although some are merely decorative fillers, most contain important clues or equipment to allow you to progress further into the adventure. Slip up just once, and you will condemn Mike to an untimely and very unsavoury death. - the failed game sequence has the alien erupting from Mike's forehead in true Alien fashion.
The alien world is, in fact, a mirror image of the existing world. Most of the rooms in Mike's house have a corresponding room in the alien environment, and many of the objects that are found in the real world can also be located in the alien dimension. This is handy for finding your way about and adds a neat twist to the unfolding events.
For instance, early on in the game Mike meets up with a character called Delbert who is busy playing fetch with Fido, his dog. After a while Delbert and the dog take their leave, but forget the stick. This is obviously an invitation to pick up the stick and add it to your growing inventory.
Later on, once you've crossed over into the alien dimension, you'll encounter Dark Fido, the bridge guardian who is blocking your way. Now, if you simply throw the stick you picked up earlier into the abyss, the alien dog will leap after it, never to be seen again.
There are many other examples of the alien world mirroring events in the 'real' world. Probably the neatest is when you're arrested by the local police for grave robbing. By secreting supplies under the pillow of your prison bunk it's possible to access them when you've been put into the alien jail. It is this kind of logic and prompting that makes Darkseed such an interesting game to play - things might not be immediately obvious, but once you've sussed them out, you'll wonder why you didn't think about it in the first place.
Unfortunately, Cyberdreams reckon us Brits are a bit on the thick side when it comes to adventuring or why else would they include a complete solution with the game as a limited promotion? Try as I might, I couldn't resist consulting it while I was playing the game.
The control method also deserves some praise. Everything in the game is mouse controlled via an on-screen pointer. By clicking on the right mouse button this pointer can be changed from a use icon to a move or examine cursor. Then, by clicking the left mouse button the selected action can be carried out. This soon becomes second nature, and such an uncomplicated interface (complemented by a pull-down inventory menu) makes for a much more accessible and straightforward game.
The examine option presents a question mark on-screen which changes to an exclamation mark once something interesting is close by. This makes important objects easy to locate and superfluous detail can be ignored. Similarly, the use-mode is signified by an open hand. When this changes to a pointing hand, it means the object that you're touching can be either picked up or used for some specific purpose.
Unfortunately, Darkseed is probably a little too serious for its own good. In fact, at times it is downright depressing! A lighter touch and a few more laughs would have helped things along enormously. Admittedly, there are a few humorous touches, such as the Get Out of Jail Free card that Delbert gives to Mike, or the incidental background animation, such as a dog peeing against a fire hydrant. Unfortunately, these are few and far between, and the unrelenting doom and gloom can be off-putting.
For someone raised on Monkey Island-type adventures, I found Darkseed to be a right turn-off at times, because of its inherent seriousness and poe-faced sensibilities. Try is I might, I couldn't get Mike to overdose on the bottle of aspirins in the bathroom - I suspect this was a case of Cyberdreams worrying too much about what concerned parents might think.
Another quibble is the quality of the graphics and animation. Like the PC version, the Amiga game uses a 16-colour palette so there should really be no difference between the two. However, the Giger graphics used in the alien world look washed out and almost bleary, which is kind of strange, as you'd imagine that his artwork would be ideally suited to the Amiga's limited palette. This is compounded by using almost the same palette for the 'real' world sequences. These, too, use mostly dull colours. Perhaps it might have been a better idea to have Mike's world use a palette of brighter and more vibrant colours to highlight the differences between the two worlds.
As it is, the two almost blend into each other. Rather than be impressed with the alien landscapes, you are almost left wondering what has changed. The animation, too, is a bit feeble at times. The main character has been digitised, but not enough frames of animation have been included. Mike never really interacts with his environment; he never stoops to examine something or bend down to pick something up. He just stands there looking a bit of a pudding, really, and he looks like Joe-average that I can't seem many people identifying with him.
In fact, on my first go at the game, I deliberately fast-forwarded to the end of the three days just to see him get his comeuppance. There is also a rather clumsy graduated sprite handling routine included in the game so that when Mike moves from the foreground to the background he decreases in size and vice versa. Nice idea, but the end result is incredibly jerky and really no worth the bother.
By now, you're all probably on the opinion that I hate the game. Not at all. It's not the best adventure I've played, but then it's certainly not the worst either. Disk access might be slow, especially on a bog-standard A500/600, but there is a lot to do in the game.
The Twilight Zone-type music that runs throughout is suitably eerie, if a bit grating after a while, and the use of samples is limited but well placed. That, coupled with the easy-to-use point 'n' click interface, neat scenario and visual effects make for an enjoyable if slightly flawed game.