After wrapping up Layers of Fear a couple of weeks ago, I was looking forward to something a bit less emotionally heavy. While I did enjoy it, the game does deal with some fairly heavy themes, and depending on a few of the choices you can make while playing, it can absolutely take a toll on your mind.
So, yes, I was absolutely looking forward to playing DARQ after that.
Although it is very much a psychological game, the spookiness of DARQ comes more from the visual imagery and the fact that you’re trapped in what appears to be a nightmare rather than actual jump scares (even though there are a few), a fact I very much appreciated as the game went on.
Overall, I found the entire experience of DARQ to be a surprisingly pleasant one for a horror game, although I will absolutely say the DLC content was more disturbing than the base game itself.
(Please note that from this point on, there will be spoilers. Consider yourself warned.)
DARQ is, perhaps, the most recent game out of the eight horror games I get to play this year, having released only in August of 2019. A side-scroller with art that reminds me of something straight out of a Tim Burton movie, DARQ focuses on a young boy named Lloyd who is caught in a dream, is seemingly aware of this, and wants to get out. However, each attempt to do so fails a bit on some level, and as each chapter ends, you find yourself right back in the dingy place you started in which may or may not be part of the dream, too. I was a bit unclear about that.
I was a bit unclear about a lot of things with regards to this game, actually. A lot of the story elements (including Lloyd’s name) are information that I actually picked up from the official website because the game itself doesn’t tell you much of anything in terms of what the game’s story actually is. Unlike some other games I’ve played, there’s no introductory cutscene or narration or anything when you load up the game. You’re just thrust into things and left to try to figure things out on your own.
In some regards, I actually appreciated that because it left a lot of the dream symbolism and such up to your own interpretation. There are many sites out there with theories about what exactly Lloyd’s dream means and where he actually is as he’s dreaming. The current theory that I’m running with is that he was in a coma, but others have suggested cancer or that he was hospitalized for some other reason given the plethora of medical imagery in the dreams.
While the ability to interpret things as you like was welcomed, the lack of explanation did make some of the puzzles a bit more confusing as you tried to work out how exactly certain pieces fit together. The game also sometimes turned something it had previously established on its head and left you floundering a bit as you attempted to work out what exactly you had to do (sometimes while spooky things are chasing you).
All that said, this is a game that heavily leans into the dream element with everything feeling more and more surreal as you go and I really enjoyed that. Some items would be used a bit unconventionally, or reality around you would shift in some way. Text on signs would have random letters shift and change in the background which was a detail the developers didn’t have to include, but I appreciated that they did, anyway. (I’m not sure about anybody else, but I’ve found text to be largely incomprehensible for me in dreams that I can remember, so for me, it was a fun little detail.)
But the aspect of this game that I found the most dreamlike was the fact that Lloyd was essentially able to manipulate the dream to some extent by walking on walls or ceilings. There was still gravity, but if you walked up against some walls, you could walk up them and onto the ceiling or down them and back to the floor again.
The camera even shifted to accommodate this visual change which I will admit made me feel a bit disoriented and slightly nauseous at first, but I got used to it over the course of gameplay. Other players may not fare quite as well, however, so proceed with caution.
This game has quite a number of things to be cautious of, most notably a variety of humanoid creatures that are all grotesque in some way, although the majority of them seemed to have a variety of objects for heads. From scantily clad women with lamps for heads to one my stream community dubbed the “toot scoot man” (a masculine figure with a trombone or a tuba for a head in a wheelchair that let out almost sad-sounding blats as he pushed himself along) to creepy boys with paper bags over their heads, this game goes a bit hard with the creatures.
Although some simply arrive to spook you, the majority of these are creatures you need to avoid in some way, either through completing a puzzle before something can get to you, not moving when certain visual cues appear or just outright stealthing around them.
Speaking of the stealth mechanics, in practice, the stealth mechanics honestly bothered me the most out of everything in this game. We did have a keybind we could hit to be stealthy, but I didn’t even realize this was a thing that existed for about half of the game. The game never bothered explaining this to me, and I had to actually go into the menu and look up what the keybind was for it.
There was almost never a clear indicator of how to get around some creatures, either. We had random alcoves and spots on the wall that we could crawl up or into while we waited for creatures to pass (failing to do so resulted in them lunging at you and presumably killing you, as I learned in one terrifying moment), but, again, nothing is ever explained in DARQ.
This didn’t make the game particularly unpleasant, however. The fact that it relies heavily on puzzles, many of which have no spooks involved, was quite welcome and I did appreciate that you had to think a bit about how to manipulate them or get things to unlock or function.
And for those who aren’t a huge fan of jump scares in your horror games, I’m pleased to report that the jump scares in DARQ are few and far between. That’s not to say they don’t occur, because they absolutely do, but a lot of the horror of DARQ comes from the atmosphere and the visuals between the jump scares. When jump scares do occur, they’re more between things in moments when I started to become used to the routine of whatever it was I was doing. As such, I found the jump scares to be more effective here than in other horror games.
All in all, I found DARQ to be a surprisingly pleasant horror experience. I’m uncertain there’s much in the way of replay value for me personally as I don’t know that it would be quite as effective the second time around. However, I did find it to be incredibly enjoyable and would absolutely recommend it to people who want a slightly more low-key horror experience.