I’ll start by admitting that the hand-drawn, cartoon-ish graphic style in adventure games, is very dear to me. I grew up with LucasArts classics such as Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and the Monkey Island series. The third game in that franchise, 1997’s The Curse of Monkey Island is still my go-to template for judging any adventure video game which tries to emulate both those visuals and the rich sense of humor. I’m pleased to say that Epic Llama’s latest Steam project, Darkestville Castle, is just such a game which managed to remind me of times long past for the adventure genre. It’s the developer’s second title to be released on Steam after their 2015 debut, Champions Of Chaos 2. Darkestville is a new genre for the dev team, yet they made next to no mistakes in regards to it. So far, so good.
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The lovable rogue in Darkestville Castle is an antihero worthy of Guybrush Threepwood’s legacy. Instead of a “mighty pirate”, players shall now meet Cid, The Demon of Darkestville. A purposely goofy protagonist which almost reminded me of Dark Shadows’ Barnabas Collins, minus the family drama. So a vampire he is not and Cid doesn’t quite fit the image of a demon either. Consider him an avatar of trickery first and foremost. A prankster in the mythological vein of both Loki and Pan.
Cid the Demon has a castle of his own and seems to live a happy life by being left alone to his own devices, which in our case, means employing evil schemes on Darkestville’s citizens. His “nefarious plans” fail every time so he’s regarded more as a nuisance than a threat. This is by no means a dark tale involving actual demons and that becomes obvious right from the first few minutes in-game, after you’re introduced to the antihero via stained glass images depicting his early life and “exploits”.
The peace and quiet get disrupted one night after Cid’s pet fish, Domingo is kidnapped by a team of equally clumsy demon hunters which mistake him for his owner. All sorts of funny situations shall arise, some of which hover close to black humor, without crossing the line. The story itself is of decent length and it’s divided by a prelude, two interludes and three chapters. Epic Llama did their “homework” and went for a well structured and self-contained storyline instead of an episodic format which seems like the more popular choice in nowadays adventure games. I’ve been waiting for over an year, to play Slap Village’s second chapter which is still nowhere to be seen, so I appreciate any title that can wrap things up nicely and then focus on a sequel without resorting to cliffhangers.
It’s no surprise that the game’s powered by the Unity Engine. The developers needed a strong framework for their project, while they focused on those skillfully drawn backgrounds and characters. Quality caricatures which visually represent the absurdity of the subplots. Apart from the static assets, the animations were also spot on. From motion to speech patterns, it’s that noticeable effort, that extra mile if you will, which separates a story-driven adventure from a run-of-the-mill Hidden Object Game. Darkestville Castle scaled perfectly to 4K resolution and it never featured a single frame rate drop, never mind a glitch or crash to desktop.
The English voice acting I opted for, never felt unconvincing and the voice actors were inspired choices. The game felt a bit off in Spanish or Russian, but the options are there if you need them. Same applies to the subtitles and so far I’ve only spotted a single typo in my entire playthrough. In one conversation with an NPC, the misspelling of “which” with “witch”. Slap Village had far more typos so I won’t complain about that or deny the fact that I need to spell check my own reviews, several times after I’ve just published them. Errare humanum est…
The gameplay itself follows the classic guidelines left behind by Darkestville Castle’s many spiritual predecessors. Players control a main character in his direct interaction with NPCs either through dialogue or items. An inventory system allows for the collection and potential combination of several items into a single one. The dialogues have multiple options to choose from and they can lead to the acquisition of new objects or story progression. Cid the Demon doesn’t stray from the norms of previous adventure protagonists and perhaps that’s an issue, if you’re looking for visible character development.
The puzzles involving the aforementioned items are never that hard to figure out and spotting them during new scene backgrounds, is made even easier by the inclusion of a “hint button” in the upper right side of the screen. Some combinations won’t be straightforward so I suggest you experiment at any time with the items already present in your inventory. Interaction with the objects and NPCs, features three options which range from touch/grab/eat, look and talk. It goes without saying that you need to thoroughly examine each new place you visit. HOG or not, the key to success is always hidden in plain sight.
In the end, my biggest gripe with Darkestville Castle is that its jokes alone can’t carry the game without the inclusion of some form of replay value. There is very little to do other than chat in a few dialogue lines with each NPC until you figure out how to use an item and where. Curse of Monkey Island and pretty much every other LucasArts adventure game, knew how to place challenging puzzles between (not-so) friendly chats, throw a funny song on occasion and even Easter eggs or pop culture references. Anachronistic elements by themselves won’t cut it in the long run.
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Darkestville Castle’s visual style sets it apart from the conventional 3D graphics that are becoming the rule of thumb for the genre, sadly. I grew up with 2D cartoons, so biased or not, I prefer them. They represent a higher level of dedication and hard work which 3D rendering diluted more often than not. I’m not an expert in animation, I just prefer good ol’ 2D methods. It all boils down to taste in the end, so you’re free to prefer the newer, modern 3D forms of animated expression. Darkestville Castle will surely not disappoint fans of the adventure genre looking for a more light-hearted perspective and puzzles which never force you to seek online solutions.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.