I’m a fan of Metroidvanias (as they’re often called): platformers composed of long, maze-like passages where you solve puzzles, kill enemies, and gain upgrades to progress deeper into the game. Playing Dark Matter reminded me of my favorite Metroidvania of all time: Metroid Fusion. I still remember holding my Game Boy Advance, pulse pounding, as I ran from the predatory trying to kill me throughout the game. The graphics were 16-bit and the music flowed through a tinny GBA speaker, but the game’s atmosphere roped me in and made me an isolation and fear that makes sense when you’re the lone heroine on a deserted space station drifting through space. Dark Matter scares by mixing tried-and-true Metroid-style tropes with new graphics technology and a slower pace, and it does it beautifully.
The first thought in my head for Dark Matter was “How do you expect to do survival horror with a 2D platformer?” In a generation with the gore and graphics of games like Dead Space 3 and Konami’s upcoming title Dying Light, I didn’t feel like there was much “horror” to be gained from Dark Matter. But Dark Matter channels a different kind of fear, a vulnerability that is quintessentially survival-horror and harkens back to classic Resident Evil and Silent Hill games.
In a recent article I wrote about Interwave Studio’s crowdfunding campaigns for Dark Matter I explained that they don’t disclose a ton of information about the game’s backstory. You play as the Ensign, a silent, female protagonist who wakes up on a deserted space station with no real memory of her past. The ship’s AI guides you along as you explore the station to find out what happened, blasting away space bugs with various pieces of weaponry you discover on the ship a la Metroid. What tilts Dark Matter towards survival-horror instead of just a platformer is its pacing: you spend most of the game WALKING through the ship’s corridors, peering through shadows with your gun’s flashlight. Lighting, shadow, and utter darkness are keys to Dark Matter’s charm and style: you walk through the halls because you never have any idea when monsters will creep out of the darkness to lash out at you.
Dark Matter‘s shining light (pun intended)is its dynamic lighting-based action system. As you would expect on a deserted space station, the power is out in a majority of the places you go, so you’ll need to use your mouse-aimed flashlight to illuminate your path regularly. This isn’t your typical, “hey, it’s a little dark in here” darkness, mind you: more often than not you’ll just see the Ensign and whatever the narrow beam of flashlight aura barely brightens. Different enemies and terrain objects respond to light and darkness in different ways; some bugs will be drawn to the light and charge you, while certain traps will explode when painted with the flashlight. This forces you to navigate some corridors with no guiding light at all, which can be pretty intense considering the Ensign’s fragility. She’s far short of invincible, and just a few hits from even the weakest enemies can kill her. If you’re expecting to get random health drops from baddies to stay alive, then you’ll be expecting for a long time; you’ll have to craft all of your restorative items at workbenches to stay alive.
Both restoratives AND ammo must be crafted at workbenches because monsters don’t drop health or ammo when they die, a mechanic which I love. The Ensign’s standard-issue pistol holds 10 shots in a clip and reloads an infinite amount, but it’s weak and won’t do much of anything to most bugs. To make ammo for any other gun you’ll have to use resources, currency which can be found around the ship and converted into useful materials. Enemies will drop scrap though, which can be converted into resources at workbenches. The more scrap you have at one time before converting it, the greater the amount of resources you’ll get as a result, so it’s to your benefit to build up a huge stockpile of scrap and then convert it all at once. While playing on normal difficulty I really never felt a shortage of resources, but I felt backed into a corner when all I had left was 10 health and a pistol against a bug with damage-resistant armor. Knowing that enemies won’t drop items made me change my play style; I ran away from many a fight, and trying to safely navigate my way back to a workbench while on the brink of death got pretty intense.
All these things being said, there’s a reason why Interwave has a Kickstarter going for Dark Matter right now: it’s a little short of polish. They’ve already placed many items on their to-do list as they get ready to ship the title out: aiming refinement and weapon balancing is still in the works, and there are some buggy spots in later levels that still need a bit of attention. Often the ship’s AI would say something to me during play and the audio wouldn’t actually kick in, so if I didn’t see the tiny message in the corner of the screen telling me what it said I’d completely miss the funny joke or important knowledge about an upcoming monster.But the biggest problem I had with the game has to do with a small detail: when the Ensign gets hit she doesn’t really react to it, and it pulls me out of the atmosphere of the game.
Sure, the screen flashes red and the health meter decreases, but other than a canned yelp I could barely tell the enemy made contact with her. When she dies she lets out a longer canned cry, then falls flatly onto the floor. Dark Matter does a great job of immersing me in the environment of the ship, but I didn’t feel that twinge of pain or fear so vital to survival-horror titles when she finally did get caught by a bug or when acid splashed in her face and killed her. This could be addressed by making the character model interactions more dynamic, or just giving the Ensign more hit animations. If Interwave finds a way to make me “really feel” the effects of the Ensign’s pain, they’ll be that much closer to a hit.
Dark Matter, even in its beta stages, already does a lot to make me want to discover more about the ship and its dark secrets, to find out about the Angels and the horrors they’ve unleashed, to find new weapons and fight back against the aliens. Its atmosphere is phenomenal, and the sound is fantastic; you deserve to play it with quality headphones or good speakers to enhance the creepiness. But I still remember the first time I got caught by a chainsaw-wielding maniac in Resident Evil 4 and how visceral it felt when I saw the blade moving through Leon’s neck, and it’s that memory, that feeling that makes me love survival-horror games. More than anything I want the hero in a survival horror to SURVIVE, and the sense of failure that comes with death is a part of the experience. Dark Matter doesn’t need to be that graphic, but it DOES need to make me feel like someone pays for the consequences of my poor actions. If Interwave finds a way to tie me to the Ensign’s survival, to really force me through the darkness to find some light for her, then this game (and the Kickstarter funds) will really shine through.
Check out Interwave’s Kickstarter for Dark Matter, or you can upvote it on Steam Greenlight. At the publishing of this article they’ve got some ground to cover to make their backing goal, so if you want to see this project come to its full potential, make sure to get in there and donate.