[Acorn Gaming]



[ 4/5 **** 4/5 ]

 [Darkwood title screen] It would be nice to think that the Acorn platform was about to get a new game to rival the quality of the latest Sony Playstation titles - something to surpass the software that takes a team of designers, graphics artists, musicians and programmers to produce. But, realistically, it's just not going to happen, short of someone having some spare money to dispose of. Expectations are always high, however, and so when Eclipse released DarkWood at the 1995 Acorn User show there were inevitably people who were disappointed, having been hoping for better graphics, better sound, better programming, better gameplay...

The first thing that strikes you about DarkWood is the inappropriateness of the title. Despite the implications of mood and atmosphere, the game is completely lacking in either, due almost entirely to the brightly-coloured cartoon-style graphics used throughout. These graphics vary from the good to the downright awful, with most being somewhere inbetween the two extremes. Some show nice attention to detail, with eyes in paintings that follow you, whilst others demonstrate trigger-happy use of flood fills.

Unusually for a game like this DarkWood uses a roving camera which follows the player around, floating some distance up and behind their head, pointing the same way that they do, although it can be moved back a bit or configured to lag behind a little for dramatic effect (although this makes the game a bit confusing to play!). Games with constantly moving and rotating cameras like this tend to require either a very fast polygon plotting routine or a fast computer, or preferably both. Since DarkWood doesn't really have the former, you're left requiring the latter, unless you fancy playing whilst being unable to see more than a few metres ahead of you. You have the choice of incredibly slow, very slow or just plain slow graphics, with the difference in speed being due to the level of shading applied to them. Even on a Risc PC 700 the game is all but unplayable with any setting other than "none". The game also features a "distance fade out" effect, which, whilst a nice (if unoriginal) idea, is implemented simply by not plotting some pixels, which produces a rather strange, unsubtle effect, especially in the low-resolution mode in which the game runs - still, it might work if you're using a TV I suppose. And all this said it's still the best home-grown effort yet seen, and it isn't too bad at the end of the day.


Despite its speed, and various plotting imperfections - especially noticeable when the roofs of the texture-mapped buildings appear without any walls beneath them - the roving camera is still a "nice thing", and is a first for an Acorn game like this. It allows some very nice, dramatic, rotating zoom-ins when you enter and exit buildings (since a static viewpoint is used inside buildings), and avoids the problem endemic in many similar games of being unable to see exactly what your character is doing, and where they are standing.

The land in which the game is set is a strange mix, with some features being highly detailed, and others displaying an amazing lack of attention. You can destroy the bushes, squash the flowers when you walk on them, watch the birds fly, play with the rabbits, observe the bouncing mushrooms(!), and generally watch the inhabitants of the region going about their lives, and yet you can attempt to follow a character through an open door and unexplicably be unable to enter yourself, despite the fact that an identical door on a different building can be passed through. Also, you can watch people enter a building, then follow them, but once you get inside they will have mysteriously vanished. This does rather spoil the unusually good feeling the game gives of being "alive". There are plenty of other examples of inconsistent attention to detail. You can enter a supposedly dead and barren land, and yet watch lots of brightly coloured birds fly around, even though there is no vegetation at all.

One of the things I hated most about this game was the shoddy playtesting. I can't bear games which crash whilst you play them - it entirely removes your confidence in them, for you become eternally paranoid about having to save after every little move. And DarkWood is really quite good at crashing. In the four or so hours of play it took me to finish the game it crashed about five or six times - just go and stand to the right of the castle entrance if you have the game to see what I mean, or try leaving the castle through the front entrance as the jester. Sometimes objects you have can strangely "go missing", too, and it's easy to make the game impossible by destroying an essential object.

A slight attempt has been made at having selectable characters - you get to "find" an archer who joins you, although you can easily get by without him, and you can also get a "joke" character whose only real use is to crash the game and tell poor jokes (you can also use him to help with a puzzle if you like).

In-game music is quite good, although I don't suppose it will be to everyone's taste. It is, however, very limited, with only two tunes, and it does slow the game down a surprisingly large amount. There are a few run-of-the-mill sound effects including, strangely, one you only get when you enter your house at a strange angle near the edge of the door!

[Game Screenshot] Despite all these complaints, the game is still essentially quite good fun to play, despite the silly way in which your characters lose energy all the time just by existing - which essentially imposes a tight time limit on the game, made all the more senseless because of the way many extra energy awards are entirely random. Well, I enjoyed it anyway, although it was over far too quickly. "A Massive Arcade Adventure" cries the slogan (see picture above), but "A Not Especially Big Arcade Adventure" would be more accurate. The straightforward and incredibly obvious junior-school style of some puzzles doesn't help, but then there are enough slightly less obvious ones to keep the game fun. The control method, too, is a bit dodgy, since you have to use both the keyboard (to move), and the mouse (to select objects and generally "do things"). It breaks the game flow considerably, and makes some actions seemingly pointlessly tricky to perform.

So who should we blame for the game's imperfections? Eclipse, I say. Yet again they fail miserably to properly playtest their releases, being happy to release bugged software - the first version of DarkWood was so poor that you couldn't even save your position! To my mind, Eclipse are synonymous with a lack of quality and bugged software, despite their friendly, helpful nature when you speak with them or write to them. Anyone who wants to experience this first-hand should buy Xenon 2, which is so incomplete that some levels have whole long empty sections!

In summary, there are things about DarkWood which are poor or substandard, but despite all this the game is still fun way to while away a few hours and it's also original in a way which very few games are. And, since Eclipse have had the good sense to sell it at what should be regarded as a "budget" price of less than 25 pounds (you can pay as little as 20 pounds if you shop around), it does represent good value for money. If you're at all predisposed to arcade adventures then I'd say it was a very worthwhile purchase.

Review by Gareth Moore, ©1996

[ 4/5 **** 4/5 ]

Available from:
Unit 1, The Shopwhyke Centre, Shopwhyke Road, Chichester, PO20 6GD
Tel. (01234) 531194
Fax (01243) 531196
Email: eclipse@argonet.co.uk
WWW: http://www.argonet.co.uk

Recommended Retail Price: 25 pounds

...this page last updated: 20/10/96...
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©Gareth Moore 1993-2003

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