I love ‘stuff’. I love games that include a lot of ‘stuff’. I love seeing ‘stuff’ leak out of every orifice. I am big on ‘stuff’.
My personal choice for Indie Game Of The Year 2012 was Jonas Kyratzes’ The Sea Will Claim Everything, a magical, masterfully written, hand-drawn adventure game in which you could interact with absolutely everything, usually for no reason at all. That’s what I mean by ‘stuff’ – bits of content that serve no other purpose than to exist by themselves. It’s always a brave move by a developer to include reams of content that could easily be passed over by a majority of the games’ players. With many AAA titles, we find a lot of railroading, where the player is essentially guided past everything the development team have spent so long crafting like a particularly rigid art exhibition.
“Look at our pretty set-piece. See how we made that building fall over. Now go over here and stare at this AMAZING water effect for precisely seventeen seconds before we throw you into this fenced-off field to admire the curves of a beautifully-rendered cow” etc. That might sound a little over-the-top (especially since I doubt any AAA developer will head down the path of bovine excellence), but it serves as an extreme example of the antithesis of Dark Scavenger.
A Space Barrel Of Chortles
As with all narrative-driven games, talking in too much depth about the story would ruin the point. You’re a nameless individual, floating helplessly through space, when you’re visited by an almost God-like space blob before being rescued by three oddball travellers known as the ‘Dark Scavengers’. From there, it’s a short trip to the surface of a planet in conflict with itself and a journey through an intriguing plot full of compelling twists and memorable characters.
Again, as is a requirement of the genre, for the game to be of any worth at all, the writing needs to be in top form. Dark Scavenger is one of the most genuinely funny, well-written games I’ve ever played and stands side-by-side with titles like Grim Fandango and Monkey Island. It is THAT good.
“This replaces the standard RPG mechanic of ‘levelling up’ and offers a more strategic method of progression than grinding and number-crunching.”
If it stopped there, if Dark Scavenger was ‘just’ a point-and-click adventure game, it’d be a pretty good one. Pardon me while I adopt my ‘TV Teleshopping Promo Man’ voice:
But wait; there’s more!
Dark Scavenger is also an RPG, with an incredibly intelligent battle system. In each encounter, you fight with a selection of three different ‘types of thing’ (technical term): weapons, items or allies. There’s a huge variety of effects for each, ranging from the basic elemental (fire, electricity, wind etc) to the downright odd (by dropping a piano on an enemy’s head). There’s no singular ‘right way’ of completing each encounter, so you’re always afforded a varied range of options in each fight, letting you play exactly how you’d like to. It’s a sense of mechanical freedom that many modern RPGs lack.
Did I mention the crafting system? Oh, I didn’t, did I?
As both a reward for winning encounters and randomly found by exploring the environment, you’ll gain a bunch of… really odd things (STUFF!), like a severed foot. Take these back to the three-man crew on the ship, and each will offer to craft your loot into either a weapon, an item or an ally. This replaces the standard RPG mechanic of ‘levelling up’ and offers a more strategic method of progression than grinding and number-crunching.
There’s a minor flaw to this system, in that all you’re offered before passing up your loot is a vague description of the item you’ll end up with, and they’re not all quite as useful as each other. This could theoretically lead to instances in which you have a horribly unbalanced inventory, making progress incredibly difficult. I say ‘theoretically’ because this never actually happened to me, but I’m quite deep into this article and I haven’t criticised anything yet.
Rife With The Spicy Stuff
While I’m looking for things to nitpick at, I suppose presentation isn’t the game’s strong suit. The environments, the characters and the enemies are all static with minimal battle animations, almost like you’re playing a text adventure with illustrations. Personally, I quite liked that, but I can see how it might be off-putting to people who like things to visibly HAPPEN on-screen. The music can be best described as ‘ambient’, with nothing that particularly stood out for me, but neither did it get in the way. It’s just sort-of ‘there’, which I think is what background music is supposed to do.
What I’m getting at is that this isn’t the sort-of RPG with sweeping scenic vistas and a swelling orchestral soundtrack. It’s bare-bones cosmetics, wrapped around a clever reinterpretation of what an RPG can be.
On the topic of ‘what an RPG can be’, y’know how most RPGs are dozens of hours long? Dark Scavenger isn’t. Not at first, anyway. When I was first assigned the game to poke and prod, I’d completed my first playthrough in three hours. I didn’t feel like I’d been cheated or anything, as I’d enjoyed what I originally thought was a short, but finely-crafted game, which is, to me, perfectly acceptable.
“It’s a brave thing to plunge so much effort into content that 95% of players might never see.”
Then I played through it again. And then again. By the end of that week, I’d played through the game five times and I was STILL finding new stuff. I know; you’re thinking, “Yes, Zed, lots of games have replayability; it’s not that big a deal.” The difference here is that the stuff you normally miss is an afterthought – a couple of pickups here and there, maybe a secret area or two. Dark Scavenger has so much thought and love put into every aspect, every item, every branching dialogue tree, every alternate path through an area, that replaying the game to try and see everything is so much more than just ‘doing it for the sake of it’.
I have discovered, for example, that you can avoid a sizeable chunk of the enemy encounters in the game if you choose the correct dialogue options. The entire complexion of the game changes depending on what you do, and going back through it multiple times to DO that creates an almost entirely new experience every time. I still don’t even know if I’ve seen everything, but I doubt it.
I think, to sum up, Dark Scavenger is so unique and worthwhile because of bravery. It’s a brave thing to decide that a game doesn’t need flashy animations to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s a brave thing to completely reject various conventions of the RPG genre. It’s a brave thing to plunge so much effort into content that 95% of players might never see. Any one of these choices, by themselves, would be a bold move. Putting them all together in one game is nothing short of insanity, and I absolutely love it.