Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder
First posted on 07 December 2007. Last updated on 11 July 2010.
Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder marks the first of an adventure game trilogy released by Zoetrope Interactive in which the developer attempts to crossbreed Lovecraftian horror with modern British police drama. Although the concept sounds interesting, the execution in this game is sadly disappointing. The scattered plot defies description: a convoluted paranormal story related to some poisonous mushroom cults. All the characters are reclusive bachelors, descending into madness while spending too much time on morbid hobbies. The graphics are full of unrelenting gloom, embodied especially in tasteless home décor and maddeningly dark lighting. The soundtrack skimps on music and voiceovers but has plenty of ticking clocks. Gameplay consists predominantly of reading documents in search of clues that the player must underline in red ink. In the end, this ludicrous yet humorless game induces only boredom, not psychological horror.
The protagonist in this game is Howard Loreid, a police detective working in the fictional British precinct of Wellsmoth. Bored with his regular cases, Loreid has become obsessed with the murder suspect Loath Nolder, who is supposedly an insane but ingenious private investigator. The game opens with a cinematic showing Nolder in an asylum. The player then takes control of Loreid, who is dreaming (apparently) about being also in an asylum. Loreid awakes when his colleague calls to notify him that Nolder has escaped from the asylum. From there, Loreid must continue his investigation of the murder victim, an occultist named Clark Field, while also searching for Nolder. As the story continues, it soon becomes clear that Loreid's sanity is just as much in doubt as everyone else's.
Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder has had a somewhat turbulent development history. Originally titled Loath Nolder: Labores Solis, the project was initially canceled back in 2005 by the original Turkish developer Aedon Games. It was resurrected in 2006 with little fanfare by Zoetrope Interactive, a new independent game development company formed from the remnants of Aedon Games. This is first game title developed by the new studio. It includes a manual that explains the interface and provides solutions for several early puzzles as a tutorial.
The game contains very little dialog. Whenever Loreid speaks to somebody else, it is usually over the phone or under peculiar conditions that hide the other character's face. Likewise, the player seldom sees Loreid. The voice acting is passable but very restrained. At most, the voices sound apprehensive. This combination of understated acting, nonexistent facial cues, and short scripts makes the game's characters seem very flat. Loreid narrates parts of the game but there are no voiceovers for most of the narration.
All the characters in this game seem to be molded from the same cookie cutter. All of them, oddly, are men. None of the characters seems to have an active family life or any romantic relationship. The back story for many of the characters is also poorly told. For instance, it is not even entirely clear why Nolder is suspected of murdering Field. All the characters are heavy-handedly portrayed as morbid and insane. Their lives consist of reading horror poetry, collecting gloomy artwork, visiting gravesites, having nightmares, and periodically slipping into hallucinogenic or psychotic states.
The game's graphics are so dark that most players will need to fiddle with the system settings in order to see clearly. Although the gamma level is adjustable within the game, some shadow areas (for example, inside drawers or in the corners of rooms) are invisibly dark even with the gamma level set to the maximum. At high settings, however, the documents in the game become hard on the eyes. Snowy noise patterns also become visible on screen, though this effect seems to be intentional.
The game's modeling and texturing are better than its lighting. However, many motifs get overused. For instance, some locations contain numerous duplicates of the same lamps, chairs, jars and book covers. Dreary paintings on the walls feature trees, storms, and blobs that look very similar to each other.
Since people (and particularly faces) so seldom appear in the game, character graphics are not an attraction of this game either. When speaking characters are visible, they look quite stiff, though their faces and arms are animated. The game has few cut scenes but instead there are sequences when Loreid goes on autopilot, spinning around in fear. Blur effects also appear sometimes when Loreid is afraid.
The musical score is quite limited. A surprising number of scenes have no music and elsewhere the same short sequences play over and over again. Most of the instruments strike whistling or pinging notes. The sound effects are more pervasive but some of them, such as howling wind and ticking clocks, play so often in so many scenes that they become aggravating.
The game plays using a first-person perspective, with scrollable, 360° panoramas as backgrounds. The point-and-click interface has rollover icons that indicate the possible actions in each hotspot. An unusual feature of the interface (which the developer calls "thinking screen") is that Loreid's thoughts act almost like inventory objects. Loreid "picks up" thoughts when reading documents, having conversations, and examining objects. Later, in the thoughts and inventory screen, the player can combine 2 or more thoughts or objects to form another thought or object.
At first glance, this thought system looks like an interesting way to break the mold of inventory based puzzles. The system especially sounds appropriate for an adventure game in the mystery and horror genres. In practice, however, it rarely works well. The problem is that the player's thought process seldom aligns perfectly with Loreid's. When the player is stuck for ideas, process of elimination is an occasionally effective but absurd way of combining Loreid's thoughts. When the player has an idea before Loreid, it is sometimes necessary to figure out how to make Loreid catch up.
Another problem is the way that Loreid picks up thoughts through document research. The game lets the player underline potential clues in documents and click to see whether Loreid has any thoughts about the underlined passage. There are hundreds of pages of documents, scattered across every location. Loreid usually leaves documents where he finds them. Some clues in the documents remain hidden until needed, so the player must remember documents' locations and return later just to reread them. At times, these document research puzzles involve more trial and error than logic. For example, Loreid sometimes but not always picks up thoughts when the player underlines unknown names of people and places. Once the novelty wears off, searching for "hot words" is just as tedious as any other kind of pixel hunting. Optionally, the player can reduce the difficulty by enabling automatic document research. However, the player still must check and recheck documents for context sensitive clues.
Apart from document research, the gameplay also involves inventory puzzles, code breaking, and simple machine puzzles. The code breaking puzzles are the most logically challenging part of the game and are often the culmination of several document research, thought, or inventory puzzles. Many kinds of puzzles suffer somewhat from pixel hunting, which is exacerbated by the dark lighting. Occasionally, even an entire room is difficult to find because it is too dark. Once the player has explored an entire location, most inventory puzzles for that location become clear. The player can enable hints as an option. Most of the hints are not explicit and actually they do not cover most of the game's puzzles. Some of the game's puzzles, particularly the codes, are satisfying to solve. Mostly, however, the player keeps hoping that the puzzles' solutions will lead to someplace with less oppressive graphics and sound and more character interaction. They do not.
Perhaps the most fundamental flaw of the game is its monotony, its stark lack of variety in terms of characters, graphics, soundtrack, gameplay, and everything else. Even in the horror genre, the player needs to receive some spark of inspiration and humanity that makes it worthwhile to slog through the darkness. Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder offers no such spark.