First posted on 12 March 2011. Last updated on 12 October 2011.
|The utility shows a detailed map of the Westwick.|
|The Westwick's pilot is in cryogenic sleep.|
|O'Neil is the captain of the Westwick.|
|Each biolock opens up a new area of the ship to be explored.|
|The game's graphics are attractive and convincing.|
Darkstar: Captain's Box
Darkstar: Captain's Box is a special limited edition package that includes, in addition to the game, a 2-disc soundtrack, a strategy guide (PDF only), a coffee table art book (PDF only), a pre-printed autograph photo of the cast (3 choices), and a black t-shirt (2 choices).
Parallax Studio's Darkstar (also known as Darkstar: The Interactive Movie) is, like its protagonist, displaced in time. Perhaps the easiest way to describe this game is to compare it to Myst, though with more emphasis on storytelling than puzzle solving. Indeed, as the game's subtitle implies, Darkstar is more of a movie than a game, hearkening back to the days of Full Motion Video (FMV) games filmed with live actors. On the upside, unlike most FMV games of yore, the theatrics in Darkstar is brilliant, with a gripping storyline, nuanced characters, and stellar performances by the cast. On the downside, the interface often requires more patience than intelligence, and some of the puzzles are maddeningly frustrating. Nevertheless, I recommend Darkstar highly to any adventure fan who can appreciate a great game with a superior story and amazing atmosphere.
The best part of Darkstar, without question, is its story, which equals or even surpasses that of many sci-fi television shows and movies. Indeed, fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) will be thrilled to learn that the game features the entire original cast of the show. The protagonist, played by British actor Clive Robertson, is John O'Neil, who is the captain of a starship called the Westwick. As the game begins, he awakes from suspended animation with near total amnesia, a convenient plot device that allows the player to gradually learn the game's backstory. Eventually, O'Neil learns that his ship represents part of a last-ditch effort to save humanity: he must use it to travel through Darkstar—a wormhole or portal through time—to warn his ancestors, hopefully warding off the destruction of the planet by vengeful Martian convicts.
Most of this story is revealed in well directed cut scenes that play when the player triggers a biolock (bio/lok). The biolocks are dispersed and hidden throughout the ship, and only contact with a (live) crew member's hand on their panel will open them. As the game progresses, O'Neil learns about his past and that of his crewmates by accessing their computer logs, reading mysterious notes left behind for him, and chatting with the hilarious SIMON and his girlfriend MAGS, a pair of lovable and eccentric robots that provide a great deal of comic relief. The player also learns about the characters indirectly, such as by noting the kind of artwork and decorations in their quarters.
O'Neil's mission is complicated by several factors, some of which only become clear much later on. At first, he is merely concerned with repairing some damage to his ship, though he has forgotten his original mission. He also learns that his ship has been boarded by enemies, and even realizes that an enemy ship is just outside. To make matters even worse, he soon finds reason to suspect that some of his crewmates (or even his former self) may be saboteurs. In short, there is a great deal for the player to piece the story together before the game culminates in an unforgettable conclusion.
The interface is simple and intuitive. Any gamer who is familiar with first-person adventure games will have no trouble navigating it. The player needs to only manage a few items in the inventory, and these items are automatically used in the appropriate places. The player can also consult a detailed map at any time, showing them what part of the ship (or later, planet) they are on. The only major downside to the interface is that the transitions between rooms and vantage points seem very slow, without any option to turn them all off. A few transitions can be skipped, but I frequently find myself gritting my teeth as the camera slowly pans and zooms around the same path over and over again.
The graphics, sound effects, and music are excellent. Of particular note are the wonderful settings, which look every bit as polished and realistic as a big budget sci-fi movie. The cut scenes are so polished and entertaining that no sensible gamer will object to them; indeed, they are good enough to standalone and will be savored by most sci-fi fans. The music, which is available as a separate 2-disc set, sets the mood perfectly, with an intoxicating mix of electric guitar and dreamy synthesizer.
The weakest part of the game, at least for seasoned adventure fans, is the puzzles. Many of the puzzles are either too obvious or too obscure. Some puzzles are so easy that I solve them almost unconsciously. Other puzzles are maddeningly difficult, such as a dreadful maze called the labyrinth that is probably the game's most difficult puzzle. Indeed, the developer must have anticipated some of the frustration the player may have with this puzzle and sprinkles in references to suicide ("The Easy Way Out" is a handgun) throughout the labyrinth. My least favorite puzzle is a house of cards sequence that must be clicked, seemingly at random, to be stacked in the right pattern. The solution seems hopelessly arbitrary and frustrating. To make it even worse, once the puzzle is begun, there is no way to back out of it except for reloading from a previous game save.
I was miffed, in this otherwise brilliant game, by some of the game's hidden, or at least obscure, hotspots. I became completely stuck on a couple of different occasions, only to learn after many hours of wandering that I had neglected to push buttons hidden in very improbable locations. I would never have found them without help from the official strategy guide (available separately from the game). The developer should have offered an option in the game to display the available hotspots onscreen.
Alas, I found the game to be quite buggy. The game crashed frequently when running under Windows 7. By contrast, the game was much more stable when running under OS X.
Tongue-in-cheek, I must wonder if Darkstar may be more fun and enjoyable without the interactivity. All of the strictly movie elements, such as the acting, story, special effects, and so on, are brilliant and very entertaining. I am thrilled, for instance, when O'Neil puts on his spacesuit and goes for a spacewalk, accompanied by a very appropriate piece of classical music (I will not spoil the surprise hidden here). I also enjoy the encounters with SIMON and MAGS, and I believe any MST3K fan will absolutely love them too. However, I have not found the puzzles to be as fun as I want them to be, and I feel that the slow transitions drag down the pacing and make exploring the ship more tedious than titillating. Still, these few shortcomings have not ruined my experience of the game. I recommend Darkstar highly, especially to any gamer who enjoys first-person adventure games with a great story, epic cut scenes, and memorable characters.