What is it?
The Darkside Detective is a 2D adventure game with light puzzles and a strong focus on humour and nostalgia. It affectionately pays homage to 1980/90s pop and nerd culture and the point-and-clickers of yore, including those from genre behemoths Sierra On-Line, Revolution Software, and LucasArts.
It was developed by Spooky Doorway (that’s a great name for a game studio!) and released on 27 July 2017 for PC, Mac, and Linux. It’s available on both Steam and GOG. Steam also offers a free playable demo, so you can try before you buy.
Why are you only reviewing this now?
Good question imaginary pedantic reader! I actually finished The Darkside Detective back in early 2018 but recently came across a bunch of notes I made while playing it and I also have a bucketload of screenshots sitting on my hard drive. Regular visitors to my blog (if you even exist?) will notice that I’ve had a screenshot of The Darkside Detective on my About page for some time now.
Anyway, I figured it would be a waste not to do something with my notes. Plus it’s one of my favourite indie games of the past few years and it looks like The Darkside Detective: Season 2 will be getting a release later this year, which is exciting!
Besides, I only write for myself these days, so to hell with deadlines and timeliness!
What’s the story?
Set in the small, fictional town of Twin Lakes City (not to be confused with Twin Peaks!), you play as Detective Francis McQueen, the lead investigator of the “criminally underfunded” Darkside Division.
Very much in the vein of Agent Mulder, McQueen and his lovable doofus sidekick Officer Dooley (surely a nod to Police Quest?) get called into to investigate all the “spooky crap” that no one else will touch. So, were talking poltergeists, ghost trains, haunted libraries, mischievous gremlins, lake-dwelling monsters, zombies, and other paranormal happenings.
The Darkside Detective is broken down into a series of discrete bite-size episodes, but there is some continuity between the stories and a vague, overarching narrative revolving around the Darkside – a supernatural, parallel plane of reality.
Essentially, it’s the X-Files meets The Twilight Zone, with a healthy dose of Twin Peaks thrown in for good measure. There are coffee references aplenty!
What do you actually do?
The Darkside Detective comprises six main cases plus three bonus cases that each take roughly 30-60 minutes to complete. I suppose you could call them “bite-sized”, which I’ve already done and so does Spooky Doorway’s descriptive blurb.
Each case involves investigating some spooky goings-on and solving a series of inventory puzzles. Through a very minimal point-and-click interface, you interact with relatively static environments – looking for important objects and talking to NPCs, including the ever-present Officer Dooley.
There are no verbs and no character movement expect for transitioning from location-to-location, which is usually achieved by clicking on doors, stairs, passageways, roads, etc. Like most classic adventure games, you can use, combine, and wear items; you just drag and drop them from the inventory bar.
There are also a number of simple mini-games, usually one per case, such as picture and symbol puzzles and tile games.
Oh my gosh, the soundtrack from Ben Prunty (of FTL and Gravity Ghost fame) is freaking awesome. Heck, I like it so much I bought it from his Bandcamp page while writing this review.
The soundtrack is spooky, mysterious and diverse, combining a range of styles including synth, jazz, funk, and orchestral. The music calls to mind the works of John Carpenter, Danny Elfman, Phillip Glass and Angelo Badalamenti as well as other 80s film and TV soundtracks.
I’m also enamoured with Paul Conway’s blocky, low-key pixel art. With its CRT scanlines, saturated colours and simple animations, the visuals are highly reminiscent of the Commodore 64 and early PC and Amiga games.
But despite the heavy minimalism, every pixel oozes personality and attention to detail. Each location is beautifully lit through the sparing use of post-processing effects, and the placement of objects is always purposeful. There’s little clutter here or unnecessary extravagance.
To throw out yet another cliché (keep ’em coming Stevie!), the artwork does a lot with very little and perfectly conjures up how of us middle-aged gamers like to remember (not necessarily accurately) the video games from our childhood.
Crucially, Prunty’s music and Conway’s artwork combine brilliantly to create a wonderful ambience and fully immerse you in the strange, pixelated world of Twin Lakes City.
But I think my favourite thing about The Darkside Detective is the quality of Dave McCabe’s writing. The mini-stories are engaging, witty and drenched in playful nostalgia.
The jokes come thick and fast – a relentless onslaught of general silliness, innuendo, parody, cheesy puns, clever wordplays, surreal non-sequiturs, self-reference and fourth-wall-breaking moments. Also, Dooley has to be one of the best comedy sidekicks ever. I love the way he segues from astounding stupidity to occasional moments of astuteness and learnedness.
It’s a game that made me chortle and guffaw constantly, and it makes you want to interact with every single object and try every line of dialogue so that you don’t miss any of the gags or references. There are even a handful of jokes hidden away in the game options and credits at the end. It very much reminds of the humour from the games of Ron Gilbert and Charles Cecil.
Of course, it’s also chock full of references and homage not just to the 1980s and 90s but everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek and Psycho, to H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and Haruki Murakami. I just love how McCabe managed to squeeze so much in without it feeling bloated or contrived. Blink, and you might actually miss some of the references!
I suppose my only real criticism would be that the puzzles are possibly a bit too easy and predictable, especially if you’re a veteran of the genre. That said, I still enjoyed the gameplay, and the humour, atmosphere and narrative more than makes up for this shortcoming.
So, which was your favourite episode?
Oh, difficult question because I really liked them all! However, I did especially enjoy the Christmas special Buy Hard. For a bonus episode, it’s actually one of the longest cases. I love the locations and it has some really great moments, such as how it determinedly shoehorns in a homage to one of the most memorable scenes from Die Hard.
But is Die Hard really a Christmas film?
I’m not getting into that perennial and divisive debate here! All I’m saying is, the story revolves an estranged family trying to reunite for Christmas and it ends on Dean Martin’s Let It Snow! with negotiable bearer bonds fluttering down like giant snowflakes from the burning wreckage of Nakatomi Plaza.
Oh, and a crazed Bruce Willis scrawls “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho” on a dead German’s sweater.
The final word
Not to repeat myself too much, but The Darkside Detective really is one of my favourite indie games of the last few years. Of course, I grew up in the golden age of point-and-click adventures and am a huge fan of the genre, so I’m definitely part of the game’s target demographic.
However, the quality of the writing, humour, pixel art and soundtrack and the digestible, bite-sized nature of the episodes elevates The Darkside Detective high above a whole slew of mediocre indie titles that trade on little more than 1980s nostalgia, such as the buggy, repetitive Beat Cop and the disappointing The Long Reach.
Anyway, I’m pretty hyped about The Darkside Detective: Season 2. I hope it lives up to my expectations!