Remember that scene in Alien when Dallas was down in the vents looking for that pesky Xenomorph and Ripley was up top monitoring him with the motion scanner? That was the first thing that hit me as soon as I started Interwave’s current work-in-progress, Dark Matter. Some say Tom Skerritt’s career died with his character in that cold, cramped shaft, and in Dark Matter you’ll meet the same fate; a lot – but thankfully, you’ll get plenty of second chances.
Alien is just one of the many places this old-school 2.5D, action-platformer draws inspiration from. Echoes of Dead Space, Metroid, Event Horizon, and even Portal bounce around the tight, lifeless corridors of The Endeavour, the lost, deep-space exploration ship that Dark Matter is set on. You begin your journey as the last remaining crew member, Ensign, awaking from a 70 year cryo-sleep to find the dying ship is invested with creatures who have just gone and made themselves right at home and aren’t going anywhere without a fight. So it’s up to you: it’s Ensign vs. The Space Squatters. You’re not completely alone, however, you have The Companion, the ships AI whispering sweet nothings in your ear about ammo caches, objectives and the grisly details of what happened while you were “chilling out”.
The theme of light and dark is central to the entire the game. It permeates, almost dictating (nearly) every aspect of the experience. You are kept in the dark, literally and figuratively, by being slowly drip-fed information about what happened. This extends onto enemies too, forcing you to figure out the best tactics to take down each iteration. You’ll learn hard and you’ll learn quick.
A slight radiance surrounds Ensign even in the darkest depths of the Endeavour, a soft aura, like the last glowing embers of a dying fire, desperately trying to stay alight. Ensign herself has no defining characteristics, and limits her vocal chords to grunts and moans during heavy excursions or injuries. The silent-protagonist approach is suited perfectly to the narrative and allows to player to project their own attributes on the avatar.
The standard weapon compliments are here: shotguns, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and more – each upgradeable and with different ammo types. Consumables are crafted at certain points from resources found within the Endeavour. Careful management is needed, and often the tough choice must be made between more ammo or more health packs. It’s classic survival horror stuff and it works a treat. As well as these standard armaments, you have your trusty flashlight. But it is both a blessing and a curse. It illuminates the path ahead and provides you with a false sense of security, but it also agitates the monsters, alerts them to your presence and triggers traps. It’s a beautifully realised mechanic and adds a very tactical element into the mix. The labyrinth of corridors in the Endeavour are made all the more claustrophobic by the tight camera focus on the player. You can barely see ahead and many times you may find yourself running head-first into trouble, and then you’re dead before you even know what hit you. You learn fast to ease up on that sprint key.
The beta version is a little rough around the edges graphically, but that isn’t important. The retro feel of the visuals don’t need that high resolution brilliance, its beauty lies beyond the aesthetics. The atmosphere is what’s important here and Dark Matter certainly has it. The dull greys and blacks of the ships interior contrast nicely with the neon glow of enemy crawlers. Character animations may need a little work, so hopefully that will be improved for the final release. The minimalist approach to the audio is also very appreciated. The ship’s low, ominous hum is shattered by mag-lock doors opening and closing, compounded by the click-clack of enemies scuttling and enhanced by the Companion’s lifeless recounting of events. The AI is initially cold and emotionless but as you progress, it becomes more and more intense – more human. It’s almost like it has lost hope, if a machine was even capable of such a thing. One gets the sense that it longs for revenge against the intruders. It really is quite unnerving.
So far, Dark Matter is shaping up to be one hell of a game. Interwave have done an excellent job of creating a truly eerie survival horror in a sci-fi setting. With some minor tweaks, such as a few less save points and a little more resources, this could be one to remember. You can fund its final stages of production right now on Interwave’s Kickstarter page. Do it.