Mark Allen, a member of Film London's Equal Access Network, previewed The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark as part of the London Games Festival 2021. Here they share their reflections on the game.
Note: This review is based on playing the demo version of Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark, which comprised one chapter out of six in the final game.
Point-and-click adventure games have long been a staple of video games. Back in the days of Broken Sword and Monkey Island, detailed painted backgrounds, complex plotting and distinctive dialogue compensated for a lack of processing power and graphical heft in early console generations. That the genre has persisted - even thrived - in almost exactly the same form for decades (with mostly aesthetic improvements) is an anachronistic testament to the breadth of gamers' tastes.
The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark maintains this tradition by presenting itself as a primitive, pixelated adventure with self-referential humour and no pretensions to technical prowess. If anything, the developers appear to have taken a step backward from the adventure games of the '80s and '90s. Characters possess no facial features (and occasionally comment on this fact) and do not move to interact with people or objects, so the action plays out in fuzzy, still tableaux with text scrolling across the top of the screen.
You play as a detective, a generically wisecracking private investigator tasked with solving a series of spooky mysteries in a noir-ish city. A dopey, childlike cop is your sidekick, seemingly along for comic relief despite half of the dialogue being gags already.
Comedy appears to be Darkside Detective's USP, but the hit rate of its gags is disappointingly low. Incidental characters spout nonsense that the lead characters can riff on in a manner that occasionally produces a chuckle but more often elicits a groan and reduces the cast to a series of punchline generators. There's little consistency or specificity in even its main characters, who are styled as generic '40s American pulp heroes but use distinctly British vocabulary in every other sentence.
This has the unfortunate effect of making it feel like the writers are playing cops 'n' robbers with action figures in a Croydon pub, and as a result it's difficult to care about where to put the assortment of items you've acquired. It's a shame, because all this undercuts the sense of eerie mood achieved by the dark synth score and the enjoyable background art.
A Fumble in the Dark plays less like an interactive investigation than a visual novel, with largely static characters conversing between the player's attempts to solve the chapter's mystery. The method of solving said mystery is firmly in the "click everything on screen until success" school of detection, and about as satisfying as that sounds. It's disappointing to see such little effort put into a game continuing a 30+ year old genre's legacy when other developers have done much more with much less.