Last month I completed a near final build of the PC version of 8monkey Labs' historical, time traveling FPS game, Darkest of Days. Players take the role of Alexander Morris, a soldier who is saved from imminent death by a time agent during Custard's Last Stand, also known as The Battle of the Little Bighorn. This action-centric FPS features a very cool and clever story, interesting characters, and an intriguing time travel premise.
Time Traveling FPS Action
Darkest of Days begins during the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This battle that took place in 1876 had the US Army fighting the Cheyenne, and the action begins with the player thrust right into the middle of the hectic and bloody battle. Dozens of NPCs are fighting with and against you, but the battle, as history will tell us, is hopeless for the Army. Just before Morris' death, he is pulled into a time bubble by a time agent from a futuristic organization known as KronoteK.
Morris wakes up in a mysterious lab with no one around. A large, curved monitor stands before him. A female character, simply known as Mother, whose eyes fill up the screen, offers a brief introduction, but details are saved for later. Soon after, Morris is transported to a training area where he meets Dexter. Dexter, a nicely developed character throughout the campaign, doesn't have a great deal of faith or interest in you, but he guides you through a very basic and brief training area to get you accustomed to the mechanics of the game. In this training area, players learn to fire a few different weapons, throw grenades, use cannons, and discover Chasers. Chasers are sort of an odd weapon that behave similar to grenades that are used to combat various enemies that have a blue aura about them. These enemies are really no different than the hundreds of others you encounter, but their lives are historically more relevant than most others, and they are not to be killed by you in battle. Instead of killing them, the player needs to use these Chasers, which only effect these blue aura NPCs, to subdue them. Should you kill them, well, there are consequences which I will explain shortly.
After the brief training sequence, it's time to get to work. You discover that Dr. Koell, the founder of KronoteK and developer of the time travel technology, has gone missing. Also, there have been some other disturbances in the time continuum according to Mother. This initial lab acts as the in-between hub for the game. It's here that you can use your Upgrade Points to increase the abilities of your weapons and select which mission you want to tackle next. Missions can be taken out of order to an extent, and what's more is that depending on which mission you do first, subsequent missions are altered, even if slightly, accordingly.
The overarching goal in the story is to find Dr. Koell and ensure his safety. KronoteK intelligence suggests that locating two men from the Civil War and World War I will help in tracking down the when and whereabouts of Dr. Koell. The men are Welsh and Petrovich. Welsh is a soldier in the American Civil War, so a large portion of the game is spent fighting in the Civil War, primarily as a Union soldier. The Battle of Antietam acts as the backdrop to most of the action during this time period. As a Yank, you will encounter hundreds of Confederate soldiers that must be fought using your ball and cap pistol and musket. The Confederates also have the Henry lever action repeating arm that you can pry out of their dead hands. The Henry is much more enjoyable to use than the slow loading musket.
Speaking of loading, Darkest of Days has a similar reloading system to Gears of War. When you go to reload, a circular meter appears in the center of the HUD. A small mark on the meter, whose size and position on the circle vary depending on the weapon you are reloading, indicates the sweet spot. If you press shoot as a line passes through this zone, the rest of the reload happens much quicker. But, if you press fire when the line isn't in this zone, loading takes about twice as long as a regular reload would have. Of course, players also have the option to just let reloading take as long as is needed without this extra bit of interaction, but it's a nice touch.
More on Gameplay
When you aren't searching for and helping Welsh in the American Civil War, much of your time is spent helping the Russians during World War I. Petrovich, the second important figure you need to locate and capture, is a commander in the Russian army. It's up to you and Dexter to keep him alive and get him back to KronoteK. In both eras, your opposition is not solely the enemy of whatever force you are fighting for at the time. There is a third party involved, too, with time traveling capabilities and futuristic weapons. These Opposition Agents will appear at various times, but they are guaranteed to appear if you kill too many of the blue aura NPCs. You have to use your Chasers to take out these figures, or let your friendly AI do the work; if you kill them yourself, time slows down, two or three portals appear, and suddenly you'll find yourself fighting these Agents who are much tougher than your average foe. Fighting these Agents isn't a bad thing though; when they die, they drop their weapon. Players can exchange their weapon or weapons of the time period for these futuristic guns, which makes combat a lot easier and more fun.
As the story advances, players manage to finally wrangle in Welsh and Petrovich who are then questioned by KronoteK. A special reintegration team with KronoteK reinserts these figures back into history so as to not disturb the space time continuum too much, something that KronoteK prides itself on. In fact, during one mission in the Civil War era, players must combat a rebel foe who has managed to get his hands on an assault rifle that the mysterious time-traveling opposition agents left behind. The idea that KronoteK believes in preserving the past and changing it as little as possible is reiterated several times in the story.
While I enjoyed the Civil War and World War I angles, I thought the missions in Pompei and at the prison camp in World War II were even better. The World War II scenario has Morris posing as a Russian in a prison. A neat, several minute long scripted event builds up a very action packed sequence. This sequence is kicked off with a diversionary tactic that a future version of yourself creates, and in this moment of diversion, you begin a mutiny that sees the Russians trying to fight back their captors. It's a rather well done mission that has you facing a lot of enemies in a very short amount of time as you try to escape the prison.
Another fun event in Darkest of Days was commandeering a German blimp, but I think my favorite part would have to be mission in Pompei. During this mission, you and several other KronoteK NPCs battle against dozens of the opposition while ash rains from the sky due to the nearby volcano. By this late point in the story, some interesting plot twists have occurred. Dexter and Morris begin to get uneasy about exactly what faction has what intentions and I thought the story did a good job of keeping the players guessing, and intrigued.
Besides the simple upgrade system in between missions, Darkest of Days is a very straight-forward, pure action FPS. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's a point worth making. There are no secret areas, keys, or side quests or much more than there needs to be to carry on the plot and the mission. I found myself stumbling into a lot of invisible walls, but usually the situations Morris and Dexter get into are very time sensitive anyway, so there isn't any time or need to wonder about. Most missions take about twenty to thirty minutes to complete, and include plenty of checkpoints.
Presentation, Additional Thoughts
Overall, Darkest of Days is a fun game, although I admit the pacing and design had me a little discouraged at first. Once I got through the training mission and the first mission, the story, characters, and action really picked up and it became something I wanted to continue to play through. The pacing and difficulty stays well balanced throughout, which only urged me to continue to play.
8monkey Labs' own internal engine, Marmoset, is utilized for Darkest of Days. The Marmoset engine allows for dozens upon dozens of 3D characters to be rendered on screen at once, and this is evident from the very initial battle. While the graphics aren't as vibrantly gorgeous as an Unreal 3 powered game, they are still quite nice. Many missions take place on large, outdoor forested areas with lots of thick trees and streams. The Marmoset engine is capable of some nice lighting effects as you will see in these environments, as well as the less tree-covered ones. I did experience some clipping, but nothing severe.
Aurally, the soundtrack was good; all instrumental and featuring lots of ominous drum beats, it was a fitting score. Voiceovers are good, too; Morris never talks, but Dexter sure does. Dexter's lines are usually brutally honest and humorous, laced with some well placed cursing. Lastly, sound effects are good and satisfying, especially the blast of a musket and subsequent yell of a fallen enemy.
Darkest of Days does not feature any sort of multiplayer mode, but the single player campaign should take a good 8-10 hours to complete. 8monkey Labs did a lot right with Darkest of Days, and I have no qualms in recommending you check it out amongst a growingly hectic holiday game season.