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Welcome to Live Love Play and this review of Dark Matter.
Dark Matter Has a promising structure, solid mechanics, and an interesting narrative but its incomplete nature prevents it from being as good as it could be. Published by Iceberg Interactive in October 2013 and developed by InterWave Studios, Dark Matter is billeted as a survival-horror-sidescroller in Metroidvania style. The player takes the role of “The Ensign”, the mute last survivor of the spaceship Endeavor. Guided by the voice of the mysterious AI “Companion” she must scavenge and fight her way off of the ship to survive.
The Plot of Dark Matter is straightforward and relayed to the player via the Companion’s narration as well as logs left behind by the long dead crew. The Endeavor is one year into a mission of exploration when it comes upon “The Anomaly”. Beings the Companion calls “The Angels” stream from the anomaly and lay waste to the crew. Those surviving the Angels are left with a broken ship and an insectoid infestation of “Scavengers” who eventually consume the survivors. When the Ensign awakens she must survive the Scavengers in order to escape with the Companion.
One of the most interesting aspects of Dark Matter is Light. Aside from illuminating the oppressively dark corridors of the ship, light agitates the Scavengers causing them to charge. Shining light at a Scavenger Nest will result in crawlers spawning from it to attack you. Light causes Scavenger eggs to hatch. Many traps are triggered or diffused by light. Managing Light, either from your flashlight or from your surroundings, is key to survival.
The game’s mechanics are simple enough with progression unlocking by acquiring new weapons and tech upgrades. Modifications are available for your weapons and ammunition to deal more damage, increase rate of fire, and add fire or corrosive effects to your ammo. Mods and ammo are obtained via crafting stations and crafting materials can be found in lockers, destructible boxes, and scavenger corpses. Sadly many mods effects are barely noticeable in gameplay.
Additionally, many of the game’s features seem tacked on or unfinished. For example: a hacking tool, obtained early, is only used once; weapon mods give only marginal benefits even if stacked in all three available mod slots; special ammo differs only in color palette; and promised secret areas hidden on the map are not there.
Four weapons are featured in the game. With the exception of the starting pistol all other weapons require crafted ammunition with special ammo requiring rare resources. Three of the four are obtained quickly but the fourth, a grenade launcher, is only obtained just before the final boss encounter and is conveniently the only way to clear the last barrier into the final room of the game.
Throughout the game the Companion speaks about the Angels, their terrible beauty, a complexity so great the original ship’s AIs committed suicide, their ravenous hunger, and their imminent stirring threat. But nowhere in the gameplay itself do we see or hear anything about these Angels aside from what the Companion tells you. There must have been something planned, a greater story narrative left unfinished.
That unfinished feeling runs through the entire game. Nowhere is this more prevalent than the ending. On the original release players passing through the final door were met with a text screen detailing the final moments of the Ensign’s journey before returning to the main menu. About two weeks after release a new ending was patched in featuring a cinematic similar to the introduction. The sudden end, even with the new cutscene included, feels cheap and rushed.
Dark Matter is a fun experience with a good starting foundation, but its incompleteness holds it back from being anything more than a novelty. Even for only $9.99 on Steam it would be hard to recommend this game for anything other than a study on game design.
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