A Walk in the Dark Review (PC)

How much are videogames allowed to borrow from their predecessors? Depending on where you stand with this question will ultimately determine where you stand with A Walk in the Dark. As a particularly challenging two-dimensional puzzle platformer, A Walk in the Dark does little to hide its stark influences, however that is not to say it’s without its own voice.

Obvious homage is paid to the likes of Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV and Limbo, but after deciding on this path how much could developers Flying Turtle have really deviated from the customary script - the point A to point B via obstacles x, y and z blueprint synonymous with 2D puzzle sidescollers - probably justifies the proverbial tilt of the hat. For some, however, it won’t. But providing you 'can' see past these resemblances, A Walk in the Dark offers more than enough to earn its place among the aforementioned genre classics, as opposed to cowering in their shadows.

Flipping gravity is fun and challenging, but has been seen elsewhere before

A Walk in the Dark - which released last year direct from Flying Turtle, but has only just landed on Steam - tells a simple tale, depicting its effortlessly elegant foreground visuals in stylish silhouette form. Protagonists Arielle and her pet cat Bast are also conveyed by shadow however, shying from Limbo’s monochrome aesthetic, front to back is nicely offset by colourful, vibrant and often active backdrops. The game offers very little in way of narrative as, after enjoying an evening together in a forest (what better way for a young girl to spend her time with only her pet cat as company), Arielle and Bast are separated by a ghastly underworld Hades-like apparition.

From here, the duo must grapple across a series of obstacle-laden spaces overflowing with hideous enemies, spike pits, rotating saw blades, cannons, homing missiles, and perpetual chasms as they strive to reunite. One step out of turn results in instant death - depicted by a beautifully animated puff of smoke - whereupon the player must then start again from the beginning of the level. Levels are fairly short though, particularly in the first three-quarters of the game, so doing so rarely feels like a chore, instead ramping up the challenge.

Arielle appears to be stranded in a twisted macabre dimension filled with traps and pitfalls wherein her sole movements are dictated by her ability to invert gravity. These areas largely require mettle over mind and often patience trumps skill. Bast’s environments, on the other hand, are much less restrictive and are therefore more enjoyable - it is perhaps no coincidence that the majority of the game takes place here - but he too has the ability to flip his surroundings’ gravitational pull in certain levels without rhyme nor reason.

Puzzles demand thought with mistakes punishable by instant death

Plot-light it all may be, but A Walk in the Dark’s defining feature is its hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. Composer Cody Cook does a fine job of adding exponential depth to a fairly shallow adventure and although it must be noted that puzzle platformers rarely require a great deal of story to function - narrative is often used merely to frame the integral puzzle aspects - Cook applies piano melodies which create an air of glorious wonder, resonant of the greats, like er... Brahms (thanks, Wikipedia).

This technique works twofold: firstly, the lacking story instantly feels more important, adding majesty to the characters’ quests. You get a real sense of urgency when controlling Bast in search of his owner; that he 'must' find Arielle, overcoming whatever each level throws at him at all costs, whilst the soundtrack also accentuates the melancholy of Arielle’s weird and wretched world. Secondly, the lighthearted melodies, particularly those found in Bast’s levels, add an element of calm to otherwise incredibly frustrating situations. In the absence of checkpoints, I regularly found myself forced to start levels over, having fallen inches short of the shining vertical light beam which signifies the end of each puzzle. In the absence of a rational temper, I would normally be writing here about my urge to break windows with keyboards, but instead Cook’s composition acts to appease such dangerous levels of puzzle/failure-induced stress.

The game’s main mechanic, the puzzles themselves, are very well thought out and demand absolute precision, timing and control for the most part. It is here however where the game will unfortunately be compared with its predecessors most, as some of the wall-to-wall traversing feels very similar to that of Super Meat Boy. Likewise, avoiding rotating saw blades ala Team Meat’s perennial work very quickly becomes commonplace in almost every level. A Walk in the Dark’s controls aren’t quite as well-tuned either and the gravity altering segments are almost identical to VVVVVV, resulting in the slight feeling that some puzzles have been done better elsewhere at times. That said, there are more than enough unique variations on the theme to justify their inclusion.

Striking variety is one thing which Flying Turtle does particularly well, as A Walk in the Dark offers 100 levels in total. ‘Shiny Catchers’ can be collected as bonuses in each level - doing so often incurring grave risk - and a recommended time limit for each level offers vast replayability scope for those determined enough to persevere.

Arielle’s world is a bit weird and too repetitive to content with Bast’s

As I say, the familiarity will no doubt be too much for some to overlook, but A Walk in the Dark stands as a reflection of the 2D puzzle platformer genre’s history by drawing from the success of its forerunners. The same way in which Sonic did to Mario, Wonder Boy did to Alex Kidd, and almost every sidescroller ever in the history of gaming did to Metroid and Castlevania - borrowing ideas fits the perpetual cycle. For new games to succeed though, how well they apply their own spin to these foundations proves crucial.

A Walk in the Dark may pull from its predecessors’ example, but at no point does it attempt to rip them off. For less than a fiver, it’s a bargain, if for nothing else but to experience the bizarre feeling of absolute frustration and absolute relaxation in tandem, courtesy of well-structured, taxing level design and Cody Cook’s beautiful soundtrack.

Top game moment: Dying. And dying. And dying. But not caring as the soundtrack is that good.