Ten minutes into Dark and Darker, our party’s hardiest member – a sword-swinging Fighter – is dead. It wasn’t the wall-to-wall deadly traps that killed him. Nor was it the hordes of re-animated skeletons, or even the rival players looking to escape the match with armfuls of treasure, that did him in. In truth, it was our own party’s wizard – who was trying to cast Magic Missile for the first time – that sent several arcane daggers flying into the poor Fighter’s foot, sealing his fate.
It’s not just the shameful team killing: Dark and Darker shares more than a passing resemblance to Battlestate Games‘ hardcore extraction shooter Escape From Tarkov. In both, the objective is to delve into hostile territory and ransack the place – fending off hostile NPCs and other players – before extracting with your ill-gotten gains. Yet while Tarkov is a modern-day shooter with maps of varying size, Dark and Darker takes place in a claustrophobic dungeon with a fantasy setting – and although both games may have similar character sheets, a playtest of Ironmace’s latest game suggests that it won’t be the fantasy Tarkov that fans are touting.
As it stands, combat is missing the precise edge of Tarkov. Rather than tense shootouts, everything feels a bit clunky: standard enemies are a bit too meaty and take a bit of mindless bashing to kill, while players are woefully squishy which makes most brawls underwhelming and feel less skill-based. As a Wizard, fighting other players feels like controlling a hammered Gandalf: you don’t stand a chance against a raging barbarian up close, so it’s a case of spewing Fireballs and Magic Missiles down corridors until your attacker drops dead or flees. With combat feeling so quintessentially different – much closer to Skyrim‘s fantasy hack-and-slash than anything else – a few runs prove that although they share a genre, the game has a surprisingly limited amount of DNA in common with Tarkov.
Once you cast off the expectations of a fantasy Tarkov, Dark and Darker shines. Though everything from Marauders to Modern Warfare 2‘s DMZ mode has taken a crack at bottling Tarkov‘s lightning, few have attempted to really innovate on the extraction genre so dramatically. Shuffling down a dingy corridor, simultaneously trying to watch for spike traps and listen for the footsteps of another party, is brilliantly tense. The mood deflates a bit when your PvP encounter turns into executing a player who has (poorly) tried to hide behind a stack of crates, but the otherwise impeccable atmosphere proves there’s promise beneath the clumsy combat.
Dark and Darker still needs a lot of iteration – which makes sense, since it’s still being playtested. Considering the game’s early state, though, there are a lot of fantastic ideas worth watching: the three-player party dynamic means each of the game’s classes feel impactful, and the dungeon-delving angle of the game is compelling for the “just one more raid” crowd. While it remains to be seen how combat will feel in the finished game, Dark and Darker is genuinely exciting and suggests it’s time to stop holding every extraction game up to Tarkov – because when we do, there’s a good chance that studios will push the genre’s boundaries in new, exciting directions.
Dark and Darker is planned to launch for PC in the fourth quarter of 2023 – keep an eye on its Steam page for news on future playtests.