‘Eyes In The Dark’ review: a tight, self-assured roguelite

Dura Cells

Eyes In The Dark, a ‘roguelight’ platformer developed by Under the Stairs, eschews genre norms. None of the bleakness of The Binding Of Isaac or the sanity-grinding challenge of Darkest Dungeon. It’s something entirely more digestible. There’s the unmissable cartoonish monochrome art with more than a dash of Tim Burton’s timeless A Nightmare Before Christmas, but also a blithe lightness to the whole experience. It’s, dare I say, welcoming.

Eyes In The Dark stars Victoria Bloom, an unwaveringly optimistic Wednesday Addams look-alike, who’s on a quest to track down her grandfather in an ever-shifting ancestral manor bathed in darkness. You’ll square up to morphs of past Bloom’s and their ghastly acolytes with no more than a flashlight, dispelling darkness in the process. If the darkness triumphs, back to the beginning you go.

Entering a zone for the first time spawns a gaggle of enemies and a lone guardian, equal parts Allan Poe and Lovecraft in their gothic horror. It’s all tendrils, goggle-shaped eyes, jerky hurls, and juddered movements. Presented in Eyes In The Dark’s polished black-and-white, you’d almost call them adorable if it weren’t for their murderous intent. Tight twin-stick controls, evasive platforming, and frantic combat make every encounter engaging. Eyes In The Dark demands precision and focus. It’s tough, but fair, and there’s a hint of Hollow Knight in how platforming and combat intertwine.

Eye In The Dark. Credit: Under The Stairs.
Eye In The Dark. Credit: Under The Stairs.

You’re largely free to chart your own course through the manor’s nine areas. Difficulty adapts to progress rather than being tied to specific fights. It’s a shrewd way to give players a degree of agency in a format known for its polarising difficulty and frequent deaths. If an encounter with two highly-mobile bosses is causing you strife, you can tackle it early when their damage output is low. There’s a genuine pleasure in plotting out the optimal path through trial and error.

After emptying an area, it stills, offering a moment of respite before heading on. This gives players time to plunder cupboards, open chests, or visit a merchant crow happy to lighten your haul of sparks – the game’s currency – for a selection of randomised upgrades. It’s the usual unpredictable fare inherent to the genre, but the game grants a surprising level of variety and customisation to Victoria’s critter-fighting tool kit.

One run, you’re firing fast-moving light pellets like a machine gun, slingshotting volatile fireflies, and causing burn damage when dashing. Next time around, spewing arcs of light that refract off walls, hurling sticky mines, and chaining lighting between enemies. There are no less than 320 different flashlights, slingshots, boots, gadgets, and batteries that stack and synergise to keep things fresh even 15-runs deep. Some work better than others. Losing a combination seemingly graced by the procedural gods can sting, but Eyes In The Dark does well to make sure you stumble into a solid but radically different build a few runs down the line.

Eye In The Dark. Credit: Under The Stairs.
Eye In The Dark. Credit: Under The Stairs.

Transitioning to a new area, you’re also presented with several ‘divergence’ perks. This is where things get interesting. For every positive, there’s a negative, a weighing up of risk and reward and strategising for the bosses ahead. Lower the cost of shop items, but heighten enemy damage resistance. Regenerate health before each boss, but every room now spawns an extra mob. It’s a procedural lucky dip that defines how each run plays out and could just as much be the key to progressing further than ever before as a swift boot back to square one.

All this is set to a jaunty chiptune soundtrack, each of the nine areas boasting a distinctive medley of Casio blips and grisly synth lines. Though it appears to run contrary to Eyes In The Dark’s gothic themes, it works; an apt companion to the frenzied luminescent combat. Repetition heavy, these chirpy tunes run hypnotic, helping to tease out that flow state where the game plays best. They don’t have the spacious, emotional depth of, say, Fez and Disasterpeace’s masterful take on the genre, but nor do they need to.

And, there lies where Eyes In The Dark totters most. A certain functional approach exists beyond the flashlight wielding, those satisfying timed dashes, and the deft design of the eldritch bosses. It’s a self-assured action game with a pitch-perfect atmosphere. But, it lacks a rooting narrative to elevate it to the heights of roguelike royalty like Supergiant’s poised and layered Hades.

Eye In The Dark. Credit: Under The Stairs.
Eye In The Dark. Credit: Under The Stairs.

In places, there’s a subtle touch of What Remains Of Edith Finch in the unpacking of an eccentric family’s curious past. The game is also carved into four acts to add a welcome cadence of runs and short cut scenes with delightful silent movie-style speech cards. But, ultimately, it’s a sedate tale of a loved one with some time travel thrown in for good measure that feels like meager dressing for the sharp combat, pin-point platforming, and striking art.

For many, this won’t matter. Eyes In The Dark isn’t light on fun. One of the best compliments we can chuck at Eyes In The Dark is that it mimics the moreish, one-more-run quality of any good roguelike. Death comes easy, as does the frustration grafted to every run-ending dodge or brash show of aggression. It doesn’t linger long, though, with the easy jump into another go on the procedural merry-go-round presented on a platter. You can pick up permanent perks to soften the blow and instil what feels like meaningful progression. Past failures melt away. Could this be the one? You won’t know if you don’t try. Before long, the clock has ticked past a sensible bedtime.

Narrative slack aside, Eyes In The Dark is a wonderful little game. It likely won’t receive the attention it deserves, as is often the case with humble indie games not propelled by the boastful blather of a well-financed marketing edifice. But, from those first cautious visits to Bloom manor, where boss move sets feel alien, to those later concentrated and flowing runs, Eyes In The Dark is a blast.

Eyes in the Dark: The Curious Case Of One Victoria Bloom launches on July 14 for PC.

The Verdict

Eyes in the Dark is a self-assured roguelite platformer stacked with visual flair. Frantic encounters with a cast of tendrilled monstrosities and tight twin-stick controls make for a tough but thrilling time despite a slightly anaemic story.

Pros

  • Tight twin-stick controls, and thrilling, hectic combat
  • Nails the moreish, one-more-run quality of the best roguelikes
  • Striking monochrome art style

Cons

  • Lacks narrartive heft
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