Dark Matter Beta Preview

4 Jul 2013  by   Peter Parrish
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InterWave needs a hand. Their claustrophobic, side-scroller Dark Matter is searching for £50,000 GBP on Kickstarter and falling well short. That’s a shame, because it’s neither a weird vanity project from an insane millionaire, nor a sketchy non-prospect from a guy who says he’ll let you “totally do anything and the world is shaped by every choice you make and everybody gets a unicorn, man.”

Based on the beta code that escaped through a handy vent in the mothership and made its way to me, it’s a legitimate, feature semi-complete title that’s more than interesting enough to warrant this little write-up.

Dark Matter

Looks like the wet towel fights got a little out of hand in this locker room.

Dark Matter opens, as so many lonely voyages through deep space do, with a nameless woman emerging from cryogenic sleep to find that the ship she’s on is in a bad way.

That’s possibly understating it a little. The crew and occupants all appear to be dead and at least two alien menaces have been running amok in the decks. One, the insectoid Scavengers, are making their nests in vents and docking bays all over the vessel. The other, the deadly “Angels,” are nowhere to be seen, but left plenty of calling cards in the form of violence and destruction.

With only a soft-spoken (and possibly unhinged) AI voice to guide her, Ensign Nameless needs to get the hell out of there. Failing that, just survive for a while.

Dark Matter

Rule one of survival: don’t put your tongue on whatever the hell this pile of goop is.

Survival depends upon being well armed and acting smart around the various enemies Ensign will stumble across, over and into while on board. Dark Matter quickly provides you with a pistol (infinite ammo, but otherwise of limited use) and then sends you on a jolly jaunt to pick up a shotgun. This, however, does not have unlimited ammo, which means you need to regularly stock up on some at the crafting stations dotted throughout the ship.

These are usually located next to magic replicator devices which serve as handy save points, and can provide Ensign with ammo, health kits and various modular weapon upgrades. Providing you have the necessary bits and pieces to construct them, that is.

Materials to craft vital ammo come from fallen enemies, and from locating and converting scrap into a processable form. The scrap has a neat little risk-reward feature built in, as the more you have at any one time, the more salvageable materials you’ll produce. Holding on to your scrap will always be of long-term benefit, but immediate circumstances may encourage you to turn it in early to pump out another health kit.

Dark Matter

Rule two of survival: be a licensed electrician.

Weaponry alone won’t keep you alive though. Dark Matter does some clever things with light and shadows to keep matters interesting. Many areas of the ship are lacking a light source, which means judicious use of a flashlight is a must in order to avoid bumbling into an impromptu alien encounter and turning your face into a parasite buffet.

Unfortunately, certain environmental enemies just love having a flashlight shone on them. There are weird, pustulous floor-foes who will activate in light and explode when walked on, as well as pulsing alien birth-chambers that will keep on popping out new parasite spawn if the lights are on them. Around these particular enemies, it’s crucial to keep the flashlight off or shoot out any nearby sources of illumination.

But wait, what if some of the light-sensitive floor enemies are near to a creeping, crawling horror that you actually want to keep your flashlight trained on? Well, then you have a tactical conundrum to deal with. One made even more immediate by the cramped conditions of most of the ships corridors.

Dark Matter

Rule three of survival: vents! Unless they’re bad vents full of space parasites.

The camera remains tight to Ensign as she makes her way through the decks of the ship, hunting for supplies and powering up various dormant power sources to open up new routes of travel. It makes for a claustrophobic feel; one where you can often hear a scuttling beast, but not quite actually see it. The close-up staging forces nimble trigger reactions and makes sure tension levels stay suitably high.

In larger, more open areas, the camera will pull back for a spell. But for the majority of your journeys through desolate decks and gloomy corridors, it’ll be zoomed right in.

After being nudged in the right direction by the AI for the opening hour or so, Dark Matter starts letting you figure things out for yourself. Even during the first “proper” objective to repair a series of breaker circuits, it became necessary to explore and backtrack at various junctures. At the point where I left the preview, I’d just gone on my own little quest to nab an Assault Rifle. The game didn’t explicitly tell me to do this, I just couldn’t resist looking behind a door labelled “Aft Armoury.”

Given that I’ve yet to find any blueprints for the special ammo types (necessary for effectively dispatching a few of the ship’s more heavily armoured inhabitants,) it seems I may not have been diligent enough in my tangential searches.

Dark Matter

Rule four of survival: basic cartography, and a lust for new guns.

As it’s a beta, there are a few things about Dark Matter that don’t quite sit right. Animations (particularly when Ensign has to haul herself up onto a ledge) look a little unfinished, and both jumping and combat encounters have an odd, somewhat weightless feeling. Leaping Scavengers will just kind of bump off you as they attack, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to urgency. I also somehow managed to fall through part of the ship and get stuck at one point (easily rectified by a reload.)

That’s to be expected of unfinished code, and for the most part the title appears near completion. It builds and sustains an atmosphere of tension, placing steady pressure on the player to use resources wisely. Enemy encounters are varied, making fine use of the title’s light/dark mechanics, and often demand a thoughtful approach. Of course I have no idea if half the ship is still unfinished and the game just suddenly unspools like a roll of film flapping off its reel at a certain point, but that’s hopefully not the case.

Dark Matter

Rule five of … oh god it’s dark.

Right now, Dark Matter can be likened to a 2.5D version of Dead Space, influenced by the highlights of Amiga-era side-scrollers. A less platform-intensive Flashback, perhaps. Or, based on the emphasis on retracing your steps, something like Exile. That’s a pretty tasty prospect, so I hope InterWave can get the game finished up one way or another. It’ll take a late Kickstarter rally at this stage, but if that proves unsuccessful the team at least has a fine working concept to shop around to interested parties.

Not interested in the Kickstarter but still fancy helping out? Dark Matter is on Steam Greenlight, and would probably appreciate your vote there

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