As it stands, Dark Matter could be released today and be playable for anyone who wanted their hands on it. But InterWave wanted more for the game and are using Kickstarter funding to help deliver the most polished experience they can. Additionally, preview builds are being sent out to donors so they can play Dark Matter and provide feedback as well. Despite a fair amount of rough edges, it’s plain to see that the side-scrolling, sci-fi shooter has potential.
In Dark Matter, players take on the role of Ensign, a spacewoman who shares a lot in common with Samus Aran and Ellen Ripley. Ensign is a crew member of the Endeavor and has emerged from cryosleep 70 years after the ship mysteriously disappeared. The rest of the crew is nowhere to be found and the ship is being consumed by parasitic alien life forms. Along the way an AI with a sympathetically monotonous voice expresses interest in Ensign, offering survival advice and divulging a small bit of what happened to the Endeavor and her crew. The game has an unsurprisingly dark tone but delivers it in a well executed, eerie way. Text logs dropped by crew members are both gruesome and haunting while visual cues provide a few answers. Of course, your AI companion provides further illumination even if he takes a cue from GLaDOS.
Dark Matter owes a good amount to the Metroid franchise but it isn’t as similar as initial impressions might lead you to think. True, both possess similar thematic elements but where Metroid focused a great deal on action platforming, Dark Matter feels more like a survival horror title. Being slow and deliberate will lead to less death than rushing in and out of a room. Part of this is due to the focus around light and dark. Enemies in Dark Matter thrive in the unlit chambers of the decaying spaceship; but as a player, having a well-lit corridor is important to navigation. Unfortunately, enemies really hate having the light on them and will cause them to rage which increases their speed and attack. Other obstacles react differently to light and it’s interesting to see how InterWave plays with this mechanic not only to change the fighting strategy but offer up some puzzles. Darkness can make some situations tense but sometimes doesn’t feel like a necessity because most enemies are partially visible when obscured by the dark.
Navigation contains a few similarities to Metroidvania-like games in that some areas of the ship aren’t initially accessible. Key cards will need to be obtained, doors will need to be hacked and distant switches will need to be activated. What’s disappointing is that these “off limits” areas take quite awhile to discover. One other flaw in this system is that some areas are merely blocked off by harder enemies. After running around, a player will likely run into an armored enemy that can only be bested by advanced ammunition. It may look like the creature can be jumped over, but it can’t. It’s a frequent lesson that is taught early in the game and it also shaves off chunks of health. Having an enemy as a “door” is strange but not knowing if anything useful lies ahead is frustrating.
Enter the upgrading and crafting system. Throughout the game blueprints are found for better ammunition which not only do more damage but help defeat those “baddie blockades.” A teleporting mechanic and hacking tool are also used. Fallen enemies don’t drop health but drop materials used to craft ammo and health packs. And believe me, you will be crafting a lot of health packs. Though these upgrades are grounded in the game’s reality, they lack that sort of accomplishment as something like a double jump or grappling beam provides.
It needs to be said that Dark Matter (in it’s current state) is kind of a tough game. The basic creatures from the opening areas of the game can kill in a few hits and getting poisoned is something no one wants to happen. Even with good weapons it will take a fair amount of bullets to take down an enemy. In the heat of battle, aiming might not be as accurate as it could. There’s also the issue of some areas in the game being way too big but way too empty. Often no obstacles, items or anything can be encountered for a few screens and it makes backtracking more tedious than eventful. Taking all these issues into consideration, it becomes important to state that these are things InterWave is working on. Part of what they are seeking to do is iron out all these flaws and give Dark Matter it’s much needed polish.
For what it is currently, Dark Matter is a fun game with a good atmosphere. Some of the visuals feel a bit basic at the moment but work well. InterWave prides themselves on their approach to not fill the game with jumping and platforming puzzles. It focuses the game but tightening up the controls – especially running and jumping – would be great. A little climbable navigation that didn’t focus on ladders would help too.
There’s a great deal going on in Dark Matter. And while it isn’t complete yet, that final stretch of time and layer of polish could go a long way in making the game a great experience. Dark Matter is also looking for support on Steam Greenlight (found here) so it can get all the help it needs for InterWave to deliver the best quality. On Kickstarter, the game still has some time left before funding is closed. Visit Dark Matter’s Kickstarter page to get a video message about the game from the developers and, of course, to make a donation.