Vampires and stealth always seemed like they'd make a good combination until Vampire Rain had to come along and ruin everything. Since that debacle, no one has been willing to touch that premise with a 10-metre pole for fear of confusion with that game. Leave it to Tropico developer Kalypso to take another stab at this supernatural spin on stealth, only this time the results look significantly more alluring.
Their upcoming game Dark casts you as Eric Bane, a former special unit member recently turned nightwalker who's set on discovering what happened to him. This leads him to break into buildings, feast on hobos and take on corrupt corporations. Did I mention he also returns to a nightclub between missions where its sexy vampire owner provides him with intel for his next target? On paper, it sounds like a laundry list of cliches, but in practice Kalypso uses these tired tropes as a jumping off point for a really interesting approach to stealth.
In perhaps Dark's most novel idea, your health gauge and special powers are one and the same. Your 'blood points' determine how many special moves you can pull off, but they also double as your hit points. Spend them all and you'll still be alive, but a hair's breadth from death. This creates a delicate balancing act between juggling your offensive capabilities with basic survival.
What are these special moves, you ask? 'Shadow Leap' allows you to warp to wherever you're pointing your cursor. This can be used without spending a blood point, but it operates on a cool-down meter. If you want to do it again without waiting for it to refill, you'll have to pony up a blood point. 'Shadow kill' is its more expensive, albeit deadlier older brother.
Point your cursor at an enemy and you'll be able to immediately warp to and slay them at the touch of a button. This costs one blood point. That's all we've seen in the demo, though Kalypso tells us later moves will allow Eric to use sonic decoys to lure guards to specific areas, or freak out foes so they'll fire on their comrades or run away.
In a clever twist, Eric can't drink from the dead. As a result, he doesn't ever use weapons. Instead, he has two different ways to kill somebody. A stealth attack is quick and silent, but requires finesse and doesn't reward you with anything more than one less goon to worry about. His other attack is to bite. This is slower and louder, but replenishes a blood point.
It's an incredibly smart system that feels more puzzle-like than most stealth games. Determining which foes to eliminate in a costly fashion versus which to isolate for a midnight snack requires patience, planning, and skill.
While filled with good ideas, Dark is still in pre-alpha, so there's plenty of features that aren't fully integrated yet. The AI isn't finished and seems lobotomised in the demo. In a stealth game that's key, so this could still make or break the game. Elsewhere, the game's cel-shaded graphics recall The Darkness 2 in concept and tone, but the uninspired environments feel spartan and the drab green and blue colour scheme looks sickly. This is all subject to change in the coming months, but there's no mistaking that this is a low rent affair.
Dark's modest budget and tired story don't do much to stand out amongst bombastic triple-A blockbusters and artistic indies, but dig deeper and it looks to bring about one of the most innovative approaches to stealth around. Part Deus Ex, part Splinter Cell, and part Vampire: The Masquerade, Dark's unique mechanics look far too enticing to stay buried in the shadows.