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Dark and Darker reinvigorates the senses and reminds us how terrifying dungeons can be

Lights out.

A first-person screenshot inside a rocky cavern dungeon. The player character's hand can be seen holding a flaming torch. It's dark and cold in there.
Image credit: Eurogamer / Iron Mace

Dark and Darker is a game about escaping dungeons. And there's a problem with that - or there should be. Dungeons are so common in fantasy games that it's hard to pay too much attention to them. We've seen them all before, we know what they do. But when was the last time we really re-examined what being in one would actually be like? Dark and Darker does this, and it does it brilliantly well.

Technically it's a PvPvE extraction game, which means you go into a dungeon with - and against - other people, as well as monsters, and you have to find a way out. If you die, you leave with nothing but the experience points you earned. If you take too long, you'll be hurried and eventually killed by an earthquake, or by a deadly blizzard blowing in. The point is pressure. You know, even before you begin, you're never going to be safe. You will need to move, but where?

It's dark. So dark you won't even see the chests next to you unless you light a torch. You won't see platforms or the missing parts of platforms either. You won't see traps on the floor or the piles of bones that form into skeletons when you're nearby. In terms of setting, Dark and Darker lives up to its name. Light in the game, therefore, is valuable. But torches also mark you out to anyone nearby, and they occupy the sword arm you hold them with. They're a risk.

This trailer makes Dark and Darker seem a lot more action-packed that it usually is. It's a much more tense, edging-forward experience, I've found. But then I'm also still quite new at it.Watch on YouTube

And such quiet. There's no atmospheric music filling the experience; it's just you and whatever sounds surround you. And because you can't see very far or very clearly, what you hear has more significance. It will tell you what's around you and what dangers you might face. Can you hear a flapping of wings or the muttering of a goblin? Can you hear the bony creak of a skeleton? Audibly, you'll build a picture of what's near. Even silence speaks volumes because perhaps there's a hidden enemy nearby. And should you hear footsteps on the other side of a door and the thwump! of a weapon or the flumpf! of a spell: it might be what you've feared all along - another player. Sound is important.

Dark and Darker makes you painfully aware of the sounds you're making too. I don't think I've played an RPG before where my own footsteps seemed so excruciatingly loud. I don't think I've played an RPG where I've winced at the sound of a broken vase or crate. Never have I paid so much attention to the sounds I make. In turn, this gives rise to a natural kind of stealth. Not stealth in the sense of a coded mechanic, whereby you turn translucent and stalk around. Stealth in the sense of staying in the shadows and crouching to muffle footsteps. Stealth in the sense that armour choices are important because heavier armour makes more noise. Monsters might not notice, but other players will. The threat of them is always there.

Underpinning and amplifying these systems is the game's inherent sense of difficulty. Those creaky skeletons and muttering goblins are just as capable of killing you as other players are. They're not fodder as they often are in other games. Certainly to begin with, monsters will be more of a hindrance than other players, so you'll want to know where they are. But this is a game of cautious exploration and seeking out any advantage you can get. Rushing ahead almost always ends in death.

A screenshot of a rotten zombie attacking a player in a dungeon, as seen from a first-person perspective. There's a green cloud next to it, of stinkiness.
A screenshot of dark dungeon and some wooden platforms and burning braziers. There's enemies out there, but where?
A dark and frozen corridor in Dark and Darker, in which a player - Bertie's friend - stands.
These images give a good sense of how dark the game usually is. I lose track of what's up and what's down in the larger image here, but it contains my much-valued friend, PeasantPleb. | Image credit: Eurogamer / Ironmace

I've sworn a lot at Dark and Darker, but it reminds me of a Souls game in how it values perseverance. Initially it feels very unfair, but every time you bash against it, there are small moments of progress. You die but now you know how a certain enemy attacks. You die but now you know how to cast spells - that's how little information you begin with (the tutorial is under development; it's an Early Access release). Bit by bit, you build understanding. It's satisfying, it's a badge of pride, and it prepares you for what will inevitably come next: playing with other people.

There's a feature in the game whereby you can request the help of a 'knight', and when you press it, it sends you through to the Dark and Darker Discord. There your request is logged with experienced community members who've taken on the role of 'knight' in the game - knight of the community, really. They group with you and teach you how to play. There's a queue so I didn't experience it myself, but I did group with someone who had, and who shared their knowledge from it. It helped a lot. This developer-encouraged attitude seems to have spread to the wider community, too, because as soon as I shared my frustrations about my lack of progress, people were immediately there in chat to encourage me. It's as though an example has been set that everyone wants to emulate. It's nice.

Because there's no matchmaking in the game, or multiplayer lobby, Discord serves this function too. You have to ask for a group - it's not automatic - but in my experience it's quick and easy to find one. People seem willing to feel out the game together - there's a sense of supportiveness in the air. Perhaps it's there because it's needed and lacking in the game itself. I don't know. What I do know is that played together, Dark and Darker transforms. Alone, I struggled. With someone else, I progressed. I had my first breathless escape from a dungeon. I had my first taste of fighting other players, on purpose, and winning. I felt the magic of Dark and Darker, and I liked it. There's nothing else like it.

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