Amirali Rajan is not a name that is necessarily well-known in the gaming community, but it should be. Stumbling onto the stage of mobile gaming back in 2014, Amirali has made a handful of titles that have received different levels of acclaim and acknowledgment. I’ve eagerly played The Ensign and A Noble Circle, and found each of the experiences to be vastly different, but equally satisfying. With A Noble Circle, Amir made a very beautiful and unique take on a self-driving narrative, whereas The Ensign scratched a certain itch that had been conspicuously absent in the years before it’s existence. But the core of Amir’s work, his flagship work, still stands as one of the best surprises I’ve ever had in gaming, mobile or otherwise. A port of a cult-fanbase browser game by Michael Townsend, Amir enabled people all over to enter into A Dark Room, and, now, I’m happy and excited to be reviewing A Dark Room for the Nintendo Switch.
A Dark Room is an excellent use of suspense, confusion and purposeful misdirection in video game storytelling. As the screenshots will show you, everything starts off incredibly benign and inconspicuous. You are a lone character, awakened with a headache in darkness, with no story to tell before this moment and no direction for the future. With nary another choice, you light a fire, attempting to keep warm and find purpose, and, just like that, one comes to you. A stranger stumbling in to your cabin(?), cold and hurt, and you choose to save her. What happens after this moment is a truly bizarre journey that can potentially be rife with spoilers if the reader chooses to seek them out. I’m actively opting to NOT cover a majority of the plot points simply because it diminishes the excitement I felt when I first happened upon them. But there are choices to be made, and I will be looking at the mechanics as they pertain to the game. If you are hoping to keep as much in the dark (ha) as possible, I recommend finding another article so that the reveals aren’t ruined.
A Dark Room has always been a fantastic exercise in minimalism, and the transition to the Nintendo Switch is well handled and articulate. Far from just being a stretched out port that asks you to hold your Switch vertically, A Dark Room was reprogrammed from the ground up to give some dynamic new inventory windows and informational charts. That feel well spaced on the Switch. Having never done the browser version, I wasn’t sure if I’d feel comfortable having the game up on the big screen, and yet it worked out surprisingly well. Having the text speak to me in large, commanding tones and deliver imperatives or the results of my choices works even better on a larger screen that is dynamically adjusted to look better on the Switch than, say, a blown up Chrome browser. I know I said I hadn’t played the browser version, but I wanted to give it a shot, and, sure enough, it’s not even remotely as clean. Bones are there but the meat is totally different.
A Dark Room delivers in precisely three facets. Firstly, it has a strong suckerpunch that it manages to land three separate times, and, each time, it still has a resounding effect of making you realize “holy ****, so THIS is what’s happening!” This is done through very short, very frank-yet-obtuse line delivery, and it changes depending on your stance with things. Making a simple choice at the beginning of the game as to the question of expansion does set the tone for the entire game, and whether you follow one path or another helps to shape how the game is going to end for you as well. There’s technically only one ending, but that leads us into the second realm: perks.
When you really get going with A Dark Room, you start to realize there’s more than simply waiting for timers to run down and you get to stoke the fire again. There’s a massive amount of content, and a lot of it is shockingly hidden through trial and error. You learn to shape your gameplay through how you want to approach things, but it doesn’t necessarily make A Dark Room an RPG. Rather, it still feels like a gamebook type interaction with the added bonus of it cutting straight to the quick of everything your doing. I found out the hard way there’s a perk for dying from hunger several times, and it helped me out immensely as I continued to find my footing. Remember: the last time I really played A Dark Room was on my phone close to five years ago. My memories of how things are supposed to do are still murky.
New players will get frustrated, and rightly so. When you first transition out of the village and into the larger aspect of the game, things are frequently annoying, confusing and grindy. You need to find certain areas as quickly as you can, and you need to return from them successfully. Dying and needing to wait an impossibly long time before heading out again makes for repetitive and boring moments. You see your inventory pile high with certain supplies depending on your “population,” but there’s very little to do with them if you’ve constructed the things you need already. There’ll be moments of almost anger when you realize how important cloth is and how very scant it can be, and there’ll be more when you realize that some people have GUNS and you’re traipsing around like you’re an extra in Quest For Fire. Yet it does get better, and it gets more exciting, and, believe it or not, replay feels more fulfilling because you’ll know what you need to do next.
Finally, and this might be the most important for veteran players, is that there is a bit of extra meat on the Switch. Yes, the interface is certainly upgraded, but players who get to the end will have a special treat as well: co-op play. While it might not be for everyone, it’s highly recommended you at least give it a try and see how it feels to try and share the reigns of power with another player in order to reach your goal. As a solo player myself (and as my kids aren’t quite there yet with reading), I doubt I’ll be revisiting this option anytime soon, but it’s really nice to have, and it again speaks volumes about the care that went into this game. My next playthrough will be with commentary for certain.
A Dark Room ticks all the boxes for me. It gives me a story without drowning me in exposition, and honestly leaves me thinking and wondering about things in a positive sense. I can’t help but pick the game back up and go on a jag for several minutes before remembering that I have other things to do because it’s compelling as well as addicting. There’s a ton to find, a lot more to discover, and it’s such a great show of less is more than it cannot be ignored. From Nethack style moments to a sparse, creepy soundtrack, A Dark Room is such a great addition to the Switch’s growing library.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Dark Room Review
User Review( votes)
Follow where your mind tells you to go and see what dreams may come. A Dark Room, finally on the Switch, with so many bells and whistles I may be here a while.