The Bottom Line: Though it loses steam in the second half, this RPG/adventure/horror hybrid is worth a play simply because there’s nothing else quite like it.
That’s the incantation that welcomes you into Dark Fear’s macabre valley of magic, horror, and fishing minigames. For the first hour or two Dark Fear is absolutely captivating, combining the best of classic point-and-click adventures with light RPG elements and genuine horror. But as the hours drag on, what begins as a compelling retro-horror romp through attractive pixel-art set pieces gradually devolves into an unfulfilling grind that leans too hard into exposition dumps.
At the outset of Dark Fear, you find yourself in an empty cabin with no memory of your past. It’s not the most original setup, but it’s presented in a way that makes you want to know more. You wander the room, looking for clues and solving a few basic inventory puzzles. Adventure game lovers should feel right at home, because everything from the graphics to the interface could’ve been ripped straight out of a late-80s adventure game.
But this is not your papa’s point-and-click. After escaping from the cabin into the woods, you get your first taste of Dark Fear’s RPG combat. Combat is menu-based, with options to attack, use items, and dodge. If you choose attack, a bar starts sliding back and forth across a power meter. Clicking while the bar is in the red zone at the center guarantees maximum damage, with clicks outside the red zone yielding lesser returns. Items are primarily used for healing, and dodging is not advised unless you are absolutely certain your next wound will be your last and have no other options.
Assuming you survive your initial encounter with the world’s most vicious coyote, you’ll soon stumble your way into Dark Fear’s lone village. A base for quests, the village is home to a loquacious cast of characters who are eager to assist you on your mission, as long as you’re willing to help them with tasks such as hunting, fishing, and herb gathering. Early in the game, completing certain quests will cause more shopkeepers to open their doors, but the deeper into the game you get the less prominent the village becomes. Eventually you’ll find yourself only making pit stops there to stock up on items and equipment.
Once you’ve completed a few quests, you’ll find yourself heading off to a haunted home tucked deep within the woods. It’s in this decrepit mansion that the game hits its stride. Inside you’ll encounter a mix of inventory puzzles, riddles that rely on in-game text, and contraptions that require player input to work. There is a genuine sense of dread as you unravel the mystery of the young girl who resides within the house, and let’s just say you might want to turn down your speakers when you chat with her. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself
What’s not to love about Dark Fear, then? As the journey goes on, the rough edges become less charming. Notably, money starts to become more of an issue and you’ll find yourself spending more and more time hunting and fishing so that you can upgrade your gear. These hunting and fishing minigames function similarly to combat – you click at the right moment as a cursor scrolls across a bar to snag a big fish or bag your prey. They were a fun distraction at first, but towards the end I started to feel less like a truth-seeking amnesiac and more like an overworked amateur hunter. There was simply too much busy work.
I also found rich scenery and nervous energy of the early game increasingly gave way to less-inspired locales and characters. While the second haunted house you visit is still quite engaging, later in the game most locations only feature one or two screens. It begins to feel less like you’re delving through evil manors and more like you’re quickly hopping from place to place on random fetch quests. It doesn’t help that there is little flavor text in the exploration sections – for instance, trying to combine two wrong items always results in a terse “that doesn’t work.” Adding a few unique reactions would’ve gone a long way.
The ending also feels rushed. The main villain hits you with a text dump that explains every detail of his Evil Plan™ and your involvement in it. While reading it, I felt like he was telling me the outline of a solid story, but what fun is a story without all the little details and character development? Plot threads were quickly tied off, and then it was over. To be completely honest, I felt relieved that the game wrapped up when it did instead of overstaying its welcome even longer.
Ultimately, how much you enjoy Dark Fear will hinge on a few factors. Do you like point-and-click adventures and RPGs? Do you have nostalgia for the DOS era? Can you overlook a few rough edges? Can you appreciate a game that starts strong but tails off? If your answer to most of these questions is yes, Dark Fear will probably keep you entertained for a few hours. If not, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere for your horror fix.