I’m probably sailing dangerously close to Andy Rooney waters saying this, but it strikes me every now and again how much video games tend to be rehashes of familiar ideas served with a fresh daub of hi-resolution ketchup.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing – hell, it’s a good thing that we’ve had enough iterations on certain core innovations that we get such honed examples of the form as last year’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, for example. Most games take some level of inspiration from other games, and the ones I’ve been playing lately are no exception.
I had sniffed at the Dying Light trailer shown at the 2014 Game Awards, writing at the time that it showed “yet another zombie apocalypse game, with some Mirror’s Edge parkour.” And I was right, it is those things. Part of the issue, I think, is that zombies have an overexposure problem. There has been the “renaissance” of zombies in movies, comics, and television, but nowhere have zombies taken a more tiresome foothold than in video games. I once thought the zombie craze had jumped the shark and could only decline when a game called Plants vs. Zombies became insanely popular, but that franchise alone has spawned three sequels.
So my eyes tend to glaze over a bit when a new zombie game appears on the horizon. But precious little comes out in the post-holiday games hangover known as “January,” so I gave Dying Light a go. As it turns out, it’s been a fun and intense romp through some very familiar ideas, with a sprinkling of enough new ones to keep things interesting. There’s the parkour system, which works surprisingly well. Comparisons to Mirror’s Edge were inevitable, but while that game’s Faith felt light and fast, Dying Light’s Kyle Crane starts the game off feeling weighty and is prone to getting winded quickly. Faith could leap between skyscrapers and gracefully tumble into a gymnastic dismount, while Kyle noisily grunts as he flings himself into a pile of trash bags. It works thematically as well – the city in Mirror’s Edge is bright and highly stylized, while Dying Light’s fictional middle eastern city slums of Harran are grungy, poor, and covered in corrugated metal roofing.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well Dying Light manages to invoke fear, as well – zombies at least began as horror monsters, but even in the classic Romero films, they’re a bit pitiful on their own merits. Most of Dying Light’s zombies shamble around aimlessly until they spot you, and great fun can be had climbing a building to watch as the ones who’ve seen you tumble off rooftops or over retaining walls. But one-on-one combat with them is a dicey affair: the improvised weapons you find – pipes, cricket bats, wrenches – take a long time to fell even a single walker, and smacking a zombie around tends to attract the attention of others. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Combine that with the fact that your weapons are fragile and inevitably break, and you get the feeling that fighting is something you want to avoid at all costs.
I may have more to say about Dying Light later on, but at around 12 hours in, I’m having a lot of fun with it.
Then there’s Darkest Dungeon, an early access game that’s so much a chimera of genres that it’s hard to nail down into a single one. There’s the procedural dungeon generation of the new school of “rogue-lites,” the node-based encounter system of FTL, Rogue Legacy’s town management and upgrade system, XCOM’s focus on roster strength, and the turn-based party combat of classic Final Fantasy titles that focuses on ability use and positioning. Did I miss anything? Oh right – there’s the art style, which to me looks like Bill Watterson on an H.P. Lovecraft bender, but which Illustrator-to-the-YouTube-Stars DraculaFetus thinks looks more like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics.
The game works like this: You recruit heroes at your manor, train and outfit them at buildings there, then set off with four of them for a quest in one of the local dungeons. You pick a room on the map to head toward, and your party shuffles along a 2D hallway, where they’ll encounter traps, treasure, and squads of enemies. In combat, characters’ speed stats determine their order in the round, and you use each class’s various skills to take down the enemy troops. In an interesting added twist, however, the events in the dungeon add to your heroes’ stress level – letting your torch get too low, for instance, freaks everyone out a bit, while landing critical hits on enemies can alleviate stress for the whole party. Once a character’s stress level hits 100, they face a resolve check, which can result in them becoming erratic or abusive to other party members.
Back in town, stress can be treated by sending frazzled adventurers to the monastery or the tavern, where they can either meditate their fears away or spend a week at the brothel. This takes them out of the rotation for the next dungeon expedition and costs money you found in the last one, so weighing R&R against your need for experienced fighters is always high on the priorities list.
If the references to Watterson and Mignola earlier weren’t clear enough, Darkest Dungeon’s simple presentation is absolutely gorgeous. The inky, hand-drawn assets have clearly been crafted with a careful, single vision of late ‘90s comic books that works perfectly with the overarching Lovecraft theme – and come to think of it, this may be the first game in a while to directly source Lovecraft and not be absolute flotsam.
So, all that to say: Derivative games? I’m for ‘em, as long as they can spin their influences into something as interesting as Dying Light or Darkest Dungeon. I’ll definitely be spending lots more time with these titles.