Leaves you in the dark, then assaults you with pretty lights
You have to feel sorry for Darkout. Of all the times you could have released a space-themed Terraria clone, I can't possibly think of a worse time than the coincidental beta release of Starbound, the space-themed Terraria clone that – crucially – people have been excited about for over a year. Even before it's out of the gate, Darkout has been overshadowed so hard that its grandchildren are going to suffer from vitamin D deficiency. It's a shame, too, because while Darkout probably isn't going to end up on anybody's Christmas list, it does do a few things interestingly enough to merit acknowledgement.
For instance, at this point in the review I usually ease myself into the groove by describing the story as off-handedly as possible – you know, since it lets me put off actually making any sort of meaningful commentary – and the twist today is that despite Darkout's pure sandbox heritage, that trend is going to plough right on through. You play a nameless characterless prat with a plasticine haircut who gets marooned on an alien planet thanks to an unspecified calamity and if you like then you could leave it at that. However, if you pay attention to the tool-tips, ransack the flaming cargo palettes that occasionally rain down upon the landscape for data logs and listen in on the errant radio signals that cross your path, then you can piece together a far bigger story, and even work your way towards something that resembles a definite ending. In essence, the game allows you to choose how immersed you become in the story, whether you want to get off the planet or just live an idyllic life in a home base shaped like a giant brontosaurus. I just know that this is going to be taken out of context, but it kind of reminds me of the System Shock games, albeit with considerably less linearity and completely different gameplay, of course. It probably helps that a lot of the data logs have more than a bit of a horrific air to them, but you see what I'm getting at.
Here's the thing, though. I've been sitting staring despondently at my monitor for a little over a week, rolling my head across the keyboard every now and then, and I still can't decide if Darkout's usage of a story is something to be showered in rose petals or kitchen swill. Part of what drives the appeal of games like Minecraft and Terraria has always been the fact that they're direction-free, allowing the player to do as they please without the overbearing sense of defying the developer's intentions. Adding a set of definite objectives, even those you are never obliged to pursue, can only diminish from that sense of freedom. On the other hand, I can't be the only person whose recent Minecraft exploits consist solely of logging in, terrorising the local wildlife and losing interest within five minutes because I'm more creatively bankrupt than a Channel 7 board meeting. These creative toys, or construction sandboxes, or whatever hopeless pigeon-holing term you prefer to use to classify them, quickly lose all appeal when you can't think of a project to apply to yourself to, so perhaps having a goal to laboriously crawl towards is a point in the game's favour after all.
I'll say this for Darkout though: there's certainly no shortage of projects to undertake. While most of its brethren take place in a pseudo-fantasy time period that precedes the invention of the loom, and thus can be a bit dry when it comes to technology, Darkout's sci-fi position allows it to go a little bit nuts. Take light sources, for example. Even a talentless fool with nothing to their name can slop a bucket of tar over a bundle of sticks and make a flaming torch, but the more discerning survivor will fill jars with glowing alien mucus and plop them down, or assemble a camping lantern, or create a fully-functioning electrical grid and hook up some restful mood lighting to it with the option to have it trigger when they come home from a hard day's surviving. In less obtuse terms, the number of recipes available is mattress-chewingly insane. You really can engineer some quite elaborate contraptions by stringing the various craft-able items together, making the game considerably less like a box of Lego and more like an electronics set for the terminally psychotic.
Chances are, though, that you won't end up engineering anything quite so elaborate, because the actual crafting system is tripe on a damp biscuit. I'll be the first to point out that having to obsessively check the wiki every few seconds to find the necessary recipes was the absolute worst part of learning to play Minecraft, but it was at least functional. Darkout's approach is akin to curing a minor cough with a chainsaw tracheotomy. You can't craft anything until you've researched its blueprints – which is actually a decent idea in itself – but blueprints can only be researched once you have acquired a significant number of the materials that they use. If you want a specific blueprint – and you will soon enough, mark my words – your options are to either amass so much arbitrary junk that the game clues you in, or try to guess combinations like you're in the world's worst point-and-click adventure. Or, if your brain has not recently been submerged in nitroglycerine, you'll look up the recipes on the wiki, thus reducing the entire asinine system to a single extra step. On top of this, researching an item's blueprint consumes the materials that it describes, so if you want to create a resource-expensive item which contains, let's say, a Fabergé Egg and three pints of unicorn tears, then you will in fact need two eggs, and probably an extremely generous unicorn. Better still, some items can only be acquired by smashing randomly-dropped crates, so even the best-laid plans can be thwarted with the gods of RNG aren't smiling upon you. All of these are just meaningless barriers between me and the things I want to build, when acquiring the resources in the first place is already taxing enough a task. Why, Darkout, do you take such joy in flowing as smoothly as month-old custard through a straw?
In all honesty I'm quite perplexed, because while the crafting system shows only regression, Darkout displays encouraging signs of learning from its forebears in its subtler mechanics. For instance, somebody finally realised that having half your hotbar being constantly taken up by your assorted catalogue of everyday tools – pickaxe, axe, shovel, sword, corkscrew, Geiger counter – is a sure-fire way to crack the player's micromanagement prospects across the shins with a steel baton, so now we have the all-purpose 'auto' option, which simply lets you hold the mouse button down and have the game select the appropriate tool for whatever you're trying to destroy, shift or uncork. It reeks of contextual gameplay, a trend that has been responsible for the oversimplifying of many once-proud games, but here I think it's actually appropriate. After all, I think it can be taken as read that if I'm trying to cut down a tree then I understand that I need to use the axe, and not the pair of nail scissors. Darkout also hits upon the bright-spark idea of having the hotbar retain separate slots for the left and right mouse buttons, allowing a total of twenty different assorted inventory items to be accessed without ever having to touch the inventory screen. It, too, works really well, and is therefore not worth dwelling on further.