Preview: Dark Matter is a haunting Metroidvania set in the deep confines of space
The Metroidvania concept is great because it can be taken in such a wide array of directions. You can go for a retro-influenced romp the likes the Cave Story, or even go down a more action-oriented route with something like Guacamelee. Developer InterWave Studios is opting to add a number of elements to the tried and tested formula with its upcoming title Dark Matter. Despite a few early production issues, the game is shaping up to be a potentially cool project that drops you into an eerily lonely space environment.
Dark Matter puts you in the space suit of Ensign, a female explorer who's just awoken from cryosleep and is alone in an abandoned spaceship. You're greeted by the voice of an AI being who briefs you on the basics and gives you some initial objectives. The optional tutorial does a good job of teaching you the simple ins and outs of Dark Matter, and it isn't very long, so it's worth checking out so you're not doing mindless guesswork when you actually start the real game. If you choose to skip the tutorial, fret not, because the mechanics are fairly easy to grasp as you play.
If you've played a lot of Metroidvanias in the past, Dark Matter may feel like familiar territory at first. You've got access to guns, which allow you to blast the crap out of weird alien bug things that infest the derelict ship. There are also health items, scrap, ammo, and other loot type items that you come across. You can even find logs which give insight on exactly what happened on the ship and why everyone's missing. Hint: aliens, man!
Aside from shooting, tight corridors, and multiple floors, one of the main elements of Dark Matter is light. The game's title fittingly represents a lot of the darkness you come across during the course of your adventure. While there are well-lit areas, there's also plenty of darkness to be found within the ship. Thankfully, you've got a flashlight that can be utilized to not only make the path ahead clear, but to stun certain parasitic life forms that may consume entire rooms. One example was a disgusting alien growth spread across the floor of one room. After shining some light on the swollen-looking organism and disabling it, I was able to pass through.
Light isn't just a gameplay mechanic, though; it's also a part of the whole mood of this space adventure. Dark Matter uses its gloomy style to create an unsettling, claustrophobic environment. At one point, I activated a control panel, thus turning on the lights in the room. I then witnessed a spider-like alien critter that I hadn't noticed on the ceiling quickly scurrying away into an air vent. It was creepy and unnerving, to say the least.
As you would expect, there's some backtracking to be done in Dark Matter. Some areas of the ship will remain locked until you can collect the appropriate key card or find the power switch to activate an elevator. This aspect of the game isn't tedious, though, and if you've played these types of games in the past, you're probably already aware that going back and forth to open new areas is a trope of the Metroidvania.
Collecting loot is essential to your survival because you then turn collected objects into useful items while at a crafting station. You'll quickly learn that it's best to craft a lot of health items. Dark Matter is pretty challenging (though I was told that InterWave is looking at ways to address the punishing difficulty), so it's important to always carry health packs with you. Enemies can take a licking and deliver some deadly shots of their own, so keeping regenerative items handy is a must. Later in the game you can craft a variety of different items that will also improve your attacks and add different types of ammo to your arsenal. (Fire bullets, anyone?)
While I dug the atmosphere, mood, and style of Dark Matter, the biggest issue I had with the game was how rough it felt. Ensign's animations aren't particularly smooth, and climbing or dropping down from ledges can be a bit of a pain. That said, InterWave is still developing the game and is hoping to improve it more with funds via Kickstarter. Dark Matter is a cool idea that could be turned into a great final product. With the right fixes and improvements, this can definitely be a game to look forward to with the utmost excitement.
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