I could spend the length of this review describing Dark Grim Mariupolis. It’s one of those games that stirs in a little bit of everything, but comes away playing like nothing else. Making the odd comparison doesn’t quite cut it – this is a ‘mood’ game that you need to at least watch to get a sense of it.
What the hell, let’s give it a go anyway. The easy bit to describe is that Dark Grim Mariupolis is a point-and-click adventure. You make dialogue choices, you pick up items, you use those items. That’s the easy bit: it’s the only way that the game is traditional.
Next up is the art style, which is part wireframe vector graphics, like an old Battlezone arcade machine, and part Picasso. A CRT-like grain has been applied to give it an authentic ‘80s feel. It’s bonkers and mostly works, as the combination reminds of some old BBC Micro or C64 adventure games that had to lean on geometry to tell its story.
The world draws on a bewildering number of reference points. You play a detective investigating the hanging of a robot in a temple. The primary touchstone here is film noir, as your Slaine-looking hero leans against lampposts, puffing on a cigarette and monologuing about the bizarreness of his situation. But then there are Greco-Roman references, as you explore temples and a necropolis, and consider the possibilities of polytheism, and norse inclusions, with references to Loki, Thor and bars full of Vikings. It’s clear that this is a post-human world with robot beatniks, wasting time and drinking themselves to oblivion. Try to put all of that into a coherent picture!
Rather miraculously, the world holds up. It sounds pretentious and it is, but it feels like a punk-noir hybrid that you might find in the pages of 2000AD. I was intrigued by the world, the graphics and the audio – which are mostly grainy, snatched signatures played on acoustic and electric guitar – and it created an ‘anything goes’ atmosphere that felt unique. The free-wheeling creativity and artfulness almost reached Kentucky Route Zero levels.
Beyond this wonderfully constructed world, though, everything else topples down. It’s a damn shame, as this is a place I would want to return to under different circumstances.
While the characters in Mariupolis are wonderfully sketched, their dialogue is surrealist drivel that rarely helps you. Here’s an example:
“Egyptians. The Egyptian Mafia. Mummies suckers. They are called differently. It’s strange that in our age of chrome and iron the national identity still holds us by the throat with its red claw, like the legendary king of crabs from the southern islands.”
It’s all like that. It’s occasionally profound, but most of the time it sits between poorly translated and wildly abstract, and you find your eye rolling off it. By the end I’d got more than a little tired of how self-serving it was, and ended up skipping the dialogue to try to find something meaningful to do. This caused problems of course, as the dialogue very occasionally gives you what you need to progress but, like so much of the game, it’s like finding a needle in a surrealist haystack.
Continuing the needle/haystack theme is the sheer amount of text. At one point in the game, you are given a diary with 32 pages of almost entirely Dali-ist, meaningless nonsense. BUT there’s a single passage within it that is essential to progress. Then another book does the same, and another. It doesn’t just break a design golden rule, it triumphantly holds it aloft and then crashes it into the ground.
The puzzles are even more egregious – I still have scratch-marks on my eyelids. Sure, there are mundane point-and-click bits in there (probably too mundane: a robot needs a book, you find a book, so you give him the book), but you’ll find yourself bumping against four or five milestone puzzles that test your noodle. Now, I’m of the school of thought that a good puzzle is never figuring out what you have to do, it’s working out how you reach the solution. Dark Grim Mariupolis doesn’t care much for that approach. You’ll spend a fair amount of time figuring out how to even interact with the puzzle – there’s no signs or feedback here to help – and you’ll be moving your robotic finger over elements to test out what’s interactive. Then you’ll be working out what it wants you to do. That might be lost in a 32-page journal, or it simply doesn’t exist: the game is more than happy to just let you trial-and-error to get a result. Only then do you get to the point of how you complete it.
I reached a new level of frustration, scrabbling around on the edges of the internet for solutions. There was no YouTube video nor online walkthrough to overcome these humps. Curse you, unreleased games! Feel free to zap something in the comments if you want help – you’ll need it.
It’s made all the worse by the game (supposedly) offering a hint system. You have a fish in the top-right of your screen persistently, with the purpose of guiding you through the tough bits. Of course, the game being as it is, the fish just spouts surrealist waffle, taunting you with ‘I am the Walrus’-style gubbins that just rubs your nose in it. **** you, fish.
Popping the cherry on top, some of the simplest point-and-click issues are present. You’ll have everything you need to complete a task, but the game will decide when it’s okay to use them together. Your character moves like a slug. Using an item on something won’t work, but talking to them with the item in your inventory will. These are all rough edges that playtests would resolve.
Dark Grim Mariupolis on Xbox One feels like it’s been left on the shelf since the ‘80s. It looks and feels, at least initially, like a lost C64 point-and-click classic, but the tape on the cassette has deteriorated, making the game almost unplayable. Dialogue is meandering and surreal, and the puzzles have eroded to become a sequence of unrelated interactions. At least it’s only a couple of hours long, as the surrealist noise soon gets to boiling your brain.