Our self-inflicted voyage into budget, no-achievement games on the Xbox Store continues with Darkland II. We had hoped that this one would be different from the others: it is, after all, a sequel, so someone must have bought and found joy in the original. It’s also priced just a little higher than its brethren at £1.69. But the hope was short-lived: this is dire shovelware and the most joy you’ll get from it is deleting it to make space for something else.
The best way to describe Darkland II is that it’s the platforming equivalent of writing lines in detention. Its fifty levels are, to the naked eye, the same level. Level twenty-three might move a block slightly to the left or right, or drop in some spikes. Level twenty-four goes crazy and removes those spikes and adds in an enemy that wasn’t there before. Each of its levels are lazy remixes of the last, and we found ourselves in the strange situation of wondering whether we had accidentally replayed each level, or whether we were genuinely making progress. So yeah, playing through each level is like writing lines in detention. It’s repetition for repetition’s sake, and it’s absolutely as much fun as it sounds.
Another way of looking at Darkland II is that it’s a sequence of fifty tutorial levels, but they’re all teaching you the same thing. Darkland II has only one mechanic – the double-jump – and the proceeding levels all make use of it. But those levels, aside from the last two or three (more on that later), are laughably easy. They’re not easy in one way, either, but multiple: they are extremely short, so restarting is barely an issue; you are given three hearts to absorb damage, but there are rarely more than three enemies in a level to actually steal them; and, very generally, the levels are just astonishingly laid-back. We entered a kind of vegetative state and completed dozens.
Now imagine those two descriptions together, and you have Darkland II. The levels are near-identical, and all of the challenge has been filed off to leave it a completely smooth pebble. The instinct of most indie platformers is to skew to the difficult side, to artificially extend their game with some ass-whooping, but Darkland II takes the opposite route. It offers up no challenge, over and over.
The asterisks here are levels forty-nine and fifty. Very suddenly, the challenge spikes, as Darkland II realises it can ask you to go backwards as well as forwards, and can create sequences with no platforms at all, where the only way forward is to bounce on enemies. The levels are still too short to offer any meaningful opposition, but it’s a bizarre ‘what might have been’ as we tripped on the way to the finish line.
Elsewhere, Darkland II is just a bit shabby. You might squint and think that Darkland II is reminiscent of Limbo, particularly with the silhouetted boy as a main character, but get in-game and it’s clear that something is wrong. The main character has dribbly fried egg for eyes, and – very generally – the game feels like a direct port of an Amiga game. It’s fuzzy-looking and artefacted, looking like it’s gone through some kind of pixel filter rather than being carefully created on a sprite sheet. For a game that’s opted for a simplistic style, it fumbles even that.
The root of Darkland II’s problems is the limited toolbox it’s created for itself. You can count up the different elements of its world on two hands: spikes, platforms, a goomba enemy, a flying enemy, a thwomp, a disappearing block and some revolving platforms. They’re all that Darkland II has, and you begin to understand the designer’s problem. Super Mario Maker this is not: there are only so many permutations of level that you can create with these few building blocks.
It’s not saved by its collectibles, either. There’s a version of Darkland out there where the stars you collect mean something, where they feel worthwhile. But they don’t even factor into an end score, or a star-ranking for the level. Once it becomes clear how inessential they are, you bypass them, and it robs the game of some interest. If you had to collect them all, you might put yourself in harm’s way more, or try to find them tucked in crevices. But no, they’re just something that makes a pretty, twinkly sound as you trundle over them.
The best thing you can say about Darkland II is it controls moderately well. We were able to go through the motions because there was very little in its double-jumping that caused infuriation. We could dance through the fifty levels because the jumping was tight, and we landed precisely where we felt we should. But we can’t recommend a game because the right thing happens when you press a button. We’re slightly more discerning than that.
Darkland II is platforming deja vu. We completed a level to move onto the next, only to find that it was – to all purposes – the same level. We checked menus and kept an eye on our level count to make sure but, yes, we were progressing through the game. Play one level, and you’ve played them all, as they say.
So no, you shouldn’t buy Darkland II. The price tag may be tempting, but what you’re purchasing is a matryoshka doll, and each time you reveal a layer there’s nothing there but the same level, over and over again, until you’re at the end and you’ve just got a sequence of identical levels. We could have done so much more with our evening.
You can buy Darkland II from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S