We’re still angry at The Darkest Tales. We finished playing it over a week ago, but put off reviewing it for a week, simply so that we could gain a bit of perspective. The bile has returned to the gallbladder, but there’s still a lingering sense of disappointment. Oh, The Darkest Tales, what could have been…
Because The Darkest Tales has so, so much going for it. You can probably spot one of the biggest reasons from the screenshots: this is a thoroughly gorgeous game. We stand out of our seats and applaud the art team on The Darkest Tales, as they have truly mastered the art of lighting a scene. So much of The Darkest Tales has an effervescent glow, or hides in the darkest of shadows. It has the vibrancy of a fairy tale, but the ability to switch off the lights and see it through the lens of a horror game. And the joy of The Darkest Tales is being able to flip that switch on and off like a strobe.
It’s a trick that The Darkest Tales love playing. Alice: Madness Returns is a good touchstone. Like American McGee’s underloved classic, The Darkest Tales takes your favourite tales off of the shelves and reimagines them as bad-spirited, bloody subversions. The good characters of these tales may well turn out to be villains, and endings are far from happy. In The Darkest Tales, Red Riding Hood is a murderous assassin and Peter Pan is willing to chop up The Lost Boys in an effort to hoard the Fountain of Youth.
It must be something about Teddy-based Xbox games, because while The Darkest Tales spins fairy tales wonderfully, it makes the same mistake that Xbox 360 game Naughty Bear made: it swings the pendulum so far away from likeable that it tends to be unlikeable. Teddy, the main character in The Darkest Tales, is grouchy, snappy and doesn’t particularly want to go on this adventure. His partner is an overly enthusiastic fairy, and the two constantly grate against each other. They snipe, and we learned to hate them. Just a little bit. The Darkest Tales could have done with letting the sun peek through the clouds just a little bit.
The adventure they’re on is a simple one. Their owner, Alicia, is a little girl who has become lost in her own dreamland. She has a terrific imagination, but that very imagination – full of devils and miscreant fairy tale creatures – seems to have kidnapped her. So, you’re going to careen from folktale to folktale in an effort to get her back, which means jumping into scenes from Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty and more. And the Looking Glass is thoroughly smashed, so – as mentioned before – they are simultaneously grim and Grimm.
Most of the time, this plays out in an action-platform style that’s predominantly linear. Carefully authored levels will initially remind of Little Nightmares and Inside, rather than something more formulaic. They never quite reach the peaks of those two (and no one would have expected a relatively small indie game to reach them either), but it comes terrifically close, and playing through The Darkest Tales can often have you on the edge of your seat. What’s going to come next? A chase sequence? A boss? A deft puzzle?
The controls are mostly excellent, with some inch-perfect jumping and a decent hack-and-slash combat system. Teddy has a habit of walking forwards as he attacks, taking him into a fray that you’d rather be backing out of (some gingerbread zombies are particularly egregious at this), but generally it’s handled well. Further unlocks allow you to do the usual double-jumping, and some projectile weapons like a bow and boomerang start to enrich your arsenal. They’re a mixed bunch in how well they control – the bow, which is needed to kill some particularly small enemies, is annoyingly precise – but you soon feel like you have plenty of options for a given situation.
As The Darkest Tales progresses, and the fantastic bosses become notches on your kill-post, the levels start to open up. The developers begin to trust your ability in navigating larger arenas, and it all goes a bit Metroidvania. You need abilities to pass certain doors, but you’re given something like free-reign over the level’s traversal.
And it’s here where it all began to unwind. At least, for us.
When The Darkest Tales moves off of its railway tracks, the systems get exposed. The lack of a map begins to hurt, as do the infrequent checkpoints. But mostly things start to creak under the burden of the game, and showstopping bugs make their entrance. We must have completed objectives in the wrong order, or something similar, as the game didn’t update after completing one of its bosses. The game was effectively over for us. We couldn’t progress. There were no options to return to previous saves, so we were forced to play through the vast majority of the game all over again.
So we did, and hit exactly the same issue. This time, after completing the boss, we found ourselves outside the level, thoroughly out of bounds, and couldn’t continue. Having played a solid five hours the first time and five hours the second, we were done. Life is too short, etc.
Now, there’s every chance that you won’t hit the same issue. We may not have hit it again if we sucked in the chest and given it another go. There are players who have snuck past the bug and gained the final few achievements, for example (thanks TrueAchievements). But there is absolutely the risk of The Darkest Tales chugging to a stop and forcing you to replay the whole shebang, so keep that in mind.
While we hadn’t completed the game, the handy percentage tracker gave us a good idea of how much we had played (fifty percent complete, but that doesn’t include the secrets we missed, so we’d guess at over three-quarters progress complete). So, while we haven’t finished The Darkest Tales, we still feel confident that we have seen the majority of its treasures. We feel like our verdict is pretty indicative. If you disagree, well, shield your eyes from the score and seek another review.
Pushing the bugs aside for the moment, The Darkest Tales is blessed in the looks department, and more than serviceable as an action-platformer. It chugs along at a merry pace, and makes fine use of its ‘fairy tales doused in pig-blood’ concept. There’s nothing in the gameplay that will necessarily surprise, and the characters could have done with being likeable, but this is a sturdy, well-crafted platformer that may be worth your time.
Just don’t say we didn’t warn you: the bookworms have been at The Darkest Tales, and there’s a risk, and not necessarily a small one, that you will come a cropper on the bugs they’ve introduced. Read with care.
You can buy The Darkest Tales from the Xbox Store