Review: The Punishing Horror of I Can’t Escape: Darkness

As a genre, horror is an entertaining way for an audience to access uncomfortable thoughts like, “I am doomed and insignificant.” I Can’t Escape: Darkness embodies that notion in every respect (it’s even right there in the title). It is meant to evoke a sense of dread and does so in spades, but the real screaming doesn’t start until the difficulty sets in.

At its heart, I Can’t Escape: Darkness is a survival roguelike with daunting difficulty, retro graphics, and procedurally generated environments. The game begins when you fall through the ceiling of a tomb from which there is no escape, as you are told by a disembodied narrator. The voice beckons you deeper into the tomb where it says it can offer you aid, but as the game progresses, the narrator’s reliability comes into question and a deeper mythology is explored through environmental interaction and morbid, absurd imagery.

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The game is not without its merits. The atmosphere ties a delightful knot of dread in my stomach every time I play thanks to the sound design and the effective use of darkness. Developer Fancy Fish makes light a limited resource and it adds to the overall effect, requiring you to carefully ration the butane in your lighter or the juice in your flashlight’s battery. Every floor I descend, whether it be on purpose or via leg-breaking misstep, adds to a growing sense of unpredictability and claustrophobia. I constantly find myself scared and disturbed while playing despite one glaring, simple problem: the game keeps killing me in repetitive, non-scary ways.

That’s the trouble. I want to love this game, because there are so many things to love, but I Can’t Escape: Darkness is simply too hard for me to continue playing. While I recognize the steep difficulty is part of puzzle, the game eventually left me with an overwhelming sense of frustration that kills the carefully conjured atmosphere. Easing up on a few the deadly threats would have made Darkness a notable piece of horror media. Instead, it’s just a tough as nails, unforgiving gauntlet through a virtual haunted house that’s available on Steam.

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In that regard, the game does offer you Steam achievements based on your method of expiry and summarizes your deaths in single sentences that can be tweeted from the game. It’s a great concept that serves to mitigate annoyance with frequent failure. I quickly set about collecting deaths, racking up achievements for being killed by the game’s critters, getting crushed by a living hallway, and even being assimilated into the eldritch fabric of the tomb itself. But frustration set in when I ran out of achievements and still got killed after 17 minutes by the same tangle of animated vines that ended my last run. Yet again, frustration kills the atmosphere.

I eventually found myself juggling two distinct types of fear once I became familiar with I Can’t Escape: Darkness. I was legitimately creeped out by the game’s well-crafted environments and simultaneously terrified I would lose another chunk of time to that Lovecraftian plant-thing with nothing to show for my effort.

Horror’s greatest function in art is its ability to explore dark, paradoxical thoughts, from the contemplation of the point of pointlessness to the conclusion that we are insignificant, unknowing humans in an un-human universe. As I think about returning to I Can’t Escape: Darkness in another futile attempt to conquer that infernal tomb, I am humbled by the idea that I might never know an exit to the darkness, not because it is too terrifying, not because of those fucking vines, but simply because I am incapable.

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