Darkest Fear Preview

New Euro developer Rovio Mobile's got a bright idea: a horror-themed action puzzle game that uses real-time lighting effects.

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Finland is noted for being the birthplace of some of the top mobile developers in Europe; big names like Sumea, Mr. Goodliving, and Universomo all hail from Helsinki and its environs. Now, it might be time to add a new company to the list. Helsinki-based Rovio Mobile started out earlier this year, and the new developer's first games have recently hit the European market with a bang. We recently got our hands on a final-release version of Darkest Fear, Rovio's unique survival-horror puzzle game, and we practically had a heart attack while previewing it. This may very well be the most enthralling, original mobile game we've played in 2005.

Warden would probably like to wait for daybreak...but there's no time!
Warden would probably like to wait for daybreak...but there's no time!

According to one of its cofounders, Rovio Mobile's main axiom is to make mobile games that appeal to hardcore gamers. However, even though its first release has many exceptional features, it's actually an entry into a pretty familiar genre: the overhead action-puzzle game. Darkest Fear tells the story of a history professor named Thomas Warden, whose wife and daughter are trapped in a darkened hospital filled with monsters. A horrible event changed most of the hospital's patients into ravenous beings of the night, leaving the remaining occupants cowering in fear throughout the labyrinthine building's chambers. Luckily, the monsters can survive only in total darkness, so they don't have the full run of the place just yet; pockets of natural and artificial light--Warden's islands of hope--remain to banish the inky blackness, fry the dread ghouls, and keep the humans alive.

As you play through Darkest Fear, your encounters with the survivors of the incident are shown in a series of noir-ish cutscenes that are half-draped in shadow. These advance the game's spooky story and assign you your secondary objectives on each floor, if any. Your standard mission is to rescue as many survivors as you can before proceeding to the next floor; although this mission is optional, each patient you save is good for an additional life point on the next level, and this becomes very important in the later, darker sections of the hospital. Rescuing a survivor involves bathing him or her in light from any of the game's sources of luminosity, which include windows, fireplaces, flashlights, lanterns, and mirrors. Any time you step through complete darkness, you sustain damage at the rate of about one life point per second. Therefore, it's possible to make short sacrifice-runs if absolutely necessary, but the bulk of the gameplay involves gingerly creating a path of radiance through each level.

In this process, Darkest Fear's brilliant puzzles come to the fore. Each light source casts a different sort of illumination, so you must arrange them in a certain order, and in particular places, to proceed; in addition, all light sources grow weaker over distance, eventually fading into deadly darkness. For instance, opening a window or lighting a fireplace creates a fairly long corridor of light, but in a narrow, stationary spectrum. Flashlights act in a similar manner, except that you can pick them up and put them down elsewhere. You have to be very careful with flashlights, though, because the darkness will close in behind you as you move around, and you'll start taking damage. Mirrors can't produce light of their own, but they can reflect it in any direction from other sources, while lanterns are the most useful source, because they create a circular glow. A lot of the game's puzzles also involve more traditional elements, like keys, pressure switches, and moving boxes, and you can probably imagine how difficult they can get. In the later levels, backtracking to old, unused light sources becomes the order of the day, along with dropping them on pressure switches and carefully calculating timed runs through the dark.

The darkness occludes many horrors.
The darkness occludes many horrors.

Darkest Fear's presentation is truly astounding on Series 60 smartphones like the Nokia 6600. The first thing we noticed was the game's score. It's too organized to be called ambient, since it pops up with a number of quiet, haunting melodies in just the right spots, but it's also integrated into the game in such a way that you barely notice it--it's just part of the overall experience. The game's most impressive attribute is probably its lighting effects. These appear to render in real time as you move light sources around (since doing so generates a very slight pause in the gameplay), and the shading looks very realistic. We've never really seen anything like it on mobile.

With Darkest Fear, it seems as though Rovio Mobile has served notice that it's for real--in the European market, anyway. It's unclear if or when Rovio's games will make it to the US, although the company is apparently working on a distribution deal with a third-party publisher. In any case, its work in this game has us eagerly anticipating its US release. We'll make further reports available as soon as we learn more.

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