A Grim Welcome
Casual giant Alawar has added another title to its growing stable of seek-‘n’-find games, introducing what could well be the beginnings of a brand new series. Dark Strokes: Sins of the Fathers is as much a hidden object game as it is a classic adventure game, with all the inventory management and puzzle solving, and very little of the NPCs and dialog. But make no mistake: far from being a genre mash-up without a soul or clear purpose, Dark Strokes takes the very best parts of both worlds, polishes them to a glossy shine, and presents a mysterious story tinged with a surprisingly pleasant mix of gothic occultism and dark historic noir.
Billed as a “hidden object adventure”, Dark Strokes indeed does not favor one genre over the other, providing adventure-styled inventory and environment puzzles at every turn, and interspersing plenty of hidden object scenes into the fray. Right off the bat, the game aims to impress: a young couple, engaged to be married, are on their way answering a summons from a mysterious letter; Ethan Blake’s father has apparently asked him and his fiancée Clair back to the town Ethan grew up in, without any explanation or reason why. En route, the train is accosted by cloaked and masked individuals, who seize control of the vehicle and cause it to careen wildly off its tracks in a fiery explosion, plunging the protagonists into an uncertain fate before they’ve ever even reached the setting of the main game. Thus, and with appropriate fanfare, begins Dark Strokes: Sins of the Fathers.
Oh Great! Another Locked Door/Chest/Case/Latch…
The developers have crafted a lovely and visually appealing piece of software, from the intricately painted scenes seemingly lifted straight out of a child’s Most Creepiest Bedtime Stories picture book (the “Dark Strokes” of the title refers to the motif of an artist painting scenes of the plot with a paintbrush), to the frequent cutscenes that propel the story forward. Every location Ethan visits features deep and rich colors, often purveying a dark and cool atmosphere, while incorporating dynamic animations within the fore- and background, such as rain running down cracked window panes in runnels or a tree bending in strong ocean gusts of wind. Despite a pronounced dearth of NPCs to find and interact with, the world feels alive and has that “just lived in” feeling that produces some pleasantly creepy vibes.
As Ethan’s fiancée, Clair, is promptly swept away and kidnapped by the masked strangers, the Faceless Ones, it is up to him to discover the reason behind everything: Why was he summoned here? Where is his father? What’s happened to the town’s inhabitants? And why is a menacing, otherworldly power interested in Clair? Traversing the various locations and finding ways to proceed through each locked door along the way will require some ingenious use of your inventory, and each new location you open up has the potential to throw four or five new locked doors of various types at you. Puzzles are usually practical, mostly dealing with opening or unlocking a certain box or container, but occasionally devolving into the odd “I have to clean the cross before I pick it up” forced puzzle. Backtracking is a must, and especially the latter parts of the game can feel as if you’re simply clicking through an array of screens, just to use one item, to then return the same way you came and do it all over again. This is where it would’ve been nice to see the game’s slightly repetitive flow broken up by additional characters and some NPC development.
In addition to the applause-worthy visuals and production values, the game’s promised hidden object scenarios offer a welcome respite from clicking through screens to gather key after key. Sporting a similarly well-produced art style as the rest of the game, each object jumble is packed full of all manner of items, each clearly discernible and varied throughout. When tasked to find three of the same item, I could usually rely on each one taking a different form than the others (one may be an actual physical object, while another may be a drawing of one integrated into the background). In the first few hidden object puzzles, players will frequently have to solve puzzles within the hidden object scenes to locate a particular item; for example, finding a worm might require first finding a knife, and using it to cut an apple into two, in which the worm is hiding. Sadly, these more involved puzzles are abandoned after the first few scenarios, though.
The third type of puzzle in Dark Strokes appears in the form of mini-games that must be solved as a part of opening a lock or proceeding to a new location. The mini-games are, for the most part, unique, with only a handful of repetitions throughout the game, and each one can be grasped and completed without much additional assistance. Whether it’s rotating blocks to bring all same-colored blocks into their designated corner or guiding a crystal heart through a maze filled with sharp moving blades, the mini-games are generally short distractions from the story-driven puzzles of the rest of the game.
The Final Verdict
Dark Strokes: Sins of the Fathers does a more than competent job of providing a warmly welcoming and engaging hidden object adventure, with a heavy emphasis on classic adventure-style gameplay. Beautiful visuals and a developer who didn’t shy away from well-placed production values round out a package just addictive enough to make you keep playing til the credits roll (the Collector’s Edition bonus chapter offers another lengthy story-piece from a new perspective, rounding out the tale and ultimately bringing it full circle).
The grim-but-not-gruesome atmosphere suggests the game is intended for all but the youngest set of gamers, and two difficulty levels with varying degrees of on-screen help, as well as a recharging hint button, mean that this game isn’t just for lovers of hidden object seek-‘n’-finds, but even those who like a light yet gloomy tale.