DARQ: Ultimate Edition Review
My first experience playing DARQ was its 2019 debut, a short yet haunting three-hour experience that left me wanting more, and in 2023, I can definitely say that the game is still as fun and delightfully strange as it was then. DARQ has solidified itself as a memorable title in the horror puzzler genre, winning many awards and captivating players with its nightmarish dream world, excellent sound design, and creative puzzles. And over the years, Unfold Games has created more content to enjoy, releasing two additional DLCs — The Tower and The Crypt — as well as a 60-page graphic novel, a must-read tale that answers all your burning questions about the game’s characters and ending. The launch of DARQ: Ultimate Edition brings all these extra pieces of the game together in a single polished edition, and if you haven’t played it yet, this is the perfect time to give this mysterious, spooky story a try.
You play as Lloyd, a boy who is trapped inside an unsettling lucid dream, and your goal is to help him wake up — though you wouldn’t know this information unless you read the game’s description. Storytelling in DARQ is entirely wordless, forgoing dialogue and names while depending on the creepy atmosphere and visual set dressing to do the heavy lifting. You’ll run into many things that simply leave their meaning up to interpretation, such as lampshade enemies wielding pistols or empty hospital beds and wheelchairs. The game deliberately leaves you with more questions than answers, and I imagine this is done to emulate the hazy feelings we get when we dream and how we struggle to understand what it all means once we wake up.
As you help Lloyd navigate the strange world, you get to bend the laws of physics by walking on walls and ceilings, an action which shifts the camera's orientation and can sometimes move objects in the environment. Manipulating space and perspective in this way really emphasises how disorienting dreams can be, and it’s just plain fun. You also get to move forwards and backwards across planes, a clever design choice that makes these 2.5D spaces seem larger while also setting the game apart from traditional sidescrollers that exclusively stick to left and right movement. However, as much as the game gives you creative ways to manipulate the world, it’s also very intentional with what it allows you to interact with, so don’t expect to walk on every ceiling you come across.
DARQ’s gameplay loop quickly becomes a familiar dance of frights and puzzles: you start in a dilapidated house where Lloyd falls asleep on a bed, you wake in a strange nightmare and solve the puzzles there to escape, and then you return to the same house to do it all over again. Though the game lacks a tutorial for the controls, they’re still easy to grasp and the game does provide some light guidance. As you explore the levels, you’ll notice that each interactable object is highlighted with an icon, so you likely won’t miss them. You can also tell when you can wall walk when Lloyd presses his palm against a surface, at which point you’d press the B button (if you’re playing on the Nintendo Switch) to trigger the ability.
Puzzles will often have you pulling levers, activating power cords, and finding specific items to progress forward. Some items you need are locked behind their own miniature puzzles, all of which are unique and require some trial and error. There’s always a single logical solution to find, and the game strikes a balance between being clever and creative yet not too difficult. One puzzle, for instance, requires you to rotate the room in order to send an object through the ground, opening up a new pathway. It's all pretty enjoyable, with the exception of one puzzle towards the end that was especially frustrating as its difficulty comes from the game trying to scare you rather than challenge you with an interesting solution; the intensity wore off rather quickly after restarting the puzzle more than five times, at which point it was just immersion-breaking. Blending genres is no easy task, and while DARQ occasionally missteps as it tries to combine its horror and puzzle elements together, it doesn’t hamper the overall macabre experience.
Visually, the dark monochromatic colour scheme and dreary environments evoke a Tim Burton-esque art style. The creepy atmosphere is enhanced even more with great sound design, making the world feel alive and serving as an important story element in this wordless narrative. It’s a rich soundscape full of industrial creaks, echoing explosions, deep vibrations, and eerie moments of quiet, which all come through well over the Nintendo Switch speakers. There’s hardly any music in the game aside from an absolutely beautiful credit roll score composed by the developer — a perfect way to close out the ending.
The base game comes with seven playable chapters that can be finished within three to four hours. The additional Tower and Crypt DLCs add some length to that playtime, and they can be played before you finish the main chapters. The Ultimate Edition is the first time I’ve tried these extra levels, and I think the puzzles and mechanics they introduce are perhaps the best ones in the DARQ universe. They offer much more in the way of challenges and satisfying “aha!” moments as well as thrilling ends for each level. The unsettling aesthetics of the Crypt, teeming with creepy skulls and tombs, were definitely my favourite of the two areas.
Not so prevalent in the DLCs are stealth sections and jumpscares which are some of the base game’s weaker elements, and I was glad to see them dialled back. Considering Unfold Games describes DARQ as a psychological horror, you might expect more subtle explorations of things that disturb the human psyche, leaning less on traditional horror elements to frighten you. While DARQ has little gore and violence, the base game is overwrought with jumpscares; they startle you for a moment, but that’s all. They don’t leave a lasting feeling of dread that I’d expect from a psychological horror where the scares emulate the feeling that you’re going mad alongside the protagonist. Stealth sections were also lacklustre, breaking up the flow of gameplay without adding any substantial tension to the experience, which was further hindered by enemy designs that seemed like they should be scary, but simply weren’t.
These complaints partially stem from my confusion with the game’s narrative and stakes — why should I be scared and why are these enemies after me — which was left unresolved up to the point the credits rolled. That is, until I read the Dream Journal comic. Over the course of 60 pages, you learn about the origins of Lloyd’s nightmare, meet a variety of interesting (and familiar) characters, and discover what actually happens when you reach the ending. Though I do enjoy a good mystery, I appreciated getting the extra context to the story as it soothed my confusion, but considering that the Dream Journal contains spoilers for the entire game, it doesn’t smooth over those drawbacks of the gameplay if you’re reading it after your playthrough has ended. However, I do think the comic’s addition offers some new replay value as you can have fun picking out visual hints that callback to the journal’s story and revel in the ending with a new perspective.
DARQ (Reviewed on Nintendo Switch)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
DARQ: Ultimate Edition stands out with great visual and audio design, immersing you within its nightmarish dream world without needing to say a single word. Your time playing as Lloyd, while short, will be a memorable one full of clever puzzles, strange enemies, and physics-bending mechanics.