Love it or hate it, Dark Souls was a game changer. Its combination of brutal difficulty and exceptionally balanced combat, set the bar for future games of its ilk. One such game is DarkMaus, by Daniel Wright. Available only on PC, DarkMaus is a game inspired entirely by From Software’s masterpiece, and is viewed entirely from a top-down perspective.
The land of Hazath is cursed and you, a lone mouse with sword and shield in hand, are tasked with discovering why. Washed ashore on a deserted beach, your adventure begins. Best played with an Xbox 360 controller, the first thing you will notice is the similarity to Dark Souls’ control scheme, with the bumpers/triggers acting as block and attacks; the face buttons take care of sprinting and dodging, as well as item usage; and the directional pad takes care of weapon and item swapping. This will instantly endear the game to Souls fans, becoming second nature almost instantly, and it also means that it’s easy to pick up for newer players – though don’t think for a second that this will mean the game itself is easy.
DarkMaus is a vicious game of skill and patience. Combat is slow and measured, meaning you have to learn the attack patterns of enemies and adapt your play style as a result. You will make mistakes and the game will punish you for it, time and again, and you simply must learn or this will not be a fun experience.
Levelling up is key to your success and for this you will need marrow, which acts like experience points. Unlike most RPGs, killing enemies does not always yield experience, but it is still required to upgrade your skills at campfires. You can add marrow points to health, stamina (allowing you to block more attacks, dodge more, or simply increase your attack rate), capacity (to receive less penalties to movement when carrying heavy weapons/armour) and even strength, etc. in order to wield more powerful weapons. There is a price to pay for resting at campfires however, as vanquished enemies are resurrected, lending a familiar risk/reward feature to the game. Do you upgrade your stamina now and resurrect those dangerous enemies that almost murdered you horribly, or keep going and try to find another campfire further down the line? It adds genuine tension, especially as the marrow you’re carrying will remain with your corpse, should you die. If death occurs on the way to collecting that dropped marrow, it will be lost for ever.
Unlike Dark Souls, DarkMaus offers additional abilities that can be unlocked with ability points that are given to the player at certain levels. These abilities range from dodge upgrades, to granting the player AI ghosts that will appear upon death. These ghosts, known as Death Echoes, will fight alongside the player until the AI dies, and are summoned via Twisted Figurines that can be collected throughout the game. A ghost will appear for every figurine you own, which is almost a necessity during later battles. This can become tiresome at times, especially when faced with swarms of enemies that the combat system just isn’t equipped to deal with, as it feels like the game is actually encouraging you to die in order to progress. And when you’re faced with a long, gruelling run from the last campfire in order to regain your lost marrow and progress beyond that difficulty spike, it can needlessly make the game a slog.
Being the work of a solitary independent developer, issues are bound to crop up. The combat is mostly solid and rewarding, but it does suffer from some issues with balancing, especially with some of the enemy types not quite fitting the gameplay style. It also feels a little too similar to Dark Souls, sometimes coming across as derivative instead of an homage, but for the most part it’s well-meaning. DarkMaus does offer some interesting new takes on existing mechanics however, with its Death Echoes standing in for a lack of co-op summoning, and another feature that replaces invasions, introduced only with an ominous message appearing across the screen.
YOU ARE BEING HUNTED!
This message, combined with the sudden change in music, turns the tension up to eleven. With the game keeping the reasons for these hunts a mystery, these encounters remain a fraught affair no matter when they happen.
The atmosphere in DarkMaus is aided by its minimalist visual approach, with the palette consisting almost entirely of black and red, on a sandy yellow background. The black silhouttes, combined with the field of vision effect that sends shadows sprawling everywhere to block the view around corners (although the line of light offered through the gap between locked doors is a nice detail), creates an oppressive, even claustrophobic feeling that is only increased further when hunts are in effect. Enemy designs reinforce this feeling, especially with their animations and devious AI. The game currently has issues running in full screen on anything less than your native desktop resolution, but that is being looked into and will hopefully be fixed in a future update, so it’s a minor flaw right now.
The level design is also a major factor in keeping the atmosphere levels high. From the opening forests that are teeming with spiders hidden amongst the dark branches, to the vicious, trap-laden keep that will instantly put Dark Souls fans in mind of Sen’s Fortress, DarkMaus will keep you on edge throughout. Darkness is also a theme, not just a nod to Souls, as your torch has a limited lifespan and will eventually burn out if it isn’t topped up regularly at campfires. Without your torch burning, your vision is drastically reduced, leaving you much more vulnerable to ambushes. If you should run into a rat during this time, you are really in trouble. Rats are the mortal enemies of mice, and are much tougher than the average foe. These battles are often tucked away in remote locations, even hidden behind destructible doors, and are entirely optional. Should you find yourself fortunate enough (or skilled enough) to defeat one of these rats, the rewards are usually high.
There are so many mechanics at play in DarkMaus, with layers upon layers of stats governing everything within its world and combat, that it really is a stunning achievement that one person could not only replicate the work of From Software, but create a new experience around it. This is no game clone, but a fully fledged and incredibly accomplished title in its own right. With combat that feels weighty and rewarding, and unique takes on existing mechanics, DarkMaus is a must-have for any Dark Souls fan, though other players may be turned off by some balancing issues and hefty difficulty spikes.
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