I’ve only recently joined the Souls Series fandom. The Souls Series lifestyle if you will. I blazed through Dark Souls 1 (weeks on end counts as blazing, doesn’t it?) last fall, am currently on the last leg of Dark Souls 2, Bloodborne awaits patiently by my PS4 and Dark Souls 3 is just around the corner. There are a lot of games in the series with an absurd amount of ways to approach and replay them and yet the community always seems to hunger for more. The Souls-like subgenre (games reminiscent in some way or another to the Souls games) was inevitable and is slowly becoming a thing. DarkMaus is one of the more recent aspirants to the Souls-like label.
DarkMaus is the work of lone developer Daniel Wright, a fairly recent Souls fan himself. It aims to capture the atmosphere, mechanics and design elements of the Souls games in a 2D, stylized, dynamically lit top-down action RPG and does so quite transparently. There’s no pretense here that the game is anything other than an homage to the series even if drastically different in perspective and some of the design choices.
DarkMaus: Microsoft Windows [Reviewed]
Developer: Daniel Wright
Publisher: Daniel Wright
Release Date: 26 January 2016
Price: 9,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
Played with an Xbox One Controller
DarkMaus in the house
The game starts you, a mouse, off on a beach next to a wrecked boat with nothing but a sword and shield in our posession. The player’s view radius is limited and there’s nowhere to go but forward. Soon after, you meet the first enemies (strange plant creatures) and learn the combat mechanics. As expected, you have a stamina bar that drains as you attack, block or dodge and replenishes faster when your shield is not raised. The bar is conveniently placed beneath your character model so you don’t have to take your eyes off the fight in order to plan your moves. As you push on you’ll briefly be taught about more mechanics such as destructible walls which can hide treasure or hidden passages, campfires that serve as checkpoints and places where you can replenish your torch (which will only stay lit for a set amount of time) and some special combat moves.
You level up by collecting marrow from corpses and fallen enemies, which you can spend at a campfire in order to increase one attribute, the cost increasing each time. The number of attributes you can level is a great deal more simplistic than the accountant’s wet dream that was Dark Souls‘ character sheet. You can increase your maximum carry capacity (which influences your speed), your attack speed, your resilience to blows, your health and stamina. However, you can (and need to) also invest points in various weapon classes. Again, there is not quite as much variety as in the source material, but there is still an impressive arsenal of weapons available. While not always strictly better, weapons within the same class that you find later on require more skill points to use, but also reward you with a different move set, better reach and other subtle differences. The only spellcasting ability is pyromancy which grants access to both fireballs and weapon buffs. I played the game with a mix of swords and spears, with the occasional pyromancy use. This allowed me to use the sword’s wide swing against groups of enemies and using the spear’s long reach to chip away at the health of tougher enemies.
Occasionally you will also be granted the option to invest in a special ability which can be control combinations used to execute advanced moves, or passive bonuses. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that you will lose all collected but unspent marrow upon death, but making your way back to where you died without dying again will allow you to recover it. DarkMaus is an offline game, so there’s no summoning to help you get past the more challenging areas (of which there are plenty) but you will find a number of items that will summon a “death echo” upon your death. Essentially you will have a ghost ally, equipped the same way you were when you died, which will help you progress. This mechanic is entirely optional and you can turn it off if you choose to or if you feel it makes the game too easy (it doesn’t). As for PVP…well, I’ll just let you find that one out on your own.
The enemy AI is very competent. You will meet various creatures, from the dumb plant things mentioned before, to feral mice, bulls, birds, spiders and more. Each enemy type comes with its own tactics and move set: a mouse knight will keep its shield raised and wait for an opening to strike, an archer will pelt you with arrows while its allies keep you busy and the spiders are just plain terrifying, as they’ll back away from you when faced, but swarm and obliterate you if you turn your back just slightly. You will also meet NPCs along the way, such as a princess mouse that fights with a bow and arrows (which I managed to get killed relatively quickly), a sketchy cat or a trapped former knight. Each can guide or help you along the way and uncover more of the backstory.
Of Mice and Melee
I don’t know what to tell you about DarkMaus’ visual style that isn’t immediately obvious from the screenshots. It’s minimalistic but very well put together. The dynamic lighting system plays an important part in exploration and combat, as most times you can’t see what waits for you around the corner, but conversely can occasionally peek into the next room through a narrow crack in the wall. While for the most part depicted strictly through silhouettes, the character models have an impressive amount of detail put into them and the animations are smooth and punctuate the combat nicely (them spiders!). While I understand the choice of style as it is used to craft a bleak setting, I have some minor gripes with the color palette, especially where it actively undermines the gameplay. The floors are more often than not a shade of beige-yellow and loot is universally depicted as a faint orange glow on the ground. I wouldn’t say it’s unnoticeable, but I did find myself actively straining my eyes trying to differentiate between treasure and light sand texture. Another problem I had was that while the camera quite effectively zooms out or sways and pans during select sequences in order to build up tension or frame a scene better, for the better part of the game I felt that I needed a more ample view from above. I assume that the close-up camera is used to convey claustrophobia and make the player feel on edge, but being charged by an enemy from off-screen (that my character would have seen coming, were this not a top-down game) feels cheap sometimes and limits your strategic decision-making.
The music consists mainly of drums during combat and gives off a primal vibe. It conveys urgency and rythm. Outside of combat it’s tense, ominous or melancholic depending on the environment. The soundtrack is very well constructed, as it fits the atmosphere, or rather completes it. The rest of the sound design is solid for the most part, competent but with some odd choices, such as the characters mumbling unintelligibly during dialogue which I found to be a strange compromise between voice-over and text-only. Another strange choice are the character exertion noises. This might be just my own personal opinion, but I wasn’t expecting to hear such low grunts coming out of rodents which are traditionally described as having high-pitch vocalizations. But on the other hand I suppose having a bunch of mice squeaking all over the place would have diminished the experience somewhat.
I’d like to say that the DarkMaus is tough but fair and overall it does land neatly into this description, I suppose, but I do believe that some elements could do with a bit more balancing. What Souls players will call Poise (a character’s ability to maintain stance through blows) seems to work very much against you unless you invest heavily into Stability. Because of some enemies’ ridiculous ability to stun-lock me I was forced to grind until I had a functional ranged build for one of the bosses which had a 180 degree weapon arc and could effectively two-shot kill me with no opportunity for me to retreat between blows. I know that adaptability is a key element in these kinds of games, but I don’t think a certain play style should be almost entirely non-viable in certain situations. That being said, DarkMaus rewards skill, patience and memory more often than not and any bits that seemed unfair were few and far between. Another problem is the scarcity of healing items, since they only drop randomly from enemies. It was also an issue that there was no shortcut for healing in combat, but that has already been patched in between my playthrough and this writing.
Now, I’m going to talk a bit about the story and world design. The criticisms contained here should by no means be held against the game, since I’m just drawing some parallels between it and its inspiration. DarkMaus is not under any obligation to do every single thing the way the Souls games did. That being said, I wish I could praise these two components more, but there isn’t a lot to praise. Not that what exists is poorly made, just that there isn’t much to talk about. The story is very bare-bones and seems to only be there as lip-service. There’s no rich lore, no prominent pantheon or great conflict. There’s just a big bad running the show and very little detail to how he came to be. However, maybe the girl mouse I accidentally killed early on had more information for me, but who knows? The level design is very good if mostly linear (with a few side-paths containing rewards here and there and the occasional shortcut). The early stages do seem to convey the dying world theme better than later areas which seem to be more preoccupied with being trap-filled gauntlets rather than delivering environmental storytelling. Seriously, who fills every single corridor in a castle with flamethrowers or ballistae?
The lack of meaningful story and lore should not detract too much from the experience, however, since you’re probably just playing to conquer yet another challenge and add another notch to your pro-gaming belt. DarkMaus is a decent 6-8 hours in length for one playthrough, but much like in its predecessors, the adventure doesn’t end when the extremely short credits roll. There are many builds and weapons to experiment with and New Game Plus modes to challenge you even more.
DarkMaus is a well-crafted and adequately gloomy game worthy of the Souls-like label. It does, however, have a unique aesthetic and is unafraid to try its own thing in some design areas. While definitely not as complex as the main series, it’s still an impressive project (especially given that it was developed by one person) and it should provide a satisfying quick-fix for most Souls fans.