The spiritual successor to 2013 Newgrounds hit I Can’t Escape, I Can’t Escape: Darkness throws you into a Mayan style ruin with what seems like a very simple objective: descend to the bottom of five floors to unlock a gate and escape the maze. Simple, right? What the narrator does not tell you, is how the randomly generated dungeon seems to be hand-built by sadists hell-bent on getting the most out of the try again button.
You start armed with a pointy stick and a flashlight, the main difficulty is making sure you retain enough battery for the latter in order to brave the deepest sections of the maze. There are pickups in the way of mushrooms (and an invaluable lighter) that can provide huge help in dragging out your Duracells, but waste too much time and you’ll quickly be undone in the pitch-dark of the lower levels.
The biggest enemy on starting the game are the many trapdoors that drop you deeper into the maze, and further out of your comfort zone. My first playthrough ended after I fell through a trapdoor to floor two. In my panicked attempts to get back up to the safety of the starting floor I fell through 3 more traps to the very bottom where I quickly ran out of torch battery and was consumed by the titular darkness. In a high state of nervousness, the death screen then encourages you to tweet your demise – highlighting the central premise of the game.
Core to ICE:D (not to be confused by a 80′s rap tribute act) is the permadeath feature. What made rougelike a viable genre, and has captured the imagination of Dark Souls fans in recent years, looms over this game tall and proud. Like these games, each death is designed to teach you something; beware certain types of mushroom, don’t always trust door buttons, and so on. There is a particularly sneaky bit of misleading that occurs towards the endgame that I won’t spoil – suffice to say I was shocked into enjoying the sheer gall of it though. The fact that there’s an achievement for each different type of death seems like the developers allowing the player to have a “fool me once – shame on you” moment each time. Only when you are killed in the same way multiple times does frustration start to set in.
After death you start each playthrough from the beginning (you can save and come back to a playthrough but dying deletes the save to prevent easy resets). Each sortie into the unknown lasts roughly 15-35 minutes – despite this you feel a strong sense of progression as you learn about the environment and the tricks and treats therein. The balance between wanting to explore each floor further each time, and conserving your flashlight so you can descend into the more dangerous depths creates a welcome tension that is often absent from most games with regular checkpoints.
Where the game loses its’ way slightly is with the basic combat. Too often is it possible to find yourself chasing a rat around – tile to tile – not being able to kill it. In addition, for a game that advises caution at every turn, the vines (which can only be stunned) wake up far too quickly to allow for a measured decision after being dispatched. There is also a slight issue with the dungeons themselves. Although they are randomly generated in terms of layout – the traps, puzzles and items always seem to spawn on the same floor. After you’ve cracked the first few floors a few times, this can make the opening of each playthrough a little tedious as you re-collect the same items/crack the same puzzles, albeit with increasing speed.
These gripes aside, the game does one thing incredibly well. The sound design is minimal and used sparingly, but Fancy Fish Games have squeezed every drop of atmosphere from it. As a result, the game does not need to fall back on jump scares – instead opting for a slow build that makes your inevitable death after attempt number 13 even more dreadful (both before and after).
Whilst the randomly generated dungeons don’t hide a lack of depth, the atmosphere created and the way in which the game confounds your expectations on each play-through make this a worthwhile entry on the steam store. Eerie rather than terrifying, with nostalgic visuals, and nerve wracking sound design, Fancy Fish Games latest is an uncompromising horror-action title that succeeds more that it falters – which is more than likely the opposite of what the poor player experiences. If you enjoy slow burning spooks and want a retro throwback with a punishing policy on death, you could do much worse than this indie title for Halloween.
Midlife Gamer Rating: 6/10 Format: Steam/Linux Release Date: Out Now
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of I Can’t Escape : Darkness by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of three days. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.