Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Things Go Bump In The Dark Meadow

Even before you wake up in the abandoned hospital, Dark Meadow immediately establishes an atmosphere of dread. From a distance in the cut scenes, the sanatorium on the horizon stands silently in the background like so many of those built in the early 1900s to treat thousands of tuberculosis victims.

The map of the grounds reveals some of its twisted history too. Some of it resembles a hospital. Some of it resembles a psychiatric ward. Some of it resembles an elementary school, even though you know the classrooms were meant to help patients forget that their future was as bleak as the peeling wallpaper.

A dark and gripping storyline makes for a better play experience. 

When the original game came out last October, it had some mighty big shoes to fill. The game itself had borrowed heavily from Infinity Blade, thinly masked only by the game's first-person versus third-person point of view. When you're attacked, dodge left or right. When you want to attack, swipe, swipe, swipe.

Unlike Infinity Blade, however, which is a fun game for awhile, Dark Meadow has three advantages. Although more difficult to master, you can use ranged weapons (mostly crossbows) as your assailants approach. Most of them have ranged attacks too — nasty stuff they spit at you.

The second difference is the environment. It's richer and much more sinister, coming closer to the free movement found in games like Dead Space but with a Myst-like quality. It's very obvious that Phosphor Games Studio pushed iOS as much as it could with the Unreal Engine 3. The shadows, lighting, and artistic gloom make you want to look around.

Lastly, the voice acting of your elderly ally is convincing and mixed. He helps flesh out the storyline that can't be found on little bits of paper that litter the hospital. But more important than his little bits of dialogue are the the diversity of his lines. It never becomes too repetitive, even when you pay attention. At first, you won't want to listen too closely — until you realize any tips you get are worth their weight in gold.

The attention to detail reminds you that the developers care. The proved the point once again, which prompted this review. They released an expansion called Dark Meadow: The Pact, which came with new content and levels that expand upon the first installment. But what really stood out to me was that it was free.

Some of the new features include the long-awaited iPad retina support, faster travel warps, light bombs, and some expected new enemies, weapons, and environments. Some people might scoff at the offering, but those people must not know that many developers launch a sequel and leave the original buyers in a lurch to repurchase the entire game.

So they made it free for everyone (hoping to cash in on in-game goods). That doesn't mean the original owners lost their money. Instead, they receive a free premium pack that includes: health kits, bombs, sun coins, and gold. And, best of all, ad-free play from the onset.

One of the better additions is the world map. The hospital is not that big, but you always have the sense that you are lost rather than pulling it up on a browser. It's not perfect, but it is better than nothing.

A little bit about Phosphor Games for the curious. 

Phosphor Games came together after Midway Games (Mortal Combat, Pac-Man, Tron, etc.) was shuttered in 2009. But some of the Chicago-based developers didn't want to see their open-world, third-person superheroes game die (now called Project Awakened). So, they acquired the rights and formed the company.

Since then, they've redeveloped that game while simultaneously launching Kinect Adventures (five adventures for Kinect) and Dark Meadow. Most of their efforts seem to be focused on the latter. Project Awakened is still waiting for a ship date.

Another cool coincidence about Dark Meadow is that there is a real sanatorium that resembles the game hospital, Montclair. We found a picture of the hospital (right), which is only known by a pseudonym. The reason they listed it without a name is because it was renovated three years ago. Creepy.

Dark Meadow: The Pact Creeks In At 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The game is certainly one of those you want to watch. Although it doesn't have the intensity of Dead Space with true free movement, it makes up for it with the storyline. The game play is a little slower than Infinity Blade, but takes longer to feel repetitive thanks to the immersive world. The new free play offering is well worth it, especially because in-game purchases don't feel mandatory (unless you are impatient).

Dark Meadow: The Pact is available for download on iTunes. The original Dark Meadow is still in the store too. If you're not sure of the game, the better value is to play it free. It was nominated for Mobile Game Of The Year by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences against some stiff and some not-so-stiff competition: Infinity Blade II, Deadspace, Contre Jour, and Tentacles.
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