A game of two halves

Balancing out the clean colours and comical stylings of Westone‘s Wonder Boy series is the Super Famicom title Dark Half, a turn-based RPG soaked in sombre colours and painterly artwork.

The game’s defining feature is its unique “zapping” system, the plot switching back and forth between heroic protagonist Falco and Demon Lord antagonist Rukyu over one in-game week, with you fully in control of both and actively working towards their opposing goals. Each “day” (read: chapter) follows smoothly on from the aftermath of the last, giving each complementary segment a clear focus and strong forward momentum: maybe this time Falco will have to face the havoc Rukyu wreaked the previous day, perhaps Rukyu will finally meet—and perhaps kill—one of Falco’s friends.  Putting you in charge of both characters is a genius move that gives neither side the usual “plot armour” any RPG telling a tale of the clash between light and darkness usually has—if you want to reach the end of the game you can’t afford to hold back, no matter which side you’d rather see win or how much trouble it’ll cause you when you eventually switch teams.

Dark Half’s “Soul Power” system also helps to keep players on task. This resource is set to a specific level at the start of each new day (regardless of how much or little you had at the end of that character’s previous chapter), and is depleted by pretty much every significant action you can take, including casting the healing spells Rukyu needs to use to keep his recruitable minions alive or even just walking around the land (villages/battle movement excepted). Lose it all at any time and under any circumstances and that’s an instant game over, Dark Half whisking you back to the title screen to restart from whichever of the too-few single use (yes, really) save points you last interacted with.

The good news is both characters regain a little SP from defeating enemies in random encounters—not much, but enough that assuming you’re sensible and just trying to make progress and engaging in fights along the way, you will more than likely finish the fight with as much SP as you started with, if not a little more. In a deliciously evil move Rukyu can gain additional SP by walking into human settlements and stealing the souls of as few or as many people as you choose, your total control over this often optional event imbuing this dark behaviour with a sense of malicious power few RPGs in any era have ever matched. These innocent people are little more than food for the dark gods, their souls forcibly removed from their bodies with a mere button press from you and no effort from Rukyu, leaving little piles of bones where men, women, and children once made a futile attempt to beg or barter with you for their lives.

This wilful act of violence benefits Falco too: if he examines these corpses when he comes across them he’ll more than likely gain a “Ray of Hope”, which not only has an effect on the ending received but can also be converted into Faltia—the game’s currency—and exchanged either for more precious SP or useful items and equipment at specific vendors… assuming Rukyu didn’t already kill them off. The significant rewards on offer for indulging in Rukyu’s darkest side creates an uncomfortable synergy between these opposing characters that prevents Dark Half from falling into the trap of making you want to skim-play the bad guy in a “nice” way just because really you’d rather be the hero, as both sides benefit in some material way when Rukyu slaughters a village full of innocent NPCs.

As clever as the Soul Power feature is, there’s no escaping the fact that it doesn’t really work in practice. Having your continued existence as a constantly diminishing resource is an interesting idea and certainly suits the game’s brooding atmosphere well, but it unfortunately tarnishes literally every step you take. Every stride in the wrong direction is precious SP wasted, every spell cast or wrong teleporter taken might be the act that prematurely ends your game. It pours cold water on the usual RPG pastimes of seeing what’s just around that corner or if there’s any cool treasure hiding just over that mountain range, even though the game is balanced so you’re unlikely to come close to running out of the stuff (I certainly didn’t). It’s like someone threatening to catapult your dog into a nest of angry hamsters if you don’t blink in the next sixty seconds: it’s an empty threat that changes nothing because of course you’re going to blink long before then, but by introducing a looming threat with serious consequences if you don’t they’ve gone and made things weird.

At least you don’t have to worry about spending any time levelling up, as there’s none of that in here—not in the traditional sense, anyway. Falco and friends can equip more powerful items, as well as randomly boost their spellcasting and general stats with special orbs found in chests or dropped after battle. Rukyu has no need for or interest in these fragile human trinkets at all.

The battles both sides inevitably face are turn based, although each possesses their own unique twists to distinguish them from each other. Rukyu doesn’t gain allies, choosing to use magic to force enemy monsters to fight on his side, these former foes becoming permanent (uncontrollable) party members until they’re either dead or discarded for another more powerful alternative. In contrast Falco gains (controllable) named friends and can ask generic (AI-guided) mercenaries to aid him in his fight. Magic is graced with similar quirks, Rukyu able to cast anything he has learned from his captured monsters at will—just as the owner of an intimidating floating castle should—so long as you’re prepared to accept the drain on his SP. However Falco and friends are restricted to treating magic as a finite and precious resource, spells cast from single-use tomes found or purchased along the way.

It’s absolutely fascinating stuff, and I sincerely hope I get to play another RPG with such strong ties between its cast and their gameplay in the future.  In these moments Dark Half’s an incredibly inventive RPG that makes turning so many standard conventions on their head look easy. It feels fresh, a little shining beacon in the RPG sea that dares to question why we keep retreading the same ground in the same way over and over again.

The trouble is when Dark Half’s bad, it’s very bad. It’s “Surely someone noticed this?!” bad, repeatedly choosing to create problems—problems, not challenges, and there’s no doubt a developer with Westone’s pedigree should know the difference—that sour the whole experience. The very first dungeon contains magical seals for Rukyu to step on to open the path ahead—seals that are routinely obscured by tall, solid, walls. The “solution”? To listen for the muted sound they make when Rukyu treads on them (this is actually mentioned in the manual as the right way to do it, and not me missing some built-in trick). In the next dungeon a gigantic pillar obscures the switch—one out of an already mostly invisible cluster of five, the other four sending you plummeting through a hole to the floor below—you must press to continue.

Later on you must walk into a cave entrance. A cave entrance facing north, turned away from the camera and completely hidden from view, which is not only irritating but also at odds with the established “rules” used for all of other east and south facing cave entrances encountered earlier. Most of the “puzzles” are just a case of walking on the right tile, or avoiding a different tile, or finding the literally invisible tile needed to open a nearby door. Teleport tiles (yep, it’s always tiles) may not teleport you back to the place you just came from but somewhere else entirely, because who needs logic and consistency in a game where every step might be your last? There are multiple floors in one dungeon where the exit only appears if you successfully navigate rooms filled with magically revealed trap tiles, places where one misstep forces you to trek back to the beginning and redo the whole tedious sequence.

Dark Half’s dungeon design is the game’s own worst enemy. At best it’s at direct odds with the limited exploration the soul power system encourages. At worst it feels like someone’s had a bad day at the office and is deliberately engineering scenarios designed to grind away any scraps of goodwill the game had managed to accrue elsewhere.

And this is where it all came undone for me. Several floors into a dungeon, one that had already sent me plummeting down multiple (!!) floors on more than one occasion after asking me to walk across invisible paths that were only briefly visible when I stood on an unmarked floor tile nearby, I came across a mandatory raised walkway broken up by impassable gaps. These gaps are supposed to be filled in by yet more invisible tiles, tiles that only manifest after I’ve stepped on a trio of tile-switches scattered across several floors. Floors I’d already passed through, and now had to navigate in reverse to find something already know I didn’t spot last time, so I could then go back to the place I already was. This game has unmarked walls you can walk through to reach new areas, by the way.

Nope. No. No thank you. Done.

There really is a good game in here somewhere, something brave and intriguing and novel, the only problem is it’s been utterly suffocated by the absolute worst “puzzle” dungeons I’ve come across in a very long time.

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2 thoughts on “A game of two halves

  1. The Soul Power system reminds me a bit of Dragon Quarter’s D-Counter. A counter that slowly ticks up to 100% and ends your game if it reaches that number and can not be reduced (unless you use a system to restart the game/from last save point). I know why it is there, BoF5 uses a lot of rogule-like esque systems, and it is also used to hold you back on abusing the by series norm generally overpowered dragon transformations, which can easily win a fight but now raise the D-Counter quite a bit. It is unlikely just walking around will max it out, since it only goes up by 0.1% every bunch of steps, but I still felt constantly stressed from it. As much as I respect Dragon Quarter for how interesting the systems are, I always felt nothing but exhausted from a play session.

    Liked by 1 person

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