Reviewed: February 10, 2004
Released: January 22, 2004
Trial Version Download
Space, the final frontier. Though many gamers these days may not know it, space was actually one of the very first frontiers to be conquered by video games. Galaga, Space Invaders, Asteroid, Centipede Ė the list of venerable classics that allowed us to save the earth from yet another onslaught of alien invaders goes on and on, proving two salient points. The first Ė that NASA could save us millions of tax dollars by building a very cool extra-terrestrial game simulation rather than sending RC Racers to collect Martian dirt Ė extends into the second, which is to point out that as a collective group we can never seem to get enough of outer space, no matter how little we find out there, or to put it more saliently, how bored we become with it once we do.
Dark Archon: Invasion, the latest 2-d space shooter from BC Soft Entertainment conjures up memories of the heyday of space-blaster-shoot-em-ups, when every arcade game offered the promise of a new adventure, and every quarter burned a hole in your pocket. Dark Archonís back story is a cleverly envisioned (though poorly written) space drama involving classic themes of oppression, rebellion and the intertwining fates of four races fighting for dominance and survival amongst the stars. For our purposes it will suffice to know that earth gets destroyed (doesnít it always though?) and that thereís plenty of space ships, alien or otherwise, that need blasting.
Nicely enough, Dark Archon provides us with the choice between four different ships, each featuring its own special abilities and weapons unique to the race it represents. Will you battle alongside the proud Lordís of Polis, defend the stalwart earthlings, further the goals of the Black Faith or side with the Free Archons? The choice is yours to make. Oh, and did I mention that there are enemy space ships that need blasting? Letís get to it.
Dark Archonís gameplay can be likened to a mixture of Asteroids and Space Invaders. Thatís right folks, weíre talking straight up, old-school 2-d arcade action, complete with thruster jets and random space debris floating all over the place. The controls are very easy to learn Ė Dark Archon utilizes the standard W-A-S-D keyboard configuration along with a right and left mouse button combo to fire and alt-fire. The screen layout is clean and well organized, allowing access to critical shield, thruster, and special weapon info at a moments glance.
One of the neat things about Dark Archon, something I began to appreciate right off the bat, is that each race offers a unique campaign and each level offers missions that stress variety and creativity. Choose to play for the Lordís of Polis and you may find yourself fending off troublesome Archon fighters while defending a stranded Polis flagship. Take up the cause of the Earthlings and you might lead a squad of ships into battle to destroy a key objective or retake lost territory. Each level offers a new, tangible objective, something very refreshing to experience, and completing levels offers experience points which you can use to upgrade your ships weapons, armor, thrusters and special abilities.
Each level has a small introduction to it, providing continuity and meaning for all the alien blasting thatís going on. For a game of this size, thatís quite a feat to accomplish and the folks at BC Soft should be congratulated for enhancing the experience in this manner (at the Main Menu you can read more on the history of Dark Archon, or simply jump in and start blasting).
Although the gameplay is very basic and easy to get into, I did have some trouble with the aiming reticule, which you control by moving the mouse around. Many a time Iíd find myself in the heat of battle staring at my ship and other enemy ships, often losing sight of the reticule. It would have been nice to have the ability to customize my aiming sight in order to make it stand out more, especially during fierce space melees.
Dark Archonís graphics are pleasant to look at, but lack the eye candy of many other retro space shooters today. Though the 2-d platform does place some inherent limitations on what you can present, it would have been nice to see some more blatantly 3-D effects with the ships, explosions, lasers and missiles. As it stands, most of the effects are uninspiring (the flamethrower on the Lordís of Polisí ship for example) and blasť.
The biggest saving grace here are the backgrounds and large object renders. The vast space backdrops are a joy to behold (and quite frankly, much better than some pure 3-d games) with vast nebulas and gaseous giants looming in the vastness of space. Its quite a sight to behold planets slowly spinning in orbit next to giant hovering space stations. The ships themselves are small and colorful, and it is sometimes hard to distinguish them apart.
Like its graphics, the sound effects of Dark Archon definitely leave something to be desired. Most of the explosions are flat, as are the weapons and movement sounds of each ship. In a space shooter like this, weak sounds tend to detract from the main thrill the game offers; i.e. blowing things up, so this is an important area to address. Happily though Dark Archonís soundtrack offers a wide variety of interesting and energetic midi tunes to help liven up the lackluster sound effects.
Dark Archon offers plenty of levels to keep your itchy trigger finger happy, and with four different races to choose from, each with itís own saga and bevy of levels, youíll find yourself occupied for quite a while. Dark Archon also offers instant action with Survival Mode, a quick and dirty stand-off between you and as many alien enemies as you can take down with you. Quite a nice package overall, though a multiplayer or cooperative mode would have added enormous value.
On an academic level, Iím very appreciative of Dark Archonís attention to its story and depth of level design, as well as the bevy of musical tracks offered. On a purely practical level however, I didnít find myself having very much fun with Dark Archon. The ho-hum graphics and flat sound didnít help this situation, and once youíve blasted a few alien ships the rest seem rather incidental. After a while the experience becomes redundant, perhaps mirroring the utter exhaustion of the space themed shooter as a whole.
Fans of this genre who are looking for an older, no-frills experience very reminiscent of the early days of space arcade games or those who want a compact space shooter to help them quietly procrastinate at work may want to give this a try.