Perhaps no genre of video game is more prone to being derivative than the two-dimensional platformer (that is, a game featuring a character navigating a two-dimensional world like the original “Super Mario Bros.” or “Sonic the Hedgehog”). Because of the genre’s spatial constraints — at some point, most of these games boil down to moving a character from point A to point B along a two-dimensional plane — the best features are repeatedly copied, scrambled, and updated, an endless series of tweaks and homages.
“A Walk in the Dark,” a recently released PC game by Flying Turtle Software (it’s technically been out for a while, but only recently released on the major online game distribution channel Steam; the concept of the release date is becoming fuzzier and fuzzier), is an elegant, deftly executed example.
“A Walk in the Dark” is the story of a girl named Arielle and her cat, Bast, who have become separated in the forest and must seek each other out. In some levels, you play as the girl, who can reverse gravity so she’s walking on the ceiling of the strange clockwork structures that she explores. In others, you play as the more nimble cat, who has catlike leaping abilities and can sometimes flip gravity as well. (Why does the cat sometimes have this power but sometimes lack it? Why, for that matter, does the girl have this power? None of it is explained.) The cat levels are more fun, and the developers appear to have realized this — there are more levels starring Bast than Arielle. Many of the levels feature sharp things — spikes and sawblades and porcupine-like creatures — that must be evaded by clever jumping and dodging.
As I played through “A Walk in the Dark,” I was constantly reminded of the many ways in which it was a hybrid of two of the best platformers of recent years: “Limbo” visually, and “Super Meat Boy” gameplay-wise.
Like “Limbo,” which follows the adventures of a small boy in a world full of deadly traps and monsters, the foreground action is mostly presented as silhouettes. The game does have a richer palette than the mostly monochromatic “Limbo,” but the aesthetic effect is the same: a sense of wonder mixed with loneliness. The visuals of “A Walk in the Dark” are a bit less severe, a bit more forgiving — “Limbo” delights in having your character endlessly eaten and impaled and eviscerated, whereas when your character dies in “A Walk in the Dark” it simply disappears with a beautifully rendered little wisp of smoke — but overall the games have very similar visual moods evoking tiny, fragile creatures exploring big, dark worlds. (The tinkly piano music in “A Walk in the Dark” greatly enhances this sense as well.)
But it’s in the gameplay where Flying Turtle’s sense of homage comes through most clearly. Certain segments play almost exactly like “Super Meat Boy,” which features an anthromorphic meatball trying to rescue his band-aid girlfriend by evading an endless series of pits, sawblades, and missiles. As in “Super Meat Boy,” jumping from wall to wall is a huge part of the gameplay mechanic. As in “Super Meat Boy,” precision is key (which is unfortunate at times, given that the controls in “A Walk in the Dark” aren’t as tight as the ones in “Super Meat Boy”). As in “Super Meat Boy,” by the end of the game you hope never to see another rotating sawblade barreling toward your character.
These sorts of games must be tough to make. It takes a lot of time and a lot of play-testing to figure out exactly where a given ledge should go, exactly how difficult to make a quick series of jumps required to avoid deadly sawblades. Flying Turtle does a very nice job, though. For the most part the level design is extremely satisfying — challenging, and often requiring multiple attempts to get through, but not quite reaching up to the psychotic difficulty of the toughest levels of “Super Meat Boy.”
So yes, “A Walk in the Dark” is quite derivative, and yes, it’s more fun to play if you’ve played the two games that most directly inspire it and can trace their influence. But whether or not you have, for about $5, this game is a beautiful, smooth bargain.