I play as many terrible games as I can.
I bought Valkyria Revolution on purpose. I spent a lot of time with Boiling Point: Road to Hell because it seemed like there was something good underneath the pile of awful, and it had Arnold Vosloo in it. I’ve bought and played every Dynasty Warriors title since the PS2 era…even the licensed spin-offs.
But there’s one title that perfectly captures what’s so vital about Terrible Games…
It’s Called Darkest of Days
Darkest of Days is fully awesome in spite of itself, and it’s the perfect example of a small game with big ambitions. Let’s talk about it.
Some mild spoilers follow, but you know you don’t care.
It came out in 2009 for Xbox 360 and PC, and was made by 8monkey Labs, a small company in Iowa. It was called 8monkey Labs because they only had 8 people when they started. Darkest of Days is their one and only game release, and now they make an engine and 3D art toolset called Marmoset Toolbag.
In the game, you play as Alexander Morris, a dude who nearly dies during the civil war but is then rescued by a time traveling cowboy named Dexter to become part of the front line in a war against an evil time traveling agency.
From there the plot just gets weirder and weirder, and fully commits to a series of hilarious time paradoxes. You journey through time with the cowboy, and you get orders from a lady on a screen named Mom who is just a giant pair of eyes.
Both of these characters have surprisingly amazing voice acting. You and the cowboy dude bring future weapons back to places like Ancient Rome and completely decimate the land…while also fighting the other evil future men who happen to be there trying to muck up history.
Eventually it turns out that the evil time traveling agency is actually a future version of the same group you’re working for, trying to fix the mistakes of the people you thought were the good guys.
I love all of it. In fact, I finished the game on both PC and Xbox 360 within a week of launch.
WHAT WORKS IN THIS MESS?
The engine, which now forms the basis of the modern Marmoset Toolbag, is comically over-ambitious coming from such a small team.
It supports large numbers of AI characters on screen at the same time, so that they could try and recreate several historical battles at the appropriate scale.
It has full Physx support on PC, and a limited implementation even on Xbox 360, for detailed particle and damage effects. Leaves fly around in the wind, dirt shoots out of cannonball impact holes, historical guns emit realistic clouds of smoke, and cool little sparks and particles zoom out of the more sci-fi weapons.
The levels are also gigantic, taking you through a wide variety of environments and battlefields in your quest to shoot other future dudes and also some guys from the past for some reason.
The sound design has stuck with me since launch. All of the historical guns use recordings of the real weapons, and the cracking sound that happens every time a person warps through time is one of the best sound effects ever in a game.
Oh, and there’s an achievement for punching a horse.
BUT WHY IS IT TERRIBLE?
In spite of all this ambition, spectacle, and fun writing and voice acting…the gameplay in Darkest of Days is a clunky mess. It doesn’t have anywhere near the polished feel of other 2009-era console shooters, let alone today’s games.
The obsessive dedication to realistic weapon physics means that you’ll often miss targets when you feel like you shouldn’t have.
Graphical assets are reused ad-nauseam throughout the game. You’ll fight the same three soldiers over and over again in each level…though it’s a little hard to notice because there are so many of them.
The scripting is too linear and removes a good amount of the chaos that would otherwise be present in some of these battles. The same groups of bad guys will always spawn in at the same time, undercutting the impressive AI system that manages the chaos of the large action sequences.
The weird mishmash of historical and modern settings never quite comes together with the same level of bombast and execution as most other shooters, leaving the whole thing feeling strange and empty compared to the honed-to-a-point execution of Call of Duty and Halo.
Oh, and it randomly crashes on both the Xbox 360 and PC.
If you can’t bring yourself to enjoy the ambitions of its technology or the fun writing, the gameplay and glitches will slowly crush the experience for you.
BAD GAMES ARE *IMPORTANT*
No game comes out of a robot factory.
Bad games are made by people too.
Sometimes they have so many amazing things in them.
And I love to look for those things.
Low budgets and low expectations allow for tremendous creative freedom.
When there’s no giant publisher expecting you to make hundreds of millions in revenue, you can try weird things like having a character named Mom who is just a giant pair of eyes. You can obsessively model giant historical battles and then drop in a guy with an awkwardly-controlling laser gun who has a cowboy buddy.
And you can give people an achievement for punching a horse.
Low budget “bad” games are the soul of creativity in the game industry.
Today’s indie scene carries on that un-ironically proud tradition. If we don’t support these games sometimes…the whole thing will fall apart under the weight of its corporate ambitions.