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Darker Skies - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Inspired by H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel
  • Levels loop back around to reduce back-tracking
  • The idea behind the one boss encounter
  • No plot twist about dead family or other trauma
  • Goal is ultimately altruistic

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Zombies? Really?!
  • Repetitively simple set pieces
  • Frequent cheap deaths
  • Fighting at close range
  • The actual execution of that one boss encounter
  • Painfully slow walk
  • Rapidly-draining flashlight batteries
  • Character motivation initially unclear

Overall Impression : D+
Poor man's The Last of Us

Darker Skies - cover

Developer:
Steel Arts Software

Platforms:
PlayStation 5 < (via PSN digital download),
XBox Series S | X (via XBox Live digital download),
Nintendo Switch (via Nintendo Shop digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $18 USD

Original release date:
19 August 2021

Genre:
post-apocalyptic sci-fi 3rd-person survival shooter

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
4 hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood, language, violence

Official site:
www.steelartssoftware.com/grey-skies-a-war-of-the-worlds-story-copy

When I booted up my PS5 for the first time and signed into the PSN, I immediately downloaded a few of the must-have games. You know, the Demon's Souls remake, Miles Morales, and Returnal. I also downloaded some other ... shall we say "less high profile" games that piqued my interest, including the [ultimately very impressive] World War II shooter Hell Let Loose and a little indie game that claimed to be a sequel to H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel The War of the World, called Darker Skies.

Darker Skies takes place during the aftermath of H.G. Wells' classic novel The War of the Worlds,
but the visual and sound design is clearly pulled from the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie starring Tom Cruise.

Budget "Last of Us"

I didn't have high hopes for this budget indie title, but I was curious what a game developer would even do with a property like War of the Worlds. As soon as I saw the first enemy, a zombie shambling around just like a Clicker from The Last of Us, my heart sank. With all the potential of the source material, Steel Arts had to go with a zombie game?! The War of the Worlds is a classic sci-fi novel about a Martian invasion of Earth. My expectation for a video game adaptation of The War of the Worlds would either be some kind of survival horror game about surviving against Martians who survived exposure to Earth's microbes, or an action shooter about humans counter-attacking the Martians on Mars, or something akin to XCOM. It absolutely would not be a total knock off of The Last of Us, right down to having infected zombie humans.

And when I say this is a knock off of The Last of Us, I'm not just talking about the presence of Clicker-like zombies. The protagonist has an X-Ray "focus" vision, he scavenges random supplies in order to craft consumables supplies, and most encounters with enemies are intended to be dealt with by various throwable tools. There's even areas of the map that are overgrown with red Martian tendrils, similar to the spore-infested areas of The Last of Us, except this time around, the character doesn't need a gas mask to get through.

The character can use X-ray vision to detect enemies through walls, but only if they are moving.

The only thing missing is the tag-along NPC child character -- which is a big problem because the interactions between the two characters is a huge part of what makes The Last of Us a great game. That's where the heart and soul of that game was. If you played The Last of Us, and you thought the best thing to emulate is the crafting system, then I feel like maybe you missed the point...

Why am I building a Martian ray gun?

Not only does Darker Skies lack an NPC companion character, but it also lacks any kind of clear motivation for the one playable character. Jack is putting together a salvaged Martian heat ray in order to, presumably, blow up a reinforced door for ... some reason ... which the game doesn't bother to explain until the end credits have literally started rolling. Because Jack's motivation is never explained to the player, the whole proceeding feels pointless. Am I just trying to escape? Is there a stash of gold behind that door? A cache of food or weapons or medicine? Is Jack's family on the other side of that door? Are there survivors trapped inside? Why are we risking our life to assemble a Martian superweapon?! Maybe Jack mumbled some throw-away line to himself about what he's trying to do early in the game, but if so, I completely missed it.

At the risk of spoiling the game (it's not much of a spoiler considering that it's the primary motivation of the protagonist), Jack is simply trying to break open the bunker door so that he can convert it into a shelter for other human survivors. He narrates this over the closing credits, as well as claiming that he has stockpiles of food and water for thousands of people. OK, so it's a noble, altruistic goal. I could have easily seen this degrade into yet another attempt at a crude "psychological horror" twist in which it's revealed that his family has been dead all along, or getting into the bunker will reveal some previously hidden past trauma or some crap like that. Thank goodness that wasn't the case!

The protagonist has established a camp in the sewer, and is assembling a Martian heat ray for ... some reason?

But if the whole point of the game was going to be to try to create a shelter for survivors, then I have another possible inspiration that Steel Arts maybe could have looked at. Perhaps they could have modeled their War of the Worlds sequel after the indie survival / strategy masterpiece This War of Mine. Darker Skies could still be an over-the-shoulder action / adventure / survival game, but instead of just scavenging resources to use as makeshift weapons and tools to fight or evade enemies, the protagonist could have been scavenging for resources to stock his bunker. And maybe he also occasionally finds survivors out in the world, who he has to lead back to the bunker, where they'll be safe.

This would provide a much greater sense of motivation for the player. It also would have allowed the levels to potentially be a bit larger and more open-ended in scope, allowing for more opportunities to explore for additional resources, at the risk of encountering more dangerous foes. But that isn't the game that Steel Arts made, and it might have been well beyond the scope and budget that they had available.

Gameplay loop

The game that Steel Arts did make is incredibly small in scope. Each level is pretty tiny, with a single objective, and only 2 or 3 enemy encounter set pieces between the player and that objective. There's a few tiny tangential rooms here and there to provide opportunities for light exploration, which usually rewards some extra resources and/or experience points for giving Jack new skills (the only of which I found useful was the inventory expansion). But other than that, each level is about 20 minutes of walking through empty hallways, coming to a large arena with 2 or 3 enemies, defeating or sneaking past those enemies, repeat until the end.

After finding the objective, the level loops back around to the beginning, sometimes with one additional enemy encounter as a final obstacle. It's nice that the levels loop around like this, as it spares the player from having to back-track through the empty levels, or to face respawning enemies in the same rooms you'd cleared before. But then again, the levels are so small and so short, that the run back to the beginning would only take a minute anyway, as long as you didn't leave any enemies alive to get in your way.

Unfortunately, these short levels do not make up for their shortness with creative enemy encounters or set pieces. Yes, the encounter design is clearly inspired by The Last of Us, but it's so repetitively designed that it just falls flat. Stand in the doorway to the arena, throw a rock into the middle of the room, wait for all the zombies to wander over to the rock, throw a water jar, then throw a shocker to clear out all the zombies at once. Basically, imagine a version of The Last of Us in which the entire game can be beat with molotov cocktail cheese, and you have Darker Skies.

Almost every encounter can be easily defeated with the same strategy.

There's smoke bombs, flashbangs, and an explosive, but I never once used any of them outside of the one single late-game encounter that required the use of smoke bombs. There was maybe one boss encounter in which, in retrospect, a smoke bomb might have been useful, but that was it.

This game lacks the larger, more complex level designs of The Last of Us, which forced the player to conserve resources, use distractions, and carefully sneak around enemies to either escape or make stealth kills. In fact, Darker Skies doesn't allow stealth takedowns at all. So it doesn't even encourage sneaking through a level in order to conserve supplies. Every encounter seems explicitly designed with the water jar and shocker combo in mind. You don't even have to sneak through the level to find a better vantage point, or to kite enemies from different rooms into a common area in order to attack them all at once. Nope. They whole encounter takes place in a single room, so they can all be resolved without even having to set foot in the room.

By the last level or two, I had over 100 bullets stockpiled, so when I finally started running low on water and shockers, I was easily able to just shoot every enemy in my way. Gunplay is incredibly shallow. Enemies sprint straight at the player, making them relatively easy to hit once you learn to compensate for the high recoil of the handgun. As long as I left enough space between me and the enemy before firing the first shot, it was easy to down them before they reached me.

If an enemy does reach you before you can kill it, you might as well just let it kill you and restart from the last checkpoint. There's no melee attack whatsoever, as far as I could find. Once the enemy is in range to hit you, most of them just flail their arms wildly, constantly draining your health until you keel over and die. This is why the health upgrade did not seem particularly useful, as getting hit by an enemy usually just meant death anyway. It's pretty bad.

Gun recoil takes a little getting used to.

The only real shake-up from this tedious gameplay is a couple short and simple stealth-only encounters in the last level, and the game's single boss encounter. That boss encounter is, admittedly, pretty neat and comes as a bit of a surprise. It makes for a memorable visual, and the sound effects in this boss fight are pretty cool too. Unfortunately, the actual gameplay for this encounter isn't all that great. It's a hide-and-seek encounter, in which you have to move from cover to cover to running between a stash of mortar rounds in the center of the level, and taking them to the various mortar launchers scattered around the level to actually attack the enemy. This would be fine, if not for the second phase, which spawns in mobs of other enemies which bum rush the player and are just a pain in the ass to deal with.

Definitely doesn't live up to its literary inspiration

Even though the design of Darker Skies isn't particularly good, I do want to give Steel Arts credit for the technical side of things. I didn't run into any major bugs during my playthrough. The only recurring issue I had on PS5 was that sometimes Jack wouldn't pick up supplies off the ground unless I crouched right next to it. Other than that, character models and animations look fine, even if they are a bit stiff and robotic. The environments look OK, even if a bit too dark and murky. There's a flashlight in the game, but it's battery drains so unbelievably fast that it's not really viable to use. But it really isn't necessary, since even in the dimly-lit environments, collectibles glow anyway, so I never missed anything in the darkness.

I can't really recommend Darker Skies. I've certainly played worse indie games in my days, so I wont tell you not to play it either. Darker Skies isn't un-playably awful; it's just thoroughly mediocre.

Apparently this same developer also made a game called Gray Skies: A War of the Worlds Story, which takes place during the actual war. That one sounds like it could be a more engaging game, but after playing Darker Skies, I don't feel particularly inclined to try Gray Skies.

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