It’s 2014 and seeing yet another indie RPG built using RPG Maker makes me bemoan a little inside. Still, it’s not fair to discriminate games created with user-friendly software packages like RPG Maker or even Game Maker Studio. After all, they’re simply tools that serve as a means to an end, and not the end itself. To The Moon is perhaps one of the better examples of how RPG Maker can be used to create something so highly unique and special that it becomes worthy of mainstream success and accolades. Just last month we gave much praise to The Wasteland, which was essentially a one man project created with Game Maker Studio. Of course, those are rare exceptions out of the many games that end up on Steam these days. DarkEnd (not to be confused with the metal band of the same name) is one the newer RPG Maker powered adventures to arrive on Steam, described as a non-linear dungeon crawler which departs from JRPG customs.
DarkEnd calls itself a departure from the norm, but that’s only to the extent of contemporary JRPGs that we see today. In truth, the game adapts much from purely gameplay driven JRPGs of yesteryear. Within moments the design and structure of DarkEnd becomes clear; you start in a dark broody village and work your way through a deadly realm made up of numerous settings and randomly generated floors to explore. It’s a textbook dungeon crawler where you work your way through increasingly difficult floor layouts all while battling enemies, solving light puzzles, and collecting items and gold. Major dungeon events involve a major boss battle. It’s a lather, rinse, repeat (and somewhat addictive) structure, but there is enough presentation and gameplay variety to keep it interesting.
DarkEnd is a throwback to games like the Genesis classic Shining in the Darkness, which to this day remains an unbeatable gold standard for the crawler RPG genre. DarkEnd adapts many of it ideals from these classics, but adds more story elements and randomized progression to the mold. Although the random nature isn’t of a roguelike grade but rather it’s more systematic. You get to choose a main character and a secondary character out of four hugely distinct heroes, which creates some interesting combinations for dialogue, cutscenes, and combat. Another cool hook about the adventure is the skill building system, which works quite similar to the skill trees found in games like Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII. You basically activate crystals using character levels and skill points, with each crystal representing either a spell, inherent (passive) ability, or special move. You can choose to unlock a variety of new character attributes or you can fully upgrade a particular crystal to the max. This skill system certainly adds a very important and engaging layer to the game’s pace and design.
The gameplay is fun and thoroughly challenging, and there is enjoyment in farming for experience points, gold, and some very useful items, especially when revisiting old dungeon floors allow to complete the many (and I do mean many) side quests. While most dungeon crawlers are known for their brutality, DarkEnd achieves a nice balance by enforcing a limited save system and that dreaded Game Over screen, but at the same time it incorporates conveniences like free healing and checkpoint portals next to each major boss battle. Best of all, it doesn’t have rage inducing random battles as all enemy encounters appear clearly on-screen.
The most underwhelming aspects of DarkEnd deal with non-gameplay elements, but such superficial features are ultimately crucial components of a complete RPG experiment. For one thing the story isn’t very compelling, and the mostly campy dialogue and predictable character tropes don’t help either. There just isn’t enough draw you into the game’s setting and its cast. Instead, it feels like the plot merely exists to facilitate the dungeon crawling grind, but it doesn’t really make an incremental contribution to the experience.
The visuals are another downer, as the core game sprites and engine are exactly what you’ve come to expect from RPG Maker, but still they are pleasant enough to be functional. The art style doesn’t help matters either, mainly because of how inconsistent its quality and direction is. It almost feels as if different people were involved in the character portraits and enemy designs as the quality varies substantially. Quality of the artwork can range from it looking like an amateur Deviantart submission to something that has decent artistic flair. Visuals are definitely the least memorable aspect of DarkEnd, but the soundtrack reflects more consistent quality and richness for sure. The score varies in terms of mood and feel, and experiments with a range of cool instruments and synth beats. There’s some noticeably good music in here, which almost makes up for the lacking visuals.
DarkEnd isn’t the departure from JRPG norms it claims to be, but instead a textbook dungeon crawler that ticks the right boxes when it comes to sound gameplay and design. That said, it doesn’t do anything already experienced better elsewhere. The music has some redeeming qualities, but the presentation, visuals and writing give off a cringe-inducing amateurish vibe. Fans of the subgenre will likely get some enjoyment out of the gameplay, skill system and the numerous quests and upgrades. Those looking for a genuinely exceptional JRPG that stands out from the Final Fantasies and Dragon Quests have better alternatives — even within the dungeon crawler niche — to consider first.