The best indie games do one thing well. They have one mechanic, and they build everything around this central idea. Braid’s mechanical core—time traveling platforming—informed every element of its presentation, and it didn’t try to do anything else; it never gave you a gun, or the ability to fly, or anything to dilute its gameplay. Bastion did it another way, focusing on the story it was telling and then building a game mechanic around it. Both of these are viable answers, but as a rule a small team can only hit one or, at most, two things out of the park; history is littered with forgotten games that tried to do too much and failed.
Dark Scavenger breaks this rule about as hard as you possibly can. It’s a game made by three people (plus one marketer) that tries to do not one, not two, but three things, one being the whole “fully featured RPG” yarn. It doesn’t quite do any of these things well. Dark Scavenger carries itself, however, with an endearing sense of strangeness, one which make the game fascinating if not particularly good.
At its heart Dark Scavenger resembles one of its titular characters: it has traveled the galaxy, collected discarded scraps of gameplay, and fashioned them together into a functional, if a little ambiguous, title. It takes the adventure game’s hidden object credo, Mass Effect’s faux choices, and the JRPGs turn-based combat system and taped them together with a crafting mechanic. You, as an unnamed protagonist, explore static screens filled with hidden objects. Click on one, and you’ll be given a choice that’s not really a choice: do something stupid, or make one of your allies do it. Do you want to drink this strange, bleachy substance, or do you make Zeus the Thunder God do it?
Either way nets you an item—a weapon, item, or ally—which can be refined and used in Dark Scavenger’s JRPG combat. The crafting, unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure choices, offers the exact opposite of the Mass Effect choice: you choose which of your three companions to give an item to (say, a warm blanket) and they make something of it. What the item becomes bears little direct relation to logic: the blanket could become, say, a flamethrower, a stun gun, or an expert in chemical warfare. You’re told what the flamethrower is (without seeing its crunchy statistical bits), but are given little idea of what the other two things will be or do. In short, you have two types of choices: one where there’s an obvious good or bad choice, and one where there’s three options to be picked from without any information.
None of this sounds exciting, but this is a game that begins with you floating in space, fighting a Galactus-class all consuming blob with just an old sword and a pocketful of dreams. And you win! This is the tutorial!
Whatever Dark Scavenger lacks in compelling mechanics, it makes up for it by being batshit. The mechanics rarely work particularly well on their own, but they are a serviceable vehicle for extreme silliness. This is a game where you can turn a bottle of alcohol into a pirate, a sharp sword into remote control bomb, a lightning rod into a god of thunder.
This, in fact, gets us to the root of the problem. When you craft those items, you’re offered your choice by your three bonkers crew members. The weaponsmith is a genial skeleton who will explain what he’s going to make very clearly. The item-crafter, a green geezer named Falsen whose picture graces much of the promotional material, speaks like a drug-addled, half dead flim-flam man. The ally summoner, Gazer, is a mute alien “puppy” who mimes what his creations will do.
Is it surprising that I opted for the clearly defined item more often? Not really. This is a video game, and it becomes difficult fairly quickly. This isn’t toothless JRPG combat where enemies do no damage and you can heal whenever you want: you have a very limited amount of healing abilities (tied to your ability to stun enemies), and if you make bad items you’ll end up dying a lot quite quickly. My first attempt at the game I tended to make the silliest, most appealing things, and this led me to a very difficult wall in chapter 2. On restart, I made weapons. I made weapons because I knew what they would do. I skipped the humorous ones because I didn’t have guarantees of usefulness, and I didn’t want the game’s sundry monstrosities turning my head into paste.
No one could accuse Dark Scavenger of not being funny, but its attempts at humor step on it being a good game. If its crafting mechanic wasn’t hidden under the brunt of the humor, it would be pretty gratifying: when I actually managed to suss out some fantastic items I began to enjoy the game much more. When the crafting worked, Dark Scavenger became a fun video game.
It shows the central difficulty of trying to make a funny video game. Nothing is more distracting than humor, and while random things happening is amusing it does not provide for a particularly satisfying experience. It’s better when we’re given freedom to do ridiculous things within the framework of a game: when Nico Bellic jumps out of a helicopter at five thousand feet, that’s comedy. You’re doing a ridiculous, crazy thing. When the jokes obfuscate a potentially interesting video game, they’re less fitting. It’s a dangerous area. In effect, Dark Scavenger is inviting us to laugh at it, to not pay attention to its virtues and just go to town on it.
Which makes Dark Scavenger a bit like an awkward, pimple-faced high school student of a game. It’s serious about making us laugh that it makes us laugh at it, not with it. The trouble with being funny is that you have to be good, too: your delivery has to work. A game’s mechanics are its delivery: if the jokes aren’t told well, then the awkward comedy is just going to compound the problem. At its heart Dark Scavenger isn’t balanced: it swung too far in the direction of comedy.
That’s not to say Dark Scavenger is utterly unworthwhile. Its random comedy works, sometimes. That aforementioned tutorial fighting a world-eating god in space with an old sword? Hilarious. I still crack up thinking about it. When the game’s characters are talking, when you aren’t feeling the agony of making uniformed choices, they’re legitimately funny. The mechanics are close, too: while the not-choices are uniformly terrible, the battle system becomes legitimately tactical once you’ve guessed which items work best.
In short, Dark Scavenger is the carrion crow of video games. It’s collected a motley collection of parts, some of which almost work while others step on their toes. It’s a funny little title, but even Falsen’s green magnificence cannot save this one from being a bit of a mess.