Heartless Dark 2

Heartless Dark Review

6
Admirable but buggy

In a time when there are more small game development teams than ever, the roguelike format has proven itself to be a cost-effective way to get the most out of limited resources. Procedural generation can reshuffle a few components into levels that stay fresh, while permadeath simultaneously raises the stakes of each encounter and stretches out play times until players meet a certain threshold of mastery. And on top of all that, the core principles are malleable enough that they can be incorporated into a wide range of genres.

Heartless Dark, by solo developer iamRoarke, is the latest example. Seemingly comprised of a few dozen black-and-white, barely animated assets, it does more with less. The genre being folded into the roguelike this time? Deliberate, clunky survival-horror.

On its own this mashup isn’t earth-shattering, but it does set the stage for the game’s primary hook.

SOUND DECISION-MAKING

Armed with a gun, some grenades, and a woefully wimpy flashlight, you learn quickly that your sense of sight isn’t going to take you far in Heartless Dark’s infested cubicles. The “Sixth Sense” you activate by turning off your flashlight can give you a fuzzy picture of your surroundings, but even that is no match for your second sense–hearing. Startling, grating, and crude, Heartless Dark’s soundscape–and the way it’s capable of guiding your every decision–is easily its strongest aspect.

It kicks off with the blaring of the drill that opens an entry to Hell and releases a flood of demons into the underground offices of the clearly corrupt Malum Co. As you descend the floors one by one, you’ll fight your way through an array of monsters that each have their own sonic hallmark. Poisonous slugs slurp and gargle, swarms of bats rustle and flap, and stationary spike monsters (urchins?) tremble like china cabinets in a train station. Over time these sounds etch themselves in your memory, and add up to your most responsive and detailed source of situational awareness.

LAUGHAPABOOZA

Heartless Dark might look like a horror game, but take it from me, a certified scaredycat: it’s not all that scary. There are surprises, sure, but horror requires tension, and this game breaks it in more ways than one. The first is that completing a floor requires dispatching most of its lurking demons, which turns you from a frightened ex-employee into an assassin with the ability to see through walls, who methodically takes out their targets one by one.

The second is that Heartless Dark is at times genuinely funny. Take for instance the jangly muzak that greets you every time the elevator opens to take you to another floor. Or the stacks of boxes labeled, in all-caps black marker, TYPO. Occasionally (and delightfully) otherwise normal pieces of furniture will let out possessed groans as they violently hurl themselves in your direction. My personal favorites are the filing cabinets that die, throwing open their drawers, in a flurry of documents and manila envelopes.

UNSAFE WORKING CONDITION

Unfortunately, this all comes with a significant caveat. In my time with Heartless Dark I experienced persistent crashes, to the extent that I haven’t been able to finish the game. Within a single play-session of roughly three hours, the game stopped responding on four different occasions, always between levels. It seemed to be most frequent in the second region, “Mines,” where almost every run ended this way. I can’t be sure exactly how widespread this problem is, and although there’s a chance the kinks will be worked out eventually, I can’t guarantee you won’t have the same issues.

Between its inspired sonics and literally off-the-wall goofiness, Heartless Dark is an admirable effort I wish I could recommend without reservation, but without knowing how reliably it will run, I can only hope it gets better in time. For now at least, proceed with caution.