Dark Arcana: The Carnival is a hidden object/adventure game hybrid largely aimed at casual players and constructed by a purely paint-by-numbers approach. If you like to shut down your higher thinking skills and just hunt-and-click then Dark Arcana might be the game for you.
It’s important to understand that games like Dark Arcana are aimed at a casual audience. And while I do play the occasional casual game, I’m not really the target audience for Dark Arcana. However, I have always appreciated good adventure games (though the definition of such has changed through the years), and Dark Arcana looked interesting—at least on the surface.
Hunt, click, collect
Dark Arcana and games of its ilk are not really adventure games. They are defined by their game mechanics and basically constructed with a paint-by-numbers method. They rely solely upon their game mechanics to keep you engaged, not the quality of their story or writing as in “traditional” adventure games.
All this means is that you’ll probably like Dark Arcana if you like repetitive hunting and clicking, mini games, and staring at the screen finding hidden objects, as long as you don’t mind it all strung together without a compelling story, interesting characters, or even making any sense.
In this respect Dark Arcana succeeds in its goal and does so fairly competently. The graphics are respectable but not outstanding, though it would have been nice if the game supported higher resolutions.
Dark Arcana also adds some good game mechanics, such as the ability to play a card-matching game (called Monaco) in lieu of any hidden object games. This gives you the option to take a break from the hidden object hunts, even if you’re just replacing one mindless clicking game (finding hidden objects) with a different type of mindless clicking game (a matching game).
Another interesting mechanic is that in some of the hidden object games you must combine one or more objects to create one that you’re looking for—for example, combining a light bulb with a lamp to create a desk lamp. (If this is fairly standard now forgive me because my exposure to these games is fairly limited.)
Dark Arcana also offers three difficulty levels. One (Casual) lets you take the path of least resistance through the game, and two increasingly more difficult levels. Generally speaking the higher difficulty levels just reduce the number and frequency of hints and the highlighting of interactive objects.
Aiming low and hitting it
Again, if you like casual adventure-hidden object games, you’ll probably like Dark Arcana, which seems like a decent entry for the genre. You may want to stop reading the review now and check it out or buy it.
I grew up on the “traditional” adventure games where the quality of the writing and the story were the motivations for playing the game. These games still exist—Telltale’s many successes are a testament to that, and there are numerous games like The Book of Unwritten Tales and others (many from European developers) that are still built upon “classic” adventure game mechanics.
But games like Dark Arcana are constructed in a way that pretty much sucks any real creativity out of the game. Writing and story are at best an afterthought and emphasis is placed on the art, and the mini-games. As long as the game keeps you engaged with its hunting and clicking, it has accomplished its mission and can be considered successful.
Personally, I had slightly higher hopes for Dark Arcana, if for no other reason than it featured a spooky carnival and (what I thought) might be an interesting horror theme. Unfortunately, Dark Arcana’s story is threadbare and lacks any engaging hook to keep players like myself interested for too long. The story—if you can call it that—is purely designed to create ridiculous excuses to find stuff, solve inane puzzles without rhyme or reason, and stare at the screen looking for a doll’s head, a shovel, or something else you need to find. Initially, I didn’t mind, but after about the 2 hour mark finding hidden objects became very tedious. I don’t think I’ve ever had to hunt for so many lost door handles, knobs, and miscellaneous attachments designed to open stuff in any game ever.
And then there’s the curious addition of The Monkey, your stalwart furry companion. His entire existence is based upon fetching stuff you can’t reach. I suspect he’s designed to enable the game designers to pad the number of “puzzles” you have to solve by just sticking something you need out of reach. If you’re clever enough to remember your monkey, you can solve the puzzle and feel good about yourself for a few seconds.
I know that games like Dark Arcana are typically built with small budgets—and unfortunately it often shows. In addition to Dark Arcana’s pale attempt at a story, the voice acting sounds like it was performed by someone’s extended family, who were likely paid in pizza.
Overall: 3/5 stars (with a caveat)
I know I’m not Dark Arcana’s target audience. I’m relatively “old school” (or just old) and prefer adventure games with good writing, a good story, and (if it’s used) good voice acting.
Dark Arcana may not deliver any of this, but it does deliver what it and its genre are designed to do: an easy way to check your brain at the door and decompress with some mindless mini-games and a lot of hunting and clicking. Because of this I’m giving Dark Arcana 3 stars overall, but if you like these types of games you could probably add a half star to that.