By: Armaan Khan
Alawar’s Dark Strokes: Sins of the Fathers tosses you into the dapper shoes of Ethan Black. Ethan has plans to marry his fiancée Clair, but puts them on hold when he gets an urgent message from his father asking that the couple return to their home town at once. Ethan and Clair comply however, the train they’re on gets derailed by a mystical explosion, Clair gets abducted by a masked perpetrator, and Ethan must get to the bottom of a supernatural mystery that threatens the lives of everyone he loves. It’s an intense story that starts strong and gets stronger as it moves forward. That’s just one of many reasons why Dark Strokes is the best hidden object game I’ve played to date.
The actual gameplay is standard for the genre: you’ll search hidden object scenes, find inventory items, and solve the occasional mini-game/puzzle. What makes it special is the pacing and the carefully balanced difficulty level of what you’re asked to do. No puzzle, no sequence, no minigame is so hard or obtuse as to stall your progress through the story for more than a few minutes and there are no pointless time-wasters to be found anywhere at all. You’re always moving forward, always finding something useful or doing something important, and this gives the game an addictive “oh, I’ll just do this one more thing before bed” quality that kept me hooked for significant periods of time. When I first installed the game, for example, I started it up just to check it out, only intending to play for a few minutes, and found myself surprised when I looked at the clock and saw two hours had flown by. The last game that did that to me was Diablo II over a decade ago.
And the fun doesn’t stop once you complete the story. The Collector’s Edition offers a hefty extra chapter that is awesome in its own right. Unlike other HOG bonus chapters, which normally take place after the events of the main game and provide an addendum to what happened, Dark Strokes’s is set 20 years before Ethan’s adventure and puts you in the role of the game’s antagonist as he descends into a life of supernatural evil. It provides an interesting perspective and insight into the villain of the main game, and the vast majority of the locations you visit are unique, so it doesn’t feel like a lazy recycled add-on designed to extract more money for least effort.
Dark Strokes’s production values are top notch as well. Music and sound do their job wonderfully, setting the mood without being distracting. The art is very beautiful, composed of hand painted characters and backgrounds that almost reaches the level of what one would see in a Vanillaware game, which is my personal gold standard when it comes to 2D painted art. I especially need to point out the high quality of the character art. Previous Alawar HOGs had disappointing Poser-style characters that didn’t fit in with the rest of the aesthetic but that does not happen here. Everything meshes together seamlessly and while there are few oddities here and there, it’s nothing that disrupts the experience in any way at all.
The only criticism I can lay against Dark Strokes is that the map system I loved in previous Alawar titles has been rendered impotent here. It only shows where you are and doesn’t indicate where you need to go, nor does it let you fast travel between locations, which is a shame for those times when you don’t quite remember where you saw the star shaped lock that goes with the star shaped key you just picked up. In practice this isn’t that big of a deal since you can use the built-in hint system to point you in the right direction, but that feels like a cheat and I miss the old map.
Other than that, you’ll also have to live with Alawar’s usual installer/launcher issues: you can’t specify the install directory, will be asked to install the Ask toolbar and Alawar “Game Box,” and then be presented with a launcher that’s just a big ad for their other games and provides no other useful function. I’m sure I sound like a broken record since I mention this in every Alawar review I write, but that’s because it’s always an issue. It’s not a big issue, sure, but one you should be aware of nonetheless.
Conclusion – Is It Worth The Money?
Dark Strokes: Sins of the Father Collector’s Edition is listed at $21.13, which struck me as weird until I realized Alawar’s site was translating the price into my native Canadian dollars. That’s the equivalent of $19.99 real money, and while it’s high compared to the cost of other HOG Collector’s Editions, the game is worth every single penny. Dark Strokes is simply the best HOG I have played since Clockwork Man 2 and is definitely worth spending your money on.