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Dark and Deep Is Far More Than a Conspiracy-Fueled Take on Fatal Frame [Preview]

Horror continues to be one of the go-to genres for indie developers, as it’s a space ripe for experimentation and projects of all sizes. Walter Woods’ Dark and Deep aims to be one of the year’s spooky surprises, and the demo I recently played ahead of its public release subverted my expectations.

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Lasting around 40 minutes, the Dark and Deep demo is split into several small sections, each defined by a ‘gimmick’ of sorts, that introduces the key mechanics and ideas that will permeate and glue together the entire experience. Woods, the lead (and largely solo) developer on the project, initially conceived Dark and Deep as a smaller experiment that injected art from renowned artists into game art and assets. According to Woods, he was deeply inspired by the visual storytelling of A24 movies like The Lighthouse and Midsommar. The French legend Gustave Doré (1832–1883) is credited as the influence behind much of the game’s art and textures.

Such an approach to building Dark and Deeps most surreal environments makes certain elements of the game come to life give the entire thing a striking, dreamlike touch that feels unique. Going into the demo, I was expecting a far more constrained and familiar experience. Instead, I got something that felt like a layered fever dream.

Image of a wall with two shadows, a man and a woman, projected against it in Dark and Deep.
Screenshot by The Escapist

At first glance, and without reading about what Woods is going for, Fatal Frame could be brought up as an influence, and the veteran horror series may very well be part of the mix, as the main character, Samuel Judge, uses frames and windows as weapons and to gaze into secrets. But these frames isn’t as prominent and game-defining—at least not yet—as the cameras in the Koei Tecmo-published games.

Instead, Dark and Deep comes across as more of a riff on games like Alan Wake (due to all the meta elements and the unreliable narration) and brainier, puzzle-oriented takes on horror. At least during the game’s earlier sections, combat isn’t really a thing, though an opportunity to defend yourself from ‘shadows’ arises at some point during the breezy demo. While I’m sure things will get a lot worse for the protagonist as the story progresses and more secrets are uncovered, the focus of the game doesn’t appear to be focused on heart-pounding chase sequences or tense combat encounters. It’s more of a slow-paced, exploratory stroll through some deeply cursed environments.

On the matter of level design, I was seriously impressed by the variety packed inside the 40-minute demo. The preview is bookended by two vehicular sequences that are really well put together (given the game’s art style and slightly retro vibes), and the bulk of it takes players through a number of underground scenarios that feel distinct and easy-to-read when it comes to the objectives that must be achieved. More often than not, plenty of cool little horror games, especially first-person ones, feel confusing instead of briefly disorienting. Dark and Deep avoids all that with clear art and smart use of assets.

Image of the protagonist holding up a frame and looking at  a rock wall in Dark and Deep
Screenshot by The Escapist

Alongside the smart use of visual tricks and constant stream of specific situations, the demo does a good job of presenting a story with a hook, though it’s hard to predict its direction, and I doubt that will change before the full game’s credits roll. It truly feels like one of those ‘don’t believe anything you see or do’ kind of horror games, with the main character’s own psychology and muddled memories quickly becoming the most dangerous element of the script.

During the game, a conspiracy theory podcast voiced by Eric Albaugh pops up time and again, subtly adding to both the world and the task at hand. This is a highlight, largely because it’s so well-made. Do you love the unsettling but often funny Night Springs programs found in the Alan Wake games? There’s a lot of that energy in the segments used in the demo, even though the medium (within the medium) is entirely different. Together with the heavier-in-plot sequences, it’s not hard to start piecing together events that kind of make sense and a mental image of a protagonist who might not be who he thinks he is. That said, it’s far too early to tell where Woods could ultimately be taking this loopy horror tale.

Though it doesn’t have a specific release date yet, Dark and Deep is set to launch in August 2024 on Steam and Xbox consoles. This same demo will be available starting June 10 for an entire week on Steam.

The Dark and Deep demo is available from June 10 to June 17 on Steam. Dark and Deep will officially release in August 2024.

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Fran Ruiz
Fran J. Ruiz is a freelance writer for The Escapist as well as other gaming, entertainment, and science websites, including VG247, Space, and LiveScience, with a strong focus on features, listicles, and opinion pieces. His wordsmith journey started with Star Wars News Net and its sister site, writing film, TV, and gaming news as a side gig. Once his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English Studies (University of Malaga, Spain) were done, he started collaborating with more and more sites until he became a full-time freelancer on top of an occasional private tutor. There’s no film genre he’s afraid of, but sci-fi and fantasy can win him over easily. Star Wars and Jurassic Park are his favorite stories ever. He also loves the entirety of Lost (yes, even the final season). When it comes to games, Spyro the Dragon and Warcraft III are his all-timers, but he’s the opposite of tied to a few genres. Don’t try to save him from his gargantuan backlog.