‘Darklings’ review: plenty of charm, but lacking in depth (iOS)

December 3, 2013
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According to Merriam-Webster the term "darkling" is an anachronistic descriptor that pretty much means "dark" or "taking place in the dark." Like, a "darkling rendezvous" or to "murder, darkling." I think. But the folks at MildMania have re-appropriated it to mean "monsters who steal stars," and they've built a game around it.

"Darklings" is actually a very fitting title. In a brief intro cut-scene, a creature that might definitely be described as a Darkling starts pulling stars out of the sky to feed what may or may not be a suckling brood of baby Darklings. Everything is black and Dark grey. This all appears to take place in the Dark of the night. A Dark, brooding light-hero named Lum appears to wrest the stars back from the Darklings. You can unlock the Dark Knight as a bonus costume.

Lum sits in the center of the screen, and the varied and strange Darklings shuffle in from both sides. Glowing runes rest like masks on their faces; the whole procession looks like a Stanley Kubrick orgy populated by Pokémon. When you trace out the shapes on their heads, Lum briefly possesses them. The faster this happens, the better your combo, the more powerful Lum is, the bigger your score, and the longer it all lasts.

Enemies produce stars when Lum possesses and defeats them, and gathering bigger stars with a swipe or drag of your finger adds seconds to the ever-ticking countdown timer. The smaller stars can be traded in for permanent power-ups and bonuses, as well as costumes and some other goodies. You can buy more stars with real money, but the exchange rate isn't terrible. It's no worse than expected at this point, and you won't feel like you need to spend more than the $.99 entrance fee to enjoy Darklings.

Combat progresses in waves, and the environment shifts every few minutes. The shapes you have to trace get more complicated as you go, until you find yourself struggling to etch them all out before the Darklings bear down on you. When that happens, it's game over, and you start over from the beginning.

You'll fight a boss every few waves as well. They hurl rocks into the air, shoot beams of damaging Darkness, and drop pinecone-shaped bombs. But the core gameplay remains the same: use your finger to recreate the runes that appear on-screen. The bosses prove challenging, especially early on when the shapes are still unfamiliar, and they serve to mix up the gameplay and get your heart pumping. For the most part all this works well.

Unfortunately it's the nature of some touchscreens (like my 1st-gen iPad mini's) that the more you use it, the harder it is to drag your finger across it nimbly. Maybe it's the heat. I don't know. But that's one fact that makes Darklings better in short bursts. It's also simply fatiguing, and occasionally frustrating. Sometimes you'll swear you've made the right shape, but the game won't accept it. And on the pause menu, the button to restart is exactly where the button to resume should be, and the resume button is unfortunately tucked away in a corner. I've accidentally reset far too many times.

Darklings is endlessly replayable, but ultimately shallow. That said, it has style and originality, which is more than can be said for many of the games clogging up the App Store. Wide-eyed creatures peak out from trees and watch your progress, as if cheering you silently on. What will happen to them if the Darklings steal all the stars? A Pixar movie-sounding score lilts around the periphery, intensifying appropriately during boss fights. There's a significant amount of charm on display all over the place in Darklings, and there are far worse ways to spend a buck.

  • Darklings
  • Developer: MildMania
  • Platforms: iOS
  • Price: $.99
  • In-app purchases? yes


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