Often imitated and never truly duplicated, Dungeon Raid [$1.99] is a near-perfect distillation of the puzzle-RPG concept and one of the better puzzle games around. To its credit, even three years after its last update, the game still functions properly on new hardware and updated versions of iOS, which sadly isn't the case for all too many older games. With that said, while it's still perfectly playable, the game is showing a lot of wear and tear from its abandonment. It doesn't fill out the screen on new hardware, the graphics don't take advantage of retina displays, and Open Feint still lingers in its icon and main menu in spite of that service having shuffled off the digital coil. We have to face facts, my friends. Someday, Dungeon Raid is not going to work anymore, and we need to find a replacement.
In a lot of ways, Darkin [$2.99] is up to the job. While other games riffing on Dungeon Raid such as 10000000 [$2.99] and Puzzle Craft [Free] offered a lot of the same experiences, they ultimately brought their own twists to the table that separated them from their inspiration somehow. That is, of course, a welcome and laudable thing to do, but it also means that while they succeed in making their own paths, they don't offer quite the same thing. Darkin is less ambitious in its concept, instead largely choosing to throw a new coat of paint on top of the idea and buff it to a shine. It changes a few things, and it does make for a slightly different experience, but this is probably as close as we've gotten from any competent attempt.
Darkin is a matching puzzle game with a vampire theme. Instead of classes, you have clans, and instead of the pieces being swords, shields, and potions, they're teeth, moons, and hearts. Initially, you can only choose the reaper clan, but you'll eventually unlock two more. Each clan has a few characteristics unique to it, such as the assassins getting a bonus when attacking from above. After choosing your clan, you're presented with your board, and apart from the pieces looking different, things proceed in a very familiar way. Make a line of three or more of the same symbol to clear them from the board. Coins add to your cash reserves, and at any time you can open up a menu to use them to improve one of your stats. Moons are tallied towards your choice of a few different single-use special powers. Hearts restore your life if you're hurt, while teeth are used to launch an attack if matched with an enemy. Making any matches gives you experience points that persist beyond each play session and work towards unlocking new powers, clans, and difficulties.
As you play, the enemies get stronger and stronger, and a menagerie of bosses will start dropping in to say hello. Darkin has a ton of cool bosses, each with their own quirks, and you'll often have more than one on the field at a time, which results in utter chaos. Unlike Dungeon Raid, you don't collect new equipment that is upgraded as time goes on, so you have to make sure that you're spending your coins to improve your stats or you'll get overwhelmed pretty quickly. You'll also want to make sure you're making effective use of your powers. In Darkin, collected powers can only be used once, but you'll earn them quite regularly from matching moons and killing bosses, so you'll usually have a couple on hand at any given time. Along with the equipment, the difference in how special attacks are handled is probably the biggest distinguishing factor in the gameplay. There's no cooldown timer, but you have to be steady about matching moons to keep the powers flowing.
The presentation on the game is top-notch. It's nice to get away from the usual medieval trappings of the subgenre, and the dark theme works very well with its use of strong colors on a dark background. The sound effects when you make matches are really cool, and a spooky yet upbeat theme plays behind the action. There are a bunch of leaderboards for the game's various difficulty settings and play modes, and a big list of achievements that are actually fun to go for, all implemented through Game Center. I also love how you're constantly unlocking new things as you play, a persisting element that adds to the game's lasting appeal.
With all that said, there's still something about Darkin that doesn't quite match up to its inspiration. I'm having trouble putting my finger on it, but I think it's the lack of an analogue to the equipment system. I tended to get really invested in each playthrough of Dungeon Raid since your character ends up being highly customized by your choices, and that's missing here. The only other bad thing I can say about Darkin is that outside of the theme, it's not a very original game at all. I think there's definitely a hole to be filled in hewing closely to Dungeon Raid's setup with that app being so outdated, but I don't quite feel comfortable applauding a game too much for taking such a safe route.
Darkin is a very well-made attempt at capturing the spirit of a somewhat-neglected App Store great, and it hits considerably more than it misses. I think it falls a little short of the mark of replacing Dungeon Raid completely, but that still leaves it in a pretty great place. It's little wonder the game has developed a feverish following in our forums. If you enjoyed Dungeon Raid or any of its progeny, I highly recommend checking out Darkin. For whatever it lacks in gameplay innovation, it more than makes up for with its unique presentation and overall quality.
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