Ask M. Night Shyamalan: When you strike it big by giving people an amazing swerve, it’s incredibly hard to follow it up in a way that will please that audience. You either give the people the twist they’re expecting from you, totally losing the purpose of a twist, or you play it straight and leave out the reason why people are probably into you in the first place. That’s the unfortunate position developer Amirali Rajan finds himself in with The Ensign ($1.99), an attempt to build on to the story found in the underdog hit, A Dark Room ($1.99). If you didn’t play that game but plan to, you should stop reading this review right about here unless you want to be totally spoiled, and you really shouldn’t want that.
A Dark Room, originally created as a browser game by Michael Townsend and ported to iOS by Amirali Rajan, is a very cool experience that also happens to have a pretty enjoyable RPG buried four or five layers into it. The game starts as a weird sort of text adventure, then pulls in some building elements, then adds in crafting, before finally opening up as a big RPG adventure, and finishing with an action sequence, of all things. I think even if you know about these things in advance, the game has plenty of merit, but I’m not going to snow you, a lot of the game’s kick comes from peeling back those layers yourself. Unfortunately, you can’t pull the same trick twice and get the same result, and The Ensign, perhaps wisely, doesn’t even try.
The Ensign serves as a prequel to A Dark Room, and like most prequels, it assumes knowledge of the previous story and attempts to flesh out the world a little bit. It digs into the some of the mystery of how we got to the point at which A Dark Room starts, but like many attempts in entertainment to explore mysterious origins, it’s not really clear that this is a story that needed to be told. Writing the review for A Dark Room, I felt like I was toeing a fine line trying to decide what ought to be spoiled and what should be left for the reader to experience on their own. I have no such problem here, since The Ensign isn’t really that kind of game. Instead of gradually revealing gameplay elements, this game cuts right to the chase, and that chase looks very much like the RPG part of A Dark Room.
If you were going to grab any single part of the original game to build a game around, that was probably the safest call. Just like in A Dark Room, you go out, explore a map, investigate points of interest, battle enemies in a sort of active time battle system, and collect items and equipment. The broad goal is even similar, with you having to find materials to reinforce your ship with. There’s just one little difference, and it changes the nature of the game a fair bit. In A Dark Room, if you died, you found yourself back in your town, albeit without any of your stuff. The Ensign is a little more strict. If you die, that’s it, you’re done, back to square one, or very close to it. There are certain things you can do or find that give you an advantage on subsequent playthroughs, but it’s a lot less forgiving than its predecessor. That small change has a big effect on how you need to play, though, making for at least a somewhat different experience.
This is less a game you cozy up to for a night or two to just drink in completely and more of a game that you fire up now and then to see if you can get farther this time, at least initially. As you get a feel for the flow of the game and make more serious runs, your play sessions will grow from minutes to hours, especially if you mean to chase perfect completion. The heavy consequences of failure make this task a pretty serious challenge, though one that perhaps feels a bit too familiar to an expert run of A Dark Room. The map is set up in a similar way, the items and locations are mostly repeats, and combat is also unchanged. It’s probably best to think of this game as an expansion pack rather than any sort of formal follow-up in terms of gameplay.
As for the story, it hits a lot of similar beats to the previous game, trying to make you confront the morality of the things you’re doing, often in a very indirect way. It perhaps lacks the subtlety of the original, but it also leaves fewer dangling threads. It’s still pretty vague about a lot of things, and you end up playing a whole lot just to get a few more scraps of the story, but I think there’s something good to be said for game stories that have the restraint to sit on the peripheral. The ending offers decent payoff for fans of the first game, though I do wonder how many people are going to survive to see it.
Naturally, The Ensign maintains the spartan presentation of A Dark Room, with the map being made up of alphabetical characters and punctuation marks, and everything else just being clean text on a solid background. There’s no sound or music to speak of, and no frills like Game Center support to be found. The game will frequently flash clues to you when you die, so you won’t be left completely on your own if you’re having trouble, but for the most part, you’re meant to pick your way through this with little direction or help beyond your compass. The problem is, I’ve kind of already done this before, and I’m not sure if the bits and bobs of new text are enough to make me want a new app to do it all again in.
I’m sure if you loved A Dark Room, you’re excited at the prospect of another game in its world, but before you hop on The Ensign, you really have to ask yourself why you thought that first game was so cool. If you’re looking for another game that’s going to twist, turn, and keep surprising you to the end, you’re better off passing on this. If you’re looking for something that takes the mechanics of the original game and builds on them, this prequel has very little to offer you. On the other hand, if you’re extremely interested in its story and world to the point that you would gladly play it again to get a few more details filled in, or you want some kind of pretense to run through the RPG portion of the game again at a much higher difficulty level, spend your dollar without guilt or worry. It might not be the follow-up to A Dark Room you would like, but it’s highly likely nothing could be.