DarkMaus (Video Game)
Developed by Daniel Wright
Available on PC through Steam
Suitable for ages 13+
It’s Dark Souls with mice.
Well, it’s not like stuff with a mouse hasn’t been done well before. Redwall and Mouse Guard are both great, and I had a hell of a lot of fun with the old Counter-Strike fan map “Rats”. I feel like there’s a very specific community that will be buying this game because the character is a semi-humanoid rodent, so if that’s what you’re looking for feel free to quote me:
“DarkMaus is the best game in the Dark Souls series to date to be casted entirely by mice.” -Ted Hentschke
For all the normal people here, you are probably wondering how this stacks up as a Souls game. It’s safe to say I’m a good authority on the Souls series. Everyone has that “comfort game,” and for me that game always ends in “Souls” (or Bloodborne). In the face of a brutal and uncaring world, these games treat me right. They get a reputation for being too “hard,” which is how the weak refer to anything that requires you to use more than 2% of your brain. If I can play the game stone drunk, you can find it within you to figure out how to dodge, block, parry, and power attack at the right times.
Which is why it means something when I say that DarkMaus is both a worthy fan project and really fucking hard. Though riddled with flaws, it distils down the varied, challenging world that Demon’s Souls pioneered. This is by no means a perfect game. There are plenty of plain and simple design errors that prevent the game from being truly great. For all its failings, it deserves credit where it’s due in that regard.
Reducing the combat down to two dimensions comes with some inherent limitations. Since there’s no longer any verticality to attacks, everything is either a swipe or a poke. You can’t dodge under any legs, but the dodge frames allow you to dash into combat and through attacks reactively. Players will likely at first rely heavily on their shield to do most of the defensive work, but seasoned veterans will quickly fall into the more risk/reward aggressive dodge and counterattack pattern. Positioning is important in DarkMaus, as your only way to boost damage is to hit enemies from behind. Shield shape also plays a big role, with only the dimensions of your shield blocking damage.
Enemies are well varied, and props to developer Daniel Wright for making an enemy as annoying as the dogs in Blightown. Those crows took some seriously dark thoughts to conceive. There are only maybe a dozen or so different enemies, but they all require different methods to defeat. Skittery spiders might at one moment make you put your back to a wall, and the next a charging bull will test your dodge timing. Optional minibosses also litter the map, putting your skills to the test for increased rewards. These are obviously reminiscent of the Black Knights of Dark Souls, and match their menace. Random NPC invasions are also a nod to the brutal and surprising phantom invasions of the Souls series, with massive rewards and huge penalties for failing these encounters. The only downside to the enemies are the bosses, which are a bit too easy and underwhelming. I actually didn’t have to try any of them more than twice.
This isn’t just a straight clone however, as the game does add a number of its own inventions. First off, the way the game scales difficulty is much different. In the Souls series, it can feel like grinding away at a brick wall with a spoon, as incremental experience gains slowly give you an edge over the present challenge. While growth is gradual, it’s constant, and you’ll eventually be able to overcome any obstacle given enough dedication. Leveling in DarkMaus is much less profitable, mostly serving as milestones to unlock specific weapons. To make each encounter more manageable, DarkMaus gives you an assisting ghost every time you die. Ghosts are weaker versions of you, but do a good job pulling enemies attention to allow you to get into a more advantageous position. They remind me of the NPC summons of Dark Souls, more meaty cannon fodder than real sidekick.
The game is short, clocking in for me at just over 4 hours. It’s a tight package, with diverse and memorable the locations. The creepy and ominous forest where you begin leads into a dizzyingly vast desert, switching up how you assess your surroundings to match the new challenges. The prison, with its traps and shielded groups of foes, is going to consternate more casual players to the point of quitting. It’s very Dark Souls to have to dodge through a giant arrow to progress, and not something most people will just intuit. Beyond the final credits is a NG+ mode, which along with increased difficulty adds phantom spawns on death. You can’t get your experince back without killing the phantom, so expect a far steeper challenge.
Unfortunately, DarkMaus is riddled with questionable and amateurish design decisions that really hamstring it. There are certain limitations that I understand, so I’m not going to knock the game for something minor like not being able to two hand all the weapons or dual wield. Still, the omission of certain key features is puzzling. First off, why no constant method of healing? In Dark Souls, the Estus Flask was a reliable way to restore health, replenished back to a set number at each checkpoint. It allowed for more freedom to explore tactics, as a single hit wasn’t going to permanently hamper you until your next attempt. DarkMaus opts for consumable healing items that randomly drop from enemies. These aren’t new to the series, but making them the sole method of healing outside of a campfire forces a boring grind. It’s incredibly frustrating to try a new tactic on the third enemy of a group, have it not work, and have no way to recover my time spent on that run.
This is a minor complaint when compared to the game’s main problem: leveling stats. As I mentioned, leveling stats is much less useful in DarkMaus. The game utilizes a weapon skills leveling system, along with leveling specific aspects of your stats. Therefore, if you want to go from 100 health to 103 health, that will take one level. If you want to go from rank one in swords to rank two, that will also take one level. The maximum requirement for any weapon I found was twelve, with six different weapon classes. Since the amount of experience required to level increases (at 73 it takes me 193 experience to level, with enemies sometimes dropping 5), it quickly becomes not worth the effort.
This wasn’t a problem in Dark Souls, since stats serve as both prerequisite to weapon useage and minor power increase. Things like poise (resistance to stagger) was determined by armor class, which was in turn determined by equipment load. Equipment load was raised by increasing your endurance, which also increased your stamina. Even when specializing your stats to equip specific items, you were still getting universally stronger. Higher levels inherently meant more health, damage, and utility.
There is a specific stat in DarkMaus that just increases my resistance to stagger. What’s even worse is that the gains are similarly granular. Increasing dexterity only raises my attack speed by 1%, and that’s it. If this was Dark Souls, it would increase my casting speed, damage with dex weapons, and serve as a required baseline for certain weapons. If you are going to make your stats single purpose, make them impactful.
Also, assisting NPCs. Don’t let me be able to hit them. I’m using a greatsword, for fuck’s sake, I can’t exactly not hit everything in the room with it. Dark Souls didn’t let me hit them, so don’t you go and make my life more difficult.
What DarkMaus manages to do with such limited scale is impressive. Daniel Wright’s future in the gaming world looks bright in the light of this campfire. The visuals are simple, yet evocative of the kind of isolation and dread that has cemented Dark Souls’ position in the history of gaming. It is challenging to a point that many will not be able to finish, yet controls simple enough that those unfamiliar will be able to pick up and play. It bridges a gap between casual and hardcore, without sacrificing the challenge that hardcore gamers love. I just wish the game was a bit more playable. The barrier presented by leveling stats makes each run a single minded chore. For a series that built itself on variety, it’s a massive oversight. You should play DarkMaus for sure. Just don’t expect the game to last much longer than the first playthrough.