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Dark Rift Review

Publisher - Vic Tokai
Developer - Kronos
Platform - N64
Type - Fighting
Score - 5/10

The N64 can't seem to catch a break with fighting games. Both Killer Instinct Gold and War Gods are good fighters, but neither of them are great. Not only are they not great, but given the option of having either game and no fighting game at all, I'd have to choose nothing and save my money for something else. Dark Rift is the fourth horse out of the gate, and you'd think by now we'd get a good fighter. Well, Dark Rift is not the promised messiah of fighting games.

It bothers me that I can't give Dark Rift a good review- the game has a lot of good things going for it. Unlike War Gods, Dark Rift has decent characters. The game presents you with 8 other-worldly warriors which are well rendered and interesting to say the least. Standing out in the cast is Morphix, Demonica, Eve, and Gore. These characters all have a little something that makes them different from all the other fighting characters on the block. It's nice to know that there are still a few fresh ideas floating around in video game land. The most notable character is Morphix. He appears semi transparent on the screen and looks just plain neato. His repertoire consists of truly unrealistic back flips and hands that turn into blades. Demonica is the nicest freak of nature seen since Blanka from Street Fighter II. On the surface Eve doesn't look too original, but her well animated fencing style is something new. Gore is hardly original. He's the mandatory imposing hulk- but they got it right. He's huge and powerful and that comes across in the game. Unfortunately, cool characters and styles is all this game has to offer. Everything else falls flat.

Dark Rift displays 60 frames per second to your TV screen. That's a higher frame rate than any other N64 game, but it's wasted on this cart. Dark Rift's characters are well drawn and move fluidly. Unfortunately, the programmers made every movement unnatural and jerky. Fighting games with low frame rates sometimes appear messy or jerky because of missing frames of animation. Dark Rift isn't missing a frame- it's just animated that way. Another graphic problem is the backgrounds... or rather the lack of backgrounds. Borrowing from Tekken (we say 'borrow.' 'Steal' is an ugly term.), Dark Rift has a simple, flat picture for a background. The backdrop is tacked on to a level arena surface. The overall effect looks as though you're fighting against a curtain with a painting on it. Perhaps Dark Rift can maintain 60 fps because it has nothing but the characters to worry about. Heaped on top of the background problem is shoddy special effects. Whenever you hit an opponent, you are presented with a bizarre explosion. It doesn't look like much of anything. After playing for awhile I was praying for some way to make it STOP. Fireballs and projectiles also lack luster. They chose the same cool neon colors found in Killer Instinct, but the projectiles come off looking bland and slow. Feh.

I love the music in Dark Rift. It's of reasonable quality and it is very expressive. I do have to admit that some of the tracks seem out of place in the fighting ring. Fighting games usually use music that is triumphant, aggressive, or jacked up on caffeine. Dark Rift features some nice tracks but they seem a bit passive in some cases. Coupled with the poor background, the disjoint sound track gives you the impression that the two combatants are floating in space rather than inhabiting the world presented on the screen. There are some exceptions- the background and music on Aaron's stage fit perfectly. I wish I could say that for the rest of the game. Dark Rift incorporates some nifty swipe and sword clanging noises, but the screams and the grunts of the characters don't make an impression. The sound in this game is okay, it's just misguided.

Despite problems both audio and video, Dark Rift still looks like a pretty neat game. The character animations and styles, while spasmatic, are interesting to see. At this point Dark Rift has the potential to be a good fighting game. It has some cool graphics and passable sound- all it needs is an engine to drive it. If a fighting game is a Twinkie, then the fighting engine is the sweet, nurturing, creamy filling. Dark Rift is a cold, dry, frosting-barren pastry.

Dark Rift used Tekken as the model for its fighting engine. That's a lot like basing your new car design off the Edsel. Dark Rift places little emphasis on special moves and relies instead on combos. That in itself is not a problem, but Dark Rift does neither combos or special moves well.

The game utilizes a special move button and directional combinations for many of the special moves. This is essentially a waste of a button. The game gives you 4 attack buttons: horizontal attack, vertical attack, kick, and grab. They could have changed the special attack button into a punch or another kick. The biggest problem with special moves is that they aren't very useful. Most every character has some sort of ranged attack or fireball. These moves have pathetic ranges and move so slowly that they are easily dodged. The final failing of special moves is in execution. Dark Rift is a 3D fighter, but only in that you can side step left or right. Basically, you trade in one 2D parallel for another. After you switch, the camera orients itself back to the familiar 2D cross section stance. When the camera is rotating, you'll have a very difficult time pulling off moves that require you to move in complex ways. A good example is the ever present fireball. Most of the fireballs in Dark Rift work the same way as Ryu's from Street Fighter- you make a forward quarter circle + a button. While the camera is shifting, this move becomes near impossible to pull of. It's as if the game loses track of your position.

Combos are a much more efficient way of destroying your opponent, but they aren't necessarily easier than special moves. The button sequences to pull of combination maneuvers in Dark Rift range from the simple to the absurdly cryptic. Aside from the fact that the coolest combinations are longer than memory allows, working up the momentum to pull them off is highly unlikely. A gargantuan problem with the engine is it's fighting rhythm. All the action is stop-go, stop-go. You can only pull off three or four actions in sequence then the game freezes you up. Because of this, matches have an uneven speed and usually erupt into a gotcha-last contest. A direct result of this is difficulty with the combo system. Combos can include as many as seven separate keystrokes. It's hard to pull that off when your character runs out of gas halfway into the sequence. Killer Instinct Gold goes a little overboard with its combos, but the fighting engine encourages and supports their execution. Pulling off killer combos in Dark Rift is a lot like rolling a boulder up a steep hill. It's too much work to do it, and one false step and you're as flat as a pancake. Or a flapjack. Your choice.

As poor as special moves and combos are, the grabs are even worse. Dark Rift employs a grab button- another wasted button. The fact that they blew another button that could have served a better purpose is not the tragedy. When ever you successfully grab or throw a opponent, the game displays a canned animation. Of all the things to steal from Tekken, why pick the worse aspect? The canned animations look really cool... once. After that you pick up on the fact that every throw and grab looks exactly the same and occurs from exactly the same camera angle. Not only is this 2nd rate design, but it interjects another dead pause into the stop-go rhythm. You might as well forget the grab button exists.

The final flaw of the fighting engine is the side stepping. Like the rest of the game, side stepping is a jerky, unnatural motion. There is no real way to scroll or leap in 3D, all you do is shift one position left or right. The designers will be quick to point out that side stepping is a good way to avoid vertical attacks, but it's not enough to justify the use of this maneuver. You can play through the entire game as though it was a 2D fighter and you wouldn't miss a thing. The War Gods fighting engine is much better suited to 3D combat than Dark Rift.

That about sums up Dark Rift. It has a lousy fighting engine, and that's the kiss of death for this kind of game. I don't care how good it looks or sounds- if the fighting principles don't jive, then leave the game on the shelf. Dark Rift might make a good rental, but you don't want to pay good money to own this game. Extended exposure to this game will make you want to do your homework. If you got a hankerin' for a fighter and you own an N64, it's either KI Gold or War Gods. If we're lucky that will change in the near future.