DarkMaus is the first entry of the hopefully many games for indie developer Daniel Wright. It is no secret that DarkMaus is heavily inspired by Dark Souls, with the developer openly talking about his love for the series itself and how there was nothing quite like its combat which led to him making DarkMaus. While the Souls games clearly inspired DarkMaus, it has an identity of its own with a minimalist art style and 2D top-down combat. As soon as you start the game, you find yourself adrift on a shoreline with a broken raft nearby and with dialogue prompts that show up along the way explaining the game’s mechanics.
If you’re a Dark Souls player like I am, most of the mechanics will feel very familiar. If you’re not acquainted with the series, then there are a couple key points you should know before diving in. DarkMaus has slow, weighty combat which rewards patience and well-planned combat initiations. You cannot button mash or rashly run through a mob of enemies, as they will make quick work of you. Healing items come in the form of cheese and are especially scarce so you cannot waste them on easier battles.
You’ll want to avoid death at all costs, the reason being that you lose all your bone marrow upon death. You can use bone marrow at bonfires, which are checkpoints that save your progress and allow you to recover health and upgrade stats. DarkMaus is an RPG at its core, and while you could finish the game at level one with enough skill and patience, leveling up is usually the recommended route for newbies.
You have a level up menu that shows all your weapon skills and attributes. Health affects how much damage you can take, Stamina determines how many attacks or dodges you can do before getting tired, Capacity reduces movement penalty on heavy armour, resilience affects how easily you get stun locked by attacks and Dexterity affects attack speed. You gain 1 point per level to put in any of those, the only downside being that it requires more bone marrow from enemies the higher the level you are.
Each weapon type has their own move set and damage types. You can specialize in many different types of weapons, but it’s usually best to specialize in one or two weapons that cover your weaknesses. There are clones of yourself that you find scattered around the world who have your exact loadout so it’s doubly important to cover your own bases and have a backup weapon that can counter your move set. All weapons have a minimum spec requirement in their skill types, with most basic weapons having an average requirement of 2 points, giving you an opportunity to try out most of the weapons and see which play style you’re most comfortable with.
On my first run I fought with a katana and shield which allowed for a very agile move set, where I mainly concentrated on flowing in and out of battle with short quick attacks, giving me ample time to dodge out of harm’s way at any given moment.
Like the Souls games, it tends to rely on showing rather than telling. It relies on visual storytelling rather than narrative, allowing the player to interpret what has happened and decide what they should do about it. There are rare moments when you will come across other sane mice in DarkMaus, most of them friendly in nature. If you decide to help them, only then will you learn what exactly is happening in the world of Hazath.
An ancient necromancer named Zarristar has returned, his army of hunters prey on the living, feeding on them for power so in turn he can feed on them and regain the power he has once lost. His constant revival of his enemies for feeding has caused them to go feral, becoming the vicious monsters they are now. Lord Victor went to face Zarristar before the scourge occurred but he has yet to return… Your task, if you choose to accept, is to find him and create a plan to break Zarristar’s curse once and for all. The beauty of DarkMaus is that you don’t have to play nice, you can kill everyone and the game will play along. It’s up to you whether or not you want to restore peace to the world or become a vessel of Zarristar himself.
DarkMaus has a beautiful, dark minimalist art style that perfectly embodies the cruel reality of the world you’re exploring. The world surrounding you is bleak and covered in shadows. You can barely see anything past the light of your torch which slowly diminishes the longer you go without finding a bonfire. Every step into the unknown is filled with uncertainty and dread, knowing that it could lead to your inevitable demise. You will die, and you will die a lot. Levels are filled with all sorts of traps that will corner you and force you to fight enemies while heavily disadvantaged.
DarkMaus introduces a mechanic called Death Echoes to overcome these odds: if you find these trinkets every time you die, a little ghost ally will follow you around and fight with you for a fraction of your strength. Find enough trinkets and die enough in a specific area and you’ll be roaming around with your own little mouse army. If you’re a roguelike fan, death and repeated frustration is probably your idea of a great time, otherwise stay far, far away.
The soundtrack supplements the atmosphere of the game with slow moving synth pieces that are ambient and droning, shifting in nature and giving the player subtle clues of what’s to come next. This is most apparent when the music becomes clashing and cataclysmic, with only one message warning you that “You are Being Hunted.”
Every once in a while, Hunters will invade you with the sole purpose of killing you and feeding on your corpse. The hunters are fast: they are fierce and they are merciless. If a hunter catches you while you’re clearing an area, chances are that you won’t survive. Your best course of action is to run far, far away until you can fight him solo and even then it’s still quite the challenge. If you lose and they feed on you, you will respawn with only half your health which slowly goes back to normal over time, while victory rewards you with a massive amount of experience.
My biggest critique of DarkMaus is the balancing of NG+ and beyond. The combat went from unforgiving to absolutely brutal in the later sections. I believe this is due to the randomized curse you receive, which go from harder to stun foe to reanimating your dead corpse as an enemy. I received the latter curse and I absolutely dreaded the thought of dying at any moment due to how strong my build was, making it impossibly hard to face not only myself in combat but other enemies and traps at the same time as well. Other than that, I have very few minor qualms about DarkMaus except possibly adding a strafe mode outside of combat to help with avoiding traps.
Darkmaus is a rare gem that captivated me for hours on end, only breaking the spell once I actually finished the game in a single 6+ hour session. And once I did, the very next day I went straight back to marathoning it until completion in NG+ mode. It’s that good. DarkMaus emulates and captures the atmosphere and gameplay that I loved so much from the first Dark Souls, bringing its own well done minimalist approach with adorable mice characters that can go feral at the drop of a hat. I absolutely recommend this game to anyone who wants to scratch that Souls itch or to new players who want a unique experience of patient and rewarding combat that will keep you enthralled throughout the whole game.
You can find DarkMaus exclusively on Steam.