Welcome to This Is Not A Review. In these articles we discuss general impressions, ideas and thoughts on any given game, but as the title implies, it’s not a review. Instead, it’s an exercise in offering a quick recommendation (or dismissal) after spending enough time to grasp the ideas and gameplay of a thing without necessarily playing it from A to Z.

The subject of this installment: Dead Ink, developed and published by Offwidth Games.

In a market oversaturated with soulslikes, it says something that Dead Ink stands out. While much of the basic vocabulary belongs to From Software, one-person studio Offwidth has embellished it with one of the more enticing settings in recent memory. It’s at once calming and terrifying, it wastes no space, and an acrophobic top-down camera system (imitating a wide-angle lens) finds new ways to both share and deviously obscure valuable information. First impressions are quite strong.

Dead Ink‘s story is light on concrete details (to its benefit, as it gets by on atmosphere alone) but the basic gist is that we’re a transhuman construct navigating some kind of tower. Anyone who gets an endorphin rush from opening a shortcut back to an old bonfire in the Souls games will appreciate the intricacy of this place, with a seemingly endless number of alternate routes, hidden paths and secret backdoors. In a climate where major studios only ever seem to be concerned with making games as big as possible, it’s refreshing to see something like Dead Ink get this much real estate out of a relatively small space.

I want to spend more time talking about the setting, and if Dead Ink was worth recommending, I would. Unfortunately, the many things that Dead Ink gets right are rendered moot by the one thing it gets terribly wrong – the combat.

The main problem is that there’s very little way to mitigate damage. The AI doesn’t seem to know how to do anything other than make a beeline for the player, and since nearly all of the enemies in Dead Ink can run at least as fast as the protagonist, maneuvering around them is largely impossible and the only option is usually to face them head-on. There’s a regenerating stamina meter but it only applies to defense, so enemies have no incentive to do anything but close in and wail away until someone dies. Nobody reacts to getting hit in Dead Ink, either, so the simple act of landing an attack and avoiding damage from the inevitable counter-blow often feels like it comes down to luck.

There are ways to make the rank-and-file enemies manageable, at least, by upgrading equipment or spawning with extra items — more on that in a moment. It’s the bosses that killed any desire I had to see Dead Ink through to the end, because there doesn’t seem to be any way to defeat them other than to just endlessly kite them around, chipping away at their massive health meters while praying I never took any damage in return.

See, Dead Ink has one of those healing systems that forces players to come to a complete standstill for a moment. This makes sense when combat allows for natural downtime, but since these enemies and bosses don’t provide any breathing room, I’d wager that roughly 90% of the times I’ve tried to heal during combat, I would just immediately get hit again. It’s a classic example of a developer pulling one of FromSoft’s ideas without really examining why it was implemented in the first place.

Compounding the frustration is the way experience and leveling works. Souls in this game are “ink” and checkpoints/bonfires are “printers.” When the player saves at a printer, they deposit all of their current ink into that specific terminal. Respawning from that point costs a certain amount of ink depending on what the player wants to equip. A weapon and shield cost extra, and players can bring as many healing items, grenades, and so forth as they can afford. Dying repeatedly at the same spot without banking more ink means the printer will eventually run out, at which point the player will have to spawn from a terminal that’s farther away, trek all the way back, and fill it up again.

So, if I’m stuck on a boss, not only is it a hassle because the combat itself is lackluster, and not only do I have a lengthy run-up before every attempt, but I can only die against the boss a certain number of times before I need to do some mandatory ink-farming. The game does give players the ability to recover their lost ink from their “bloodstain,” but the boss chambers lock players in, and so any ink lost during a boss fight is effectively lost forever until the guy is killed once and for all.

And just to raise the stakes even higher, there is permadeath in Dead Ink. If the player runs out of ink across all discovered printers, they can no longer respawn, and the save file is lost.

There’s a reason the system works like that, admittedly, because one of the things I love about Dead Ink is how compact it is. The player is never geographically very far from anything, which is why the checkpoint system is, at least on paper, more reasonable than it sounds. It’s meant to test our mental map of the environment, and in a game where the combat was better or at least more forgiving, I would honestly be praising this. Hell, I’m not even entirely sure why this game even has combat to begin with other than to check a box.

Again, the attempt here is admirable. Plenty of larger, more prominent developers have tried to crack FromSoft’s code and failed to come as close as this does. With some major tweaks to the combat, this could have been one of the precious few soulslikes to earn favorable comparisons to Dark Souls. It’s heartbreaking that I can’t recommend Dead Ink, but I’m excited for Offwidth’s next project regardless.

Mike Suskie
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