Nowadays, it’s fairly rare for a game to slide across my desk that I’ve legitimately heard nothing about. That is why when Shot in the Dark hit Steam last week, it completely caught me off guard. Aside from the release trailer, I was completely oblivious to the title, which was extremely exciting. So can this demonic despot manage to appeal to the masses, or will it be too niche for mainstream approval?
There used to be an old riddle that I would tell as a kid: “What is black, white, and red all over?” The correct answer was the ever-punny, “a newspaper.” Oddly enough, the exact same thing could actually be said about Shot in the Dark. Everything that appears throughout the campaign is presented using the same trio of contrasting shades. That’s it. Yet somehow, using a palette that harkens back to the CGA era of PC gaming, they’ve managed to create an intriguing world that is bustling with pentagram-inspired personality.
Much like the title’s minimalistic art style, the gameplay is also stripped down to only its most crucial components. You must either walk, jump or shoot your way from the entrance of a stage to its ending door. Sure, that all sounds simple enough, but once you’ve seen the way that demonic elements begin to interfere in the process, it becomes rather obvious that this is where the true challenge resides. All it takes is a single grazing blow from any of these asshole apparitions to result in your crazy cowboy going to the giant rodeo in the sky. Mercifully, in most cases, the solution is simply to shoot the adversaries, “Wild West” style.
Following along with the O.K. Corral style theme, the main character, who also just so happens to be nameless, is armed with only a standard six-shooter. What makes this weapon so interesting is that it must be reloaded one chamber at a time. Sure, it isn’t exactly a groundbreaking feature but, especially in the later stages, bullet management becomes a critical component of each level’s strategy. Is a given moment the proper opportunity to reload, or is it better to plunge ahead while enemies are nowhere to be found? This sort of tricky give-and-take ultimately proves to be one of the more perplexing aspects of the game’s design.
Due to most spirits in Shot in the Dark being almost exclusively colored black, shown against the backdrop of night, it was critical to utilize the rare sources of light to reveal the haunted hosts. Just to make matters even more confusing, there were certain enemies that couldn’t be dispatched by merely being shot at. These diabolical misfits have to be shot in a single, specific way, which varies for each variety of enemy type, in order to send them drifting back to purgatory with their spiked tails between their legs.
Traversing each setting felt decidedly old-school, featuring movement controls that were insanely responsive, almost to the point of feeling unrealistic. There’s no physical weight to the characters on screen, which can be either good or bad, depending upon how much you value pinpoint accuracy. A perfect example of this principle in action is a standard run-jump combo.
In most modern games, if you were to run up to an edge and then jump while releasing the left or right buttons mid-flight, your character would typically continue cruising through the air. The airborne trajectory would follow the momentum of the character’s preceding run, successfully allowing them to clear the gap and land on the other side. However, In Shot in the Dark, the same experiment would result in the player haplessly tumbling into the chasm. Due to the previously mentioned lack of “weight,” the moment that either the left or right buttons are released, all momentum in the respective directions also stops. Ultimately, this would result in your character tumbling into oblivion before even hitting the apex of the leap.
The shooting mechanics, seemingly intentionally, also add more intricacy to the platforming proceedings. For one, there is no way to shoot while actually in motion. In order to bring up the aiming reticle, you must click and hold the right mouse button before firing using the left click. The problem is, this means you have to be very careful when picking your vantage point because if you’re not in cover, you’re at increased risk of being unwittingly offed.
Dying to Win
Every stage of Shot in the Dark tries to bring a new challenge to the table. In turn, this leads to stages that take increasingly longer to clear. Introducing new mechanics like spirits that can only be seen in reflections or clouds that float near the ground, further obscuring all ghosts currently obstructing your path, are both examples of the small permutations that happen throughout. Though each stage only tends to add a minor new wrinkle each go-around, these incremental enhancements end up layering on top of each other to deliver far more challenge than one might expect.
As the complexity begins to ratchet up, this is when I became increasingly grateful there was little to no gap in time between death and respawning. Usually, demise resulted in being zipped back to the beginning of a stage, only to damn-near instantly be let loose on another run. Following the trend set forth by titles like Super Meat Boy, you should count on dying a lot. In fact, you can count on preemptively riding off into the sunset at least once (and usually many more times) per level, with very few exceptions.
The later you proceed into the craziness of Shot in the Dark, the more likely you are to burn through a mountain of corpses a mile high before clearing the next trial-and-error death loop. There was nothing more monotonous and infuriating than slowly inching your way through a map, only to be offed by an invisible ghost, sequestered off in the shadows. I mean, once you knew where the demonic dickheads were hiding out, you’d be able to see the subtle clues to their location. However, if it was your first pass, there’s no way you’d be expected to detect it.
I feel like there will be an audience of old school gamers that are really going to appreciate what Shot in the Dark does well, both artistically and mechanically. It’s a very proficient action platformer, with an eye for presentation that is a relic of a bygone era. They’ve managed to do more with three colors than most modern platformers could do with an entire HD palette of hues and tints. Especially considering the title’s equally minimalistic price tag, it’s a no-brainer that this interactive pixel-art experiment is well-worth experiencing first-hand.