By Joseph Walter
The Dark Spire is an unabashedly hardcore, old-school first-person dungeon crawler that pulls zero punches in terms of brutality and difficulty.
The player creates a completely customizable party from scratch and takes them deep into the labyrinthine "Dark Spire" that the title refers to, disarming traps, collecting treasure and fighting monsters along the way, all while a steep learning curve and unrelenting level of danger keeps you in check.
It's not just the stressful and cryptic gameplay that makes this title such a showcase for the addictive and riveting qualities of old-school difficulty, though... it's the fact that the game's omnipresent atmosphere is relentlessly and palpably oppressive: jarring, contrasting color schemes are disconcertingly dreary yet saturated, descriptions of monsters are needlessly horrifying (where even the most basic thief is depicted as being so overwhelmingly insane that it's barely human), and you're routinely reminded that you're always on the edge of failure thanks to disconcertingly vague, yet distinctly menacing, threats that the game will just randomly dole it. Not even the game's singular safe haven, its town, is able to escape the all-encompassing, perpetually sinister ambience, which extends its reach to the village's supposedly "friendly" characters, all of whom look warped and maniacal (and the constant, obsessive and excessive use of heavy shadows only makes them appear even more unnerving and suspicious.)
And then there's the music...
While perhaps not quite as tense as you might expect, the music is a strange blend of haunting, heroic, treacherous and ominous, and I can't get enough. Of particular interest is how well the music represents the game itself: Dark Spire is a modern-day take on an ancient, practically forgotten genre, and while it retains just about all of the classic elements, it isn't afraid to optimize them just enough for the current era without eliminating what made things special in the first place. The music follows the same creed by incorporating a retro style with modern sensibilities.
I'm not very far into the game, and I doubt I'll actually beat it by the time my friend demands the return of his DS, but until then, let's talk about a few of these awesome tracks!
Main Theme (Listen Here!)
1st and 2nd Floors (Listen Here!)
This is one of many discomforting messages that greet players as they enter the deadly "Tower of Mist," and it raises a few important questions: what the hell does it even mean? Why is it so gut-wrenchingly ominous? How can something this nonsensical be so menacing and foreboding? Why do I feel like it's directly threatening me in a way I can't comprehend!?
Regardless, it's the perfect primer for the terrors that await within, and the music that goes with them.
Arguably more important than the main theme itself, this track is what you'll be hearing for the first hours of the game, and it does a remarkable job of drawing players into the misty realm of the Dark Spire.
The collection of spine-tingling notes coupled with a theremin-like sound are perfectly eerie, but they're also backed by a percussion that's happy to drive players forward, ever deeper into the dungeon. Instead of relying on the "spookier" side of things, the piece kicks into its main sequence at :38, with the addition of piano and a grungy electric guitar, which Offer a hint of courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
The track then breaks down into an almost contemplative sequence with almost nothing but the piano and percussion carrying it, and it works wonderfully to break up the song (since, as previously mentioned, you'll be hearing a lot of it.)
Overall, it truly nails EXACTLY what The Dark Spire, as a game, is going for: it contains the ominous, threatening and arguably scary tone of old-school dungeon crawlers, but it injects a modern, driving twist into it that effectively proves that The Dark Spire is a reverent but modern take on the genre.
1st Floor Underground (Listen Here!)
The atmosphere at the start is unabashedly modern with its electronica-inspired instruments, but the :38 mark adds a sense of desperation and otherworldly threat that drives the song to its increasingly dire conclusion before looping back to safer territory.
Battle (Listen Here!)
The start of the track is typical RPG faire, though it is certainly spiced up by a simple (but fun) operatic vocal that enhances the frenzied nature of its composition. The tension reaches its breaking point at the :32 mark, where the song just goes all out with what could best be described as a guitar solo being played by an organ.
It may not break ground, but it's still cool as hell.
Victory (Listen Here!)
After the tension of a well-fought battle (that you've likely survived by the skin of your teeth), you're greeted with this truly satisfying and stress-releasing piece.
... although, being that this is The Dark Spire, it's still surprisingly ominous.
In fact, it's only the opening jingle that is unwaveringly optimistic, while the rest of the track uses threatening timpani drums to create foreboding... and it somehow makes a gentle harp seem menacing.
But, hey, that's The Dark Spire for you.
"Alright. That's it. I'm buying it." - a genuine comment left by an honest soul who listened to a few songs from The Dark Spire's soundtrack on YouTube. A reasonable fellow, indeed.