Dark and Light mixes sandbox survival with magic, unicorns, and dragons

I never knew I wanted to see Lara Croft perched atop the shoulders of a cyclops, commanding it to clobber an ent, but now that I'm seeing it in Dark and Light, I can't look away. Beneath a shattered planet, clad in a halter top and rugged pants, she commands the beast to smash the twiggy fellow who looks like Treebeard's cousin once removed. A few smacks of the club, a final rustle of leaves, and timber, down the ent goes. I'd spent the last few hours grubbing through grass and dumping things out of my clogged inventory— par for the course in survival games—but this was something that could keep my attention for weeks.

Once upon a time Dark and Light was an MMORPG from another studio.

It isn't really Lara, of course. Dark and Light, a rebooted survival game from Snail Games, is still in that period of alpha development where framerates convulse and particle effects leave flames doing the hokey pokey rather than flickering. Much of the world still feels unpopulated, and the default, unaltered female and male player characters happen to look a little like the modern Lara Croft and Geralt of Rivia. 

There's potential beneath that unfinished skin. I'm at Snail Games USA's office in Los Angeles running through the latest build alongside associate producer Jonathon Stebel, who towers over me with a bright red beard that'd make a traffic cone blush. Once upon a time Dark and Light was an MMORPG from another studio that turned heads with its claims of a sandboxy, dragony world, but it crashed and burned way back in 2006. Now it's back, and Stebel shows me a 100-player-per-server survival game that resembles Ark: Survival Evolved in much the same way as my character resembled everyone's favorite tomb raider. I can't help but think an oversaturated genre killed its chances the first time around, and now it's risking the same disappointment by trying its hand with another.

It's pretty, though not much more than Ark. God rays shine, Witcher 3-like, through trees towering above grasses swishing past my legs. Puddles dot the shorelines, looking real enough to expect gnats within. Stebel lets me shapeshift into a wyvern and fly about the 100 square-kilometer landscape—something he tells me takes ages to unlock in game—and I use it to swoop down to a snowy non-instanced dungeon of sorts meant for groups where cow-sized arachnids scuttle about on legs glistening with sickening detail. My Lara dies there because she hadn't made a coat to shield herself from the cold. 

Dark and Light is a bit of a looker, but it lacks a distinct personality. Stebel tells me about some fascinating lore centered on the shattered planet looming overhead (which swaps energy with the one players play on), but I'm a little sad to hear that I'll mainly hear about it by reaching crafting milestones. Apart from a magic staff that busts apart stones, crafting and building structures doesn't feel too different than counterparts in other survival sims. I test out PvP, giggling, by hacking to death an AFK developer and stealing all his stuff, but nothing about the melee combat stands out.

A Tolkien gesture

Surprises and twists on beloved formulas are few. The starting towns for the factions of elves, humans, and dwarves feel yanked out of Tolkien, right down to dull golden shields on elven guards resembling those in Peter Jackson's films. The elven city might as well be Rivendell. There's grandeur in the dwarven chambers where highrise-tall statues line the molten pit to the throne, but I think I would have been more surprised not to see such a sight.

If there's anything that stands a chance of making Dark and Light stand apart from the pile of other survival sims out there, though, it's the magic. I start Dark and Light by hacking at trees for wood (but you can't punch them!) as in virtually every other sim, but not 15 minutes go by before I'm conjuring fairies to light my way in the inky night and a ball of fire to keep me warm when it's cold. Yet that's but a hint of the zones of other spells in store. Apart from the wyvern, players can shapeshift into a big cat and speed over the landscape. Further wonders include spells that let you see other players behind rocks or buildings and old standbys like fireballs and blizzards, but Dark and Light manages to distinguish itself by putting all those harvestable rocks and trees to good use.

Awed, I watch as Stebel casts a single-use levitation spell to rip up an ancient oak in the elven town and flings it away like a newsboy tossing a paper, smashing apart other harvestable trees as it falls. Players can "pretty much one-shot" other players this way, or knock down entire player-made buildings. Stebel, amusingly, once found himself on the wrong end of it.

"Early on when we were testing out things, I'd just built a little house and then I see a rock just fly out of nowhere and take out the entire thing," Stebel says. "My boss is like, 'Did I hit something?'"

Stebel shows me other attractions, including creatures like the bomber-sized crystalline beast who effectively amounts to a world boss if left to evolve. The object isn't necessarily to kill it; instead, players could just hack at it with mining picks to break off bits of supplies for making powerful gear. And much as they can do with many other beasts, players can tame it if they wish, but it'd be impossible on their own.

"So that's where an entire faction would have to work together on the server to tame the creature in order to get a huge advantage over the other factions," Stebel says.

At least a ghost of the old MMORPG design survives, then. I ask Stebel if he thinks the shift from MMORPG to survival sim was a wise one. He acknowledges that Dark and Light could have benefitted from a subtitle in the manner of the similarly rebooted Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, but overall he doesn't think the experience is different enough to matter.

"It's hard to say if it's the best we could do to do justice to the IP from some players' perspectives," he says, "but from our perspective as a whole, it's pretty much what the original game was going to offer—a big, open world sandbox with lots and lots of dragons."