It’s 2018 and I have just completed a new Darksiders game – this is a thought that will take some time to sink in.
The entire year has been sublime for gaming, I feel as though my expectations have been irreversibly changed. Darksiders biggest challenge is releasing in a year where it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with true titans like God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Spider-Man, making even the slightest lack of polish come across as heinously incomprehensible. It means that Darksiders will likely be held to an incredibly high standard – even though it is still a bloody good game.
Hell actually does hath Fury, apparently
I feel like after everything the series has been through it deserves my love regardless of whether it is good or bad – I am a die hard fan of Darksiders after all. There is just something devilishly delightful about Joe Madureira’s incredible art style being applied to this unique fantasy setting – with the titular characters being the Four Horsemen no less! I feel like I should be a 13-year-old boy to truly enjoy what this series can offer me. The truth is I was 25 when the original Darksiders came out, so I was not a 13-year-old boy – but I still loved the living crap out of it. Now that I am a 33-year-old man, how does Darksiders III measure up?
Stepping into the ferocious frame of the game’s femme fatale, Fury, quickly revealed to me that this game feels quintessentially like a Darksiders game. The movement is the same straightforward combat fare, although now the focus is very heavily on the lithe agility that Fury possesses. The game punishes you for being a brainless spamming idiot (which unfortunately I am) – so my first death probably came within the first five minutes of the game. After playing the raw powerhouse that is the horseman War from Darksiders, and the relentless striker that is Death from Darksiders II, I felt cocksure that I could face tank the odd hit while I twirled like a blender with Fury’s signature bladed whip. Dodging was for suckers, surely, and the game handed me healing items right off the bat that would regenerate when I killed the odd baddy. I instead found myself often crumpled in a heap with a big red hand mark on my enthusiastic bottom – Darksiders III is a different beast entirely. There is a level of ‘git dud-edness’ required.
My favourite breed of dog? …Whippet
Of course the game does reward you for learning to appreciate the rhythm of the combat; a successful dodge opens the opportunity to land a vicious counterattack with whatever weapon you choose, dealing massive damage and applying particular elemental effects depending on your current ‘hollow’ (more on that in a bit). This means that you eventually find yourself in a fun little Dark Souls-esque dance with enemies, goading out their attack animations so you can land a devastating blow in return. Boss fights in particular play heavily into this slower, more deliberate combat style by way of giving some of them particular tells, or even lesser used abilities that can catch you off guard should you get cocky. This is made all the more enjoyable when facing enemies with a penchant for parrying or blocking your blows as Fury will mirror your frustration, barking at them angrily to STOP BLOCKING AND FIGHT ME.
The actual combat itself, though fleshed out with its focus on rhythm, could easily be mistaken for simplistic. The game starts with a single attack button – just the one spammable sucker – with your second attack button becoming available once you have progressed the story a particular amount. Initially, I found myself bored with the same three-hit combo, and turned to the game’s progression to reveal when I might unlock new exciting death-dealing fun. On one hand, I discovered that the game does not hint at any progression until it’s all handed to you – on the other, I found that the same rhythmic nature of the attack/dodge combo was also present at a deeper level. Right from the get-go, my singular attack button could actually be used for a number of different attack moves, all done by simply varying my button presses in different rhythms – pausing between strikes, holding, to then release and press again – it all weaved different types of attacks into my combos that would suit the situation, whether they were massive sweeping attacks to hit multiple foes, or slower more impactful blows to really nail a particular nasty bastard. The previous games had a habit of making you unlock these types of combos, so having them from the outset was refreshing, particularly when you come to realise that the four additional melee weapons you unlock also have their own range of attacks for your pleasure.
Flexing some impressive graphic muscle thanks to the Unreal 4 engine, Darksiders III’s world is both beautiful and also oddly simple. Though the game’s environments are vibrant, the longer you look at them the more they seem to appear strangely straightforward. Because the game is designed to allow the player to move freely as they wish with whatever powerups they may possess, I found myself intuitively exploring areas without even realising my curiousity was piqued. It left me with an odd feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, as if the development teams efforts in designing the world was perhaps overtly friendly to a wandering moron such as myself. I came to realise I both liked AND disliked it, as I enjoyed blundering into secrets at times – but also feeling the odd pang of disappointment like I had not earned it, even though it’s discovery took all the effort I’d have expected. Maybe I am old and bitter.
Fury’s characterisation is beautifully done, adding a richness to the world of Darksiders that I truly enjoy
Watching Fury move within the environments is always a treat, with the lighting effects from the various gameplay mechanics lighting the landscape – at one point even using my fire-based hair to illuminate an area bathed in darkness. Attack animations are amazingly crisp, and the slow motion that occurs when you successfully dodge, followed by the flashy counter-attack looks incredible.
Even traversing the game’s world is a pleasure, and though some people may hate backtracking, the metroidvania DNA within the Darksiders series dictates that you will likely find you can move through the game’s varied areas multiple times in new ways as you progress – finding new goodies each time as you do so. You can even find shortcuts to existing areas to shave time off your backtracking, with secret bosses and loot existing behind every corner should you wish to spend the time.
Hollows keep your look fresh
Speaking of loot, let’s address it. Darksiders II surprised many by having a robust loot system that was likened to titles like Diablo – splitting the feelings of the player base right down the middle. Some people loved opening a chest and finding a great big dirty mace that was truly better than your previous dirty mace. Others hated that they were on a loot treadmill. Darksiders III eschews this gear-based loot to instead embrace a simplistic farming of souls as currency, and power up ‘shards’ you can smash during or before combat to give yourself an edge. Crush a Frenzy shard to get some attack speed up in your business, or perhaps slam a Fortitude shard to help you weather a storm of blows – it’s simple and satisfying for the most part. The one thing that sours this experience is the unfortunate method for using the items mid battle – By pressing ‘UP’ on your D-pad (if playing with a controller). One errant twitch of your finger, and you may find yourself desperately trying to shatter a healing item, only to realise you have accidentally hit LEFT or RIGHT as well as UP, and now you are watching Fury smash a desperately valuable super attack meter shard, while the boss depletes your last sliver of health and it’s immediately wasted. If I had a dollar for everytime I accidentally toggled something in this way and activated it I would definitely have a lot of dollars; though this could be attributed to myself having treacherous fingers – the bottom line is it should not be this difficult. And arguably I could have simply used my keyboard instead.
Vulgrim struggles in a post-apocalyptic souls-based economy
This simplicity with the loot means that you have refreshing pit stops at your local purveyor of goodies, Vulgrim, as he gobbles up any souls you may wish to part with in exchange for attribute points that can boost your generic range of stats. Take your pick – Health, General Attack Damage or Special Attack damage – each point spent will improve the chosen item as you tailor Fury to suit your needs. I initially bumped up my health a great deal, allowing some leeway with my terrible dodging efforts, until I had ‘GIT GUD’ enough to start supercharging my attack damage to truly become the terror I always wanted to be. No skill trees, no collecting X THINGS to increase your health pool, just trade in the garbage you got from looting and slaying the baddies to boost whatever you need, as you need it. You can also visit our blacksmithing friend from the original Darksiders to upgrade weapons using special looted items, though I neglected this for a long while and never really felt the pinch. I did appreciate that the item enhancement macguffins made a return as well, allowing you to socket a special effect to your weapon for immediate benefit, such as lifesteal on hit for example.
Darksiders III is a strong contender for Rock Melon appreciation simulator of 2018
The meat of the game’s mechanics comes from the ‘Hollow’ system, revealed in early trailers. A mysterious bloke in a cave offers Fury additional power to complete her quest, handing over some coloured orbs of elemental energy to give her access to radical new hair colours, weapons and abilities. Each hollow will activate your secondary attack button, representing a new weapon type to weave into your combos, as well as providing a passive benefit to your traversal mechanics. For example, imbuing yourself with the Flame hollow allows Fury to wade through lava with no issue, as well as gaining an explosive double jump. The Shock hollow grants the ability to slowly glide across gaps, while the Stasis/Frost hollow will freeze water as you walk across it. By far the most interesting and enjoyable hollow power up comes around midway through the game, when you gain the Force hollow.
The Force hollow turns your hair a radical purple colour and apparently channels the powers of magnetism, brute strength and raw sexual attraction. You can use this incredible power to turn into a stone ball and magnetise to specific walls and ceilings, rolling across surfaces to reach new areas, or plants your feet solidly on the ground to walk underwater with no issue or ignore extreme winds. If these nifty options don’t excite you, it also turns your secondary attack into a big dirty mace attack, to smash enemies and obstacles at your leisure. The amount of fun I had once I gained this incredible power is hard to quantify, surely by merit of how much goddamn stuff I could suddenly do. Also my purple hair looked incredible.
The narrative of the game is a standard Darksiders fare, with a mission provided to the protagonist from mysterious forces within the fantastical world. Fury is dispatched by her masters, the Charred Council, to recapture the escaped Seven Deadly Sins on Earth. During this time she will question how the apocalypse came to begin, and how it affect both her and her horseman siblings – as it was their job to guide the apocalypse. A healthy dose of intrigue hits hard early in the piece, with a twist coming to shape the rest of the game while your task continues, with unlikely alliances forming and power shared. Fury’s own hardened sense of purpose above all else cracks to reveal a much more thoughtful interior, as she assesses her place as a tool of the Charred Council, and what it means to have compassion for others where once she was cold. Her characterisation is beautifully done, adding a richness to the world of Darksiders that I truly enjoy. For once, I did not actually guess a major plot point towards the end of the game, and relished the feeling of surprise when it came. Though a few plot points felt under-realised, I had confidence enough that the title’s position as a continuation of the series would see some resolution come forward at some point in future.
I had my reservations about a Darksiders game that did not have Joe Mad on staff, concerned that his signature artstyle was a major driving force of my enjoyment for the series – but the team at Gunfire games have managed to ape the style in a respectful enough manner to keep the world consistent with its predecessors. Hugely exaggerated details within the world give a great readability to both enemies and environments – in what some detractors would call a ‘World of Warcraft’ artstyle – but the stylisation is certainly appealing.
The designs of enemies, in particular the Sins themselves, is worthy of its own praise. When so many forms of media have already interpreted the Sins a dozen ways to Sunday, you have this vision in your mind’s eye of what to expect. Gluttony will surely be a fat bloke with an eating problem, Greed will have a Scrooge McDuck level gold horde, and Lust… well. You’d imagine that Lust will look like some absurd fantasy bikini model with a characterisation that will make it difficult to play the game with your grandmother in the room.
I was surprised to find a level of restraint on the developer’s part, making the Sins more than their characteristic failings. Sure enough, Gluttony has an issue with his appetite – but his design is unique and terrifying. Greed/Avarice is more than a gold hoarder, his desires going beyond the material. And Lust? I had to take a moment after my experience with her just to appreciate what had been presented to me. Rather than some awkward bikini babe with a heaving bosom and a slew of sexual overtones, Lust was a controlled and reserved woman, choosing to eschew cheesecake and instead focus on the more primal aspect of desire within the human failing – spotlighting Fury’s own desire for control. The entire exchange was rich and interesting, and completely blew my expectations away. Even after I murdered her and moved on, I kept musing about how unexpectedly awesome she was.
The secret to Fury’s quick temper – the office photocopier
The game does have its frustrations however. The initial difficulty spike really did hit hard and without warning as I was not walked through anything even close to a tutorial. I was expecting a similar experience to the initial Darksiders that saw a section of unrepentant ass kicking before settling into a more reasonable power level. Instead I was killed unrepentantly by what I would describe as ‘scrub-tier’ enemies as I slowly clued into how the game wanted me to play it. For some, this will leave a foul taste as it will take some play time to shift this focus away from the developer’s expectations, but I was happy to adapt as I eventually found it rewarding. There is also a questionable focus on punishment for death, where you will drop all souls-based currency upon death, leaving a shade within the game world to be retrieved. A mechanic that is fairly straightforward on its own merit, but with the game’s odd checkpoint system (read: there are bugger all) it means that most of your ‘corpse runs’ are lengthy, and have to go past all the enemies that have now respawned. If you are the kind to grit your teeth and deal with it, you will fight your way back to your initial death point to the reward of now having even more currency alongside your retrieved bounty, but the cost of time will still weigh heavily.
I must make mention of puzzles within the game as a point of frustration, not because they themselves were not well designed, but sheerly because they were not plentiful enough. In the past, Darksiders as a series prided itself on unique and interesting puzzles during a period where many other titles may have shied away for fear of inciting player frustration, so I entered the newest entry with a highly stimulated puzzle gland. A reasonable number of fiendishly interesting game mechanics await your puzzle solving cortex, but for the first 30-40% of the game you are rarely presented with anything I would quantify as a true puzzle, meaning the delicious sting of stringed instruments telling you that you have completed a puzzle doesn’t come nearly as often as I would like.
Liberally apply bladed whip to all clawed issues that you may encounter
Darksiders III does feel like a game that wished it was released many years ago, with a slew of older-style design elements that sit alongside more modern attitudes towards combat and story. For some this may feel disjointed, but for the discerning fan of older action titles they may enjoy this classic adventure with its new-age spin. For me, its positives far outweigh its flaws and it represents a fantastic experience, regardless of its ‘Out of Time’ identity crisis.
Rubbing shoulders with the giants of 2018 won’t do it any favours, but it’s a well executed game that wants to be great, and hits the mark in enough ways to be considered a solid title. Sometimes a good game is just a good game – not groundbreaking, but fun enough to be confidently recommended to existing fans and newcomers alike.
Plus it’s more Darksiders, so I am just happy it’s here.
Reviewed on PC and Playstation 4 | Review code supplied by publisher