Humble Mumble – Darksiders III

The Darksiders series seems to have been around forever, steadily putting out well-made and enjoyable games that don’t do anything particularly special, but are confident in what they do manage to do.  Despite numerous threats to the franchise, with publishers and developers going bankrupt, with last minute buy-outs, release of a Darksiders game has been a regular fixture in the gaming calendar, even if it hasn’t necessarily been one that is great celebrated.

The first game was a meld of Zelda and the Metroidvania style of games, with a bizarre spin on the battle between heaven and hell.  II came along and bolted on a completely different loot-a-thon game in a bigger, more open world.  More recently, there has also been a Diablo-esque ARPG game that bucked the trend of being well made and was mostly met with disappointed.  Each game featured a new protagonist, another member of the band of four apocalyptic steed-ridders, each featuring their own unique set of moves and styles.

A couple of years ago though, we had Darksiders III, a game that tried to stitch in some DNA from the Dark Souls series.  Gone is the copious amounts of loot to gather and the item stats to compare, in are the lethal enemies and labyrinthine level design.  In some ways, it is a return to the types of levels that feel reminiscent of the original Darksiders game, both in terms of design and in look, with more looping around on itself.

As is the series tradition, we also have a new character to play.  This time it is Fury, who plays her part much in the manner that the name would suggest.  She has little interest in others around and only wants to know what she can get out of her assisting others.  Her main motivation to engage in the apocalypse, is so that she can become lead vocalist of the Horsemen.  Her aggressive style is also reflected in her combat abilities, which initially involve ferocious attacks with a large spiked whip and slightly later fiery blades.  There presumably other weapons on offer later down the line, simply judging by the menu system, but in my 4 or so hours of play there were none that I found.  It is quite a departure from the heavier attacks of War featured in the first game and probably speedier than Death in the second.  Which makes the choice to go with a Dark Souls approach to combat all the more baffling.  We are confronted with mostly smaller groups of strong enemies, rather than larger groups of weak enemies.  These enemies can regularly kill you with just a few strikes, so you are discouraged from staying too close to them.  Yet, your weapons (and persona of your character) encourage a constant aggression, putting you right in harm’s way.  Spamming your attack button seems mostly effective, until it suddenly isn’t.  There is a huge clash here between methodical precise combat that the enemies seem to require, with your fast paced and combo heavy weapons.  There is a long list of combos for your weapons to be found in the menus and perhaps those that have an affinity for the style of gameplay found in Devil May Cry or Platinum’s back catalogue might find depth here they can exploit.  I found myself just hammering the attack buttons though and pulling off moves that appeared to be fairly similar.

There is an effective dodge mechanic to help you keep up this fight, an ability that can be seen as a twist on the parry mechanic from Dark Souls.  A well-timed dodge will be rewarded with a slow-mo effect and the opportunity to throw in a counter-attack.  With your whip, this will lash out a few attacks that end with the enemy being thrown to the ground and stunned for a bit, whilst the fiery blades will let you slam into them like a fireball, setting them on fire for a few seconds.  Both are effective and feel essential in some of the harder fights, but also rely on you able to pull off the correct timing.  I can’t say I was able to sufficiently test this, but it felt that some enemies had more lenient windows of opportunity for pulling off this dodge, as it felt much harder to execute the further, I went in the game than it did against the early enemies.  This also happens to be the enemies where it becomes essential to use the ability against. 

Much like Dark Souls though, you can make your life easier by just leveling up, either your own character stats or your weapon.  For your character, this is kept simply amongst three different attributes, your health, your strength and your arcane, which controls the damage dealt by your magical attacks.  This is all done by spending souls (yes, sticking with the same terminology of its inspiration) at a merchant in order to earn attribute points to spend.  These souls are collected from killing enemies, as well as from numerous items that give you various amounts (again, very reminiscent of the Souls games).  When you die, you do leave lose all these souls and you can regain them by reaching the point you died.  This system is made slightly easier than it would when in a Souls game, as these caches of your lost souls do not vanish if you die before retrieving them, so you can add up leaving a long trail of them to collect.  It certainly is more forgiving in that regard, but it also feels like the leveling is more essential here.  Pumping all your souls on levels felt like the optimum way of using these souls, rather than purchasing other items.  That isn’t too different to their use in Souls, but it does also feel like gaining levels is the only real way to progress, compared to Dark Souls where your weapon stats are likely to have a bigger effect to your progression.

You can also upgrade your weapon here, both the weapon itself and items that you socket into them, giving an initially small boost to some of your stats.  Much like the limited weapons I found with my time in the game, I only the choice of a single item to socket into each of my weapons.  I assume that there are more later on, but they aren’t that common at this stage.  This initial socket items are fairly uninteresting, simply giving a few boosts to health or to your damage and such like.  Again, this is a first impressions of the game and more interesting things might come along as the game proceeds, but these certainly do not appear to be changing the way you actually play, whilst also being essential to make sure that you actually eek out that extra bit more stats on your character.

I’ve spoken quite a lot here about mechanics of the game, but not much about plot, story and setting.  I must confess, I remember very, very little about the previous games in the series when it comes to that front, beyond the broad strokes.  This game seems to assume you do remember the events from the previous games and that you also care about what is going.  I did not particularly care and ended up not paying very much attention to the story sequences.  Actions by War seem to have caused the Seven Deadly Sins to escape into the world of the humans and Fury needs to go round them up.  On the character side, my assumption is that Fury, who has reluctantly agreed to rescue humans in exchange for a Maker (a giant) to help improve weapons, will go from being an uncaring selfish character into one that wants to save Earth.  There aren’t huge amounts of story in these early stages, but there are few characters that appear that are vaguely familiar from the previous games and likely carry weight for those that have been engaged with the story since the beginning.  I can’t say I have been and the story beats here leave me uninterested.

Besides the combat and the odd story moment, there are some some fun little puzzles.  These are mostly not too taxing, but adding a nice different pace to what would otherwise be a combat game that would grow tedious quite quickly.  These mostly revolve around creatures that can become bombs when they eat some red goo, as well as some of your abilities once you get fire and can burn a sort of cobweb like material away.  These puzzles, at the early stages of the game, are kept fairly contained and are not particularly multi-layered, but they give you a brief moment to think before some more mostly mindless action takes place.

I absolutely adore the Soulsborne games, but when ever a company that is not From Software attempts to make one it shows just how difficult it is to make the formula work.  Unfortunately, Darksiders III does a particularly poor attempt at emulating the experience, failing to understand why some fundamental mechanics do not work in that format.  It isn’t simply that they up the pace of the combat either, as Bloodborne and Sekiro show that it is possible to up the speed of the combat and not lose that methodical and strategic element to combat.  It is not a complete disaster, but there is little here to make me want to persevere through the gruellingly difficult combat and “git gud”.  For those that are invested in the narrative of the series, they may well get more out of this and be encouraged to push through.  I feel those are likely in the minority though and there are much better examples of this style of gameplay around.

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