Dark Devotion Review

Late to the Souls-like Party, but Shows up in Style

I first encountered Dark Devotion by chance at the Facebook PC games booth during E3 2018. When I first saw the booth, I assumed the games showcased there would be simple web games and almost passed by without stopping, but I caught a glimpse of someone playing Dark Devotion and it drew my attention.  Later that evening I chanced on the game again at The MIX, an indie gaming event.  The demo I played was short, but I immediately fell in love with the heavy, deliberate controls, stamina-based combat, and dark atmosphere, and had been looking forward to its release ever since. At a time when even FromSoftware is starting to experience Dark Souls fatigue and experiment with new mechanics, Dark Devotion nevertheless takes inspiration from the series for its control, combat, and aesthetic styles.  With a unique combination of rogue-lite elements and progression systems, and teeming with interesting lore, the final release delivers on the promise of the demo with a very solid and satisfying experience.

Dark Devotion begins with the protagonist, a Templar, entering a mysterious temple.  Not much is known as to the why, other than the fact that many others have entered in the past, and many more will enter in the future.  Soon, she ends up in the Filthblood Shelter, which serves as the game’s main hub.  From there, players can explore dungeons, level up skills, or talk to the many NPC residents to learn about the world.  The story is discovered rather than narrated, and although it’s given in pieces, by the end of the game the gist of what is going on and why becomes clear.  Exploration also uncovers many tidbits of lore about the NPCs and areas encountered to frame the story.  Though the core of the plot is explained, much of the background is only hinted at, leaving plenty of room for interpretation.  The main plot is straightforward and somewhat underdeveloped, but the piecemeal presentation through discovery, reliance on lore over exposition, and a dash of ambiguity to ignite players’ imaginations, create a mysterious and enthralling experience.

Gameplay consists of rogue-lite progression both for exploration and for character development.  Players begin by exploring the first of three large sections that are unlocked sequentially. The dungeons are full of tough and unforgiving enemies.  The areas are dark, especially around the periphery, and adventurers who rush forward without caution will routinely find themselves falling into spike pits or impaled by mechanically-thrusted spears hidden in plain sight. Death, which will occur often, leads to starting over at the game hub, though the penalty can be mitigated by unlocking shortcuts and activating portals that act as checkpoints.  Only one portal can be active at a time, and the adventure can be picked up from there should worst come to worst. The protagonist can also spend faith to purchase random treasures and buffs, open shortcuts, or use magic tomes to gain a slight advantage.

Although the three main sections are unlocked sequentially, there’s plenty of nonlinear exploration. Each section contains several interconnected subsections to explore, many with their own bosses.  The interconnected nature means that only one of several available paths and bosses need to be completed to progress, giving the player choice to skip those areas or bosses they find too challenging.  Exploration is forward-only, meaning that turning back to explore other paths is not possible within a run.  Moving between rooms uses one-way doors to funnel players toward the boss, while the rooms often include drops from ledges to which there is no way back up.  In order to explore everything, players must deliberately choose different paths upon death, making backtracking to unexplored areas difficult.  Despite this difficulty, there’s plenty of reason to explore all of of the paths and take on all of the bosses to find new equipment, unlock stat boosts, and uncover a multitude of secrets.  Dark Devotion also offers optional content, including a rudimentary quest system and well-designed achievements such as triggering a challenge mode or using specific equipment sets to accomplish tasks tied to the lore. The combination of the forward-only nature of the dungeons and the high density of rewards throughout the areas adds enjoyable replayability to a game that already has much to offer.

Dark Devotion takes a multifaceted approach to character progression, most of which is exploration-driven, though some is experience-based as well.  On the latter front, players can kill enemies to earn points used to purchase passive perks.  There are five levels of perks, and although all four or five perks of a level can be purchased, only one can be active within each level.  Players can choose which perks to activate in the hub, and will want to switch perks often based on the situation or equipment loadout.  Players can also explore the game’s areas to find tablets that unlock stat boosts such as increased damage or stamina.

Whereas tablets and perks offer permanent progression, players also get stronger by finding equipment, which offers a rogue-lite progression style. There are two equipment slots for weapons, one for armor, and another for an amulet or accessory item. Two different weapon loadouts can be equipped and switched at the push of a button, with different weapons offering a variety of move sets including short, long and two-handed swords, maces, spears, bows, magic tomes, and even bare hands. Some weapons also have an additional slot for runes that can add a variety of effects. The accessory determines player health and often comes with enchantments, and armor grants a set number of free hits before taking damage. Aside from the two loadouts, no other equipment can be carried, and picking up new gear requires dropping currently-equipped pieces. When players die, equipment is lost, and players return back to a weakened state with only a couple of hits’ worth of health and armor. Some weapon and armor drops, indicated by a green aura, as well as weapons and armor dropped by bosses or earned as quest rewards, are permanently unlocked and players can choose one of these to start with from the hub. But much of the most powerful equipment has to be picked up again from static spawn locations or dropped by enemies. Unlike with some weapons and armor, none of the runes or accessories are retained, and since accessories provide the only boost to the health pool, players always spawn with the starting amount of just two health points. Since equipment resets on death and perks can be reassigned as needed, there is no concept of permanent builds, trading off some of the enjoyment and investment in build planning with the freedom that comes from not being locked into one.

Before players have had a chance to collect permanent weapons and armor, death is quite punishing.  After some progress though, permanently unlocked equipment, perks, and stat boosts mean that players always start in a powerful enough state to have at least a reasonable chance against any of the game’s challenges.  It also keeps each attempt more interesting by encouraging use of different equipment. There’s also a counterintuitive interaction with boss fights, since dying to a boss and continuing from a nearby teleport means that players will be facing the boss in a weakened state the second time around if they don’t want to start their run from an earlier location.  On the other hand, the mechanic keeps bosses challenging since accumulating items over the course of a run can lead to being overpowered.  Players are then faced with the option of more frequent tries while being weaker, or less frequent tries while being more powerful.  In this way the death system works really well, letting players slowly accumulate items to earn the right to tear through enemies in overpowered states for brief periods, while also maintaining challenge for the vast majority of the experience, especially during boss fights.

Combat is where Dark Devotion borrows most heavily from the Souls series. The stamina-based, weighty combat with blocks, parries, and dodge rolls with invulnerability frames will feel familiar to Souls fans, and the developers have stated the control scheme has been deliberately designed to maximize familiarity. It largely succeeds here, offering fair and well-crafted challenges both in stages and in the excellent and creatively-designed boss fights, though it is somewhat more forgiving of mistakes. That balance works well though, due largely to limited quantities of healing items players are likely to have when facing bosses. The somewhat limited combat options — including the small number of weapon attacks, a very limited inventory for items and weapons, a lack of a magic or ability system, and being restricted to only picking up a single weapon loadout in the hub and having to find the second – may at times make players feel that combat lacks variety. But since players aren’t locked into a build and regularly both find and lose powerful and unique weapons, combat remains engaging throughout the game.

Graphics in Dark Devotion are a mixed bag.  Visuals work exceptionally well to set and maintain the mood, but technically they are of average quality and feel somewhat flat.  The atmosphere and art direction are excellent with a variety of engaging environments, from dark woods, to decaying cities, to putrid sewers, and many others.  There’s a consistent oppressive decay to the aesthetic throughout each of the environments that matches well with the game’s lore and presentation.  This aesthetic is also reflected in NPC visual designs and is especially well done for boss concepts.  The pixel art execution on the other hand, while decent, doesn’t rise to the level of other modern titles that have pushed the style to its limits through extremely fluid animation, an impeccable level of detail, and copious lighting effects.  Some UI elements are also difficult to see, including very small text on item descriptions that don’t scale well with a large TV screen and poorly indicated selection and activation cursors in many menus.  The music is similarly dark, moody, and ambient, and on occasion wanders into heavy and oppressive tracks.  It offers enough variety to capture each environment’s unique feel, and while the tracks are generally high quality, music doesn’t often come to the forefront.  The sound effects — full of metallic clinks and clangs — do a great job of adding to the sense of weight during combat.  Overall the music and sound complement the visuals and gameplay well, but don’t draw too much attention, for better or worse.

Dark Devotion bills itself as a Souls-like, and this is evident in its atmosphere, presentation, and combat.  Despite some limitations of the combat system,  the solid mechanics make for one of the most engaging and rewarding combat experiences in the genre.  But it’s not just another clone — it also brings much more to the table.  Coupled with a unique combination of rogue-lite elements and progression systems, and an atmosphere full of mystery and secrets that beg to be uncovered, it offers an immersive experience from start to finish, and plenty of reason to stick around even after finishing the final boss.  It’s true that many of the systems at play are somewhat underdeveloped and could have benefited from a bigger budget and team, and the game in many instances does lack that final pass of polish.  But the core of its offerings is strong and the variety of mechanics fit well together.  Those looking for a challenging experience with deliberate combat, engaging atmosphere and lore, and meaningful exploration full of rewards, will not be disappointed with this title.

Scores
BATTLE SYSTEM
    
INTERACTION
    
ORIGINALITY
    
STORY
    
MUSIC & SOUND
    
VISUALS
    
win
< 20 HOURS
HARD

Excellent combat mechanics

Full of unique bosses with creative encounter designs

Immersive lore and world to explore, and secrets to uncover

Rogue-lite elements promote variety of play without being overly punishing

Some of the core systems could be a bit more developed

Limited inventory and abilities can constrain player options

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