Dark Devotion: The time Dark Souls went on a crusade
When one normally thinks of 2d Dark Souls they would think of Salt and Sanctuary. They would normally be correct in this assumption, as that is the more popular and well know game within the Soulsborne genre. Dark Devotion is a lesser known but never the less gruelling title, following in the footsteps of Salt and Sanctuary. The difference here is the roguelike aspects and most importantly....
In a fantasy world inspired by the Crusader era (1095-1492), a young female templar is sent to prove her devotion to god. She is part of the Filthblood; sinners who have been shut away inside a hostile temple to seek redemption and prove their worth. Dark Devotion's setting is not bad per say. There is a good deal of atmosphere to be had. However it does struggle a bit to stand out, and I hope to explain why. It is not bad but nowhere near great either.
The theme of faith
Religious theming is a very present in Dark Devotion, granted there is a lack of overtly Christian imagery (and I will get into why I suspect it is the case). But this theme does add one of the few original ideas within Dark Devotion. It doesn’t sugar coat the more unpleasant aspects of the era, such religious persecution for “falling in love with the wrong person” or mass murder in the name of faith.
It is a rather brave theme for an indie dev team to tackle, and I can applaud Hibermian for trying something as tricky as religious martyrdom. I personally wish more was done with the theme. Maybe have some bosses based off various sins or figures. Or have the character’s faith be shaken and tested over the course of the story, instead of just being a gameplay mechanic.
From verses Hibermian: Environmental storytelling
Much like the Soulsborne games that inspired Dark Devotion, a majority of the story telling is told through limited character interactions and text scraps. The environment itself also plays a huge factor in delivering context and world building. From delivers little scraps that build up to a cohesive whole, making the best of both the spoken/written and visual storytelling. These can be anything from the impressive grandeur of Anor Londo (suggesting the power the godlike inhabitants had) with the wide open spaces and remoteness of the location (suggesting disconnect between the poor and the wealthy). Bloodborne too uses environmental storytelling to great effect in building terror (are the coffins chained to keep people out or the person inside). As well as casting an oppressive sense of insignificant (the city personifying the cosmic horror yet to reveal itself).
Dark Devotion never really gets as far as the examples I have given, and the main problem is a small but significant one. The problem is how dark the game can get, which on one hand this would make sense, you are in an underground temple with limited lighting. The problem is that it prevents the environments from being expressive, even more so when almost every environment is in some state of ruination. They blur together, and as a result struggle to gain a personality or tell a story as to how the bad thing happened.
From Verses Hibermian: Characterisation
In the Soulsborne series, the cast are typically characterised by some limited interactions, item descriptions and context, all pieced together from a verity of different perspectives (often unreliable). They create a strangely compelling narrative of interwoven agendas and motives. One needn’t even look far, fan favourite Solaire of Astora is a fantastically memorable and loveable character, made all the more compelling as to how tragic a figure he can become. Same with Father Gascoigne, he might seem like a generic mad hunter until you talk to his daughter. Then he becomes part of a really sad story of loss of family, all going mad on the longest night.
Sadly Dark Devotion’s characters rarely get much depth or reason to care. One such example would be Jeal, one of the so called Escapees that are trying to flee the Temple. The problem is that we only talk to her once. The only thing we learn is that she fancies me and wants to leave the temple. We never learn anything about her or her love interest, they want to leave and that is it. Hell the love interest gets even less characterisation then Jeal, all he wants is to see his girlfriend but not enough to where he would (you know) look for her.
This is a persistent problem in that everyone in the temple comes across as flat, one dimensional. The blacksmith is kind and respectful but not much else. The alchemist is a snooty weirdo who likes to burn bodies, but he doesn’t grow more then that. All of these characters could have been interesting if they were allowed to grow, to develop (much like From’s storytelling) . They are as flat as the design sheet they were created on.
If you have played any Soulsborne title, then you know what to expect: dodge rolling, stamina management and more weapons and items the average Walmart. None of these are particularly bad; in fact they are perfectly fine as mechanics go. Having to manage the character’s faith is critical for long runs, as it needs to be used to unlock secret doors, gaining items/booms and casting spells. Much like Soulsborne, keeping your cool and managing your scarce resources will be key long play sessions. Even more in Dark Devotion, due to high penalty of losing all the items you might have acquired along the way. There are some limitations naturally, as certain items can be recovered at the black smith.
Exploring: A tale of rougelikes
Like any good rougelike/Soulsborne title, Dark Devotion is built around exploration. Exploring rewards the player with new upgrades, items and new areas to explore. That is until you wonder in one direction and fall off a ledge, preventing you from going back and exploring rest of the dungeon. Railroading the player into following a set path while demanding them explore creates an annoying sense of padding. In other games like Dead Cells or the Binding of Isaac you can explore the levels fully before moving onto the boss room.
Dark Devotion however forbids you to climb. This (because it is a very dark game) becomes frustrating when you suddenly find yourself falling off a ledge. Even though you wanted to explore the rest of the dungeon before moving on. As there is no way to retrace your steps without losing all your items, you are more or less forced to continue. Seething annoyance brewing inside your mind like nuclear waste. I cannot see any reason as to why Hibermian decided to design the levels this way apart from forcing the player to go over the same maps. A completely unnecessary design choice that hurts the overall experience. The player will still explore the rooms regardless, because they want to comb every nook and cranny for secrets. As well for farming the (not) souls needed for buying upgrades.
The combat: A tale of hitboxes
Hit boxes in Soulsborne titles have always been somewhat of an annoying factor. But it was more of a problem in the earlier titles then more contemporary From titles. Here, hitting and avoiding blows can be a little difficult to determine. At times throughout the game you might get ambushed by crow assassins (grim reaper looking blokes with crow beaks). When I was first attacked, I discovered that you didn’t need to be directly close in order to attack them. Instead, you can somehow strike them from the very edge of their whirlwind attack. Even though it makes no sense as to why hitting a rapidly spinning blade will somehow hit the assassin.
The Virgin Forgotten in the Dark’s tentacles (it’s not what it is sounds like) hit slightly further then the animated tentacle suggests. Just when you dodged The Guardian Abyss's Jailer’s (sometimes endless) melee attacks. The swipe hits when even through it seemingly doesn’t hit you. The problems with hit boxes make what is otherwise a pretty decent combat system into something irritating to play. The sheer variety of weapons and amours allow for a vast number of play styles. But when you find yourself getting smacked outside the Ritulists hand slam AOE, (despite dodge rolling at a safe distance) and then being able to strike the Ritulist with the very tip of the sword. It’s like I am exploiting the game rather than working with it.
Boss fights: Difficulty curves
Boss fights (as quoted from Zero Punctuation ) are “supposed to be like a final exam”. All the mechanics and reflexes are tested against some terrifying foe. Dark Devotion’s difficulty curve is a little unstable.
Not all the bosses are particularly challenging, hell towards the end, I breezed through four bosses with minimal to no deaths (The Queen was an absolute joke) before getting blattered in the face by the final boss. In fact in the build up to The Queen, the bosses got easier. When the Queen entered the picture, all challenge left. Allowing the final boss rush to be so easy before tossing out a boss that is extremely difficult (to the point I wasn’t having much fun) is jarring and off-putting.
This is not only time Dark Devotion has had problems with the curve, (the optional bosses don’t really count as they should be a difficult distraction).The Virgin Forgotten in the Dark was more difficult (albeit annoying) as opposed to the final boss of the map (The Mysterious Entity).
The final boss is ideally supposed to be the most challenging. A final exam as opposed to a moderately difficult quiz night. It is worth noting that; despite the uneven difficulty curves, the boss fights are often inspired in atmosphere and visual design. Please check out this boss fight for a taste of what I mean. The bosses are not badly designed per say; they just suffer from veried difficulties (in terms of damage and telegraphing) and hit box problems.
Art style and graphics:
The pixel art is great and very beautiful; the problem is with the general setting. In comparison to other games in the genre (Dark Souls and Bloodborne), Dark Devotion suffers a bit. It doesn’t have the impressive architecture that comes from being 3d. Nor does it have distinct colour coding (Bloodborne) or varied environments (Dark Souls). Instead, Dark Devotion’s environments sort of meld together. Like a visual fungus of faith based decay and misery, as a result the environments become rather unmemorable. Both the Purged Hamlet and the Abandoned Dungeon are equally grim, dark and in total ruins. The Graceless Forest is the only environment that offers some colour (with a nice sickly green). The problem is that it doesn’t really stand out; it’s a sickly forest and not really much else.
There was one time (when getting shot with an arrow on a ladder) where I somehow glitched through the floor and fell forever. Forcing me to restart the run as a result. As one might imagine, this was rather upsetting, even more so because it was a very long run. Fortunately this never happened again, but the ease of being able to break the game was a little glaring. However the rest of the game is perfectly fine.
I need to confess that I found Dark Devotion enjoyable and equally frustrating at times. The hit boxes, the difficulty larches, the railroading do annoy me and maybe could have been improved or changed completely. When the combat clicks and when the exploration aspect is rewarding then it becomes pretty fun. Maybe try this one out before Salt and Sanctuary and see which one you think is best.
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