What can I say about the Darksiders series? Well, I love it for starters, but it has been a bit of a journey to get to where we are today. The original game was an interesting combination of Zelda and Devil May Cry, set just after the apocalypse has taken place. The game was, let’s say, more of a critical success than a commercial one, but at least (then publisher) THQ saw potential to continue the series. Darksiders 2, set parallel to Darksiders, with Death on a mission to prove his brother War’s innocence, upped the ante with both combat and puzzling, leaning more toward the idea of various dungeons to puzzle through, unlocking more as you gain new equipment and powers.
Despite being the best-selling game of the month (in the US) and again a critical success, this wasn’t enough, with THQ stating that the game didn’t perform to their expectations. This isn’t the best thing to hear from a publisher when you want a series to continue, regardless of critical acclaim, and to make matters worse publisher THQ filed for bankruptcy, leaving the future of the series (and others) uncertain. A catastrophe for fans like myself, for sure, as the story was very much left unfinished. The idea of experiencing this apocalypse and discovering more of the mystery of how and why it took place, from the perspective of each of the horsemen of the apocalypse was such a compelling idea – excellent for potential sequels – and so far we’d only had two of them.
Thanks however to Nordic Games (now THQ Nordic), the series didn’t fade into dust, and during the bidding for THQ’s list of IPs the company bought the series, along with a few others, and kept it open for a third entry. Assigning the development to Gunfire Games – which was made up mostly of former Vigil employees (the original developers of the first two Darksiders games) – way ahead in 2017 the third entry in the series was announced, this time following the story of another horseman of the apocalypse, Fury, and set just before the first game.
So the story can continue, and in an interesting turn Darksiders III is more of a prequel to the first two games, with Fury, not so much interested in defending her brother War as he is being accused of betraying the Charred Council and starting the apocalypse, but instead is carrying on performing her duties for the council and sets out to wrangle the recently released 7 deadly sins who are using the apocalypse as an excuse to wreak havoc on earth. Of course, along the way we discover more about the Charred Council and their intents with War, but that’s for the player to discover over the 20+ hours of the story.
Darksiders III will be familiar in style to those who’ve enjoyed the previous two entries. An open world of sorts filled with demonic enemies, and obstacles that need to be bypassed by completing puzzles or acquiring gear. Darksiders III leans more to the metroidvania style of game than the previous two, and much of your exploration and progression will see you winding to and from areas, discovering new routes and opening doors/blockages that lead your path back to areas that you couldn’t access before. Its design in this way is very satisfying, and I greatly enjoyed tying up loose ends – gaining a new power and returning to previous areas to gather secrets or open up a new route – but even for those that dislike backtracking, it’s designed in a way that you can avoid unnecessary re-treading if you so wish.
You may find yourself stuck at one point and have to return later once you have the means to carry on, but the game world is littered with fast travel points, which makes traversal a doddle. Having said that, I would recommend re-treading old ground, if not just to gain levels from killing enemies, then to find useful items and take on some of the game’s optional bosses. Not only does the world provide you with a few cool diversions (beyond constantly pressing on to the next deadly sin) but you’ll find that the initially intimidating challenge of the game quickly becomes much more manageable.
That last point about challenge is very pertinent, because what some may realise as soon as you gain control of your character in Darksiders III, is that is resembles a certain difficult souls based series in a fair number of ways. The combat retains its fast paced hack and slash stylings, though with perhaps more of a focus on combos and powers this time around, but there have certainly been influences included from the souls series of games. Dodging is imperative to survival, with even weaker enemies capable of reducing your health bar by a significant amount (which must be healed by the estus flask-like Nephilim’s Respite). If you dodge in good time you’ll reveal the opportunity for a counter strike which does more damage, often also stunning your foe in the process.
Initially I found the mechanics of dodging and countering to be somewhat unintuitive, feeling as though the timing was off or unfair in some way, and while I maintain the combat in general could be a deal smoother, much of this frustration dissipated just with experience of playing, and soon even the most difficult enemies (including bosses) became more routine. This isn’t intended as a criticism, as all bosses have their patterns and standard attacks in every game, and learning them is part of the process, though I did feel one or two of the bosses could be ‘cheesed’ with relative ease, exploiting a repetitive attack to counter and deal more damage. This may have been in part, however, due to my becoming over levelled, which does become a ‘problem’ later on with grinding for souls being both accessible and entertaining.
Yes, this is another way in which Darksiders III apes the souls series, using souls gained from slaying enemies to level up individual attribute points. Granted it isn’t as in depth as Bloodborne or Dark Souls, but the premise is very clearly inspired. You have three areas that you can level into, using returning character Vulgrim at various waypoints to offload your stash of experience. These are then used to level yourself up, by which you gain one experience point to spec into either Health, Strength, or Arcane. Health is fairly obvious, and Strength of course improves your physical damage output, but arcane offers better damage on counter attacks, as well as improving the effects of your hollows and special powers.
The Hollows are a vital part of the game, providing you with new weapons and powers, as well as being essential for accessing new areas. Early on in her journey Fury is snapped up via a portal by the Lord of Hollows, a mysterious figure who, for fairly suspicious seeming reasons, is helping you out by offering his power in the form of Hollows. You get four hollows throughout the game, each unlocking a new weapon and power. There’s the Flame Hollow, which unlocks fiery chains to burn enemies, as well as a forceful jump (allowing you to reach higher areas, while also showering those below with flaming rocks); there’s the Storm Hollow, which unlocks an electrified lance and the ability to glide (extending the distance of your jumps, as well as allowing you to fly up in small, conveniently placed tornadoes); there’s the Force Hollow, which unlocks a great big sledgehammer that allows you to smash through previously unbreakable barriers, in addition to attaching yourself to rock walls to travers areas; and finally there is the Ice Stasis Hollow, which freezes water underneath you and slows or stops anything in its tracks, be that enemies or moving platforms. Each weapon also modifies your wrath power, which upon unleashing will do extra damage to enemies (for example, the Storm Hollow releases a mini tornado that attacks your enemies).
There’s a nice variety to each of the Hollows, meaning that you won’t necessarily just pick a favourite weapon and stick with it throughout the game – each is useful in its own way, and it’s enjoyable to switch between these hollows as you play, with each weapon having a distinctive feel and effect. It also helps that your base weapon is available to use at all times – this being assigned to X or Square and your hollow weapon being assigned to Y or triangle. What might be an issue however, is the effectiveness of your weapons as the game progresses, as you do have to have an active input in upgrading them – and if you aren’t that interested in finding secrets then you might struggle to upgrade all of your weapons past a certain point.
Upgrading works by taking your gear to another returning character, Ulthane, who can use items such as pieces of adamantine to improve your weapons. You can find a lot of these resources just casually exploring, and even from enemies that deign to drop something when they die, but after a certain point the really good upgrades can only be purchased if you’ve had a proper explore for hidden items. This means going back to previous areas once you’ve unlocked a new hollow and scouring these areas until you find something to unlock with your new power. Personally I loved this backtracking exploration, and there’s clearly been effort put into giving you reasons to return to areas, but I can empathise that some would find this frustrating – especially if you make the mistake of equally upgrading your weapons and getting to a point where NONE of them are up to scratch. But that’s just the nature of the game, and Vulgrim at least offers you the option of buying resources with your precious souls.
Additionally, you can add enhancements to your weapons. Again, these can be found by exploring and a couple can be bought. These don’t just increase the damage output of your weapons, but also add unique features. Some will garner you more mana to unleash your wrath (or even cooler, your desolation form – which is a giant beast that smashes anything in its path) while others offer a higher chance of getting health from dead enemies, and my personal favourite, acquiring souls from destroying objects in the environment. These add to the uniqueness of each weapon, and of course allows you to customise them to a small degree (you can remove and embed enhancements whenever you like with no penalty). These can also be upgraded with various items that you find or purchase throughout the game.
All of this works together to create of more varied combat experience than you might expect. True, Darksiders III is essentially a hack and slash with a small selection of combos, but that’s a small selection of combos for four individual weapons that have different speeds and power. The Lance, for example, requires a bit more finesse to be effective, but when you get the hang of it, it is a powerful mid-speed weapon; whereas the fiery chains, although not very powerful on initial impact, are very fast and do damage overtime. In short, the combat provides variety and doesn’t become dull before the game’s end.
Boss fights and puzzling are also used to good effect, and particularly with the former, the game really shines. The seven deadly sins comprise of Envy, Lust, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, Pride and Wrath, all personifications of the sins they represent. Darksiders III skirts the line between being cheesy and scary, which allows for some grotesque and intimidating opponents as well as banter and silly dialogue along the way. Each of the sins has their own quirks and attack patterns, so you need to figure them out and adapt to changes that they throw at you – some of the fights are multi staged, so you reduce the boss to half health and they enact a new power, etc. One boss sees you following it across a huge portion of the map – while not actively fighting it all the way, it’s really cool how they managed to drag it throughout the various areas before concluding in a massive fight that sees you face it on ground and underwater. Another boss gives you a choice to make – I won’t spoil what, but essentially depending on how you finish the fight, the rest of the game could see you face more or less resistance from another party.
There are also optional bosses to face in the form of “chosen” that you can find hidden throughout the world – these are essentially secret encounters that reward you with “essence of a chosen” which you need to upgrade your weapons to their final level. Another boss (though not really a boss fight as such) that impresses is your battle against a tornado. While you don’t fight it head on, you instead puzzle your way underground while trying to avoid it pulling you up into oblivion. All of the encounters are a decent challenge (to an extent) and enjoyable for their spectacle, as Gunfire Games have designed some quite creative encounters and level designs. One thing that I didn’t find so impressive, however, is the ease of scaling with levelling. I suppose you get a choice of difficulty level at the beginning of the game, but on normal I didn’t expect to find the last two bosses easier than any of the others. It isn’t a massive issues, but it does feel somewhat anti-climactic.
What is a massive issue, however and the reason this game is receiving the score it is, despite me clearly enjoying it so much, are the horrific technical issues. Even this far post release the game is buggy and suffers terrible frame rate and loading issues. The smallest of problems are things like regular long loading screens, but at worse the game crashes and bugs out mid combat, causing you to die or even lose progress. I heard one account of someone losing a whole save file (of about 10 hours of progress), and for myself I have got stuck in the floor, lagged out during a tough encounter, and had to reopen the game on multiple occasions. It’s really not acceptable for the game to be in this state.
It’s not just annoying for those obvious reasons either, but it also dampens the game’s overall potential. Darksiders III has an interesting and aesthetically pleasing world, with colourful environments and cool backdrops, but the game just doesn’t feel capable of keeping up with it all. Textures don’t load in on time, landscape reveals and newly discovered areas lose their oomph when the game take a few moments to catch up with what it’s trying to present to you. And of course what is at times quite challenging combat, requiring precisely timed dodges and counters, is made all the more difficult. I notice I’ve used this phrase quite a lot when criticising otherwise decent games at the end of reviews, but in this situation I mean it all the more whole-heartedly, it is such a crying shame that the game falls over at this hurdle, because it truly damages the overall experience. It makes what should be a premium title feel low budget, and especially after having waited eagerly for so long, I think a lot of people will be expecting a bit more.
Outside of the technical issues, while I found the game narratively and mechanically satisfactory (and more so), I suppose there’s a lack of punch to the story, with not much new ground covered and certainly no ground-breaking new gameplay. It is more simplistic in some ways than its predecessors – no horse riding and no executions, and it even feels shorter than they were. Having said this, the voice acting is solid all round, and the world is well designed enough that I found it to be a compelling playthrough. I even toyed with the idea of starting over, though for someone with very little time as it is this was never going to happen.
The final question to ask is how the game serves the series so far, and I think the best answer to that is “fairly well”. Fury’s story is an intriguing one to follow, especially with her distanced view on the happenings of the apocalypse. It allows for some good character development, and to experience a slightly different side to the story – while War and Death’s stories take part in the thick of the action, they are also largely ‘post’ shit hitting the fan, and it’s cool to see, for example, Ulthane’s haven for surviving humans, as well as Fury begrudgingly agreeing to help them despite her contempt for “such a pathetic species”.
Darksiders presents such an intriguing story, and it’s great to see the series continue, and I think Fury’s prequel was a great choice for the third game, especially after such a long wait. The world design is smartly done, and the developers have done a good job on creating some enjoyable and compelling combat. The creativity of the boss fights and later puzzles is impressive, and for its ultimately ‘un-impactful’ final delivery there is a really fun and cool experience to be had here. It’s just too bad for the technical issues, as generally speaking this is the only real thing that significantly lets it down.
+ Enjoyable combat and puzzling
+ Creative level design and boss fights
- Nothing exceptional that will push the series along