Dark Devotion Review
Dark Devotion isn’t a difficult game to describe. It’s an indie game that takes its cues from a lot of popular genres and fuses them into a somewhat unique experience. I could lob criticism at it, nitpick certain creative decisions—and I will—but it is undeniably a competently designed game, developed by what is clearly a talented team. I want to make that abundantly clear from the top. Playing it was a different experience for me personally, and one that ultimately left me feeling pretty hollow.
Everything about the publicity of Dark Devotion evokes Dark Souls, at least on a superficial level. And that makes sense. Dark Souls is an enormously popular and influential game. It has genius design that developers should learn a lot from. On the store page to Dark Devotion, players are promised “a demanding fight to the death” that will take the form of a “sombre tale.” They chose to spell it that way, not me.
All of this sounded terribly dreary. Dark Souls is a bit of a phenomenon, where overcoming the great challenge is a modern gaming rite of passage. I’ve played every Souls game, and haven’t beaten a single one. I’m just not that gud a gamer. But if every game started taking on that level of difficulty— well, that just sounds hellish. And sure, some games like to juxtapose incredible difficulty with a contrasting aesthetic (Cuphead comes to mind) but Dark Devotion is really coming down hard with the oppressive darkness. Just reading about how the game promised to “destroy your soul and damn you forever” sounded exhausting.
Then I booted the thing up. Much to my surprise, it’s actually really charming. Seriously, I can’t say enough good things about the art design. Retro-design pixelated graphics have become so standard in indie games, it feels kind of disingenuous to call them “retro” anymore. Beyond that though, it feels disingenuous to call these graphics “pixelated.” There’s something more deliberate about its simplicity. The figures and backgrounds are very bare-bones when you add up individual shapes and colors, but there’s a pleasant blur effect and an amazingly utilized lighting. All of this could make the game feel slight, but it doesn’t. It feels gothic and grandiose. It’s a little bit hard to describe. But I loved the look of this game.
In a Dark and Stormy Dungeon
So then I got to playing the thing. And it plays fairly well! It’s a dungeon crawler at the core. You interact with the world by exploring a cathedral-like castle. You climb ladders, explore dark chambers, fight weird adversaries. You roll around, collect loot, improve yourself. The main draw, though, is the stamina system. This is very similar to Souls. You can’t just button mash. You’ve got to time your attacks, defenses, and dodges to strategically take down the enemy. Some gamers may do the math (I have enough stamina for 5 hits, but this guy is gonna go down in 7, so I should hit him 4 times and use my stamina to roll away and recover…) and some will just learn to play the thing by feel.
Even with some cool powers, I didn’t get all that into the combat and exploration. Mobility options felt somewhat limited, as did exploration. The basic combat dynamic is smartly designed, but I didn’t get all that excited when I saw another enemy, even a weird new one I had to learn to defeat. What was lacking? It’s all a bit ephemeral. The combat itself felt good and responsive, and gradually learning new options was somewhat compelling…but not very? That’s when it hit me where I was failing to connect.
Dark Devotion is made by a French studio, and that Western European influence is apparent. This is a game ostensibly about the Knights Templar, and everything had a sort of early Medieval feel to it. Now don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy, and I love castles. I love spending time in Westeros and Middle Earth and the Malazan Empire. But I am not Western European (neither ethnically nor nationally) and I am not Catholic. I’m not Christian at all, in fact. And the themes and tone and setting of the story, which the game wants to put at the center of things, really wasn’t doing it for me.
I love the kind of fiction that gets me to engage with cultures other than my own. But that takes a little bit of effort from the storyteller, and Dark Devotion didn’t feel like it was putting in the storytelling work. It never got me to care. And without reason to care, the solid gameplay and gorgeous art design started to feel…hollow. The themes of prayer, salvation, and virtue, the question of who was deserving and who was damned, those all were a real turnoff. Now that seems to be a matter of taste. Maybe you are French and Catholic and the descendant of a Templar. Or maybe not and you just love those kinds of stories. Ultimately, the oppressive Gothic Medieval Catholicism of it all didn’t invite me in; it simply drove me away.
There’s a lot to unpack there, right? But it’s about something fundamental to gaming. A transcendentally beautiful or superlatively fun game can overcome storytelling weaknesses. But that is not Dark Devotion. It gets high marks for style, and decent marks for gameplay, but the raison d’être (to borrow a phrase from the French developers) is lacking. The game makes it clear why you do what you do, but that reason ultimately feels less than entirely compelling.
***A PC code was provided by the publisher***
- gorgeous bloom lighting
- beyond stylish graphics
- tight combat controls
- underwhelming story
- underwhelming themes