by Johnny van Spronsen
reviewed on PC
In Dark Devotion you play as a young female Templar initiate who must test her faith in a mysterious dungeon filled with unspeakable horrors. Her religion’s irresistible calling will drive her further into the darkness only to find answers that will challenge her very existence. At least, that’s what developer Hibernian Workshop claims. In reality, there is no clear narrative past this initial setup. Even the reason why you are called to this ancient dungeon is something no one in the game can clearly state. Speaking to characters or reading the lore you’ll find on your journey is ambiguous at best. The game relies on this intrigue to drive you forward.
It’s a familiar concept which we’ve seen often in smaller independent games since the immense success of the Soulsborne series. That also goes for Dark Devotion’s sidescrolling perspective and expressive pixel art. The overall gloom really emphasizes the dark tone of the game and combined with the fitting music gives it a perpetual sense of melancholy. At the same time, most of the details get lost and the lack of brighter colours give it a washed-out appearance in which nothing really stands out. Games like Slain: Back to Hell have proven that these styles don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The biggest problem however, is that it’s often too dark causing untimely deaths in a game that’s already challenging enough on its own.
A quick death
You don’t have to wait long for that challenge either, because the tutorial leaves a lot to be desired. In examples they show you keys you need to press and it’s up to you to figure out which one they mean. It doesn’t help there’s no option provided to rebind them and switching to a controller isn’t possible since the developer is still working on the problems they’re causing. So when you are finally told to enter the dungeon, you die immediately due a trap you didn’t see. However, in Soulsborne games, death is only the beginning and once you press on enough, you’ll slowly get the hang of it. The dungeon is divided into four themed layers, each handcrafted so you can learn their layout without having to worry about procedural generation.
That can't be said about the combat, because you’ll need to quickly learn attack patterns and keep an eye on your stamina meter in order to survive. You can attack, block or roll away. Each action costs stamina, so it’s all about timing. The option to jump is lacking, so your movement is limited. Encounters are usually slow and repetitive affairs. Thankfully, there’s much diversity in enemies and bosses to keep you on your toes. You’ll also come across enough loot to occupy yourself with customizing your character. Your arsenal of weapons is varied and each weapon comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. There are also plenty of consumables, gear and trinkets with unique statistics. Finally, experience gained during your runs can be used to unlock skills in the Flithblood Shelter, which functions as a hub in the game.
It’s also the place that causes the most frustration. If you die during a run, you’ll lose your gear but keep your experience. That means that before every run, you need to visit the local smith and get your stored gear back. It doesn’t take long, but it’s extremely tedious having to do that after every death. Exploration doesn’t fare any better, because every doorway is one-way only meaning you can’t return and are forced to start a new run if you make the wrong choice. There are a couple of teleporters that function like checkpoints but their overall placement could use some work. These annoyances pile up quickly and make you lose interest in learning about the game’s more obscure mechanics like what exactly makes blessings and curses tick.
All of that doesn’t mean Dark Devotion is a bad game. Despite criticism, it’s well put together and it has nothing a couple of patches based on feedback can’t improve upon. As it stands now though, it’s just a bit too rough around the edges to really recommend. Especially since it can easily take you a dozen hours or more to finish. Games are often about the journey and not the destination. However, in this case the journey requires a lot of devotion and patience. Perhaps that was the goal all along?
Intriguing at first, wonderful sense of dread and a different perspective on religion
Too dark, exploration is severely limited and a lot the game’s systems remain obscure