Title: Dark Devotion
Developer: Hibernian Workshop
Release Date: April 25, 2019
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: The Arcade Crew
I have never been a fan of games that used punishing challenges to eventually lead to a satisfying reward. Whereas games that focus more on the journey tends to be where my interests lie. So, I was pleased to hear that Hibernian Workshop centered its pixel art action game, Dark Devotion, around great weapons, spells, and gear that players can pick up along the way.
However, that’s not to say that you won’t see the image of the Dark Devotion’s hub world burned into your brain after dying countless times. Finding powerful books that summon fireballs or maces enchanted to be stronger with each hit is part of the journey of this RPG heavy sidescroller.
Players control a Templar who is devoted to finding their religion’s secrets hidden in a forsaken temple. This secret that is surrounded by the templar’s belief in taking out any they find to be unworthy or wicked. Upon her death, the Templar is thrown deep into a temple only to rewake with the task of proving her bravery to God and be rewarded for her devotion. This is proven by defeating unholy creatures, gaining “faith” that is used for opening hidden doors, praying to statues or casting spells. The mystery that is surrounding the storyline is bloody and those themes blend well with the game’s gloomy hand-drawn aesthetic.
That dreary palette can be seen throughout the game’s environment. With settings ranging from the dark corridors of dungeons and murky sewers to a forest with a mystical glow, all rendered in 2D pixel art that does a decent job at making environments look and feel different from each other. Additionally, the characters and enemies that exist in those environments are well animated to the point where every movement is clear and easy to make out, which is needed to get the timing down right with action games of this genre.
All the weapons that the templar wields strikes differently and with the kind of realism that players expect. Swinging a heavy two-handed ax is slow while light daggers can be used in rapid succession. That realism even applies to enemies like zombified creatures, who are sluggish and take time to strike while scampering tiny demons are fast and hard to hit with a large weapon. These details work together to make the game grounded and believable in their 2D space. Yet, the visuals of the game don’t stop there. Changing armor and magic accessories are visible on the character which is important because it shows the progress that has been made in the game.
The more you play Dark Devotion, the more details that can be found in how long you survive the game and what you do in it. When players run around for long periods of time, they’ll have to change their armor because it begins to rust and affects the Templar’s speed. This is due to the game’s real-time stat system, which can either negatively or positively change your character’s stats with given effects and situation.
The same system will heighten the rate of misses if your vision is blurry from being hit too much or praying at a holy statue that gives the player more faith power for every monster defeated. With effects constantly shifting my stats around, I found the need to find ways to keep those effects from weighing me down, as negative effects seemed to more noticeable.
As I mentioned before, weapons feel very different from each other in Dark Devotion, but being an RPG heavy action game, the weaponry also has stats and effects that affect the types of enemies players are attacking. Throughout my playtime, I wielded plenty of one giant two-handed weapons that attack normally, then I encounter moments when I pick up what I thought was the same weapon yet it was charged with lightning effects that had a blast radius, making the attacks much more devastating. Add the fact that to other types of armaments, like spears that stab from afar, short swords that are quick, and gauntlets that let you get close to opponents makes for a large number of weapons and effects that players can find and experiment with. Though the same opportunities had my magically enhanced weapon being too slow or ineffective against tiny imps that left me dead and my favorite weapons lost.
Luckily, Dark Devotion also has spells to help turn the tides. Spells in the game equip as one-handed weaponry do, allowing players to pair them with other one-handed options, adding even more opportunities for the player to find their play style. While I found it fun to launch a fireball for greater damage, another player would consider the spell to take too long to cast and might find summoning flying axes to be more effective. With these mechanics in mind, the journey to defeat the temple’s toughest dwellers progresses from finding lower tier weaponry that help you survive to mystic artifacts that players use as a preference, which I find to be one of Dark Devotion’s greatest strengths.
Yet, when it comes to fighting the enemies in Dark Devotion, it can be a hit or miss. First, enemies have a structure that has one type of monster use the same attack patterns. This is great for players who learn these patterns from a growing catalog of demons over time and can beat those challenges until the next set of enemy types. But as I mentioned earlier with lower tier weaponry, players start the game learning those patterns with swords and daggers that are near useless. While a game can be designed to show the player that they should expect a challenge, I found my time up to the second boss to be rife with stamina-draining dodges that don’t allow me to attack as much I needed to. It wasn’t until after the many defeats at the hands of the second boss that the game finally dropped a weapon that helped me stand a chance. With this perception of a very steep learning curve, it could leave players in a David vs Goliath moments that don’t have happy endings.
Alternatively, players have to find the challenge in finding powerful tools. After unlocking a number of items and weapons in the hub world’s forge, players can amass a loadout that works for most situations in starting areas, it is then that the challenge becomes welcomed and bosses are not impossible. Another interesting take is unlike other titles that let you backtrack freely throughout the map, Dark Devotion locks the door behind players, meaning you cannot re-enter paths you came from. This adds a layer of strategy to the game that involves deciding if the path you have taken was the right one. In one interesting situation, I found myself in a new section of the map with a new type of enemy I could not defeat with my current loadout, leaving me to revive to a checkpoint I activated before. Because players can only have one checkpoint active at a time, I had to decide on starting a new path or toughing it out with weaker armor and spells.
Playing Dark Devotion had me feeling two types of ways throughout the game, there were the times that I believed that this game was unfair by leading me on a journey that I didn’t have a fighting chance at, but, then it still gave me faith when it finally dropped a spell or weapon that’s fun to use and makes boss fights more manageable. This is kind of a shame considering the work that Hibernian Workshop put into the game’s gorgeous visuals, real-time stat effects, and interesting map progression system. In a genre space that is always comparing titles to Dark Souls, it was nice to see a direction toward notable innovations. Just not enough to make players stick around for too long.
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