I will not say it, I just won’t. I refuse. I don’t care how difficult you are; I don’t care that you have stamina management based combat, parrying and severe whiff punishing. You can be as brutal and as gothic as you like but you won’t make me say it Dark Devotion. Just be grateful my fondness for grim gothic fantasy helped me overlook your ‘quirks’.
Quite how you can make a game now without volume controls or customisable key bindings is beyond me but here we are, stuck in yet another dark corpse littered hallway looking for trouble, where the dangers that lurk in the shadows do battle with the inventory management over which is to be the game’s premier aggravation.
But despite the faint whiff of amateurism Dark Devotion has its heart in the right place; usually on a spike, hanging from a meat hook, perhaps eaten, or otherwise littered amongst the other body parts that make up much of the game’s delightfully grim decor. The game tells you scant little at the start and is easily at its weakest in these early, frustrating stages. However once you get your head around its many smart little systems Dark Devotion’s bloody and blackened claws start to dig in.
It’s a potent mix of dungeon crawler, roguelike and metroidvania, the initial simplicity of its combat obscuring its more ambitious designs. What impresses most is how its elements all expand and grow in tandem with one another. The story becomes more detailed and interesting, combat becomes more thoughtful and intricate and the persistent progression gives a tangible sense of gain despite the punishment for death being quite severe in and of itself.
Each life ends with you being teleported back to the game’s hub with nothing but your starting gear. All your weapons, armour and consumable items are lost and you must start a new run from scratch. That is, of course, if you haven’t managed to find one of the many teleportation statues that allow you to warp back to the last statue activated, very handy should you be struggling with one of the many bosses. Likewise you can unlock blueprints for equipment which allows the blacksmith to forge more powerful weapons and armour for you to begin each run with, and coupled with permanent stat upgrades to find out in the world you get a decent suite of tools to meet the steadily increased challenge.
Such roguelike inclinations do not extend to the world of Dark Devotion in that it is not procedurally generated. The world is fixed; Places, items and enemies do not move and the map grows and fills as you uncover it. Every door leads forward, there is no backtracking; in order to return you must start a new run, which is essential if you want to access all the secret areas and items that wink at you suggestively behind prison bars and breakable walls. Not that there is only ever one path; there are numerous forks to allow you to deviate should you so wish and the map is very good at indicating what has or has not been accessed.
Combat is, as mentioned, quite straightforward. There is one button for attacking, one for blocking and one for dodge rolling. Stamina management is vital as recovery is slow, which makes the relatively slow paced battles tense and tactical. Dark Devotion makes clever use of its various buffs and status effects to ensure that whilst the essentials of combat never deviate, the context does. For instance some status effects have you drop items when you role, some reduce stamina recovery, so adjustments are often needed to account for the situation and therefore any sense of repetitiveness is at least partially mitigated.
Exploration however, is unalloyed joy. It is encouraged and rewarded, making repeated runs worthwhile as well as necessary with you encountering new methods of reaching that out of place switch or door.
The context for all this is that you are a nameless Templar, sent as one of many to investigate a great temple, built into a vast mountain where rumours of heresy and evil have arisen. Inside you must discover what has happened and fight to destroy what now plagues it’s vast, labyrinthine halls. As you may have already guessed the story isn’t exactly forthcoming, relying on you to piece together events through environmental details, character interactions and notes left by the long dead. It’s a familiar approach but when it comes to craft good practices are worth repeating so this piecemeal learning of what transpired works well to sate lore lovers and those who just want to brain the next shambling horror.
There are issues of course, and Dark Devotion has quite a unique set of problems. There’s also no volume control of any kind, you have to manually adjust it in your OS settings. I can’t remember the last game that forced me to do that, it’s just bizarre that any developer would omit something like that. Likewise custom key bindings for a PC only game, there aren’t any of those either, or any controller setup options, or any graphical settings for that matter. This lack of accessibility is stark and rather disappointing given the work done in other areas.
Likewise you would have thought that a 2D plane wouldn’t pose too much of a challenge when it comes to picking up items but should you have the misfortune to have one item drop close to another then so begins yet another adventure in what I like to call shuffle and switch as you fight to locate the item you actually want amongst the clutter of things you don’t.
A lot of these quibbles are relatively minor but they do build up to an experience that can be quite rough around the edges. There is little doubt as to a loving hand being behind everything, it just so happens that this hand is also slightly arthritic and prone to the occasional shake. It’s your typical passion project; crowd-funded, made by people who care, but punctuated with a number of technical issues and design choices that you would not expect of a more experienced and better funded developer. That being said, Dark Devotion is an immersive and smart twist on a number of popular ideas and has all the grim gothic loveliness that I fell for a decade ago.