After a six year hiatus, Darksiders III is finally here. THQ Nordic’s series has had a bold reputation in gaming thanks to its radical grimdark re-imagining of the Book of Revelations, busy and detailed Image Comics-inspired art direction, and how their gameplay are obvious homages to other storied gaming franchises. It’s an acquired taste but I’ve always found the games to be enjoyable, even when they drag.
But Darksiders III is a different beast with a completely different set of issues. The scope has been scaled back, gameplay is more straightforward, and the overall production lacks the polish of previous entries. It’s not exactly a triumphant return so much as a pat confirmation that things are still kicking around.
Hunt The Sins
Once again you play as one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse after the end of days has thoroughly wrecked humanity. The Angels and Demons are fighting over territory, monstrosities from across the universe are roaming wild, and things are just becoming the worst. But since War is imprisoned for setting things off too early and Death is investigating the reasons why, you fill the armored heels of Fury as she is tasked with taking down the Seven Deadly Sins.
That’s right, all of the Darksiders games are happening at the same time. It’s a smattering case of retcons but it does help give the series a sense of sprawling scale, especially since the various installments never really overlap with one another.
As for Fury’s whole part in things, it runs into the same problem the series has had for a while: it’s fun in the moment but feels like its jogging in place in the grand scheme. The whole inciting incident, the end of the world happened too early due to some shady cosmic manipulation behind the scenes, is barely moved forward at all and the protagonists’ jobs are mostly cleaning up the mess. No matter how creatively various ideas are presented, it can’t fully gloss over just how very little momentum any of the heroes’ actions carry. Aside from plot elements dropped near the end, Fury doesn’t really advance anything besides her straightforward task.
Thankfully Fury and her supporting cast are entertaining in their own right. She isn’t exactly a deep individual, a pretty standard angry sadist type, and the dialogue can get pretty cheesy and overwrought but she does get some pretty sharp jabs at the expense of certain tropes in the Darksiders series. “Why is it you always need three of something to unlock a door?” There is also an amusing subtextual sub/domme relationship she seems to have with her Watcher, a sort of spectral guide and exposition machine, that has some entertainment.
Whips and Chains Bore Me
Like its predecessors, Darksiders III can charitably be called a remix of various ideas and concepts borrowed or lifted wholesale from other games. You use Fury’s whip to tear apart enemies left and right in large sweeping attacks. The game world isn’t a massive sprawling open-world but an interconnected hub that weaves and meshes with itself. Your overall goal of hunting down and defeating seven major boss enemies requires you to explore and find different routes to your targets. Also, there are light RPG elements where you collect souls as you play, spend them at various checkpoints to make yourself stronger, and when you die you must return to the point of death to recover your hard earned souls.
In other words, it is another game attempting to imitate the success of From Software’s Dark Souls series.
On the surface, such deliberate copying isn’t a bad thing, except Darksiders III doesn’t fully grasp some of the issues it has created for itself. First and foremost, the combat in the Souls series has always been characterized by deliberate action and slow meticulous progression thanks to highly aggressive enemies and cleverly implemented traps and obstacles. Darksiders meanwhile has made a name for itself of being a high-speed action affair with characters wielding large weapons, unleashing super attacks, and feeling like an unstoppable force of nature.
But combining these two different design philosophies brings out the worst of both. Every time enemies show up to attack you, it’s usually an ambush with enemies outside of your field of view just so they can jump you. Each attack barely has any telegraphing to them, making any attempt to predict or work around attack patterns a frustrating case of trial and error. And when traps and obstacles are eventually introduced in the game, (tripwire bombs, empty chasms, the classics) the environment design is either too busy or too drab and flat for them to fully register as a threat until it is too late; or the enemy placements are done in a way to actively hide information from you. I couldn’t count the number of times I used Fury’s chain whip to swing across a chasm, only to have a skeleton archer shoot me down and knock me to my death, but I can count how many times that skeleton archer was tucked away in a barely noticeable alcove across the way.
It doesn’t get much better even when the odds are in your favor. Fury’s whip attacks are decent enough against small groups of enemies, but more of an annoyance for the more advanced enemies that can block indefinitely. The only way for you to defend yourself is a dodge roll, and if you time your dodge at the exact moment an attack would have hit, you can unleash a powerful counterattack. But how the dodge roll is actually designed is mediocre at best. The window of opportunity for you to get a counterattack is embarrassingly small, which makes the aforementioned enemy attack telegraph problem worse. If the enemy does multiple attacks in a sequence, you can actually dodge into the follow-up attack, making things worse. And worse yet, cancelling out of an attack to go into a dodge roll, your only means of defense, is inconsistent. It turns the combat from an intricate dance of evasion and striking to figuring out EXACTLY when the developer intended for you to dodge or dying horribly. And with such crucial visual information missing or illegible, particle effects, wind-up frames, anticipation, etc., it feels like trying to peel a potato blindfolded.
And as for those RPG elements, the one place where some variety or personal choice can easily be implemented, hey are embarrassingly small. You can increase your health, or your attack damage. That’s it. The only thing that amounts to progression that isn’t just watching numbers go up are the various Hollow forms that Fury obtains throughout the story, which give her a new secondary weapon and elemental power. But the powers are mostly used for exploration and the alternate weapons are just standard flavors of knifes and spears that fail to really spice up the combat. Combat that becomes boring when the very boss battles you’re working up to barely amount to just being large health sponges with cheap attacks that you will get hit by on your first try.
All of it adds up to an action experience that wants you to feel powerful and in control, but continuously stomps all over what little control or skill you have. Even if you learned all the ins and outs of the game’s surprisingly diverse menagerie of enemies and got into a groove with the right attacks and combos, it would still be a tedious affair just from how familiar and boring your limited tactics really are. Even if you did take your time to explore and remember to avoid all the little traps and surprises, the only thing you’ll be rewarded with is just more souls for the insulting, tacked-on RPG system.
The only part of the immediate gameplay that still feels rewarding are the various environmental puzzles peppered throughout. Usually a variation on finding a key or clever use of resources nearby to activate something. Some of them actually made me feel clever, which is a step in the right direction.
Fall From Grace
Visually speaking, Darksiders III is a mixed bag. On a purely technical level, the visuals look eight years out of date with low quality textures, iffy character models, and some oddly implemented technical compromises. Loading screens go on a little too long and they pop up in the strangest places, such as going from a set of corridors in catacombs to another set of corridors in a confined space.
In fact, the overall environmental design is a drab collection of caverns, abandoned buildings, and lava-filled catacombs with not a whole lot of memorable sights inbetween.
Thankfully, the color and style of the game does its best to hide some of these issues. Gunfire Games’ level of detail pool of reference, Image Comics, Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 series, etc., tends to be too visually busy and chaotic, but here it manages to remain distinct while retaining its distinct edgelord identity. Even visualizing the ideas of the Seven Deadly Sins as monsters brings some entertaining results. Highlights include the lecherous Avarice, played to delicious glee by JB Blanc, seen as a hunched over goblin with a large sack of gold, and the sin of Gluttony portrayed as a large tentacled behemoth with multiple mouths.
Unfortunately, these shortcomings make it clear that Darksiders III was working with a handicap from the beginning. THQ Nordic isn’t the same publisher it was back in 2010, and the general lack of polish and severely cut down production values show that the game was hampered by the company’s closure and reworking in the past six years of hardship.
This isn’t to excuse the final product in any way. The combat is still uneven and a chore to get through, the pacing reeks of cost-saving padding, and what little good to be found is few and far between.
If THQ Nordic really wants to make well on its promise of making Darksiders IV, I hope they are able to do so on more stable production grounds.
Darksiders III still has some entertainment hidden behind all of its cut corners, but it is buried under the obvious signs of a strained and troubled production. The attempts to ape the formula and structure of the Souls series is surface-level and clashes with the over-the-top presentation. The gameplay is lopsided and rarely comes together to form something great. And the very idea of fighting the physical embodiments of Sin is ultimately brought down to a mediocre hack-and-slash experience. If you enjoy the series and want to see what happens next, I say wait for it to go on sale, otherwise, temper your expectations.