Demon’s Souls was released ten years ago and its influence continues to be felt today. Games like The Surge, Ashen, Lords of the Fallen, and Nioh rest comfortably under the large shadow cast by From Software’s revival of their King’s Field franchise. You can add Dark Devotion to the list and if you’re looking for a Cliff’s Notes version of Dark Souls, the search is over. Complete with the same grimdark and disquieting atmosphere, Dark Devotion closely mirrors From Software’s gameplay and vibe really well despite it’s self-imposed technical and visual limitations. Oh, and you’re going to die. A lot. Dark Devotion isn’t an exact Dark Souls duplicate, as it adds its own roguelike spin to the proceedings and confidently stands on its own two feet.
Instead of being an unkindled one or chosen undead, your journey into darkness is presented from the point of view of a Templar Knight, a title that is forcibly bestowed on young children pulled from their families, many of which succumb to the torturous rigors of training. In a dark and unforgiving time, a supreme devoutness is the only thing standing between peace and ruin. After years of physical, mental, and religious study, you’re sent to do battle with the evil that has entrenched itself inside a once sacred temple. The pilgrimage ends badly and instead of buoyed into the afterlife, your soul is stuck inside and forced to endure a Groundhog’s Day-like existence where death provides no sweet release until evil has been conquered. Bring a sack lunch, because there a lot of work to be done before you’re set free.
Dark Devotion is about non-linear progression through a series of areas and zones littered with traps, merciless enemies, and deadly boss creatures. Exploring the various avenues of the temple feature branching paths that you’re forced to commit to because there’s no going back through doors or jumping back onto platforms or cliffs to see what lies on the other side of that fork in the road. Progress can be tracked using an in-game map that is often vague and a little confusing but adds to the overall mystery and unease of the temple itself. The only thing you can discern are quest objectives, activated teleportation altars and boss rooms. The map is good for a big picture view of where you’re going but I wouldn’t rely on it to get me from A to B.
Complicating matters (or excite them depending on your demeanor) are the unpredictable roguelike mechanics that considerably affect the adventure. Weapon and item drops are random, unlike in Dark Souls where certain enemies had a percentage chance of dropping an exclusive object. You’ll also be inflicted with boons or curses that play with your character stats. At any given moment, you could be blessed with an increase to your critical hit chances, granted an energy shield, and boost stamina regeneration. Conversely, you could suffer from painful bleeding effects, see all enemies turn into their elite versions, see your hit strength drop, and more. You’re absolutely at the mercy of the game and if your luck is like mine, you’ll get a whole slew of bad stuff happen just as you reach the boss room.
Whichever route you follow in the temple’s many passageways, encounters with the enemy are inevitable. There is no easy prey in this game. In fact your first encounter in the Abandoned Dungeon is with a creature that’s fast and has a weapon with a decent reach that floored me right quick. The controls are OK and give you the tools needed to survive, with directional dodging mapped to the top shoulder buttons and primary and secondary attacks locked to the triggers. And that’s it, there are no fancy tricks or button combinations to have to worry about or memorize, leaving you to focus your attention on the task at hand. It’s unfortunate that you can’t modify the control scheme to your liking (I would prefer to have dodging and attacks re-mapped to the face buttons), so it’s going to take a little time to get used to how the game plays and given the brutality of the enemies, that means dying a lot early on.
Death happens a lot and often without mercy. Maintaining both armor quality and health through poultices and armor kits can keep you healthy for only so before you’re ultimately stabbed, crushed, poisoned, or ripped to shreds. Dying means being sent back to the Filthblood Temple, a Firelink Shrine of a hub where you can accept quests, talk with other lost souls, jump to the last teleportation shrine activated, and more importantly, grab gear from the blacksmith. Since you’ll lose all your equipment upon death, visiting the blacksmith will give you a set of starter weapons to use until you find better drops inside the dungeons. Certain weapons, like those dropped by bosses, are saved to the forge and can be used as starter weapons to make progression a little easier (but not by much). The hub also has a space to unlock abilities from a skill tree and learn passive bonuses to make your character stronger and more capable in battle. All these tools and mechanics can be really helpful even if it exposes the tedium associated with these run-focused games. And because routes don’t procedurally change with each run, working through the same areas with the same enemies (and bosses!) time after time can be monotonous. But if you didn’t mind that in Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy, and Bloodborne, you’re unlikely to mind it here.
Develop enough familiarity, though, and Dark Devotion isn’t that hard to play as long as you follow the classic From Software rule, “don’t get greedy.” But actually, it’s a pretty hard game with lots of bosses and foes to challenge your patience. Your Templar doesn’t swing her sword very quickly and larger two-handed weapons make her swing even slower in exchange for harder hits. She’s also a bit slow to move, which is super-annoying against those who are quicker and more agile. Knowing when to dodge and go in for a hit makes all the difference, especially with bosses that trigger different forms and move sets once they’ve lost half of their health. Bosses offer some really interesting encounters and while defeating them is cause for celebration and satisfaction, they don’t have the same “punch the air and shout out in glory” as in the Souls games. Maybe it’s because it’s harder to fight bosses in a 3D space where the environment also plays a role in their behavior. Your reward for killing enemies and bosses are random weapon and item drops that fill up each of the four slots in your inventory. Common items include bandages, armor repair kits, and explosive potions and you’ll eventually come across potions that’ll boost attack or stamina as long as you’re in a room, and create explosive areas of effect. Inventory space is limited, so you’ll have to think carefully about what you want to keep or leave behind. Enemies also drop Faith, rendered here in tangible form as small, yellow-white orbs that act as a resource pool for magical items, unlock special doors, activate shrines, and trigger magical glyphs.
One phenomenal area of Dark Devotion is the art design and visual aesthetic. The environments match the dark tone of the adventure and the game manages to get so much out of its flat, pixelated look. Simplified looking character sprites are expressive and really well animated, their movements giving off subtle cues and tells for their next move. It’s the bosses and their dwellings that really make a strong impression. They’re imposing, vile, terrifying, and thoroughly capable of wrecking those that don’t pay attention. The environments are just as amazing, too. Your time spent trapped in the temple will see you visiting a disused dungeon, a filthy sewer, and other morose locales punctuated by death and dying.
Even though it drifts far too close to From Software’s port of call, Dark Devotion is a challenging roguelike RPG that will test your patience and endurance. The gameplay is decent and death is typically a result of taking risks that don’t pay off (or being screwed over by some last minute negative affliction). Learning how enemy’s behave, following their tells and knowing how to respond is the best way to conquer the game. Just know that it’s going to take a lot of practice and a whole lot of deaths to reach that point. What really sells the game, though, is an exquisite visual design that demands a coffee table art book. Dark Devotion is for those who swatted Quelaag, scoffed at Father Gascoigne, snickered at the Nameless King, and yawned at the entirety of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.