Borrowing ideas from one video game to put in another isn’t new. You often hear the phrase, “we wouldn’t have X if it weren’t for Y,” and if there’s one series I can think of that best embodies this statement, it’s Vigil Games’ Darksiders franchise. The first game alone lifted elements from Portal and Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda (the closest PlayStation owners ever got to one) and fused them together to make a delightful and fun action adventure game about the exploits of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. After THQ experienced its own extinction event in 2013, the fate of the series was left in the air. Newly reborn THQ Nordic tapped Gunfire Games, the studio responsible for the Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition, to continue the story of a ravaged Earth and the forces vying for control. This time, Darksiders takes inspiration from Dark Souls, the infamous From Software game that catered to a small, niche group of gamers.
The story begins following the aftermath of the first Darksiders. With War imprisoned for triggering the Apocalypse early (and Death running off to try and resurrect humanity), the Charred Council - a celestial body tasked with maintaining the strict balance of the universe - calls upon Fury for a mission to recapture each of the anthropomorphized Seven Deadly Sins that have escaped imprisonment. Armed with a chain whip and the temporary ability to turn into a powerful demon, Fury visits Earth that has been ruined by the unending war between Heaven and Hell. Though her mission sounds straightforward, Fury will discover that other interested parties work in the shadows, exploiting the conflict for their own desires.
Referencing From Software in a video game review is practically a meme these days but I do it here to make an important distinction. Darksiders III isn’t “like” Dark Souls, it IS Dark Souls. Anyone who has played any of the From Software games will easily recognize just how much Gunfire has borrowed from them. Combat runs at the speed of Bloodborne, which means it’s fast and primarily focused on attacks over defense. Fury has to be quick on her feet, dodging attacks as they come at her because she cannot block them. Demons and angels alike enjoy ganging up on Fury or get in a cheap hit or two by hiding behind debris, around corners, and atop ledges. Dead enemies drop souls and fuel for Fury’s Wrath and Havoc meters that transform her into an incredible powerhouse of pain and death for a few moments. Souls can be given to Vulgrim, a demon shopkeeper, who sells replenishment items and increases Fury’s character level, giving her attribute points to spend on increasing her health, attack and arcane power. As with the Souls games, increasing prices is the cost of doing business with Vulgrim. The more you rely on his services, the more expensive they get. Crystallized souls of differing values are scattered across the game and offer a nice soul boost when consumed. If Fury dies, all enemies respawn and any souls in her possession can be recovered by visiting the area where she was killed at. The big difference is that those souls won’t be permanently lost if you die en route.
Fury’s exploration of the Earth is mostly non-linear as you’re given access to an open world made up with various passages that take her to different areas on the planet, many of which are blocked off until she earns the means to bypass them a la Metroid. Haven is seemingly the center of it all, one of the few last refuges for humanity, as survivors huddled under the protection of Old Ones and the Maker Ulthane, a blacksmith capable of upgrading Fury’s weapons and enchantments with the right materials. Fury also develops elemental powers through the Lord of Hollows, an ancient being that has the power to break the cycle of immortality for willing angels and demons that no longer wish to fight (and in a cool artistic touch, the Ark of the Covenant is chained to its back). These powers imbue Fury with new weapons and elemental arcane power that can add to her combat repertoire and make her look cool. There is no map, large or mini, to show where Fury needs to go. Instead, a slim compass steers you towards the general direction of the closest Sin (and honestly, it’s not all that helpful). She’ll also have to contend with environmental-based puzzles, many of them requiring a level of precision and timing that takes lots of practice to get right and a lot of them had me scratching my head. I normally don’t have problems with environment puzzles but for some reason this game gave me a hard time. The solutions are not abundantly clear and can be confusing. When I did manage to figure them out, I had that embarrassed feeling of “Well, duh! THAT’S what I was supposed to do!”
By all rights, I should be all over this game. I love Dark Souls and Darksiders, so Darksiders III should easily be a “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” situation. Unfortunately, the truth is that Darksiders III is one of the most frustrating games I’ve played all year for two reasons. First, while it copies the unique features that make the Souls games so fascinating, it doesn’t quite capture their spirit. Second, it’s plagued with so many glitches and bugs (both minor and game-breaking) that it’s a wonder how this got out the door.
There’s more to Souls than their notorious difficulty. Darksiders III scales down its encounters to make the battles more meaningful but what that really means is you’re fighting creatures that dish out heavy damage. My first engagement with a demon creature at the beginning of the game saw me dead in three hits. Group battles are way worse because getting attacked from all sides by high damage dealing baddies isn’t particularly fun. You’re supposed to use the L2 button to focus on (read: lock on to) targets but what it really does is re-orient the camera directly behind Fury. Darksiders I and II did a great job with targeting, creating a sort of letterbox presentation as the camera locks in a way that shows your position in relation to the nearest enemy in range. It was a useful mechanic that wasn’t broke and Gunfire tried to fix it anyway. What L2 really does is orient the camera directly behind Fury and if there happens to be a monster there, it will trigger the lock. I died several times against groups specifically because I couldn’t focus on creatures efficiently enough. Faints, almost-hard-to-see white arrows show the positions of nearby enemies (and turn red right when they’re about to attack) are all too easy to miss in the midst of thick combat.
Lost health can be regained with healing gems (that have a cooldown timer) and Nephilim’s Respite, an Estus Flask analog that can only be refilled by enemies that drop green souls. Using these items triggers an animation that leaves you open for attacks, so you’ll have to be aware of your surroundings or move yourself to a safe area before using them. The bosses in the game are not so different from the regular enemies, except they have larger health bars and use their own special attacks to try and kill you. I loved their character designs, too, because they take some fun creative liberties with the sins they embody. It’s the optional bosses that pose a real challenge because they hit much harder, move a lot faster, and take some real effort to defeat. Darksiders III does a decent job of replicating the challenging combat and mechanics of the Souls games but it doesn’t quite have that same spark and sense of personal achievement. Some may enjoy the added difficulty while others won’t.
The real issue with Darksiders III is the mountain of bugs, glitches, and technical issues that make playing the game a real chore. Out of all the things I experienced, nothing was more of a pain in the butt than the loading freezes. It all started with Fury making her way to Haven for the first time. Roughly ten or so minutes before reaching the village, the game suddenly locked up. If it weren’t for the spinning game logo, I thought it had crashed. In hindsight, I should have restarted the game then and there instead of suffering through what happened next. After almost five minutes, I regained control of Fury but now I couldn’t go ten feet without it locking up to load the area for several minutes. This continued all the way to Haven, which had succumbed to a bug that prevented major assets from appearing. All I was left with was a tree base that had a huge hole in the middle, exposing the “behind the curtain” world of video games. This game breaking bug could only be fixed by a full restart of the game and while I was able to continue with everything intact, my trust was shattered. Any time I had issues with something, my thoughts would immediately jump to “Oh, is this another bug? Do I need to restart?”
What’s worse is that these load freezes don’t stop. In some places, you can’t move for more than twenty feet before the game stops to load the next area. And if you die and respawn, you’ll ave to sit through the exact same load spots every single time. At one point, I actually witnessed the world being constructed before my very eyes. Although the length of these load sessions wasn’t as bad as my first visit to Haven, having to sit through so many of them every single time I revisited an area put me in a dark mood. These hard stops were so jarring that if playing Darksiders III was like driving a car, I’d have to see a doctor for whiplash.
And the problems don’t end there, sadly. I had a weird issue with a puzzle that behaved one way when I first arrived and then another after I died and came back. There are numerous framerate drops that fall between some light stuttering to hard stops whenever there’s a lot of activity on screen. I hate having monsters jump out of hiding places but that’s not nearly as bad as watching in shock as demons pop into existence next to me as I ran through a seemingly empty room. Questionable draw distance, texture pop-up, screen tearing, Fury suddenly being unable to move after triggering an action, audio skipping, and lots of white space where objects and textures should be. It’s been abundantly clear that Darksiders III needed more work.
I also have issues with Fury’s character. Both War and Death were really badass characters that felt powerful in battle and I was more than ready to see her kick ass and take names. I kind of expected Fury to be more angrier and violent than her brothers, given the namesake, though I was disappointed to see that she’s about as complex as Kratos from the original God of War adventures. She’s angry and petulant on a level that’s cringeworthy and annoying, sneering comically at anyone that dares talk to her. She suffers the existence of her Watcher, an observer from the Charred Council that provides a bad comic relief. What really gets my goat is how she feels weaker and more fragile than the two other Horseman because of the combat difficulty. She shouldn’t be the type of powerful being who can lose half her health from simple skeleton monsters.
When viewed against the other two games in the series, Darksiders III is a disappointment. While I feel the gameplay is harder than it needs to be, I’m more concerned that the product seems half-broken in a lot of places. This is an upsetting follow-up to a great series and it deserves better. One of the weirdest bugs I found was a cutscene that I assumed was supposed to play during my first visit to Haven. It introduces Ulthane as the Maker who upgrades your gear and asks you to save any humans found in the world, both of which I was doing for a couple hours already. Why did it trigger later? Was it because of that earlier glitch? Did I somehow go out of sequence? Between that and the host of other problems, Darksiders III kept wearing me down. If there was any good to come out of this experience, it’s that I purchased the “Warmastered” version of Darksiders because that game was, and still is, awesome.
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.