Among indie developers, exploring the Metroidvania subgenre is very popular. In a crowded market, developers need something special to truly stand out. Hibernian Workshop has chosen to blend two popular design philosophies to create Dark Devotion: Souls-like combat and roguelike elements.
The player takes the role of a female Templar, who is drawn to explore a mysterious temple complex. As soon as the player enters the temple, the door locks behind them with a clang, leaving them trapped in a labyrinthine structure crawling with monsters that want the Templar very dead.
Starting equipment is actually fairly decent, but do not expect this situation to last very long. Like Dark Souls, Dark Devotion is brutal. Deadly traps wait around every corner, and the player often ends up falling into deadly spike traps, being sliced to bits by swinging blades, or eaten by some massive, terrifying abomination. Upon inevitable death, the player is returned to the hub area, the evocatively-named Filthblood Shelter.
Curiously, unlike most roguelikes, players keep their accumulated experience and skills while losing any collected items and equipment: say goodbye to that cool starting armour, and say hello to scavenging for any armour or weapons from the randomised loot drops.
The graphical style owes a great deal to the 16-bit aesthetic, calling to mind classic titles such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The sprite-based artwork is quite appealing, with smooth animation. The only major visual problem is that the lighting matches the title’s name, being so dark that players may struggle to see what is going on. The flickering candlelight is poignantly atmospheric, but, in places, the poor lighting can make things harder than they need to be.
Aesthetics is not the only area where Dark Devotion pays homage to retro design. Similar to many 8-bit-era action platformers, every hit the player character takes inflicts the same amount of damage, whether it comes from a skeleton or being sliced by an axe trap.
As a result, players will spend a lot of time trying to block or dodge-roll to avoid traps and enemy attacks. Continuing the obvious Dark Souls influence, a stamina bar is used up when blocking or dodging. Both mechanics are smooth and responsive. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of attacks. A number of different weapon types are available, which are said to have a varying balance depending on the type, such as big, two-handed swords being slower than light, one-handed swords. In reality, all attacks feel slow and cumbersome. The combat is held back by the monotonous attacks, and equipment choice usually boils down to the biggest sword that does the most damage, as the speed advantage of lighter weapons is negligible.
Fans of Dark Souls are usually happy to explain that, though the combat in Dark Souls is difficult, it is never unfair, with any deaths being the result of player error. The same cannot be said for Dark Devotion, as the sluggish attacks and murky lighting means that quite a few deaths can be directly attributed to design choices.
Progression is also tricky. To buy or upgrade new skills, players need to collect experience from enemies. However, not every enemy drops XP, often making progression frustrating, as gathering enough to do anything significant can be difficult. Another means of progression involves collecting Runes, which are also scattered around, helpfully displayed on the map screen. Runes can increase one of the player character’s stats, such as damage, stamina, faith, or critical damage.
The map screen itself is excellent, expansive, and detailed, which makes traversal easier by enabling players home in on new areas or track down runes after yet another death.
If players need to return to the hub area for whatever reason, it is possible to do so by using the teleportation statues placed throughout the temple. Only one of these statues can be active at once, and their placement is often awkward.
Dark Devotion has buckets of atmosphere and a polished gothic visual style. Some of the controls feel smooth and comfortable, while others are awkward and unresponsive, such as the attack option. The dingy lighting makes the surroundings difficult to appreciate as well as interfering with combat and navigation. The result is interesting, but ultimately unbalanced. Dark Devotion has some good ideas, but feels unfinished; ultimately, the game’s dinginess needs more polish to truly shine.
Reviewed on PC.