I love an underdog. Darksiders 3 is a game that, arguably, should never even have come through the development process. The first two games were developed by Vigil Games – who went bang along with publisher THQ all the way back in 2013. THQ were one of those interesting publishers, often shipping “AA” games that reviewed at solid 7/10’s and were adored by some but ignored by many. The Darksiders series gained more traction than some – with the original often considered to be one of the best Zelda games that wasn’t Zelda ever made. A company called Nordic eventually picked up a lot of the remnants of THQ (to the point that it now calls itself THQ Nordic), and a bunch of games have either just come out or are on the imminent horizon – including Metro Exodus. The actual development studio that produced Darksiders 3 is called Gunfire Games; it was formed by former members of Vigil.
So, Darksiders 3 has some history even at the moment of launch. It’s a title I’ve been keeping an eye out for. When those first tidbits of information began to trickle to, I didn’t dare hope that we’d eventually see it for ourselves – but here we are at the end of 2018 and the third installment is sat in my Xbox One X. I’m relieved to see it – but I get the feeling it doesn’t care about me.
Darksiders 3 is a game from another time. It feels like a homage to the games I was playing a decade ago – those games (often) didn’t have open worlds, or endless side quests, or massive DLC expansions, or tacked on multiplayer. They tended to have a couple of mechanics that they were laser-focused on, and deliver on them as best they could. It’s a game with a clear narrative structure, that dangles new unreachable areas in front of you that will become accessible through the course of your progression through the game as Fury acquires new skills and upgrades. It’s a reassuring feeling in some ways – if you’ve ever played a Zelda game, or a Metroid game, or a Castlevania game, you’ll soon come to understand exactly what Darksiders 3 expects of you. It’s like the gaming equivalent of a comfy sweater. One that's got a couple of scratchy patches in it that'll make you itch - just the teeniest little bit.
That’s not to say that all is rosy though. Darksiders 3 harks back to some great games, but it also re-introduces some problems that I’ve not experienced in a game for quite some time. The biggest and most obvious problem is with the checkpointing system. It’s horrible. You progress largely from one checkpoint to another through a series of corridors and open areas, each filled with enemies that don’t seem to become any easier as you level up – and reaching the next one can often feel like a battle of attrition. It’s possible that modern games, with their regular checkpoints, auto-saves, and quicksaves have just made me soft – but I don’t think it’s just that. The checkpoints are inconsistent distances apart, and often don’t seem to care whether there’s a boss or mini-boss at the end of them. If you die fighting a boss (and you will, often…) then you face a long trek back to it – consuming your health and resources as you go. It wasn’t unusual for me to start a boss fight in reasonable shape, die, and in the rush to get back to it end up re-entering the battle in worse shape than I was originally. I’d inevitably then die sooner – and if that happens enough times you’ll feel like you’re going backwards. And then you’ll switch off out of sheer frustration.
The other issue the game has is its combat – which is also one of the best things about it. Gaining the edge in combat is all about timing – especially the timing of dodges. But during combat, the camera (which is problematic fairly regularly) tucks in even closer to your character. It looks good, but you can’t dodge attacks you can’t see coming, and the enemies have a tendency to swarm you and all attack at once. If you’re in tight quarters, you can’t even really spin the camera to get a better view – and if you’re in the open and can, you won’t normally survive long enough to do so. The targeting mechanism should be the solution to this – it should target the closest enemy to you, but instead it targets the closest one that you can see – meaning that even if you try to use this to manage the space around you, you’ll still fail.
The world looks good though, and the environmental puzzles are great. I’m a bit masochistic in that I like being absolutely stopped in my tracks until I can figure something out – and Darksiders 3 does it regularly. It revels in it, even. In that regard, it really does feel like an early 3D Zelda game. Critically, it feels like a Darksiders game. It has that slightly cartoon look, it has the ultraviolence. It has Vulgrim.
As you can probably tell, I’m feeling sort of ambivalent about Darksiders 3. I love the premise. I love Fury – her character model looks amazing and her hair is something else (especially when it’s on fire), and her cynical quips sound just right coming from the lips of someone who looks like she does. I like the environment, I like the puzzles. The combat and the checkpointing are driving me nuts though. Is this the kind of thing a developer can patch? I really really hope so.
Now all I can do is cross my fingers for that fourth and final instalment. I’ve no idea how well this one has sold, but I really hope it’s enough to justify Gunfire Games finishing off the quadrilogy. I want it to succeed because I want Gunfire Games to succeed. I enjoy Darksiders enough that I want to see it continue to exist as a franchise. I like smaller, more focused games. Ones that can be finished in a couple of good sessions and then walked away from and reminisced about. And I feel like for those to continue, someone needs to prove them to be viable - and I'd love for Gunfire Games to be the guys to do it.