Saturday, March 7, 2020

Darksiders III - The Apocalypse Keeps Going, And It's Not So Awesome

When I wrote my Darksiders II review back in 2012, I said I hoped that that game would get THQ back on their feet. Needless to say, THQ went bankrupt in 2012 and liquidated all of their assets, leading to massive layoffs while several properties were auctioned off. The “THQ” trademark would then transfer to Nordic Games, now pronounced “THQ Nordic”. THQ Nordic was fortunately interested in doing something with THQ’s properties, which included Darksiders III, developed by Gunfire Games and released in late 2018. With a new studio at the helm, the franchise was certainly given new life, but I felt like they somehow kept holding their own ambitious vision back.

Around the same time as Darksiders and Darksiders II, Fury, one the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is summoned by the Charred Counsil. They task her with finding the Seven Deadly Sins to help maintain the balance between angels and demons. To keep her focused on her mission, they send a Watcher to accompany her.

Fury has a Watcher to keep her in check.

While Darksiders III expands greatly on the lore of the franchise, the story is pretty simple, which makes the plot easier to follow while still having a proper amount of depth. Fury’s journey also takes place almost exclusively on post-apocalyptic Earth, which also builds up the sense of scale of the apocalypse beyond a single small city. The concept of the Seven Deadly Sins also serves the story, as Fury’s interactions with them inform her character arc and her emotional discovery. All of these combined created a narrative that I felt more invested in compared to prior Darksiders games, especially since the ending implies that we’re still not quite done yet with the overarching storyline.

Like previous Darksiders games, Darksiders III borrows from other sources to help craft its own identity. In this case, the game is a mashup between a Metroidvania and Dark Souls (and that’s not a label I throw around lightly).

The combat this time is more directly influenced by the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Enemies are much tougher, especially in the early game, and are capable of ganging up on and killing Fury very quickly if the player isn’t careful. As such, despite Fury’s nature as more of a hack-and-slash character, defeating enemies requires a much more methodical approach. Instead of going all out from the get-go, it’s better to dodge and counterattack as much as possible when faced with over-leveled opponents. Going all out, however, does feel like a better option once Fury is strong enough.

Of course, Fury isn’t completely defenseless. She has a whip blade at her disposal, but her arsenal gradually grows to include a ranged weapon called Salvation as well as four elemental Hollow Forms. Each Hollow Form gives Fury new tools to work with, including unique special abilities and additional weapons that are active while in that Form, and adds a good amount of strategic depth to different encounters. For example, the Flame Hollow grants a triple jump and a short-range weapon, in addition to lava immunity and the power to set oil puddles on fire. Hollow Forms also have a unique Wrath attack, built up by attacking enemies, such as the Storm Hollow’s ability to create three mini-tornadoes that follow enemies and continuously deal damage.

Hollow Forms add depth to combat and exploration.

Like War and Death before her, Fury also has access to a unique transformation. Hers is called Havoc Form and is built up by attacking and killing enemies in the field. Once in Havoc Form, Fury’s attack power goes up and she continuously regenerates her health. Havoc Form is naturally best saved for fights against especially tough enemies and bosses, but it can really come through in a pinch.

Fury's Havoc Form can help out in a pinch.

Defeating enemies also gives you Soul Lurchers, a return to the system present in Darksiders with some tweaks. Yellow Lurchers fill your Wrath gauge and Blue Lurchers act as currency, but Green Lurchers are now uncommon and refill a Nephilim’s Respite charge instead of refilling your health directly.

Blue Soul Lurchers are presented to Vulgrim and can be exchanged for crafting items to help upgrade weapons and enchantments, as well as various items that can assist Fury on the battlefield. These Lurchers can also instead be fed to Vulgrim to level up Fury, as opposed to gaining EXP from enemies, and gain Skill Points that can buff her Health, Physical damage or Arcane damage. Leveling up helps with getting through progressively more difficult areas of the game and so resource management plays a big part, especially in the early stages. It also helps prolong the time between deaths, which trigger another, decidedly more painful, mechanic from Dark Souls where you lose all of your Blue Soul Lurchers on death and have to fight your way back to them from the last checkpoint. Since this can potentially undo minutes of progress, it’s advised to actively seek out the scant Vulgrim checkpoints.

Then there are the bosses, which I have fairly mixed feelings on. The bosses are generally tough, but also fair in that it’s usually your fault for not timing dodges and counterattacks correctly. Once you do die, they also get much easier, since they have specific patterns that aren’t hard to memorize. In a weird way, there’s also a bit of a reverse difficulty curve, since later bosses tend to have attacks that are very telegraphed. One of the bosses, however, Gluttony, stands out for all the wrong reasons. His fight is horrendously designed, with an impossible to dodge tentacle attack (unless you retreat to a corner), the ability to spew poison onto the ground with inconsistent frequency and a second phase with a non-obvious way of defeating him. All of this is also in a very small arena with barely any room to dodge once there are enough poison puddles around. I’ll admit that I lowered the difficulty from Balanced (Medium) to Story (Easy) just for this one fight, and then raised it back up again. I don’t feel very proud of it, but I wasn’t sure how many resources I’d have to burn through before continuing the story, so I opted to just get it over with.

Gluttony is difficult for all the wrong reasons.

The environments that Fury travels through feature plenty of variety and showcase a deeper dive into Earth following the apocalypse. You can explore not just the ruins of a major city, but also the interiors of buildings, including a large museum, and underground locations like a ruined subway system. It’s here where the Metroidvania influence comes into play, where certain areas are inaccessible unless you return later with another Hollow power. This style encourages revisiting different sections of the game and gives you something to do apart from grinding enemies for more Soul Lurchers. Fortunately, going back and forth between areas is rather easy with the use of Vulgrim’s Serpent Holes, the game’s form of fast travel.

Of course, the Souls influence continues here, with a vast interconnected world littered with enemies and traps to avoid. While this world is also pretty linear, there are plenty of hidden areas and secret passages with unique items that make going off the beaten path feel rewarding. There are plenty of items to find even in the main world, but the more valuable ones are usually guarded by even tougher enemies to compensate.

There are also plenty of increasingly difficult puzzles strewn throughout the environment, each designed to take advantage of the abilities you’ve unlocked up to that point. As the puzzles get more complex, there’s a greater sense of accomplishment for completing them. The music sting that accompanies successful puzzle completion is also a nice touch, as I enjoyed hearing it. That said, they’re not without their sore spots. Some of the puzzles require rapidly swapping Hollow Forms, which you can get more efficient at with time, but the most annoying involve a series of Tornado puzzles in the section known as The Scar. Not only do you have to outrun a Tornado to get to a safe space, you then have to try and use the tornado’s power to your advantage indoors, all while keeping the Force Hollow equipped (forgetting this step means instant death). Then, of course, there are times where you have to freeze rotating spikes in place with the Stasis Hollow, but they give you just barely enough time to escape with a perfect sprint.

The Tornado presents some of the more difficult puzzles.

At this point, I want to get into the controls. They’re not the most intuitive at first, but you get more comfortable with them the more you play and the button placements do start to make sense. However, they did also incorporate a Souls element where you’re committed to your attacks and using an item means waiting for a short animation to play before it goes through. This is all fine and good in a Souls game, but not so much for a series that’s clearly meant to operate on more traditional hack-and-slash logic. There’s a Classic control option, patched in by the developers two weeks in, which remedies these issues by allowing you to dodge-cancel any attack and allow items to be used instantaneously. Unless you’re a huge fan of the Souls logic, I’d say to switch to Classic controls for a more traditional Darksiders experience.

Also notable is the lack of involvement from artist and series creator Joe Madureria outside of the design for Fury. While you can sense the lack of presence while playing, I still felt that Gunfire Games managed to stay true to the spirit of his style, at least for the major characters. It helps that when previous established characters show up, they’re rendered the same way they were before. With the leap to PS4 hardware, everything also has a certain level of polish that the PS3 wouldn’t have been able to achieve, which shows in the level of detail on the environments. I will admit, however, that sometimes the enemies seemed to blend in with their surroundings, though mostly in the opening section where natural colors are emphasized.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t fully enjoy the gameplay experience or fully appreciate the awe from the graphics due to the game’s various performance issues that still haven’t been ironed out over a year after launch. In-game cutscenes can have atrocious texture loading, with full detail only showing up several seconds in; this actually prevented me from noticing, for instance, how colorful the Lord of Hollows was until the second time I encountered him in the story. If you move too fast at certain points in the game, you have to wait a few seconds while the next part of the world loads in bit by bit before you can continue. For the sake of comparison, when I tried to play Bloodborne, I never encountered this sort of problem in its own interconnected world. There are also some noticeable framerate dips when there’s more going on at once, especially in The Scar with all of the enemies and particle effects the game tries its best to render.

Getting the game to look this good can take a few seconds at times.

On a more technical note, the size of the subtitles is particularly bad. I usually turn them on during a game so that I can still tell what everyone’s saying, but they’re so small that I could sometimes barely read them from more than a few feet away. I also occasionally suffered issues with the game’s camera, since it likes to hug Fury’s rear even when you’re against a wall. It’s also difficult to target enemies unless they’re onscreen, so trying to perform some crowd control can be more of a chore than it needs to be.

By far the worst part, however, is the infrequent but infuriating crashes. Throughout my entire playthrough, I experienced no less than four crashes, usually at some pivotal point in the game that would make me redo several minutes of progress once it booted up again. The most memorable was one in The Scar (notice a pattern?) where I fought my way through several hordes of tough enemies within a very short time frame and completed one of the more annoying puzzles of the game. Just as I finally made it to a passage to advance the game, it crashed, forcing me to kill everything again. I’m not sure if my hardware, a standard PS4, had anything to do with this, but it’s worth keeping in mind regardless of platform.

There are things to like about Darksiders III, mainly the story and the way it fleshes out the lore, but the various technical issues and some very poor design choices frequently mar the experience. I’d still recommend it on the grounds that it’s not really a bad game and it’ll certainly be important when a proper Darksiders IV finally rolls around. However, it’s not the strongest entry overall and I wish it would let me like it more than it did.

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