Developer: Hibernian Workshop
Rating: M (Mature)
Stamina-based combat. Multi-stage boss battles. Fantasy setting. Above average difficulty. If you keep up at all with trends in video games, these elements should sound rather familiar. Dark Devotion is a new game from three-man developer Hibernian Workshop that borrows much from the Dark Souls template and applies it to a 2D, pixelated RPG. Does this intrepid little game stand out from the crowd?
Violence: Blood is a common sight in this world, covering numerous walls and floors, and gushing out of enemies when you attack them. Gore is no stranger either, as corpses lie on the ground or hang from the ceiling, and in at least one moment are sliced in half by a boss during a brief cutscene. You and your opponents hack at each other with all manner of bladed and/or pointy metal weapons.
Magic: You can find spell books which cast various magical/elemental attacks at your opponents. Some enemies also cast magic attacks against you. One enemy type floats through the air like a ghost or banshee.
Sexual Content: One of the bosses is a bare-chested woman, although no nipples are depicted.
Language: The S-Word appears in dialogue text.
Spiritual Themes: Dark Devotion is awash in spiritual themes from start to finish. A violent order of Templars investigates the temple in which the game takes place. Faith is a resource spent in prayer to receive blessings and access new areas. “God” is referenced numerous times throughout the adventure, and occasionally is given credit for blessing the player character with specific buffs. The Bible is even mentioned once.
In Dark Devotion, you play as a young woman belonging to a violent order of Templars. The order is searching an ancient temple as part of a pilgrimage, and you are next in the line of eager, devout Templars to enter. You discover monsters inside the temple, and upon completing the first boss—which serves as the capstone of the game’s tutorial section—you are killed by a mysterious armored warrior, and reanimate further inside at a location called the Filthblood Shelter. No reinforcements from the order await you now; all that you have left is your faith, the clothes on your back, and a few simple weapons as you explore the depths of this dark, mysterious dungeon.
Despite this intriguing premise, the game keeps its story in the background. Hints about the lore and the people who inhabited this place before you are revealed piecemeal through dialogue text and manuscripts that can be completely ignored—and at times easily overlooked, even when you are on the lookout for them. This isn’t inherently a bad method of storytelling; after all, Hollow Knight takes a similar approach and manages to pull it off well. But Dark Devotion fails to present any compelling characters, leaving me unable to invest myself in anyone’s fate and uninterested in unwrapping the full mystery of the game world.
Thankfully, Dark Devotion’s well-designed gameplay mechanics more than overshadow its storytelling shortcomings. The game’s combat is centered around its stamina system, in which most of your actions—attacking, dodging, blocking attacks—consume a portion of your regenerative stamina meter. Surviving the dungeon’s hordes of monsters, ghouls, and otherwise antagonistic inhabitants requires you to learn and counter your enemies’ attack patterns while carefully managing your stamina. Boss fights stand out as the game’s highlights; each boss feels unique, complete with a distinct set of moves, and often another, more challenging one once you’ve chipped away enough of its health.
While you begin your journey with access to basic equipment, new items—including weapons, armor, spell books, one-time consumables, and various other trinkets—can be acquired during your travels; these items alter your stats and expand the potential playstyles you can use. The game provides a decent variety of weapon types, including both one-handed and two-handed swords, bows, spears, flails, and spell books that launch magic attacks. My only gripe with Dark Devotion’s weapon system is that each weapon has just two attacks: one that triggers when you press the attack button once, and a follow-up strike that only happens when you quickly press the button a second time or if you’ve held the button down. Compared to similar RPGs like Dark Souls and Ashen, this isn’t much variety. Even though each type has only a couple moves, though, the differences between each type are still significant enough that you can experiment with what weapons suit your preferred playstyle, or match well against a particular boss.
Filthblood Shelter serves as your home base throughout the game; it is here where you respawn upon death, and where you select your loadout for use in combat. While most items you find during exploration will disappear whenever you die or teleport back to the Shelter, some can be recreated by the Shelter’s blacksmith, thus allowing you to use them as often as you want. This includes the special weapons that drop after boss battles. Your loadout extends beyond just the physical items you carry, though. Experience points earned upon defeating enemies can be spent unlocking skills. These skills are arranged in tiers; once you unlock enough in a lower tier, the next tier of skills opens up. No matter how many you unlock, however, you can only have one active skill per tier. Fortunately, you can switch your active skills at no additional cost, which further encourages experimentation with playstyle.
Perhaps one of the more interesting—and unique—mechanics in the game is Faith. Faith acts as a quantifiable resource that is used for a wide variety of purposes. Praying at specific statues will expend Faith points in exchange for things like stat buffs and healing; certain doors will only open if you pray in front of them; it even powers the magic attacks you cast from a spell book. Faith points are replenished when you defeat enemies and by using specific consumable items. From a gameplay perspective, Faith’s multitudinous uses make it a welcome addition to a familiar action-RPG formula, one that often introduces an element of risk and reward since prayer requires you to remain stationary, thus leaving you vulnerable to attack. From a moral perspective, this faith is a cheap facsimile of the real thing, a commodity earned like money through your own actions and given to God in exchange for his favor.
The game’s dark fantasy artstyle is on point, for the most part; the environments contain lots of detail, from the walls and floors to the crates and other debris scattered throughout the background. Enemy designs shine in particular; not only do they look cool, but you can clearly tell what kind of attacks they perform based solely on their clothes and weapons. If there is one misstep in the artwork, it’s that almost all of the environments are dark. Sure, there’s some variation between them in terms of theme—bloody dungeons, austere castle walls, and even a grassy, wooded area—but the well-lit areas, while certainly distinct, don’t appear often enough to break up the monotony of dark room after dark room.
All told, Dark Devotion is a fine addition to the growing action-RPG genre, with its slick gameplay elevating it above the noise. While the storytelling leaves much to be desired, the game’s lasting impression is one of creative boss battles, stylish animations, and flexible combat. Hibernian Workshop clearly understands the core appeal of this type of game and have proven themselves talented enough to execute on its best and most important elements.