Republished on Wednesday 28th August 2019: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of September's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
The Darksiders series has always been an unexpected surprise. It's managed to garner a cult following, despite a proclivity for liberally borrowing mechanics and design elements wholesale from better titles. Earning respectable reviews and enough of a following to warrant several current gen remasters, it even managed to survive the shuttering of its studio and auction of its IP.
Darksiders III comes from Gunfire Games, which comprises devs from both the original game’s creative teams. Emerging from a long silence after its initial announcement at the beginning of 2017, it feels like a game very much out of time. In stark contrast to God of War (a franchise that’s a key part of Darksiders’ DNA), which completely overhauled its formula while remaining true to established series roots, this title feels like it’s straight out of 2010.
It's the same brawler/RPG hybrid that the first two games were, sprinkled with environmental puzzles and platforming. The story runs in parallel to the events of the first game, and even the NPCs you meet along your journey mirror those that War and Death encountered. Fury is very much following in her fellow horsemen’s footsteps. These games have always worn their influences on an armour-clad sleeve, but becoming a pastiche of itself is a new tactic. After such a long wait between titles, it’s a shame there isn’t anything fresh about the core Darksiders experience. Yet, despite its failings and archaic execution, DIII is not without charm.
After an exposition-heavy run through of the series' previous events, purple-haired apocalypse horseperson Fury is thrown into the rubble of the mortal realm to track down the seven deadly sins. Soon, she stumbles onto the warring factions of heaven and hell and a conspiracy against her kind. She sets out to track down the sins while piecing together the mystery of her betrayal.
The plot is thin but engaging, for the most part, elevated by well-written characters and genuinely amusing dialogue. By far the game's biggest asset is its fiery protagonist. Fury is as fun to play as she is to watch. Berating the world around her with perpetual disdain, insulting her ghostly companion and grudgingly rescuing puny mortals, making them cower with her hateful stare, Fury is a blast. Cissy Jones follows likeable leads Liam O'Brien and Michael Wincott with another great vocal performance.
Her balletic fighting style is also enjoyable and feels markedly smoother than the beefy moves of War and Death. Starting off with a devastating chain whip with attacks that cover a wide area around her, the default weapon is useful enough to remain the go-to damage dealer throughout the game, though Fury unlocks further weapons across her journey.
In classic Metroidvania style, her new weapons not only change her appearance and move set, but also unlock new traversal abilities that open up previously blocked pathways in the game's intersecting map. Highlights of her arsenal include a hammer that adds a meaty impact to counters and a multi-target ranged glaive.
Combat comprises the basic nuts and bolts of any brawler; canned combos and a dodge that slows enemy movements and triggers a powerful counter when timed well. Switching between weapon forms - or 'hollows' - on the fly is smooth, and the secondary weapons are satisfying, if a little samey. You'll always be pulling out that whip in a pinch.
Darksiders III proudly continues the series tradition of pulling inspiration from other titles to create a Frankenstein mishmash of styles. Unfortunately, there's a new influence that doesn't quite gel with the rest of the game. Fixed spawn points, the slight delay of selecting and using items in battle, having to reclaim souls after death -- there is more than a faint whiff of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s oeuvre here. Unfortunately, in trying to meld the speed and chaotic nature of a western brawler with the precise dance of a Soulsborne title, Gunfire Games has shortchanged both.
Combat isn’t overly difficult, but the ebb and flow of attack/dodge/heal feels unpredictable here. There's no reward for going on the offensive, and trading blows is often a dicey proposition, yet the game seems to discourage careful consideration. Enemy difficulty ramps up quickly after the game's opening sections, and on higher difficulty settings, dying and tracking back through an area becomes a needless frustration. Death far too often comes from a dodgy camera angle or annoyingly placed enemy packs.
Boss fights aren’t too complex, but again, are marred by systems that aren’t really built for the finesse the game would like us to display. Some may embrace what the devs are trying to do here, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that these two very distinct styles don’t quite marry up.
Visually, the bland environments and decidedly last-gen sheen is balanced out by exceptional character design. Fury herself looks great, and her opponents are gloriously over-stylised monstrosities. Avarice is a particular highlight, with his massive sack of gold and corpses, he perches atop piles of garbage and throws bathtubs at you. Enemy design is varied, with a welcoming colour palette that adds a cartoonish feel to the fantasy horror setting.
It’s a shame that there are so many small annoyances about Darksiders III, because much like its predecessors, a genuinely likeable game sporadically emerges from this frustratingly old-fashioned title. The shadow of a very different God of War looms large over Fury’s journey, but she still enthusiastically whips her way through the hordes of heaven and hell. Perhaps if Gunfire and THQ Nordic get the chance at another instalment, they’ll take some crib notes from the current state of the franchises that inspire them.
Darksiders hasn't changed much since 2012. It's still a fun mishmash of genres with a great protagonist and undemanding combat systems, but it's a pity that it feels outdated compared to its genre peers and stumbles when injecting Souls-like sensibilities.