Darksiders III is the game to play if you’re intrigued by Dark Souls but don’t think you can hack the challenge.
The hallmarks are all there. Simplistic-seeming but highly technical combat that punishes even minor errors. A sprawling puzzle box map that folds over on itself again and again as you unlock shortcuts and new paths. A healing potion that recharges, a la your Dark Souls Estus Flask.
Most Dark Souls-y of all: Your ability to progress and level up is tied to Vulgrim, the demon merchant who only accepts payment in souls. If you die between Vulgrim checkpoints, any unspent souls you’ve collected are left behind. You then have the option of fighting your way back to that spot and recovering them.
The story plunges players into the end of the world. You are Fury, one of four horse riders of the apocalypse (the previous games followed Death and War), and you’ve been sent to an apocalyptic Earth on a mission to defeat and capture physical manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins.
I wanted to get those Souls comparisons out of the way up front because it’s easy to get lost in those details. Darksiders, the first game, had a distinctly Legend of Zelda vibe. Darksiders II leaned more in the direction of God of War, but with some Diablo and Zelda thrown in. Both of those games transcended their influences to deliver something that felt wholly unique.
Darksiders III isn’t as successful, but it also isn’t defined by its “Dark Souls-iness.” The mechanical shift is an unsurprising turn for a series that hasn’t ever been shy about displaying its influences proudly. And the risk/reward tension of gambling your amassed progress with each new combat encounter is constantly engaging. It’s an idea cut from a newer breed of games where you’re always meant to be on your toes.
The execution falls apart in more subtle ways. Getting around and finding your next boss fight with a Sin is straightforward at first: Simply follow the skull icon on your compass. But as the map grows larger and an increasing number of paths intersect, your simple compass is no longer enough.
A world map would have helped. Or, failing that, a more thorough accounting of what can be found in each of Vulgrim’s fast travel locations. You can take a somewhat open-ended approach with the first handful of Sins, but you’re expected to backtrack once you reach the late stages of the game.
The compass is meant to remain your North Star all throughout, but it becomes less and less dependable as different paths layer on top of one another. A skull icon might point you toward a doorway only to flip around and point you back in the opposite direction the moment you walk through.
Darksiders III isn’t a total success, but it’s also not defined by its “Dark Souls-iness.”
It would be a forgivable issue if Darksiders III offered other signposts or resources for keeping track of your progress. Was the portal to Pride’s domain in the Bonelands? Or was it somewhere in the Hollows? If you can’t remember and the compass isn’t helping, you’ve got to just backtrack along familiar paths until you find what you’re looking for. It makes tracking down the final gauntlet of Sins a tedious process.
Thankfully, the apocalyptic Earth of Darksiders III isn’t a boring place to explore. The environments are teeming with creatures that want to kill you, and the forces of heaven and hell arrayed against Fury are impressive in both number and variety. I didn’t start to feel like I was encountering remixed versions of earlier foes until the latest stages of the game.
If only the combat weren’t so uneven. Fury’s main whip-sword is fun to use and easy to master. It’s fueled entirely by one-button combos, so you can dish out a lot of impressive-looking punishment with minimal effort. Unlocking Hollows gives you even more options; there are four, and each one opens up new attacks on a second button as well as additional options for exploration.
Watching Fury spin, twirl, and flip her way through each encounter like some kind of murder ballerina makes for great eye candy. But “looks good” is the extent of it. Even with Hollows in the mix, there’s only a shallow pool of attack combos to draw on. As I played, I found myself spamming a particular set of attacks again and again, because I’d always win.
For physically smaller enemies, I’d time my dodges to hit them with a counter attack and leave them open an easily repeated uppercut/juggle move that shredded most threats in seconds. For larger foes that couldn’t be juggled, I leaned on the timed dodge counters to do most of the damage. There was never any incentive to lean on other tactics outside of boss fights — and even some of those blockbuster encounters boil down to dodge/counter/repeat.
They may not do much for combat, but your Hollows fuel the most engaging aspect of Darksiders III: the world. You can equip a different Hollow to jump higher, glide in mid-air, walk on water, and clear various barriers. Each time you get a new one and start to backtrack, there’s an inevitable string of “Ah ha!” moments as you bridge scary new locations to familiar old ones.
There’s sleeper potential here for anyone who likes fast-moving action-RPGs that don’t require a ton of thought.
It’s not until you have all four Hollows assembled in the later stages, however, that you really get to play with those abilities and the ways they can interact with one another. The last two major locations you explore in Darksiders III are characterized by environmental puzzles that force you to really think about the tools at your disposal and how you can put them to use.
Unfortunately, that only accounts for the last handful of hours. Tracking down the first set of bosses and unlocking each Hollow in turn is what you’ll spend the most time doing. You get to put those abilities to work even during this stage of the game, but the most interesting puzzles don’t come until much later, and they’re (relatively speaking) few in number.
On top of everything else, Darksiders III is an exceedingly buggy game. They’re the sort of issues that can be fixed via patches, thankfully. But I crashed to desktop multiple times during my own playthrough of the story, and was forced to quit at many other points because of some game-breaking bug or another. Hopefully developer Gunfire Games is quick to get some fixes out.
Before we finish, I want to be clear: Most of the issues in Darksiders III aren’t of the experience-ruining variety. The technical woes do need to be patched, but beyond that, this is just a light lift of a video game. It’s dumb fun. Darksiders III can’t hope to compete against the heavy-hitters of the holiday season, but there’s sleeper potential here for anyone who likes fast-moving action-RPGs that don’t require a ton of thought.