Dark Deity Review: Tactical Gaming Goes Retro
Dark Deity came out of nowhere. Or that’s how it seemed to me initially. The tactical RPG dropped stealthily during the last day of E3. Adding to my delight was the fact the game seemed distinctly inspired, both visually and mechanically, by the GBA Fire Emblem games, which I loved. What I didn’t know until I looked into the game was that Dark Deity was actually crowdfunded back in 2020 by a plucky group of recent college graduates. All that impressed me. The goal of this Dark Deity review is to answer whether the game is able to stand on its own two feet, or if it’s just another Fire Emblem-inspired adventure.
Let’s get something out of the way real quick. Dark Deity doesn’t try to hide that Fire Emblem inspired it. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And while that may be true, I was still a little concerned about the similarities. It uses the same grid-based combat; has you bond with allies; and even sports a variety of magical and warrior classes. Thankfully, after nearly 30 hours with the game, I can say it manages to differentiate itself just enough from the source material. But it’s still remarkably close to being a clone.
Mad Kings, Powerful Artifacts, and Devious Wizards
With that out of the way, let me talk about the plot. It’s a story that plays out like a typical fantasy drama but quickly gets more compelling. Conflict starts on Terrazael when mad King Varic starts forcibly conscripting young Delian soldiers to serve him in a questionable war. Think the GBA Fire Emblem games, except you start out serving the villain. That was an interesting enough twist to hold me over until they started introducing magical Aspects, shadowy cults, and all sorts of other mayhem.
Competent and Streamlined Combat
In many respects, this is a very polished experience. You make your way across 28 different chapters, each with one climactic battle serving as the highlight. Before and after a battle, you get a well-written narrative recapping what’s happened and setting the tone for the adventure. You’ll get a whole slew of soldiers as you progress, generally 1 or more every other chapter. When they join your forces, you also get to promote them from their base class. One aspect of the game I really liked is you don’t need a specific item to promote units to a stronger class. You just have to get them to a set level. Plus, if a unit is promoted during your turn, it gets another action that turn.
Though I’m used to playing tactical RPGs with controllers, I found Dark Deity works shockingly well with a mouse and keyboard setup. Not only can you use the scroll wheel to shrink or enlarge the map, moving the cursor around will slide across the screen with ease. You can also press Shift to get a preview of unit stats and equipment or press Y to show the range of enemy forces. Though the game doesn’t explain this, you can also press Esc to bring up the menu, allowing you to jump back to the main menu or even exit the game at any point. Granted, that may be obvious to those who mostly game on PC, but I’m generally a console boy. Finally, left-click selects things, and right-click can take an action back, so long as you haven’t initiated combat. It’s all very intuitive and easy to figure out, for the most part. My main issue is you can’t save during combat and return to battles later. You only can save before battles, not during.
A Helping Hand From the Gods
One area where the game really differentiates itself from Fire Emblem is with the Aspects. They’re all god-like artifacts of power. By equipping them to any unit, you’ll get a powerful boost. Generally, there’s a give and take to each Aspect. Some will boost your speed, but lower your strength. Others might increase your power, but decrease your accuracy. That’s not to say they all work this way, but many do. The best ones give you a powerful new effect with no downside. Just keep in mind you only have so many Aspects, and many, many more units. So a lot of the strategy revolves around who you equip with which Aspects. Luckily, you can always shuffle around which Aspects are equipped (and how many) before battle.
Classic and Unusual Classes
Another area in which the game will feel familiar is with the various classes. Though they have different names than you might expect, classes generally fall into three different categories – spellcasters, soldiers, and ranged attackers. There are some really unique classes, such as so-called Elementals. They wield various elements and can attack from a distance but are generally bulkier than a typical mage. Some of their sub-classes are Surges, Blazes, and Gales. For the soldiers, there are generally some that can tank physical damage and others that can withstand magical. A few of my favorites were the Inquisitor and Defender. The Battlemage is the heftiest spellcaster I’ve ever seen, able to shrug off physical blows with ease. And one especially unique class is the hammer-wielding Reverie, a sort of Valkyrie that heals when it hits foes. My main point is there’s a lot of clever ideas and new twists on old ideas in the game.
Here’s one way Dark Deity surprised me – weapons don’t have limited uses. Each and every weapon in the game has infinite uses. Not only that, but weapons are totally dictated by class, and each one has 4 different weapons. Before you start to think that makes you overpowered, here’s the catch. Each of the 4 serves a different purpose. Some hit hard; others have better critical chance; some are super likely to hit, and others are uniquely balanced.
Best of all, each and every weapon can be upgraded with tokens. They come in various tiers, and using them will make each weapon stronger and more consistent. And fret not. If you power up a weapon and then promote the unit, your effort won’t be in vain. Your upgrades are more for the type of weapon than the weapon itself. So if you boost the Power type weapon, the Power type weapon of your next class will still be enhanced. The only irritating thing about this system is it’s heavily reliant on what you find in battle, unless you want to shell out a ton of cash to buy more tokens. That said, it’s very handy making more unpredictable fighters helpful mainstays instead.
That said, I have one issue with the classes. While I don’t think the game necessarily needs something like a weapon triangle, I missed knowing which units would best counter others. It’s no exaggeration to say that I never quite knew which characters to take into battle as a result. I think the main thing to look for is unit stats, but I wish it wasn’t so obtuse and less reliant on trial and error. This wasn’t a bigger problem for one reason, though. The game uses red and green arrows to indicate if you’re stronger or weaker against a specific foe. You’ll have to hover the cursor over them to find this out, but it’s still a lifesaver that kept my frustration to a minimum.
Though the game does feature bonding with your allies, it differs in one key way – bonds have no effect on battle. They don’t raise your stats at all, unless you have an ability that changes things, which is probably why you can bond with units a few spaces away. Having said that, I don’t really mind, since the characters in Dark Deity are delightful. There’s Cia, a rowdy bar wench that knows exactly how to get under everyone’s skin. Then there’s Sophia and her pet ferret Butter, who aids her in battle. There’s a smart-talking archer named Garrick. And then there’s Benji. I wanted to hate him at first, since he’s so dense he makes Vaike look like a Rhodes scholar. But somehow, Benji wormed his way into my heart, arrogant braggart though he is. All the many characters are brought to life by solid and often hilarious writing. I appreciated this, though I couldn’t help but notice some unfortunate typos here and there. Thankfully, they weren’t enough to make me discount how good the bulk of the writing was in Dark Deity.
It’s Only a Flesh Wound!
At first, I was worried Dark Deity was too easy. But then it started to ramp things up after chapter 5 or so. And though the game doesn’t feature permadeath (thank god), it does give us a novel twist on that mechanic. If you lose any unit in battle, they’ll be back next time, with one proviso. The damage they incur will leave a lasting mark on them, permanently reducing a particular stat. While far more fair than losing a unit forever, I wasn’t eager to lose any unit in this game and often would quickly restart a map afterwards. Especially when one of my MVPs, like little Alden the mage, bit the bullet. However, I would make exceptions if the vanquished character wasn’t one of my standbys.
An Attractive Package
Visually, this is an attractive game that will appeal to your nostalgia. The pixel art is great, and the animations during battle can get really complex. I especially appreciated the many magical spells, such as whipping a foe with fire or hitting them with a laser beam. Sure, a lot of the artwork is gonna be familiar for Fire Emblem fans, but it still kept me entertained. I especially loved the character portraits by Patricia Camacho. It really is eye-catching and of very high quality. Her work lends a ton of personality to the cast. Musically, the game is also solid. Though none of the music is life-changing, the voice acting is a nice surprise. You’ll be hearing a lot from your team as they battle and level up. Honestly, the only oddities for the aesthetics were how female units have oddly masculine proportions in battle and how flat the backgrounds can appear. Not a huge deal, just something that became noticeable after a while.
This Shouldn’t Be Unclear
The fanboy in me wishes I could end the review here. But alas, I have to talk about some missteps I encountered. First, the less egregious ones. While the written tutorials in the game are helpful, they don’t explain in-depth enough. I had no idea what mechanics like Chain, Disarm, or Phase did until I stumbled upon them in battle. More annoying was the flat nature of the backgrounds made me think there were no item chests in the game until the 14th chapter. Then I randomly realized blue squares indicated where they were hidden. I also was annoyed it took me many chapters before I figured out how to select which units to bring into battle with me. I know it sounds basic, but hear me out. There’s a giant button called Choose Units, but you don’t actually use that to select your battle team. Clicking it just lists the units and shows their stats. To actually choose who joins you in battle, you find their portraits someplace else, and can select or deselect any of them. And I was personally frustrated that Steam screenshots didn’t work for Dark Deity, though I have it on good authority that’s a fix in the works.
A Bit Muddled
Now for the real problems I encountered. I’m big on transparency in my games. Knowing how things work, what’s happening, and what the goal of combat is. On one mission, I randomly got a Game Over several turns into battle. I didn’t realize that every turn, foes were chipping away at the aqueduct’s health. Once it hit 0, I was done. If there was some visual or audio indication of the aqueduct being shattered, I would have realized the urgency of my mission. A better example was on a boat battle mission. I knew my boat had 100 HP, and that if it reached zero, I lost. But what was not clear was which foes were attacking the boat. This forced me to rush like crazy and kill anything that moved before I sunk to the bottom of the sea. And the very worst were some glitches I encountered. One made me completely unable to control a key unit, no matter how many times I clicked them. Another made the cursor disappear for a few moments after battle started. Those absolutely need to be addressed as quickly as possible.
Fun But Flawed
I had hoped to give a glowing review of Dark Deity. After all, it does quite a bit right, and manages to streamline many things successfully. Unfortunately, it ultimately was held back by the various poor design choices, glitches, and copious similarities to Fire Emblem. While the latter didn’t bother me, I feel the game could have been a bit more original. That said, this is absolutely a game worth playing for any tactical RPG fan, especially once it’s been patched a bit. Here’s hoping the next game from this upstart team is the polished gem I thought Dark Deity could have been.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Freedom Games; Developer: Sword & Axe LLC; Players: 1; Released: June 15, 2021; MSRP: $24.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.