Note: this ‘review’ is more of an early access impressions piece as the code received was for the final pre-release beta.
I like to think it’s broadly true that developers do not set out to make a bad game. Well, outside of those cretins that make asset flips and then chuck them on Steam for some poor sap to pay 89p for, obviously.
Looking at Shiro Games’ pedigree they have a good, if somewhat stylistically disparate, library behind them. Northgard is a viking strategy game, the Evoland series is a top down, 16 bit looking RPG. No-one likes to be pigeonholed, right?
Darksburg is their latest release, a co-op based roguelike ARPG where you take control of one of a motley band of adventurers to escape the undead infested city of Darksburg. You can do this solo with AI companions or matchmade with other players.
This is where the first problem with this game arises. There are barely any games to join. I tried numerous times during the pre-release period to try and find a game to join and I didn’t find many at all. The first I couldn’t join as it was too far in progress. Being unable to join an in-progress game seems like a massive oversight.
Another of the few games I found had an Ascension 5 difficulty, which the game told me I needed to update to join. I have no idea what that meant as the game was up to date as far as I could see and I couldn’t get into another beta branch of it. From what I can tell the Ascension difficulties are like the Torments on Diablo III so I’d be obliterated anyway.
You can solo it, though. You can pick your class, fill the party with AI and set out to escape the plagued city. And the classes are pretty awesome, if I’m honest. Who wouldn’t want to be a warrior nun that twats all and sundry with a massive crucifix? That’s bloody brilliant, that is. Or how about a werewolf with a massive portcullis shield? Or a plague doctor that has some weird goo gun and poison grenades? A giant bearded chef that uses a huge ;adel as a weapon?
The classes and the builds you make with them are something the game does right. You start each run at level 1 and you gain XP as you fight through the undead hordes. As you level up you get a choice of 3 upgrades for your base abilities. There’s a distinct MOBA flavour to the way the abilities are levelled up.
Take Abigail (aforementioned crucifix wielding warrior nun) as an example; she can plant a giant bell that attracts all the enemies to it. One upgrade gives the ability to give every character temporary health for each undead in the bells circle of influence. Or you can upgrade her whirlwind move to be more accurate, or more powerful, or leave a trail of fire behind you.
There are no skill trees for any of the characters and the variety in the skill upgrades you’re afforded on each run means that building a character can be very different each time, but the random nature of what you get to choose makes it feel a bit like a crapshoot.
So you and your chums set about escaping from Darksburg. Smashing the undead in the face is generally fun, each class having its own methods of dispatching foes and while most of them share some fundamental moves (Dr Dolorosa and Rose are both ranged and have area of effect moves, Runolf and Dr Dolorosa collect things only present to them to reduce cooldowns of their moves) they feel sufficiently different to each other to justify trying them all.
On the way you’ll find chests with money and a currency called Dreadium Ingots. The money is used to buy potions and bombs before you set out to the next part of the city, and Dreadium is used as the game’s overarching perk unlock currency. Used to unlock perks in the Cabinet of Curiosities it’s only banked at the end of a successful run through a level. This makes the game unfathomably tedious, because even on normal you get your arse handed to you gratuitously by the game.
There’s no real way of avoiding ranged attacks, despite them being telegraphed. From what I can tell there’s no dodge statistic so you’re gonna get hit regardless. Sometimes you just get so swamped with enemies that you can’t escape and you get knocked down. Sometimes you get completely wiped out by the horde and the AI can’t pick you up in time. Sometimes the AI just doesn’t bother.
When the AI DOES decide to pick you up you come back with a third of your health bar missing. When you go down again and get picked back up you lose another third. After the third time you’re out and the run is over.
This is another really big sticking point for me. You’re going to get hit and lose health, and the game has 2 methods of restoring your health bar; temporary healing and permanent healing. Bandages and some ability upgrades give you temporary white health which degrades over time. There are potions in the game that give you a chunk or all of your green permanent health back and some extend your life bar back to what it was prior to your last incapacitation.
But you don’t even heal when your character hits the next level, and if you want to heal at the campfire before you start out on the next part of your escape you only get healed to 33%. That’s just poor. It’s punitive. You can’t make a decent amount of progress because if you’re in poor shape at the end of a level even buying the potions from the shop at the beginning of the next won’t help you. Not only are they ridiculously expensive, you can only carry one at a time.
At the beginning of each run you can equip ‘Curios’ (essentially perks) from the Cabinet of Curiosities, but obtaining these is a chore. Each perk comes from one of three pools; Performance, Survival, and Utility and there are 3 levels of rarity each you can equip on your loadout. You start with 2 common slots and a rare slot, with more unlockable with Dreadmium.
You cannot see what you’re getting from a perk before you unlock it. Each perk costs 50 Dreadmium. Each slot in each rarity costs 150 – 250 Dreadmium to unlock. If you go off the beaten path while playing and hunt down as many chests as you can during the level you could come out with 20 – 40 Dreadmium. And then you have to survive the event at the end of each area to bank that Dreadmium. All of the perks and the slots are too expensive and make the game a massive, joyless grind.
There’s no real sense of progression between the runs because the game is so bereft of anything like permanence outside of these arbitrary perks where you may or may not get something that will benefit you.
This game simply isn’t any fun. It’s a roguelike ARPG that completely disregards the genres it purports to be a part of. And all the problems with the game are at a fundamental design level. The lack of loot to chase, skill trees to tailor your class, tangible incremental upgrades to help you progress through the game and give you that tickle that you’re making headway, the complete absence of a gameplay loop outside of getting to the end of the level where you probably won’t have enough resources to unlock another terrible perk for the next run, and there isn’t even any kind of statistics to level up and make the grind slightly easier each time.
It’s probably poor form to criticise a game for something it doesn’t have like loot and skill trees but it doesn’t have anything to shore up the massive gaps in the template. Even something like making each character have a table of health or attack or slots to carry items that you can upgrade that persist between each run would have helped, but each character is static and there’s nothing to upgrade or unlock aside from the curios in the Cabinet of Curiosities.
All this is made much, much worse when you realise Hades (another roguelike) came out of early access last week and is fundamentally a better game with a better core at the centre of it, a gameplay loop that’s incredible and infinitely superior combat. That game, at the time of writing, is cheaper than Darksburg. The only thing Darksburg has over Hades is it’s multiplayer co-op, and that’s if you can find a game.