“Be careful what you wish for,” or so the saying goes. I never thought we would see another Darksiders game after the shuttering of their original developer, Vigil Games. These games were some of my favorites from the previous console generation, as they blended the hyper-stylish artwork of esteemed comic book maestro Joe Madureira with slick hack-and-slash combat and puzzle-filled dungeons that took more than passing inspiration from The Legend of Zelda. Darksiders II even added in a Diablo-esque loot system for more variety, but by then, it was too little, too late: publisher THQ went bankrupt and they took Vigil Games, and Darksiders, with them. The future of the franchise seemed grim.
Enter Nordic Games, now THQ Nordic, who won the bid for the Darksiders IP and eventually announced they would be making a third game. What’s more, several ex-Vigil staff were tapped to work on the project, having formed a new studio called Gunfire Games. It seemed like a dream come true for series fans, whose ranks I count myself among. I set aside my trepidation and eagerly consumed pre-release media for the game, ecstatic to see the return of this beloved franchise. Unfortunately, to quote the Mad Titan Thanos, reality is often disappointing. While a likable leading lady and satisfying combat do what they can to pull their weight, Darksiders III is a poor sequel that fails to match up to its predecessors.
The original Darksiders put us into the heavy iron boots of War, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who embarked on a bloody quest for vengeance after being wrongfully accused of triggering the Biblical apocalypse. The sequel, Darksiders II, saw Death setting out on a multidimensional journey to clear his brother’s name. Darksiders III one again introduces us to a new Horseman: the perpetually angry Fury. Armed with a long whip and a short temper, Fury is tasked by the enigmatic Charred Council with hunting down the Seven Deadly Sins, who have been set loose upon the shattered Earth. Fury eagerly undertakes this assignment under the condition that, once the dust has settled and the Seven have been imprisoned once again, she be made the leader of the Horsemen. With one of the Council’s many Watchers in tow, Fury sets off in pursuit of the Sins, encountering returning faces like Ulthane and Vulgrim along the way, and eventually uncovering a grand cosmic conspiracy that would lay both humanity and the Horsemen low.
Darksiders III’s story consists of as much melodramatic comic-book cheese as its predecessors (which is a good thing, mind), but there’s actually a surprisingly solid narrative at play here. We get to learn more about the series’ unique setting, and even get to meet Strife, the fourth and final Horseman of the Apocalypse who looks like Genji and Reaper failed the Fusion Dance. A particular highlight of the experience is Fury herself, who turns out to be a likable character in her own right. Unlike War (whose emotional range slid from “angry” to “really angry”) and Death (who was enjoyably snarky, but didn’t have much of a personal stake in his adventure), Fury undergoes a small character arc over the course of the game where she becomes more sympathetic for the plight of the dying human race. It’s pretty basic as far as “character learns to be less of a jerk” character arcs go, but it’s something. Even putting her development aside, Fury is just a lot of fun. From the moment she interrupts the opening narration like a furious Disney princess, Fury makes her presence known throughout the entire game and is rarely without a barbed quip or vicious retort for what’s happening around her. There’s even a point where Fury breaks the fourth wall to comment on how often all-powerful magical artifacts tend to come in sets of three, which seems to be a direct dig at Darksiders II’s repetitive quest design. It’s great stuff, but unfortunately, Darksiders III’s gameplay isn’t nearly as sharp as its wit.
It is immediately obvious that Darksiders III has Dark Souls on the brain, and this newfound focus is perhaps the game’s biggest departure from its roots. Unfortunately, Darksiders III skips right past “homage” and straight into imitation. Gone are the sprawling zones and puzzle-filled dungeons of the first two entries, and instead we have a world that tries to be interconnected seamlessly, with certain areas gated off until Fury acquires a new ability (the developers have cited Metroid as an influence, which is fair, but the effect comes off as a poor man’s Lordran). Fury’s main method of recovering health is her Estus Flask… er, excuse me, her Nephilim’s Respite, which carries a set amount of charges that replenish by killing enemies. Scattered across the world are checkpoints headed by the merchant Vulgrim, where players can save the game, use souls collected from enemies to level up one of three attributes, fast travel, and purchase items. Dying in battle will send players back to the last checkpoint they visited, respawning all enemies in the process and robbing the player of any souls they had on their person, forcing them to backtrack to where they died to get their goodies back (fortunately, unlike Dark Souls, soul pickups don’t vanish if the player dies again, so those lost souls will always be reclaimable). Towards the end of the game, Fury is presented with a binary choice that affects the ending somewhat, although the differences are negligible.
On paper, this doesn’t sound so bad: Darksiders has always worn its influences on its sleeve, after all, and Dark Souls is a gaming zeitgeist that has spawned a number of imitators. However, in execution, this leaves much to be desired. The placement of checkpoints is inconsistent, with some dropping you off right next to boss rooms while others force the player to retread a lot of ground. While a few of the later zones are arranged in such a way that the player is naturally able to get their bearings and uncover the path forward, you’ll be spending a lot of the early game in dark, repetitive sewer tunnels and flooded subway stations, and with no map to guide you, it’s easy to get turned around. This makes exploring these zones extremely rote and dull, not to mention frustrating: one area involving precise platforming while being constantly bombarded by projectiles comes to mind. There are environmental puzzles to solve along the way, but for the most part, these are really straightforward and lack the complexity one would find in a proper dungeon. Suffice it to say that you’re going to spend an inordinate amount of time throwing exploding bugs at things. Thrilling.
One of Darksiders III’s saving graces is Fury’s mobility. In addition to being able to swing across large gaps using her whip, Fury is gifted new elemental powers known as “Hollows” as the game progresses. These expand Fury’s repertoire of abilities and allow her to reach previously inaccessible areas: the Flame Hollow, for instance, allows Fury to burn down spider webs and extends her jump, while the Force Hollow gives her the ability to travel along magnetic surfaces. (It’s basically a morph ball, another less-than-subtle nod to Metroid.) These abilities are fun to use, although they can be really finicky depending on the environment, and you won’t get a lot of use out of them until the endgame. Late-game areas like The Depths and The Scar feel more like traditional Darksiders levels with the amount of interactivity and puzzle-solving on display (The Scar in particular reminds me of the original game’s Ashlands, with a sentient tornado replacing that area’s Dune worms). Its during moments like these that Darksiders III’s level design clicks, but by then it’s not enough.
The end of each zone pits Fury against one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and for being such a well-worn trope in the fantasy genre, I actually really liked the way Darksiders III executes the concept. The Seven are solid boss battles, providing a reasonable challenge and occasionally implementing some light puzzle elements. Their designs are also pretty unique: Sloth, for example, is portrayed as an obese insect carried on a throne by smaller crab-like creatures, while Gluttony takes the form of a savage Kraken-like beast. My personal favorite is Avarice (Greed), a giant beefy dude who lives in Scrooge McDuck’s money pit and spends the entire battle chucking bathtubs at you. I mean, goals, right? My only gripe as far as the bosses are concerned is that the last couple Sins are fought in a pretty rapid-fire manner towards the end of the game, without any buildup or new areas to explore. It’s a bit jarring and makes the game’s climax feel somewhat anemic.
Fury’s main option in combat is her whip, which is usually the most effective instrument at your disposal. Combat in Darksiders III hasn’t strayed far from the action game template its forebears adhered to: Fury has a long list of combos she can perform (including a whip crack that brings Scorpion from Mortal Kombat to mind), and her attacks have a satisfying weight and sense of impact to them. Fury also has access to a variety of devastating Wrath attacks, as well as her Havoc form, which transforms her into an invincible death machine for a brief time and restores some of her health. Each Hollow Fury acquires grants her an additional weapon, as well: these include a pair of nunchucks, twin daggers, a large hammer, and a spear. Fury can also power up her arsenal of weapons by giving resources she finds to Ulthane; while this upgrade system is kind of perfunctory, it does its job and adds a decent sense of progression to the game.
Unfortunately, the Souls influence rears its ugly head again. Enemies in Darksiders III do a lot more damage than in previous games and can launch vicious combo attacks with little to no warning. This wouldn’t be a problem in itself, except the encounter design seems lifted from a more straightforward hack-and-slash game, with enemies often appearing in large groups and surrounding Fury. Soulslike games excel at one-on-one combat, or at least the ability to draw aggro one at a time, but that’s rarely an option in Darksiders III (the boss fights largely sidestep this problem, being mostly 1V1 battles, but this is the exception). There is a Bayonetta-esque dodge mechanic where Fury can jump out of the way of an enemy’s attack at the last possible second and unleash a devastating counterattack, and mastering this technique is crucial for your survival. However, despite being a lynchpin of the combat system, the dodge mechanic doesn’t seem to have much in the way of invincibility frames, which means that enemies can and will interrupt your attacks and leave you helpless to defend yourself. As a final nail in the coffin, the Arkham-esque indicator that shows an attack coming from offscreen is next to useless, as it’s too transparent to make out during the chaos of battle, and doesn’t appear at all for ranged attacks. Couple all of this with the game’s woesome technical performance, where the framerate straight-up dies during hectic fights, and nine times out of ten, death in Darksiders III usually feels like a cheap shot rather than a gratifying challenge to overcome.
Those aforementioned technical issues plague the entire experience. This is a shame, as there are parts of Darksiders III that look quite nice. From underground lava flows oozing out of hellish architecture to a demonic mining colony built into the sides of dilapidated skyscrapers, the Darksiders vision of the apocalypse still has a lot of visual pizazz. Madureira doesn’t return as character designer, but the new characters look right at home in the gothic-meets-heavy-metal aesthetic of the series. I especially love Fury’s design and how her hair changes to match her currently equipped Hollow. You won’t get much of a chance to take in the scenery, though, as Darksiders III is one of the most poorly optimized games I’ve played in a long time. Slowdown is a major issue throughout the game, especially considering how much damage enemies can dish out, but it doesn’t stop there: I’ve seen objects floating in midair, textures loading in the middle of cutscenes, had the audio cut out sporadically, and even had the entire skybox vanish. I don’t know if Gunfire Games ran out of time, or money, or both, but Darksiders III feels incredibly rushed, to the point that charging $60 for the game (or $400 for the collector’s edition, on top of also having a Season Pass for upcoming DLC) seems almost insulting. Games like Hellblade have proven that it is indeed possible to provide AAA-level quality on a budget, and there’s no excuse for the grand return of a fan-favorite franchise to run this poorly.
In conclusion, I’d like to describe the moment playing Darksiders III where my heart sank with dumbstruck realization at what I was getting myself into. It’s early on in the game, during a battle with a vicious foe, where Fury calls her trusty steed Rampage into the fray. Past Darksiders games used the horse as a way to traverse their wide-open zones a little faster, and they were a fitting part of the setting considering that we were playing as a Horseman of the Apocalypse. So Fury’s horse manifests, whinnies… and falls over dead, an angelic weapon stuck in its side. Fury is a Rider of the Apocalypse with no horse to ride, presumably just because the confined corridors of these levels wouldn’t allow for a mount. Later on, you can visit Rampage’s corpse, where Fury swears vengeance on the ones who killed her companion, only to have her Watcher chide her for focusing too much on the past: which I can only surmise is a direct comment to the player themselves. But, really, how can we not? Darksiders III is, in a nutshell, a dead horse.
It breaks my heart to say so, because I adore this series and the game isn’t without its bright spots. But when you factor in the pervasive technical issues, the shoehorned-in Soulslike mechanics, and the inconsistent combat, there’s very little to recommend here. Now, as of this writing, the developers have patched in a “Classic Combat” mode that, theoretically, is intended to put the experience more in line with the original Darksiders games. While I’m happy to see the developers taking constructive feedback, as far as I’m concerned this only further underscores how ill-advised Darksiders III’s shift in direction was to begin with. If we do end up getting a Darksiders IV featuring Strife (or finally paying off on the first game’s cliffhanger ending), I can only hope that Gunfire Games continues to court fan feedback and takes their time crafting the best game they can. If Darksiders III is indicative of the series’ future, though, then maybe this horse should once again be put to pasture.