Dark Devotion is a match made in Hell between Soulslikes and roguelikes, and it's only somewhat uninspired world design that keeps it from excellence.
The immense popularity of Dark Souls has spawned so many copycats that Soulslikes comprise a wholly normalized genre of action-oriented RPGs, and Hibernian Workshop's Dark Devotion is doubtlessly to be counted among that list of imitators. Unlike less inspired Soulslikes, though, Dark Devotion is pretty damn good. While it dutifully commits to its source material, this scaled-down 2D take on the Souls formula doesn't let its inspiration weigh down its own ideas and ambitions. Borrowing a helping of RNG entropy from the roguelite genre and exploring a devilishly dark world of its own, Dark Devotion sticks the landing on most of what it aims to accomplish. It's only held back from greatness by a few design missteps and, most notably, its failure to fully deliver on Dark Souls' largest draw.
Beneath a beautiful pixel art veneer, anyone who has ever casually played a Souls title will at once notice a tapestry of elements that those games and Dark Devotion share in common: a steep learning curve, fast-depleting stamina, I-frame dodge rolling, tough as nails combat, fiendish enemies and bosses - most of the gang is here. And just like the Souls games, Dark Devotion throws players into the experience headlong with little fanfare or explicit explanation of what needs to be done, even going so far as to feel noticeably more difficult than its antecedent with how ill-prepared your character is at the outset.
Of course, once things get going in Dark Devotion's sentient setting and players have died their first dozen or so deaths, things become clearer and easier as they begin to grasp the game's objective and mechanics. It's at this point that players will begin to see the numerous ways in which this indie distinguishes itself from the Soulslike crowd, and these genre departures are a refreshing reprieve from other, more formulaic alternatives like Ashen.
The most prominent deviation is a lack of the trademark Soulslike way of handling death. Dying in Dark Devotion is more reminiscent of death in a roguelike than in Dark Souls, as it feels more like the end of a run than an integral mechanic tied to progression. No rebranded Souls or any other items are left where the protagonist drew their last breath, so returning to the site of one's most recent demise isn't a priority. Instead, the player character respawns in Filthblood Shelter (a hub area similar to Dark Souls' Firelink Shrine), where they can exchange persistent experience points for upgrades, take side quests, and have the resident blacksmith craft new gear for them from a modest catalog of previously acquired items before jumping back into the action.
Re-entering the hellish world beyond the safety of this hub is also rather different than the prescribed approach, as there aren't any Bonfires to fast-travel between and be kicked back to upon death. Instead, Filthblood has number of doors that filter back into the game's four interconnected worlds. There's an additional fifth entrance, and it may be Dark Devotion's most ingenious bit of design. Around the game's labyrinthine map, there a number of Teleportation Altars that can be activated, but only one can be active at a time. Depending upon which altar was last triggered before returning to Filthblood, the player can use this one-way portal to return to that particular statue, but if they want to go anywhere else they'll have to navigate from there or start from one of the fixed doors.
Combat is obviously the gameplay centerpiece in Dark Devotion, and it takes the best bits of Soulslikes and marries them with roguelike concepts and RNG. A tactical blend of attacking, dodging, parrying, and blocking is key to survival in the grimdark Temple and must be adjusted based on weapon type, and running out of stamina or scarce health consumables during a tough fight spells certain death. And players will die often, with deaths spiking upon entering a new sub-area. Through trial and error enemy types that initially gave one hell will eventually seem like child's play thanks to their well-telegraphed attacks and players' ever-improving gear and stats.
All of the above is to be expected in a Soulslike, but it's interwoven with several outsider concepts and inclusions. There are no starting classes. Builds most often aren't carefully chosen and strengthened over time, instead organically taking form during individual lives based on the random loot the player is afforded in their exploits. Some weapons have slots for helpful runes, and the Souls series' more convoluted take on spellcasting is replaced with more traditional off-hand spellbooks. Blessings and Diseases most closely tie Dark Devotion to its roguelike roots, with granted buffs and inflicted debuffs making each life feel unique and memorable.
Though combat is most crucial to the moment-to-moment player experience in a Soulslike, this gameplay aspect takes a backseat in the grand scheme of the games' overarching tone and themes. The first Dark Souls wouldn't be so memorable had its setting of Lordran lacked its sense of beguiling mystery, preferring to show players why it all matters rather explain it outright, and it's in this design area where Dark Devotion would have greatly benefited by more closely following in its predecessor's footsteps.
Whereas the areas within Lordran feel as interconnected as they are physically, the four worlds of Dark Devotion's Temple feel disjointed despite sporting almost as much interconnectivity. Individually, these areas and their sub-areas look good and are well-realized in the game's art style, but they come across as somewhat cobbled together from a thematic perspective. They mostly feel like different backgrounds on which to kill much more inventive and thematically cohesive enemies and bosses, and few rooms provide compelling written lore and environmental storytelling beyond confirmation that yes, this place littered with cells and chains is indeed a prison.
While the world design falls a bit flat conceptually, the Temple is still a place that players will feel driven to continue exploring anyway. This desire to push on is not only driven by the search for the next boss, but also by the ever-present tease of hidden loot, secrets, and pathways. There are lots of smaller landmarks that beg for the players' attention along the way, coming mostly in the form of altars. Including aforementioned Teleportation Altars, Dark Devotion has an altar-shaped solution to every problem it presents, and they can be taken advantage of at the cost of Faith, which pulls double duty as currency and mana. Faith can be gained by killing foes, but players can only hold so much at a time, meaning that there are definitive, meaningful choices to be made at nearly every corner in the Temple.
As a final gripe, the launch build of Dark Devotion did suffer some mildly annoying issues and choices that have hopefully been since addressed. In the game's first minutes, PC players are shown how to switch weapons and pray at altars, with on-screen information mistakenly insisting these actions are performed using the right and up arrow keys, respectively. Players that try this will find neither command works, and this is because the correct inputs are actually Tab and Shift. Additionally, the game's repetitive music begins to grate after a while, but there are no audio options to be found in the game's pause menu. Finally, gamepad support was advertised on the lead-up to release, but it was unplayable with anything keyboard and mouse; apparently, this issue has been fixed, but the review build of the game cannot confirm this.
As a package, Dark Devotion is an impressive indie that does an astonishingly great deal more to iterate on the Soulslike formula than its bigger budget counterparts. Eye-catching and rewardingly difficult from start to finish, the game is a joy to play and master. Dark Devotion does have its issues, but the smaller ones can be fairly easily forgiven when considering Hibernian Workshop's size. However, the oversight of making a Soulslike that skimps out on the kind of implied narrative experience that coined a genre is a large one, and it's disappointing that it perceptively dulls the game's otherwise stunning impact.
Dark Devotion is currently available for PC, and it will be releasing later in 2019 for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. Screen Rant was provided with a Steam code for this review.