Few games leave me as conflicted as Dark Devotion.
On the one hand I should love it. It has the same kind of haunting atmosphere found in games such as the original Diablo or Silent Hill; where you’re drenched in darkness and every step forward feels fraught with peril. It also has tense, challenging combat and an emphasis on exploration. But for every one thing I like about Dark Devotion, there’s something that turns me off from it. And the recent Switch port that I’m reviewing here has even more issues to tip the balance in the wrong direction.
Before I get ahead of myself, however, let me first tell you a bit about Dark Devotion. Set the scene a little. Assuming control an unnamed female Templar Knight, a holy crusader seeking to rid the world of darkness, you find yourself entering a mystical temple full of foul creatures and unusual magic. It’s not long until you encounter an imposing figure for whom you are no match, yet death is just the beginning of your adventure. Awakening in an unknown location that serves as your hub for the game going forward, it’s down to you to explore the temple and try to make sense of your whole ordeal.
It’s pretty easy to compare Dark Devotion to Dark Souls. They have many similarities, such as being intriguingly obtuse, presenting interconnected worlds for you to explore, and having combat that relies on timing and skill. They also both use death as a learning process. But Dark Devotion isn’t a 3D adventure game; it’s a 2D side-scroller. It also doesn’t have RPG elements such as levelling up. It’s a rogue-like, basically, punishing you for every death by removing valuable items and equipment that you might have found. And because of that, it can feel overly stressful and unwelcoming at times. Think Dead Cells but harder.
Every journey you make in Dark Devotion begins at the hub. From there, you can interact with a number of NPCs before heading out to explore the ancient temple that has essentially become your prison. There’s a teleportation portal that warps you to the last activated portal within the dungeon; an altar that allows you to unlock a number of perks with a currency earned by defeating foes in battle; a quest giver who tasks you with objectives that seem inconsequential in the scheme of things; and a blacksmith who’ll outfit you with equipment and items providing you’ve found the crafting recipes for them. There’s pretty much everything you’d expect in a game of this type.
Unsurprisingly, the hub is where you return every time you die. And therein lies one of Dark Devotion‘s major problems. Stuck on a boss? Get used to spawning back at the hub and then having to travel back to their putrid chambers to have another crack. Thankfully there’s usually a teleportation portal close to minimise the journey, but before you jump through the teleportation portal in the hub to do battle once again, you better make sure you go out of your way to visit the blacksmith and get yourself kitted up, otherwise you’ll be fighting with just your fists. It just makes Dark Devotion a little laborious at times, especially when death comes so easily.
Your starting equipment enables you to take four hits: your armour absorbs two strikes, then you have two hit points. New armour and artefacts can be found that increase your armour and hit points, but rarely are they unlocked at the blacksmith for subsequent runs. You might be on a roll, making momentous progress with a great sword that you’ve found, sturdy armour and plenty of health points. Come a cropper at the hands of boss or a powerful enemy you’ve never faced before, however, or simply fall into a pit full of spikes, and you’ll find yourself back at the hub with minimal equipment options. Sometimes death just feels like too much of a penalty, though Dark Devotion does try to help you with various bonuses including a magical shield if you die too often.
Death by spike pits or other ghastly traps can be common, thanks to Dark Devotion actually being truly dark. There are times where you literally can’t see more than a few feet ahead of your character unless you have a torch equipped, and if you’re playing in handheld mode on Switch, it’s not ideal at all. Even with your Switch set to max brightness, if your screen is in any way blessed by daylight, your ability to play is seriously hampered. One of Dark Devotion’s tricks is to place spike pits below walkways you need to drop down from, which means you need to crouch down and wait for the camera to pan down to see if you can catch a glimpse of spikes laying in wait. And forget about jumping – your knight is incapable of such an athletic manoeuvre.
Dark Devotion is hard, then, and depending on how you play it on the Switch you might find it even more of a struggle. Along with the dark visuals making handheld play occasionally troublesome, there’s also the fact that its text is awfully small, and pretty much illegible on the map screen. There are glimmers of a good game from time to time, though. Dark Devotion does have its merits; it’s just a shame they’re buried under so much frustration as a result of considerable laboriousness and unnecessary harshness. You really do need a lot of devotion to see the game through to its end.
Sitting somewhere between Dead Cells and Blasphemous in terms of structure and gameplay, Dark Devotion lurks in their shadows, failing to stand out. It’s simply inferior to both, and while some ardent players may eke some grim enjoyment out of it, it’s hard to recommend, especially on Switch.