Have you ever played a game and thought to yourself, “that was a lot of wasted potential“? I have. Very recently in fact. Two weeks ago I was playing through the opening chapters of Dark Deity, a game inspired by Fire Emblem, and I was having a lot of fun. However, as I got further into the campaign I encountered increasingly bewildering design decisions and eventually dropped off playing it. That said, buckle in folks because this review is going to be a bumpy one.
Developer: Sword and Axe LLC
Publisher: Freedom Games
Release Date: Jun 15th, 2021
Available on: PC (Win)
The first thing we need to establish is something that I learned several missions into Dark Deity: there is no permadeath. For better or worse, permadeath is a corner stone of Fire Emblem’s design and influences a lot of how the series has been constructed. Despite this, I can get behind Dark Deity removing this feature. One of the most frustrating aspects of Fire Emblem is losing a character you’re heavily invested in after they take one too many hits. Through removing permadeath, Dark Deity manages to feel less punitive when compared against its inspiration.
Unfortunately, removing permadeath isn’t a net positive as it causes Dark Deity’s roaster to feel bloated. There are thirty characters that players will meet across their journey, which is comparable to the average Fire Emblem game. However, in Fire Emblem losing a key party member at an inopportune time can then potentially spell disaster as one loss can quickly snowball into further losses. To counteract this, new units are given throughout the campaign so that players can fill holes in their army and continue pushing forward. No characters are permanently removed in Dark Deity though so having replacement characters feels superfluous.
The feeling of bloat is further compounded by how new characters are introduced in Dark Deity. Upon unlocking a new character, players can choose their class. This provides access to a selection of passive skills and complimentary stats. This means that the new character will be tailored perfectly to whatever selection is made. As a result, new party members tend to replace older ones as they often feel like a direct upgrade of said existing member. In a somewhat ironic twist, this made characters in Dark Deity feel more disposable than those from Fire Emblem because I no longer had a reason to use them after finding a suitable replacement.
It’s also worth mentioning that for the majority of the story you’re only able to bring fourteen of the total thirty characters into battle. This renders half the cast useless, which caused me to continue questioning why many of the game’s characters had been included in the first place.
The story is also affected by this overwhelming character bloat by itself feeling bloated. There are several chapters throughout that exist entirely to introduce new characters, but which offer zero value to the overarching plot. This leads to several points where no meaningful progress is made as you meander from one mission to the next meeting new characters who tell you that you need to go somewhere else to progress the story. This feels like an incredible waste of time and lends to a terrible sense of pacing.
The lack of permadeath also allows for a fundamentally different approach when it comes to the writing, but Dark Deity doesn’t capitalize on this well. In Fire Emblem the writers can’t account for which characters the player will manage to keep alive, so the stories almost exclusively focus on one or two leads that must be kept alive through every mission. In Dark Deity no one can die, so the writers have the opportunity to give each character a significant role in the story. Unfortunately, because there are so many characters the majority still don’t get much screen time. This is extremely disappointing as most of the cast still feel like window dressing instead of legitimate actors in the on-going events.
The only other gripe I have with Dark Deity that is tangentially related to permadeath is how support conversations are handled. Dark Deity copies Fire Emblem beat for beat when it comes to this feature. As you use units together they’ll bond, which eventually unlocks an episode in a three part side story. These often help to flesh out the characters and the world in which they live. Given the lack of permanence that Fire Emblem characters have the three part stories feel like the perfect amount, but Dark Deity has the opportunity for far more complex narratives because characters will live through the whole game. It was pretty disappointing to see this feature copied wholesale as it is one of the areas that Dark Deity could have distinguished itself from the series that inspired it allowing for units to bond over the entire campaign in more involved stories than the three episode structure allows.
Next up let’s tackle the maps and missions: they’re bad. The first few chapters exhibit a variety of map designs and mission objectives, but the further into the campaign players get the more apparent it becomes that Dark Deity doesn’t have anything new to show. The majority of missions feature open maps filled with several enemies that will thoughtlessly charge head first into your army. This means that most encounters boil down to determining the best spot on the map to hunker down while you wait for the enemy to commit suicide against your forces. This left me wanting as I didn’t feel there was much tactics in this tactical RPG.
Finally, the weapons system. This is the only idea that is wholly original when compared against the games that inspired Dark Deity. Instead of buying and upgrading weapons that your army shares, each character has four different weapons with unique benefits that they need to upgrade with a system that is remarkably similar to a skill tree. Across the campaign players will obtain a limited number of upgrade tokens so they’ll need to think carefully about which weapons they’ll want to invest into on their characters. This allows for a high degree of unit customization as you choose each unit’s specialization.
Or it would allow for a high degree of specialization except that it doesn’t. Each weapon type has one, sometimes two, optimal answers and the others are dreadful by comparison. This stems from two things: the weapon’s weight and how the speed stat functions. Every weapon has a weight, which lowers your character’s speed stat. Similar to Fire Emblem, Dark Deity provides an attacking bonus to units with high speed. If you have five or more speed over whatever you’re attacking then you’ll attack twice, potentially doubling your damage output. Because of this the weapon with the lowest speed penalty is always the correct choice turning what could have been a neat bit of character customization into a simple numbers game with a single correct answer.
The other bit about this system that rubbed me the wrong way ties into my earlier point about how newer characters will replace older ones. Once you’ve invested upgrade tokens you can’t get them back, which leads to a lot of sunk cost fallacy moments throughout Dark Deity. It can be compelling to continue using older units because you’ve sunk so much into upgrading their weapons, despite the much higher stats of newer units. I don’t have a particularly intelligent point to make here outside of that it made me feel kind of shitty having to ditch characters I was invested in entirely because a much better option became available.
Now, I’ve spent quite a bit of time ragging on Dark Deity, but I wanted to highlight some of the aspects of the game I enjoyed before I close things out.
For starters, the character portraits and the pixel art are amazing. Were it not for the Game Maker logo being proudly displayed on startup I would have never guessed that Dark Deity was made with it. The character portraits ooze personality and immediately give you a great sense of what the character is about before they’ve even spoken their first line of dialogue. Additionally, the battle scenes are done well. I normally turn off the battle animations in games like this as they tend to be far too tedious to watch, but a lot of time went into making sure the animations in Dark Deity were visually interesting while also being snappy. Big kudos to the art team.
The music is also great. There are only a handful of tracks, but each manages to add some personality and flavor to the map or story moment which they accompany. This also does a lot to elevate the battles from simple games of numbers to feeling like actual confrontations between two opposing armies.
I usually try to avoid making direct comparisons in my reviews as that feels lazy, but in Dark Deity’s case I don’t think there is any way around it. The game’s design and identity are so closely linked to Fire Emblem because it almost entirely copies it beat for beat. The few changes it does make, like the weapon system and no permadeath, end up falling flat because the rest of the game doesn’t capitalize on the unique opportunities that these changes allow for. Thus you have a game that’s not only derivative, but is also a failure on its own terms. If you’re simply looking for a cheap PC alternative to Fire Emblem then Dark Deity works, but your time might be better spent with an emulator as Dark Deity feels more like a fan-game than a worthy rival or indie successor to the games that inspired it.
At least the archers don’t suck ass like they do in Fire Emblem.