Genre: Turn-Based Tactical Strategy, RPG
The turn-based tactical strategy genre has been getting in its own renaissance of sorts in recent times, with popular games from the new XCOM titles and Switch exclusives like Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle or Fire Emblem Three Houses to indies like Into The Breach and more. Following in that trend is the debut game of indie developer Sword & Axe titled Dark Deity, which received a surprise launch during E3 2021.
Fans of the classic Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem games, as well as games like Tactics Ogre and Jeanne d’Arc, will love that the same retro turn-based tactical strategy combat is back in 2D form just like the good old days. Newer games tend to gravitate towards a 3D model, but Sword & Axe has opted to go back to the past for Dark Deity.
Is it worthy of carrying the torch of those classic games? Well, Dark Deity can be great at times but it’s bogged by issues and clunkiness at launch.
Waifus & Husbandos Oh My
Let’s start with the plot. The story in Dark Deity is standard fantasy fare for those already familiar with the genre. In the land/world of Terrazael, King Varic of the Kingdom of Delia expedites the graduation of all students at the Brookstead Military Academy to recruit them for his war against the Aramorans.
Dark Deity features 30 playable characters in total, though you’ll gradually meet and recruit them over the course of the game’s 28 chapters. Still, they’re usually introduced very quickly and abruptly, so be prepared to juggle at least 10 or more characters a few hours or chapters into the game. Each character is hand-drawn in an anime/manga-inspired style, but their pixel-art sprites on the battlefield can look less detailed and difficult to distinguish from each other.
While the game boasts several prominent voice actors/actresses, Dark Deity doesn’t actually feature fully voiced dialogue. The characters just utter phrases every now and then at certain times during combat and during conversations with each other. These conversations progress the plot and narrative either between chapters or during the game’s Bond mechanic, where characters who battle in close proximity with each other will be able to build a relationship.
There are apparently over 450 bond conversations in the game, but there’s not much to them besides having your characters stand close to each other in battle and watching a conversation between them unfold. Unlike in games like Sakura Wars or the Shin Megami Tensei Persona games, these relationships don’t do anything to improve your characters’ stats or performance in combat.
I’m sure many gamers will find the appeal of meeting, recruiting and building the relationships with waifus and husbandos to be an attractive one. Trust me, there are lots of male/female pairings in the game, and I think the developers definitely know this to be true.
Retro Fire Emblem
If you’ve ever played a classic Fire Emblem game on the Game Boy Advance, that’s how the combat in Dark Deity feels like. Each chapter consists of one battle that can last from 30 minutes to an hour or more. Your characters are dropped onto a map and you’ll have to take turn to move your units around. Most objectives require you to clear out enemies, defeat specific enemies or even just holding out for a particular number of turns against overwhelming odds.
Each character belongs to a certain class or job, including typical ones like Warrior, Archer, Mage, and more. Every character carries four permanent weapons or attacks, each of which comes with its own speciality; either pure damage, higher critical chances and others. In Dark Deity, you don’t equip or change weapons for your characters. All of these weapons/attacks can be upgraded using Tokens obtained from battle or purchased from the in-game Shop between chapters.
Besides that, each class or job can upgrade to more powerful versions when your characters reach a specific level. Once you reach that particular level, you can choose between four different advanced class or job; each of which comes with its own unique advantages and abilities. That’s essentially all there is to customizations, with the exceptions of equipable healing items and special items called Eternal Aspects. The latter will grant special permanent stat buffs for your characters once equipped.
While the battle maps look a bit dreadful and garish, the battle sprites and animations are well done. So much so that although there’s an option to make battles go faster by turning off battle animations, I prefer to keep the option turned on. They’re expressive and can be flashy, especially when it comes to animations for the more powerful spells summoned by higher-level mages. There’s a different animation for many attacks, including unique ones for when a critical hit strikes, which is an awesome effort on the developers’ part.
After each battle (like I previously mentioned, there’s one in every chapter), you spend a breather at camps to buy items from the Shop, upgrade and equip your characters, or develop their Bonds. This is also one of the only times (besides between chapters) that you can only save the game.
What distinguishes Dark Deity from other games in the same genre is that the developers opted not to include permadeath in the game. Instead, the game uses what it calls the “Grave Wounds” system. When a character dies in combat, their stats are randomly decreased. However, they can still be used in the next battle, so players don’t have to worry about losing their favourite characters forever. It’s nothing groundbreaking but it makes the game less stressful to play through, especially since the game is still very much an indie game made by a small team.
Needs More Time In The Oven
Now that I’ve mostly covered the good stuff, let’s get to the bad: this game still has lots of bugs and issues at launch. The biggest gripe I had with Dark Deity is that there’s no option or ability to save during battles. You can only save your progress at camps (usually before those battles) and in between chapters (after those battles).
Most games in this genre feature the ability to save during battles, allowing players to save scum if they want to (ie: saving before taking an action and instantly reloading if you made a mistake). But I digress; since the biggest problem with this issue isn’t that I couldn’t save scum, but instead, that battles can take from 30 minutes to more than an hour and I can’t save my progress.
Every time I start a battle, I had to make sure I had enough time to actually finish it. If I stopped in the middle of a battle, I would lose all my progress and will have to start all over again. For a modern game released in 2021, being able to save at almost any time in a game should be a necessity for accessibility reasons.
Another issue with Dark Deity is the lack of a proper tutorial or explanation for most of its important mechanics. Remember those classes/jobs and different weapons/attacks each character has? Yeah, along with all that, the game has an Advantage system. It works sort of like a rock-paper-scissors weakness system, where certain classes were more effective against particular classes. However, several hours into the game and I was still pretty much playing a guessing game, considering that the game never did explain how the Advantage system works.
Let me give you a good example. The reason why Pokemon is such a beloved franchise is because the mechanics are properly explained and easy to understand. Despite featuring hundreds of different attacks and moves during battle, there’s a clear description for each one of them. To run from a battle, just click on Run. Want to get an item, just click on Bag. In Dark Deity, I had no idea what certain actions would do until after I performed them. How was I to know what the actions “Haste” or “Phase” meant on the battle map outside of combat?
Even the game’s very first battle just begins with the game pretty much expecting players to already know what to do. I’m familiar with other games genre, so it didn’t take long for me to get my bearings and start playing, but what about newcomers? If they’ve never played a turn-based tactical strategy game in the vein of Dark Deity before, they’d have been confused from the very beginning of the game.
To make matters worse, the confusing and unintuitive UI doesn’t make things easier. It’s hard to know where to click to perform certain actions.
Moving units and attacking enemies feel clunky and janky by genre standards due to the confusing UI. I often encounter situations where simply trying to attack an enemy will require me to click several times on my unit to get the right prompt and command.
For instance, when upgrading your class/job to a more powerful version once you reach a certain level, the menu is confusing because the button to complete the upgrade is simply the word “Promote” in an unassuming font somewhere at the top right of the screen. Even with all my gaming experience, it took me a few moments to realize where I even had to click.
Last but not least, I’ve already mentioned the garish-looking maps but the bad level design is more than just how it looks. While each chapter usually has different objectives, the structure is pretty much the same a lot of the times. The game’s idea of a challenge is often to throw overwhelming swarms of enemies at you. It’s hard to pace yourself and strategize when you don’t get to pace your battles.
Lots Of Potential
Dark Deity isn’t perfect, but if you miss the good old days of classic Fire Emblem and the like, you should totally check it out. The price is reasonable for what it offers, with a campaign that should last at least 20 hours and more.
At the time of review, Sword & Axe has already released two patches for the game, so we can expect them to keep supporting this game & fix more of its issues in future updates. There’s really nothing much that can’t be improved with future patches, with the exception of perhaps the battle maps and level design.
- Battle sprites and animations look great.
- Classic retro turn-based combat with a lot of classes to upgrade and choose from.
- Over 30 waifus and husbandos to recruit and bond with.
- Clunky and unintuitive UI.
- No option to save during battles, which can take from 30 minutes to more than an hour to finish.
- The battle maps/level design can look ugly and garish.
- No proper tutorial or explanations for mechanics.
- Balancing issues and other bugs.
- Strangely long loading times.
Final Score: 60/100
Review copy provided by Freedom Games. Played on PC (Acer Predator Triton 500).