Adventure Rules Reviews Dark Deity

Last week I shared my first impressions of Dark Deity, a recently released indie title available on Steam that appeals to fans of classic Fire Emblem titles from the GBA era. I expected that my progress in the game would be slow – I had it downloaded on the computer that my partner and I share for streaming, meaning that four nights a week I wouldn’t be able to pick it up at all. Add that to work, parenting, household responsibilities…I legitimately expected not to be finished with the game for quite some time. Those plans got waylaid when my partner began to struggle with a medical issue which kept me home for multiple half-days and canceled one of her streams. The unexpected free time may not have come with a good reason behind it, but it did allow me to fully immerse myself in the world of Dark Deity and complete a run of the main campaign within eight days and around 50 hours of play.

My first impressions article was very much focused on how Dark Deity compares to Fire Emblem during its early hours. If you’re interested in a tight focus on what makes this game different than its inspiration, I’d recommend reading that article first. This one will focus more on story and characters, map design and objectives, and how the mechanics work together long-term to craft the overall experience of playing the game.

STORY AND CHARACTERS
Dark Deity begins with a group of four RPG heroes you might find in any JRPG you grab off the shelf. A group of friends training together at a military academy participate in a final exam before the graduation ceremony for the oldest of the group. However, the king has different plans due to a quest for vengeance related to the death of his father, the previous king. He conscripts the entire academy into service and it is at this point that our heroes begin their heroic journey. The typical “kingdom vs kingdom” scale of the traditional fantasy tactics game is set aside somewhat quickly for a campaign that focuses more on the supernatural elements of the game world and the many forces at work seeking to claim those elements for themselves. While the narrative of Dark Deity isn’t necessarily going to be anything to write home about if you’re someone who has played a lot of RPGs, it does at least take steps to distinguish itself from the typical Fire Emblem story arc. The kingdom in which you begin are not inherently the good guys and there’s a bit of nuance as to the portrayal of the world’s various people. Similar to FE you’ll see touches of diversity here and there and I will say that from what I have seen so far they do a better job of handling their Black characters or their LGBTQ+ characters. While I wouldn’t say you should expect too much on this front, I was glad to see that some small effort was made.

Games in this style are never really about the overarching narrative. The meat of the story is in the histories and personalities of the various characters that you meet in the game. Dark Deity has a playable cast of 30 characters from across the various kingdoms in the setting, five per base class in the game. In a game with 28 chapters you have all the available characters in your crew by chapter 20, meaning you’ll have a decent stretch of time with even the later characters to invest in their bonds. Bonds are a game mechanic – every character has 10 and having units fight close to potential bonds increases their affinity for one another and unlocks up to three conversations with that person. There are no limits to how many of these conversations you can have and there are no universal in-game benefits for creating bonds. However, certain classes do benefit from bonds, so it would be inaccurate to say they have no mechanical effect at all.

Bonds are well-spaced through the story and have a good mix of connecting directly to things that just happened in the narrative or being totally unrelated but adding more to the lore of the setting or the history and relationships between the characters. One thing I feel that Dark Deity does well from a narrative standpoint is that it doesn’t rely overmuch on exposition to give you information. The game gives you just enough to know what’s important right now and let’s the bonds fill in details, or teaches you about the setting by actually having you go places and interact with people. For example, at one point in the game you start meeting characters who are elves. Unless you really scour the weapon or spell descriptions to catch a hint of them, you can easily get to this point without even knowing this is a setting where elves are a thing. Sharing information in this way – never too far in advance and always directly linked to a character you are meeting or have already grown to care about – makes learning about the setting feel like less of a chore.

One thing I’d love to see in a future update for the game would be an archive of the bond conversations similar to what Fire Emblem does for supports. Being able to review conversations you have already seen and – perhaps more importantly – see which ones you don’t have yet so you can focus on getting them would be a huge boon. Chances are good you’re not coming to Dark Deity for the story and what’s there isn’t going to blow you away, but the game makes up for its relatively stereotypical setting by using good storytelling techniques to convey the information in a way that keeps the action moving and keeps unnecessary info from clogging up your mental space. Significance is put where it needs to be – the characters on your team that you are becoming invested in both mechanically and emotionally as you play. In this way, Dark Deity has a solid narrative and I came away from that aspect of the experience satisfied.

MAPS AND OBJECTIVES
In a chapter-based tactics game like this one your maps and the missions you are meant to accomplish upon them are a key part of the experience. Maps that are too large and complicated and take a significant amount of time to navigate can make the game feel overlong and discourage you from playing much at a time (Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn) but maps that are generic and featureless can make each fight blend together, failing to incorporate the tactics element that makes a title in this genre appealing in the first place (Fire Emblem: Echoes). It can also be frustrating if the goal of every single map is to just kill every enemy, as it rewards a specific approach to play and doesn’t reward you for raising characters who are better suited to a different objective. So how are the maps in Dark Deity, and do the missions you complete upon them keep the experience compelling from chapter to chapter?

Any game with 28 chapters is likely to have some hits and some duds, and Dark Deity is no exception. In general, I think the game trends towards more open concepts where you can move units around more freely, but don’t have as many opportunities to utilize the layout of the battlefield to your advantage. There are definitely standouts and they are spread out decently well, but you will have times where there are a couple of maps in a row that feel like different skins on the same open field. The good maps though are pretty solid and really get you thinking about how to best take advantage of what different party members do best, challenging you to experiment with your formations. In general, this made battles that took place inside of structures more interesting because the use of rooms, hallways, barricades, and even teleportation went a long way towards adding flavor to a mission. One important note about terrain – there are not really terrain “tiles” like in Fire Emblem where you get benefits from being located on a certain type of space. There are some that reduce your movement, and this can sometimes be unclear because blank tiles don’t have tooltips that explain if they have any unique functions. But generally, the look of tiles is strictly aesthetic and variety comes from barriers to movement or special types of movement that a map affords to your army.

From an objective standpoint, the game has a mix that will look pretty familiar to anyone coming to Dark Deity from Fire Emblem: beat all the bad guys, beat a specific bad guy, survive for this many turns, get someone to a specific place, etc. Some of the more interesting maps split your characters into smaller parties focused on different goals – maybe one party has to defeat an enemy or group of enemies while the other defends a location in the meantime. Even when smaller parties didn’t have distinct objectives, having to consider which characters to group together and which part of the map to place them on could make an otherwise simple map idea more compelling and challenging. There were definitely a few such maps where I had to reset more than once just experimenting with where exactly to put people in order to get off the ground running and not start losing characters immediately. While “defeat the boss” is probably the game’s most common objective, it’s also one that gets experimented with in some interesting ways. More powerful bosses will have massive pools of health with unique ways to deplete them, requiring a very different approach than just sending your strongest couple of units to team up on a guy who’s a bit tougher than the other baddies on the field. Overall, there’s enough variety in objectives to break up the action and keep the pace interesting. Not every map is great, but the standouts feel worthwhile and there are only one or two missions that I would say were notably unpleasant.

MECHANICS OF THE LONG GAME
In my previous article on Dark Deity I tackled my first impressions of the game’s weapon and advantage system as well as the class system. It’s one thing to see those gameplay elements in action for a few chapters. How do they work over time as you move through a whole campaign? A system that starts strong can become grating over time depending on its implementation. And seeing all the class and weapon possibilities in action tells a broader story than simply experimenting with a couple of midtier classes. I also want to use this section to talk about some aspects of the mechanics that I didn’t address at all in my first impressions, namely: bugs.

Dark Deity is an indie title that’s only been out for about two weeks. It has a small development team and was financed through crowdfunding. So the occasional typo here and there was something that didn’t get me too fussed during my first impressions. In the early chapters of the game, one time I experienced a weird bug where a character was appearing visually on a different tile than where the cursor would highlight them. When I placed another character in that adjacent tile, it became impossible to move the first character because clicking on them was technically clicking on an empty space, and clicking on the space where the game registered them to be was actually clicking on the second character. Because this only happened to me once and because the game had already been updated before I published my article, I didn’t include anything about the bug. However, the update didn’t perfectly fix the bug, so it was an issue I continued to deal with throughout the campaign. These “shadow units” on the wrong tiles occurred maybe five or six times throughout the course of my run, sometimes easily addressed and sometimes really causing some challenges. On one map, a character got stuck in his position for multiple turns in a row until I was finally able to jostle him out of it. During the final boss battle, there were a couple of turns where the boss couldn’t be targeted at all because the game was reading him on the wrong tile. Another bug causes the movement and attack ranges of enemies to display incorrectly, so sometimes I would think a unit was safe but in reality they were still within reach. None of these bugs were game breaking and generally I was able to find workarounds or recover from whatever setbacks resulted from them, but if a bug-free experience is important to you then this is something to keep in mind. But hey, in Dark Deity’s defense, XCOM 2 is buggy as hell too and I played that game all the way through too. No studio is immune to this stuff and what I would say is encouraging is the fact that the devs are actively patching the game and even adding features during this early phase of the game’s release.

Now let’s shift back to the intended experience of Dark Deity. I spoke in my first impressions on the weapon system in which each character has four weapons, one per category: power, finesse, focus, and balance. This allows you to prioritize damage, critical hits, accuracy, or speed, respectively – all based on what weapons you invest your upgrade tokens in. Tokens exist in four tiers and for the first three tiers, spending two tokens will upgrade a weapon to the next tier and make it noticeably more effective. This benefit carries over to new weapon types when a character changes classes, but tokens cannot be un-invested and weapons cannot be traded between two characters who wield the same type. In other words, once a token is spent it’s going to stay where you put it. This creates a sort of sunk-cost fallacy where you may not want to remove a character from your party who already has a bunch of tokens spent on their gear. My recommendation would be to save some tokens for new characters rather than spending them all at once. While you will once the midgame really gets rolling want to eventually form a crew of 14 regulars to carry through the game, you’ve got some time before you’ll want to start making those choices. Save your resources until you know who you want to really invest in, then give those characters your tokens.

Dark Deity’s class system also contains multiple tiers. There are six basic classes: Warrior, Ranger, Rogue, Cleric, Adept, and Mage. At level 10, each of these bases then receives four mid-tier options to choose from. At level 30, four final-tier options open up, each of which logically expands on the mid-tier choices (there’s literally an achievement called Canon for staying on the same row when choosing the third tier class). Whenever a character joins above level 10, you get to choose their mid-tier class for them, customizing not only your party makeup to suit your needs but also modifying the character’s starting stats to be most appropriate for the class option you chose. This is a nice way to have a new character step into the party to fill a need and do so with viable stats for their role. Once you unlock the final tier of classes, you can choose something that builds on the strengths you’ve already invested in for that character or you can diversify, experimenting with how skills from a different branch of the class tree work with the ones you have already. Some classes double down hard on what made them tick in the first place (like Gale to Windrunner or Raider to Slayer) while others change up the feel of the class and unlock some creative new options (Dragoon to Dragon Knight, for example). With your core crew consisting of 14 characters, you definitely won’t get to meaningfully experiment with every class option or potential combination of skills, making subsequent playthroughs to fiddle with the possibilities an enticing premise.

Speaking of class skills, one thing I wanted to discuss about Dark Deity in relation to those skills is the heavy reliance on random chance in the game’s mechanics. Fire Emblem already has lots of randomness between the accuracy rolls, the critical hit chance, the growth rates – RNG can make or break your experience. Dark Deity leans into that approach even harder than even the most random of Fire Emblem titles. Many classes have a percentage chance of a damage boost baked into their skills, or they increase the likelihood or power of a critical hit and encourage you to fish for crits during combat. In particular when it comes to critical hits, there are lots of ways to increase a crit rate but there is not really a tool in the game for reducing the likelihood that you’ll suffer a critical hit. This manifests as enemy units often being significantly more likely to crit than in any FE title I have played, and it can be frustrating to have an otherwise flawless run through a chapter suddenly be ruined by a crit from a random enemy unit. My tactical RPG philosophy is that giving the player knowledge rather than giving the player a gamble is always the better choice, and giving me no mechanisms to mitigate critical hits outside of “don’t get attacked” didn’t feel great in later parts of the game. I understand that at some level, one could argue this is to give an edge to the game and make it more challenging, but in tactical RPGs I prefer the challenge to come from carefully choosing which character to utilize to best meet a specific opponent or task rather than just sending everyone forward in a mad rush and praying that I get all the crits instead of the bad guys.

Overall, I found Dark Deity most fun to play when I was making decisions about how to build my characters in terms of their weapons and classes. The satisfaction of seeing an investment made during the base preparation screen pay off in battle was great; less so when my investments didn’t matter because “oh god, that enemy is using their finesse weapon and just did 70 damage to my mage because of a 14% crit chance.” I will say that this problem really didn’t start cropping up until late game and that much of my experience was enjoyable. I also appreciate that a character losing all of their HP isn’t as harshly penalized in Dark Deity as in FE or XCOM where it means the permanent loss of a character – although I did still tend to reset if a character took a heavy loss to an important stat like speed.

IN SUMMARY
Dark Deity approaches the quality of its inspiration in some areas but ultimately falters due to technical issues and an overreliance on RNG as a mechanism for creating difficult encounters. Open maps overpopulated with enemies who all had a 10% chance to instantly wreck a member of your crew are easily the most frustrating part of the experience, especially when a fumble is caused by a technical issue with the game’s positioning mechanics. But the class system is great, particularly its implementation in regards to recruiting characters who are high enough level for a mid-tier class. The weapon system is a fun experiment that I think has meaningful pros compared to the typical approach in Fire Emblem. And on the maps where the battlefield takes an interesting shape and the objectives of the mission challenge you to think carefully about how to utilize your units, you get to see where Dark Deity really shines. Combine all of that with a story that – while standard – uses smart narrative design to highlight its best features and the game is worthy of the comparisons to its inspiration. However, unlike titles such as Stardew Valley or Bug Fables, Dark Deity does not build on the systems of its inspiration so effectively as to surpass them. If you’re a fan of Fire Emblem then chances are good you’ll enjoy Dark Deity too – just don’t expect it to stand tall with the stronger entries in the series.

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