No Fire Emblem featured in Nintendo's E3 2021 Direct? Don't worry, it got me sad too. That sadness might be cured with the help of a new studio called Sword & Axe and their first-ever developed title, Dark Deity. Rarely is Fire Emblem imitated, perhaps due to how daunting it is to create a competent and fun tactical RPG. Sword & Axe attempted to do just that, and the results are both good and bad. To Dark Deity's benefit, it is certainly a game resembling and taking inspiration from Fire Emblem from its Game Boy Advance days; on the other hand, it is a title plagued with technical issues and puzzling omissions, greatly hindering my enjoyment.
For full transparency, while I was able to grasp Dark Deity's gameplay systems enough to make a critique, I didn't complete the game itself. It was nearly impossible for me to do so when I encountered widespread crashes, resulting in hours of lost gameplay. Currently, the developers are continuing to implement patches to fix these issues, but Dark Deity is still in a volatile state of continuous change, making it difficult to suggest.
Dissecting Dark Deity's Rampant Technical Difficulties
Dark Deity plays like old Fire Emblem games. You take command of a group of individual soldiers, each with their own class, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. On grid-based maps, you'll command these soldiers, level them up, and upgrade them throughout your campaign. Being grid-based, I always found that these types of games benefit from using a controller and not a mouse. While Dark Deity utilizes both control schemes, a bulk of the game's difficulty came from using the controller itself.
The mouse and Xbox One controller I used seemed to be in a constant conflict, as though one was begging to be played with the other being left behind. Using my Xbox One controller would often result in the screen sticking on a unit and not registering my inputs; only by clicking with my mouse was I able to actually use my controller again. At times, I'd have to mash my buttons wantonly in order to get any input in the game.
In between campaign chapters, it was a struggle to navigate through menus and upgrade my units' weapons and trade items amongst my team.
As of several new updates since release, controller issues are being resolved. To me, using a controller still feels somewhat unresponsive and clunky. Navigating menus is also a hassle while preparing your army for war. Trading items between units and purchasing from the shop is weirdly complicated, and this is only exacerbated by the controller issues.
The second and most severe issue with my gameplay experience was the crashing. I would get the occasional crash in Dark Deity's chapters. In one chapter, I lost my progress twice in a row after two crashes. This came after making my way through the map, so it felt like a waste of time. The current chapter I left off on would take a miracle to finish. Any time I get close to completing it, I experience another crash and have to reset the entire thing. Current updates are addressing these patches, but it is an ongoing process for the development team, so they still might occur in many different situations. .
One theoretical solution to the crashes—other than fixing them outright—is to add an ability to save in the middle of a chapter. Fire Emblem utilizes a suspend system, which is a separate save that is done in the middle of a chapter and can be continued later on. In Dark Deity, you have to go through the entire chapter from start to finish in order to proceed. Should you have to leave in the middle of a map and quit, all your progress goes back to the save right before starting the battle. Suspend is easily the most pressing feature that should be included in Dark Deity, and one I've seen requested by the community a great amount as well. Maybe then I'd be able to finish the game.
Dark Deity's Gameplay, Both Engaging and Enraging
One of the most evident and glaring issues in terms of Dark Deity's gameplay was its lack of tutorials. The units you command all have individual weapons, which can be upgraded later on as you accrue tokens. The thing is, I have no idea why I should use one weapon over another. These weapons are split into four categories: Power, Finesse, Focus, and Balance. My best guess is that, based on the stats of each individual weapon, one favors more damage over another, with others having more of a focus on accuracy and critical. I could be wrong though since it's never explained. The new tutorial system implemented in updates does help to some degree, but it takes the player's initiative to find these tutorials rather than them popping up for the players to learn while they play.
Therefore, most of Dark Deity's mechanics are learned only by playing, not reading. If I were an outsider to the TRPG genre, I would have been in big trouble. Because it plays so similarly to Fire Emblem, my brain could fill in the gaps that were left unexplained by the missing explanations.
Many more systems remain unexplained or require the player to go out of their way to find out. Death, for example, is not permanent in Dark Deity. I knew this from the start, as I have interviewed the developers prior to playing. For players who are brand new to the game, they might be surprised to learn that death isn't permanent for units and only results in a loss of stats. They wouldn't know this until it happens, though, because it's never told to the player. Should the player seek the newly added tutorials, they would find this out, but it will not pop up on its own.
The sad truth is, Dark Deity is a very fun game without all the excess weight bogging it down; the weight of glitches and bugs, as well as shoddy explanations for its core gameplay systems. There's a lot to like in Dark Deity with its extremely competent map design. The maps that I played were superb, with intriguing layouts and objectives other than just "rout." I truly do wish I could see more, but with my progress at a standstill, I'll have to wait until more fixes come.
I also appreciate how diverse the classes are, and the promotion path given to units as they level up. There is a lot of room to customize units and create a team that feels individualized. Moreover, I love the option to customize your campaign. You can, for example, increase or decrease the amount of gold and experience your units gain. The potential here is incredible. You could theoretically play Dark Deity dozens of times and have a different experience. Combined with the RNG factor of level-ups and the like, it's got a lot of replayability.
Dark Deity | Final Thoughts
While Dark Deity's gameplay certainly takes the forefront of my critique, I cannot forget the art design. I love the characters and their individual looks. Their portraits look clean, crisp, and full of life. On the battlefield, character sprites resemble that Game Boy Advance style of older Fire Emblem titles, and battle cutscenes make this comparison even more overt. While I think it's hardly fair to compare Fire Emblem's legendary sprite art to Dark Deity, I will give a lot of credit to Sword & Axe for creating great animations for each unit. The sprite art on the battlefield is less than stellar, however, and doesn't match the quality of character sprites.
Dark Deity is a game I wanted to love. It's the type of game I've waited years for. I wanted a competent substitute for Fire Emblem or something that innovated on the concepts of that series. What I got was a fun time for what I was able to play, but with progress being hindered along the way, I couldn't help but see all the very valid, real underlying issues with Dark Deity's design. I know the development team is very passionate and capable of creating their vision and make it come true. Wait on this title as it gets updates, but now is still feels more like an Early Access title than a full release. Right now, it's not there just yet, but down the road, I'd love to finish this journey once and for all.
TechRaptor reviewed Dark Deity on PC using a copy provided by the publisher.
- Competant and Well-made Maps
- Robust Campaign and Unit Customization
- Glaring Technical Issues, Including Crashes
- Shoddy Tutorials and General Lack of Explanations
- No Suspend Feature