Dark Deity lead developer Chip Moore is a firm believer: there should be more games like Fire Emblem. And the game shows that clearly: it’s an homage to those grid-based games. Animations. Weapons. Archetypes. It’s a new game that wants to feel familiar, delivering some fun gameplay stuff without pulling you out of your comfort zone.
In Dark Deity, you control a small band of fighters. Your role in the story… changes! A lot! As you might expect from a game in this genre. But your team stays together. No matter what! Which is a departure from games like Fire Emblem.
Instead of “permadeath” — a unit goes down, they’re dead forever — Dark Deity uses what it calls the “Grave Wounds” system. When a fighter goes down in battle, one of their stats is randomly chosen and decreased by ten percent. You still want to avoid this, for sure, but the idea is to make it less painful to keep your finger off the reset button.
Sometimes it’s okay! Your slow character loses even more speed, or your mage takes a strength hit. Other times? Not so much. So Dark Deity’s late-game backup characters are more for if unlucky level-ups and a few wounds have left a character largely ineffective.
Of course, you can fix a character if you really want! That’s because Dark Deity streamlines its shop and weapon systems. Stat-increasing items are expensive, but they’re always available to you. There’s no weapon durability, and all character weapons can be upgraded through a generic token of increasing tier. Each class has four types of weapons. One focuses on damage, one on accuracy, one on critical hit rate and the last finds some middle ground between these.
It’s generally not a mistake to go with the balanced option, but some characters benefit from leaning in one direction. Like patching up your low-accuracy melee tank? Or building up a slow, one-shot archer to take out targets that hit back hard if you let them? The fun of the game largely lies in finding and making these interesting character builds.
While Dark Deity is interesting and fun in a lot of ways, it sure is also a small-team indie game. It doesn’t explain itself very well, often asking you to make unit promotion choices for new characters without using them or knowing their strengths. It glitches out in menus and drops controller support until you fiddle with things for a bit. To enjoy the game, you need to have an understanding and tolerance of these limits, even if some of the tech issues get patched along the way.
Aesthetically, the game gets some things right. Battle sprites and animations are on-point and nostalgic. They look like GBA-era Fire Emblem in all the right ways, and look better and more detailed in others. They’re expressive, and they make characters look like they’re having fun out there. The unit portraits are fine, too, and the choice to use Awakening-style partial voice lines works for the game and also feels right.
The maps do let down the rest of the experience a bit. Not from a gameplay perspective! Sure, some maps are open and largely featureless, but these generally focus on one boss or objective, and the more detailed and lengthy battles have interesting tactical confines. But visually, the environments never measure up to the characters within them. And some of the maps really do look a bit phoned in. You can push through it, though, for the most part. (There’s one map that uses similarly-colored portals, and that one’s a nightmare for those with normal vision, much less colorblind players.)
But about those tactics: there’s a clear attempt to vary the feel of each map. Sometimes you escape an unbeatable wave of foes. Sometimes you slip through the corridors of a prison. You even sometimes just fight one big dragon? And even on normal maps, you’re often presented with different start positions and given that strategic choice. The idea is that one set of character builds won’t carry you through everything.
And those builds are a big part of the game, too. Each unit has one innate special skill. At levels 10 and 30, you promote them to one of four classes, and each has stat modifiers and two new skills. The promotion tree is flexible, so you can pivot at level 30 to something completely different and have a distinct set of skills. Or just stick to the one and specialize? But these choices essentially are the game.
Dark Deity’s campaign is reasonable, with about 20 hours of gameplay if you play at a decent pace. The replay value comes from the game’s wealth of customization options. There’s a set of sliders to adjust experience and gold. There’s a setting to randomize the order you recruit new heroes. Even more challenging is the “randomize enemy weapons” option, as it totally throws off the balance of intended play.
These sorts of things have been modded into strategy-RPGs in the past, but Dark Deity supporting them out of the box certainly makes it well-suited for challenge-seeking players (and content creators) who want to mess with the settings. Is it a good way to play? Probably not, but that’s not the point. This genre attracts players who love pain.
Dark Deity is a small game that understands its limitations. It delivers thought-provoking battles, if not necessarily the most balanced ones. It gives players a lot of tactical choice, if not in the most informed way. And it cuts clear corners, but it feels like they’re the right corners to cut. Because what’s here is a fun time.
Dark Deity, developed by Sword & Axe and published by Freedom Games, is out now on PC via Steam.