I realized roughly halfway through Darksiders III that, despite my best efforts, I’d been greedily swallowed up and unceremoniously spat back into the year 2000. Unlikely as this sounds, it’s the only explanation I can come up with as to why, in the year 2018, I was pushing giant blocks on top of switches to progress through a video game.
It’s been 17 years since Devil May Cry; long enough for all its derivative character action offspring to grow up and spawn little sub-genres of their own. Platinum perfected the formula with Bayonetta, then lent their talents to the transcendent Nier: Automata. God of War at least tried something new. Even Darksiders II pulled off a sprawling ode to Metroid, Prince of Persia, and Diablo. And yet here I am, once again, pushing giant blocks on top of switches to progress through linear corridors.
And you know what? I was actually enjoying myself. Darksiders III is one of the better PS3 middleware games I’ve played in a while. The thing’s priced and marketed like a full, modern release, however. That’s a problem. Stacked up against its contemporaries, this somewhat entertaining action-adventure game feels anemic and unambitious.
Not Exactly Furious
Even if Darksiders III never surprised me, I can’t say it bored me, either. The combat that makes up the bulk of gameplay was fluid and responsive. It carried me through the entire 16-hour runtime, anyway. Tight dodge windows and hard-hitting enemies make the game feel more like Bloodborne than a Platinum title, too. Over the course of the game, there are four weapons to unlock on top of Fury’s (the protagonist) starting chain whip. Each has its own move set—acting as “heavy” attacks to the whip’s “light” ones—and each comes with a unique counter that activates after perfectly timed dodges.
The ultra-responsive dodge, short-but-clearly-telegraphed attacks, and Fury’s relatively squishy health bar all make even throwaway combat encounters feel like intense, focused duels. Tracking multiple enemies sometimes makes the camera spin around like a drunken ostrich on a broken Roomba, but on-screen attack indicators are a functional, if inelegant, solution to this.
Combat is that much more satisfying thanks to some great enemy design. Even when recycled environments start to grate, the technicolor “Joe Madureira meets gritty Saturday morning cartoon” style keeps the lineup of beasties interesting. Even mainstays like skeletons and giant crabs have a uniquely Darksiders twist. Although Madureira didn’t directly work on this sequel, besides Fury’s concept art.
Fury herself is on the hunt for the seven deadly sins, and the design of those boss encounters is similarly inventive. My personal favorite is Sloth: a chittering, corpulent mantis transported on a throne of crabs. Unfortunately, this visual novelty doesn’t extend to the fights themselves, which are mostly straight duels with little in the way of gimmicks or spectacle. They are fun. Hitting things in Darksiders III is nearly always fun. It’s just nothing especially memorable.
Darksiders III’s world is “open” in that you can return to areas you’ve previously visited. You can occasionally use a giant, magical sausage on giant, magical sausage doors you saw two hours earlier to nab collectibles. It sometimes borrows a trick or two out of From Software’s playbook, too. So you can unlock shortcuts for a quicker trip from checkpoint to checkpoint. Mostly, though, it’s linear with just the occasional wide-open space. There are no side quests, very few optional areas, and no optional story content.
There are puzzles, though! They’re the genuine “make you stop and think for a good 15 seconds about what to do next” variety. For all its retrograde design choices, Darksiders III occasionally made me nostalgic for what we’ve lost in gaming’s quest for verisimilitude. Most of these puzzles make very little sense as part of a larger, functional environment, but this disregard for architectural coherence makes them more interesting.
A Hard-Hitting Bore
With each new weapon unlock, Fury also gains new abilities, which allow puzzles to become more complex as the game progresses. Every time I gained a new power, I’d receive a few test puzzles to prepare me for something more complicated—a set piece that would force me to utilize everything I’d learned up to that point. At least that’s what I expected. The climactic puzzles never actually appeared. There are one or two sections that require you to use multiple powers, but they’re rarely anything more complicated than matching abilities with conveniently color coded environments.
You might notice I haven’t mentioned story yet. That’s because Fury is so dull and unlikable that it’s genuinely difficult to muster up any enthusiasm for her tale. She’s effectively a walking sneer with a handful of edgy one liners and duff jokes. There’s some crowbarred-in character growth later on (in that she starts as a complete dick and later becomes only somewhat of a dick), but that’s about it. Darksiders III isn’t interesting enough to get invested, and takes itself far too seriously to even be campy fun.
And now it’s time for the Obligatory Technical Performance Paragraph. I couldn’t find an opportunity for a silky smooth segue earlier, so I’m putting it here. On the PC version, I suffered six or so hard crashes, and a couple bugs that forced me to restart. That said, the game is generous with checkpoints and I rarely lost much progress. There are some fairly heavy frame drops during intense combat, though. It is what it is (and what it is is slightly inconvenient).
The Missing Legacy
As a rule, I feel it’s unfair to judge a game on failing to achieve something it never attempted in the first place. Darksiders III makes no promise to be a God of War– esque cinematic epic. In many ways, it’s refreshing to play something so thoroughly unpretentious. It also doesn’t aim for the systemic depth or variety of Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, nor the subversive introspection of a Nier: Automata.
Unfortunately, it also lacks the ambition of its own predecessors. That sense of downscaling—of reduction and repetition and constraint—permeates the entire experience. I’m tempted to say that it’s entertaining enough. It’s certainly fun enough. But really, enough for what? If the answer is “enough to be worth your time and money over anything else on your steadily increasing pile of shame,” then no. Darksiders III is not enough.
Also, despite what the trailers would have you believe, there are exactly zero horses in the game.