Darksiders III review: Souls in the wind

THQ Nordic
THQ Nordic /

Back from a six-year break, Darksiders III introduces a new Horseman of the Apocalypse and a fresh set of mechanics that make combat and exploration as rewarding as ever.

Title: Darksiders III
Developer: Gunfire Games
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Platforms: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Release Date: November 27, 2018

Much like its predecessor, Darksiders III is a game that refuses to shackle itself to any specific structure or systems merely because they were previously part of the series. Instead, it carefully and unabashedly remixes proven mechanics from other contemporary third-person action-adventure games in order to focus on intimate melee combat where every enemy matters and worthwhile exploration.

With the apocalypse in full swing and the forces of Heaven and Hell duking it out in the ruined streets of Earth, The Four Horsemen are called upon by the Charred Council to act as a force of balance. Taking on the role of Fury, an outcast of sorts within the Horsemen, the player is sent on a mission to find and defeat the Seven Deadly Sins. Not everything is as it seems, and as Fury ignorantly disposes of her targets, a grand conspiracy tediously and predictably unravels itself in the background.

Fury herself also suffers from the rather cliché reluctant protagonist arc, following orders and despising the world she’s meant to protect, only to learn to think for herself and eventually love what she previously swore off. Despite spending much of her journey unquestioningly and sarcastically slaughtering everything in her path, a strong performance from Cissy Jones and just enough small moments of charm result in a character that’s endearing enough to overcome the hollowness of incessant rage and anger.

Combat in Darksiders III is focused heavily on managing individual or small groups of enemies with agile, stamina-free melee combat. Most typical adversaries don’t require too many hits to take out, but neither does the player if caught on the wrong foot, leading to encounters that can quickly become overwhelming. To help overcome this, Fury wields a whip blade with exceptional reach and a wide arc, providing a powerful repellent when surrounded and minimizing the need for precision.

Despite opting for a relatively streamlined combat system where the vast majority of attacks come from a single button (square on PS4), there are still plenty combos that can be learned and mastered to gain an advantage. Most combos are relatively simple that even when mashing Attack, it’s not unusual to accidentally pull an enemy in close, launch them into the air, and then slam them to the ground. It’s a system that makes the player feel powerful no matter what their skill level is.

By defeating enemies or using certain consumables, the player will also separately build the wrath and havoc meters. Activating the havoc form will transform Fury into a giant, glowing monstrosity that is impervious to attacks and regains health by doing damage, a great last-ditch effort in boss battles.

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The wrath meter produces special elemental effects based on the currently equipped secondary weapon, such as damage over time with fire or mini electrified tornados. Along with these extra weapons gained throughout the game, the wrath and havoc abilities seem designed to add optional build variety more than anything else. And for better or worse, they can generally be used as much or as little as you’d like.

Defensively, the player’s most important tool is the ability to dodge. Not only does this allow for quickly creating distance from a target or avoiding attacks with favorable amounts of invincibility frames, but it also acts as a counter or parry-like system. That’s because dodging just as an attack is about to land briefly slows down time and leaves the enemy exposed.

The resulting counter-attack often stuns enemies, acts as crowd control, or gives the player an opening to chain a new combo, making it vital to get the hang of early on. Thankfully, there’s only a very brief cooldown, allowing it to feel satisfying and not held back in the name of balance. The game certainly doesn’t overly punish the player for using it liberally.

Flame demon
THQ Nordic /

Healing is another major consideration in Darksiders III and comes in two flavors. Nephilim’s Respite pulls from a limited reserve that will occasionally refill by killing enemies and fully do so upon the player’s death. There’s also healing shards that are one-time consumables looted or purchased with souls.

Using either of these will completely remove Fury’s ability to move or attack for several seconds which feels a little at odds with the game’s general lack of desire to dole out severe punishment. Combined with the speed and tenacity of enemies, it’s also often difficult to find a good window of opportunity to use them, successfully making healing a tactical element that requires planning and positioning in the tug-of-war style dances that fights often become.

There’s also the option to lock on to specific enemies, using the right analog stick to switch between them. Interestingly, this has the additional benefit of revealing a health bar for the enemy currently focused on, which can be helpful when deciding how aggressive to be. But unfortunately, it often ends up making things more difficult because of how it reduces frontal visibility by locking the camera low to the ground. This is especially dire when trying to recognize specific attacks from multiple enemies.

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Most boss fights involve some mechanic meant to make them distinct from one another. One regenerates health by killing smaller enemies around the arena, another takes place underwater and involves exploding mines, and of course, there’s the ever classic two on one situation.

But even with this in mind, none of them are inspired enough to transcend the game they’re in. Other than being more capable offensively and defensively, they often feel like bigger versions of enemies found throughout the rest of the game, especially since the key to victory is more or less the same: combo, dodge, counter, and repeat.

Giving bosses some personality, pre-fight cutscenes see Fury engage in conversation with her targets. Disappointingly, most of them boil down to failed attempts at seducing her to their cause, remarking on how she’s a pawn in someone else’s plan, or both.

It’s a nice attempt to give these characters a few moments to shine, but considering these make up a large portion of the game’s cutscenes, it’s hard not to see them as missed opportunities to more delicately escalate and reveal the larger mystery at hand.

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  • Taking place primarily in a modern city ravaged by destruction and overgrown with fantastical elements, Darksiders III is comprised of several thematically distinct, sprawling areas that interconnect with each other in a way that gives its world a personality despite a mostly nonspecific aesthetic.

    Seeing bosses lurk off in the distance, or temporarily passing through later parts of the game creates an exceptional sense of non-linearity while still having clear paths forward.

    About a quarter of the way through the game, things start to open up as multiple main routes become available, and players are allowed some agency in which Sin they pursue. It’s at this point that it’s easy to feel lost and turned around, but there are several clever ways that Darksiders III eases the overwhelming pressure of being presented with a number of unknown options.

    The most immediately helpful is a compass that will always point you in the direction towards the nearest boss. This means it’s impossible to ever truly lose your way without the game using the explicitness of a map. And since it identifies the general critical path, the player is encouraged to confidently explore every nook and cranny knowing they aren’t mistakenly going the ‘correct’ way.

    Fast travel points also generously cut down on the time it takes to return to specific areas, and concise level design that’s built around a healthy amount of shortcuts, which are often rewards in and of themselves, prevents traveling on foot from devolving into a chore.

    Along the same lines, optional side paths never go on for too long, providing just enough space to explore without feeling like you’re slowly being dragged further and further away from where you’re trying to go. This, in turn, makes the hunt for extra souls, upgrade materials, and even optional mini-bosses all the more enticing and worthy of the minimal time required.

    Like many games that encourage or require backtracking, you’ll come across several spots that are impassable until certain traversal and offensive abilities are unlocked. Going back to these specific areas can be very beneficial, but the game does an excellent job of naturally bringing the player back to them in short order, lessening the burden of feeling beholden to immediately abandoning the current objective.

    The general procedure for making your way to each boss involves opening shortcuts as you move from checkpoint to checkpoint, fighting a plethora of enemies, and frequently solving environmental based puzzles. Many of these puzzles use a similar set of mechanics and solutions, such as exploding bugs, finding ways to get moveable platforms in place, and pressure based switches.

    One nice detail is how some abilities gained later in the game supersede earlier puzzle types, leading to a feeling of getting stronger not just in combat, but exploration as well. None of the puzzles are overly taxing on the mind, but there are a few late game ones that are difficult to complete even when the solution is obvious. This is usually because of the very precise timing that’s required, and they’re by far the most frustrating parts of the game.

    Face off with Sloth
    THQ Nordic /

    Character progression in Darksiders III is handled primarily by gaining souls from defeated enemies and consumables found through exploration. Dying with souls will drop them on the spot, requiring the player to return to the site to collect them.

    Unlike other games that employ a similar system, multiple instances of dropped souls can exist at once, significantly reducing the penalty of successive deaths. Combined with there being no way to respawn enemies other than purposely dying, Darksiders III is clearly less focused on grinding and more on propelling the player forward.

    At checkpoints, souls can be fed into a pool that will eventually grant the player a new level and an attribute point which can be used to increase health, base damage, or special ability damage. It’s a somewhat limited approach to leveling, but with decent gains per level and the inability to spread yourself too thin, it has the advantage of always making you feel like you’re getting stronger and more capable.

    As a way to add a bit more variety, Darksiders III gives the player several ancillary upgrade opportunities: increasing weapon levels, equipping enchantments that give bonuses like more invincibility frames when dodging, and items that increase the maximum number and effectiveness of Nephilim’s Respite. There are even items that give Fury a free level.

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    Although none of these systems are particularly robust, they intertwine with each other such that as long as you’re taking the time to explore the world, there’s a constant sense of progress in one way or another.

    Unfortunately for Darksiders III, there are a fair number of technical and performance problems that consistently plague the experience. The framerate can struggle with large groups of enemies and even sometimes when there’s none at all, geometry will frequently pop-in on the edges of the screen as the game attempts to render everything fast enough, load times on death or through fast travel can take thirty or more seconds, and the game will occasionally briefly freeze on invisible boundaries between zones.

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    There were even a couple of hard crashes, one soft lock after attempting to exit the game when the next zone refused to load in, and two instances where all audio from the PS4 cut out until the game was closed. Because Darksiders III autosaves almost constantly, crashes don’t cause much of an issue other than having to relaunch the game, but the performance hiccups are a pill a little more difficult to swallow.

    The strength of Darksiders III’s combat and exploration loops were enough to soothe and overshadow these issues, never letting it reach the point of being unplayable. But they’re also prevalent enough that they’re impossible to ignore, and people sensitive to such things might have a considerably more frustrating time.

    . Darksiders III. 8. In the best way possible, <em>Darksiders III</em> is a game that feels restrained in its design. Its game structure, systems, and mechanics are all incredibly lean, providing just enough depth while also avoiding getting bogged down by bloat. <em>Darksiders III</em> constantly finds ways to reward the player, culminating in an addicting adventure that’s difficult to put down.. Gunfire Games

    A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.