REVIEW: Dark Deity takes Tactical RPGs back to their Pixelated Roots
Choose your grid-based path carefully
Built from a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, Dark Deity is a tactical RPG that borrows heavily from Nintendo’s own Fire Emblem franchise, while adding its own twists to the genre. From the massive cast of characters and their engaging stories to the intricately-structured maps and unique weapons system, Dark Deity is a return to form for fans of classic TRPG games. Gone is the fat and bloat that can be found clinging to more modern TRPGs, replaced with an almost laser-focused attention to detail on the game’s grid-based levels and surprisingly deep combat, making Dark Deity feel like a fresh of breath air for anyone craving an old school TRPG experience – but not one without its own issues.
For anyone worried about spoilers, this review will be spoiler-free given the nature of the game’s plot. Dark Deity is very much a typical medieval fantasy story that’s filled to the brim with political intrigue, compelling lore, shifting alliances, and deeper motives that are all woven together in a way that keeps you on the edge of your seat. There were several points in Dark Deity where I expected things to resolve in a typical way, or that a chapter had reached its natural conclusion, only to have the story shaken up further. I wouldn’t want to spoil those moments of revelation and discovery for anyone, but I was impressed by the depth of the game’s story and how it managed to keep me thoroughly engaged and invested in the plight of the young heroes.
That all being said, Dark Deity has a relatively straightforward opening. You play as a small band of new recruits in the Delian army, a nation of farmers and tradespeople that has been at peace with its neighboring countries for 25 years – that is, until the young King Varic Val’Distar declares war on the nation of Aramor ten years after the assassination of his father, which he blames on the Aramoran royal family. In his quest for vengeance, King Varic plunges the nation of Delia into a brutal war with little regard for his own people. Needing soldiers to fight, he turns to the officer academy of Brookstead, enlisting not only the graduating class, but the entire academy into immediate service. This is where Irving, Garrick, Maren, and Alden enter the story – four close friends ready to take on the Academy Trials to advance in class rank, with the war being the furthest thing from their minds.
The game then drops you right into your first combat scenario with little fanfare. There is no tutorial, no explainers on how to play the game, what the different icons mean, if there’s a type of weapon system – nothing to help you get your bearings. You are seemingly expected to hit the ground running, but if you have any prior knowledge of grid-based tactics games, then it’s pretty straightforward. You must move your units within a certain amount of spaces to attack the enemy units, but also be cautious of leaving the rest of your units open to attack. However, you’ll quickly learn that Dark Deity is not just a Fire Emblem clone.
There are no equippable weapons in Dark Deity; instead, you have a standardized selection of four weapon/spell types: Power (priotizing damage), Finesse (prioritizing critical hits), Focus (prioritizing accuracy), and Balance (a blend of the previous three). Fire Emblem’s Weapon Triangle is also not replicated here; Dark Deity instead implements its own “Advantage System” based on the game’s nine damage types (not to be confused with weapon types) and 4 armor types. Depending on a unit’s armor type, they can take more or less damage from an enemy’s damage type, and vice versa. The effectiveness of attacks and defense is also further altered by a unit’s stats, which increase as your characters level up over the course of the game.
If the battle system sounds confusing and convoluted, that’s because it is, and it’s frankly one of the weaker aspects of Dark Deity – especially because the game does a poor job even explaining these mechanics. There is a tutorials menu you can access from the battle screen between turns that details some of these mechanics, but even those are just cliff-notes versions of what you can find documented in the game’s fandom wiki articles. However, once you wrap your head around all the ins and outs, the resulting gameplay feels intuitive and rewarding – and it’s nice not having to worry about a weapon breaking in the middle of an intense battle.
Dark Deity also differentiates itself from Fire Emblem in how it handles unit class changes. You don’t have to worry about finding or buying a seal to unlock your unit’s full potential. Once you hit a certain level, you get the option to upgrade your unit into a higher class on their class tree. For instance, the warrior is a first tier class. The second tier of this class has four options: knight, barbarian, defender, and dragoon. The third tier has four options as well: champion, berserker, sentinel, and dragon knight. Each character is tied to one of six classes, but they can move around within their own class tree, opening up a variety of combat possibilities. But again, all of this is automatic when you hit a certain level – and if you unlock a class upgrade after your unit has finished their turn in-battle, they get a second turn to attack again, which is super helpful during a tense fight.
Despite the overly-complicated battle system, the game shines in its art direction. Character art is clean and beautifully-drawn, with each possessing a variety of facial expressions as they communicate with each other both on and off the battlefield. In fact, building bonds between your characters is another great element of this game. While you start off the game with only four characters, you quickly amass a small army of companions that grows as you make your way through the story. As these characters fight alongside each other, you unlock conversations that you can initiate between the battles to strengthen the bonds between them.
These bonding conversations are wonderfully written, offering all sorts of insights into not only the characters themselves, but also the world they’re inhabiting. Sometimes the conversations are light and fluffy, giving you a glimpse into different character dynamics, while other times they are deep, existential reflections on the journey ahead. These bonding moments offer you no in-battle benefits or stat boosts, so you can skip them if you want to just get down to business, but if you do stop and listen, you’ll be rewarded with some extra color and context about the world’s history and how your band of heroes fit into it.
The maps are also as intricate as they are varied in their design. In one level you’re fighting in the middle of a town square, in another you’re battling two different armies through a massive canyon. You’ll even find yourself fleeing for your life through a forest, only to later confront the enemy in a series of treetop structures. The maps often feature unique mechanics, such as a series of teleportation squares that jettison you across the map, or an objective to open a drawbridge to end the fight, making each battle feel fresh and engaging. And of course, there’s the classic “survive X turns” and “route the enemy in X turns” that Fire Emblem fans all know and love.
It should also be noted that Dark Deity is not an easy game. You are thrown into tricky situations or up against more powerful enemies that really make you think about your moves and overall strategy. It’s deceptively difficult, and it’s very likely you’ll lose a few units along the way if you’re not extra vigilant in your tactics. Thankfully, permadeath is not a thing in this game, but if a unit falls in battle, they will take on a “grave wound” and have one of their stats permanently reduced by 10%. You can find or buy special items that can restore these stats, but purchasing them is not cheap. In reality, if a unit falls in a battle with wave after wave of enemies rushing toward you, it might be best to just restart the chapter and try again.
The sprite art and animations are another high point for Dark Deity. This game looks and feels like it was ripped right off an SNES or GBA cartridge, but the combat animations are much more complex than what you’d find on older hardware. The standard attacks all look great, with the elemental magic attacks being particularly fluid in their execution. Critical hits also feel like critical hits, with your characters jumping around the screen to slice down an enemy unit, or blasting them away with intense magic spells – and thanks to the large cast of characters and different classes, you get to experience a range of these animations in all their glory.
If you’re not interested in seeing the combat animations, or if you feel they get repetitive once you’re halfway through this 15-20 hour game, there is an option to turn animations off – but doing so is not the same as Fire Emblem, where the character sprites simply bump into each other on the map as they attack each other. There just isn’t any animation at all. The sprites in Dark Deity move across the map and then a screen pops up to let you know the outcome of the clash. This honestly felt jarring to me and made the battles advance unnaturally fast. A better alternative is to press the X button at the start of the enemy encounter, which skips the combat animations but still gives you a glimpse of your character. This is also handy if you want to skip the enemy attacks but want to see your character animations in full (there is no option to just turn off enemy animations, sadly).
In fact, in terms of settings and customizations, Dark Deity is rather lacking. You can turn combat animations on and off, as mentioned above, you can control the text speed and enable auto-scrolling, and you can adjust the movement speed of units on the battlefield. Outside of music and sound effects volumes, that’s pretty much it. This isn’t really an issue, but it’s important to note if you’re coming off of other modern TRPGs that give you a lot more control over your gameplay experience. Managing your units in-game is also more of a chore than you’d expect, with the various menus being both too simple and very unclear.
The game is not optimized for the use of a controller, which causes unwanted friction and frustration when interacting with the user interface. It can be difficult to see what you’re highlighting in a list of characters or items because the indications can be so subtle, and the joystick tends to move things much faster than you are intending, resulting in the occasional incorrect input (I accidentally ended my turn, which cost me one of my units in battle). Using the D-pad prevents some of these mistakes because it’s a slower, more precise navigation tool for this game, which is how I played the majority of the game, but these UX/UI shortcomings are borderline unacceptable in a game that requires you to navigate massive grid-based maps and extensive menus. It’s an unfortunate misstep in this port, considering how much attention went into every other aspect of this game.
There are a few other observations worth pointing out. The music in this game is nothing life-changing, and there’s not really a single iconic theme, but there is a solid variety of tracks for a relatively short game – some of which I’m still humming to myself. Leveling up units can also be a tad stressful because you can only do so if you deploy the unit into battle. The game only allows up to 14 units per battle, so if you’re not diligent about managing your characters’ levels to make sure they’re even, you’ll find yourself with a lopsided party of super strong and super weak units. The game helps balance this by giving you access to more powerful units every chapter or so to supplement your party, but that also means some of your original party members will likely stay on the bench just so you can stay on-par with the enemy units. It’s not necessarily a complaint, but something to keep in mind if you’re concerned about leveling up every single character.
Dark Deity is a very strong newcomer to the TRPG scene, with a compelling story, lovable characters, and a rich combat system that fans of classic tactics games are sure to love. While the UX is less-than-optimized for Switch, the game makes up for it with its impeccable sprite art, fluid combat animations, and intricate level design that make Dark Deity feel both old and new, offering a fresh dose of nostalgia for longtime fans of the genre.
About damn time TRPG is showing up a lot. Honestly, this genre is criminally underrated
Sounds up my alley, the only thing holding me back is i do 90% of my switch gaming in handheld mode, and i don't have an OLED switch, and some of the text in the screenshots on the eshop (or even for example the screenshot in this review with "Upgrades" at the top - the colored text in particular) looks really hard to read.
I didn’t find the text size to be too terrible to read, but I do understand the concern. Unfortunately, there isn’t a setting to increase the text size. As said in the review, this is very much just a PC port on a Switch console. Warts and all.