When it comes to the Fire Emblem franchise, there’s a hard cut-off point between the entries fans consider “classic and hardcore” and “modern and casual:” Fire Emblem Awakening. According to some of the fanbase, after Awakening, the franchise lost some of the elements that drew in its original base in exchange for bringing in a larger audience.
One could argue all day about whether this is true or not, and how much of it is factual or opinion-based. However, it is true that some franchise fans pine for the days of older entries. Many specifically look to the Game Boy Advance releases (self-titled and Sacred Stones) as the height of the series.
These seem to be the fans that first-time developer Sword & Axe are targeting with the game we are looking at today. A cursory glance at the game immediately brings to mind the GBA Fire Emblem titles. But actually diving into the game shows that these developers aren’t just banking on nostalgia for a famous franchise, but rather taking a familiar base in a new direction.
Developed by Sword & Axe and published by Freedom Games, Dark Deity was released on June 15th, 2021, for PC via Steam.
A Classic With Character
Varic, the king of Delia, hungers for war. Having ascended the throne following the assassination of his father, Varic is completely convinced that the neighboring country of Aramor was responsible. Using a small border dispute between Delia and Aramor as an excuse, he declares all out war to get his revenge.
The problem is, he doesn’t have enough solders for a war. Luckily, there is an academy in Delia which trains recruits for leadership positions in armies. Varic decides to conscript every student at this academy to fill out the army…including the young heroes of the tale, a set of four childhood friends.
Of course, as things are wont to be, events don’t quite play out as expected, as the four friends and the unit they’re assigned to stumble across some darker machinations that could resonate across the entirety of the world.
In all, the story of Dark Deity is fairly standard and expected for this type of game: a war story that quickly becomes something much more mystical and sinister. That’s not to infer this is a bad thing though. Using these familiar beats makes the game feel much more welcoming to genre fans, whilst sprinkling in some more unique ideas to differentiate Dark Deity from its obvious inspirations.
If anything, the highlight of the writing comes not in the core story, but in its cast of characters and interactions. The developers have crafted quite the entertaining cast of characters. Some do start off with one-note personalities admittedly, but are quickly developed through their conversations with others in your group.
The character conversations in particular are a stand-out, and incredibly impressive knowing that this is the first game coming from this studio. Carried out through a “bonds” mechanic that should be immediately familiar to genre fans (characters that fight together get to like each other more, and unlock more and deeper conversations between them), the development from these conversations manage to make even the most filler-feeling of units memorable.
Also, players that are fans of shipping their units together should have a lot of fun with these conversations, particularly when pairing up two characters with opposing personalities.
Have It Your Way
At its heart, Dark Deity feels at first like a GBA Fire Emblem game. Move your units around various maps, clearing out enemies, earning experience to level them up, pairing them up if you so choose. At a surface level it’s all extremely familiar, and a major reason I first became interested in this game. I’m happy to say that the core game plays just as solidly as its inspiration, as well.
However, first impressions can be deceiving. Under the hood are some unique mechanics that slowly morph Dark Deity from “love-letter to classic SRPGs” to something more than capable of standing on its own.
First, and perhaps controversially to some, there is no immediate perma-death mechanic. If a unit dies in a battle, they are not gone forever, at least not right away. In its place is what the developers call the “Grave Wounds” system. Should a unit fall in battle, they can return in the next one…but with a permanent stat debuff. Enough of these, and you can permanently weaken a character. Too many, and then yes, they’ll be gone for good.
Through this system, it feels like the developers found an ideal middle ground between punishing insta-death mechanics and the more modern casual “nobody can die permanently” that are so often decried by some fans. Knowing I wouldn’t lose a character immediately made me more comfortable with playing more aggressively and taking some risks. But knowing a character I had spent time on leveling and buffing their stats could lose everything they gained still kept the pressure on.
Also it’s nice to not play a map for an hour, have someone die due to an unlucky coin flip, and having to start the map over. It’s just so much more calming that I don’t feel like have to play perfectly.
The other major unique mechanic comes in developing the characters themselves, namely that there’s a surprising amount of customization options. Every character carries four permanent weapons, each with a specialty: power, critical chance, accuracy, and speed (chance of getting multiple hits). All of these can be individually buffed using tokens either won from battle or purchased. While it was tempting at first to buff the power weapons for my of my troops (bigger damage numbers are better, right?!), the game offers up enough unique situations to make all four weapons viable – you just have to decide which character you want to do what, and make sure your army is ready for anything.
Speaking of keeping a varied army, every character automatically promotes to a new class as early as level 10, from a choice of four specific to their specialty. Characters that join post-level 10 are given an immediate promotion, allowing you to select what specialty you want them to be, rather than being forced to take along someone in a class that you don’t have a current use for.
On top of both of these mechanics are also unique items called “Eternal Aspects.” These items can change the stats and capabilities of the unit holding them. So, between individually buffing weapons, quick and constant class promotions, and the Aspects, every unit in your army has an amazing amount of customization potential. It honestly felt a bit overwhelming at first, and it took me a few maps before I started getting the feel for each character and deciding how I wanted to build them.
The maps and the end goals within them in the game are also nicely varied. “Kill every enemy on screen” isn’t always the goal here (although I often did it anyways for those sweet experience points). Sometimes you just have to kill a certain unit to win. Other times you’re fending off infinite waves of overpowered enemies just trying to survive for a set number of turns. The lack of this variety seems to be a core complaint amongst genre fans, so seeing Dark Deity offer it up is a win in my book.
I do need to mention one aspect the developers created specifically for fans of the genre: custom campaigns. Dark Deity includes a built-in randomizer, as well as the ability to tweak levels and growth potential for your army and enemies. Want to do a no-level playthrough? It’s built in. Make every enemy incredibly strong so that you hate yourself the entire time you’re playing? The option is there. Hell, you can tweak things as small as “play random spell animations every time a magic user attacks,” if you get tired of seeing the same animations over and over. Having this kind of function built in really shows just how much the development team knows the community they’re creating this game for.
Lastly, there were a few annoying bugs that I came across in my playthrough. I played through the game using a gamepad, and there were a few menus that would not accept D-Pad input – only analog. Pre-battle planning screens didn’t accept any input unless I moved my mouse around a bit first. And, most frustratingly, if a unit leveled up enough to be promoted during the enemy turn, after I selected my promotion, the rest of the enemy turn would resolve automatically and the game would immediately jump to my next turn. I suddenly lost a few units due to this on occasion.
A Bit Blocky
When it comes to the visual presentation, Dark Deity can be somewhat hit-or-miss. I do like the character designs, as I can always appreciate when I can deign a character’s personality just from looking at them. Map sprites look great as well, with each unit easily distinguishable. The battle sequences in particular are impressive, with some well-done sprite animations that perfectly capture the GBA Fire Emblem feel that I keep mentioning in this review…
…it’s the maps themselves that I take issue with. These are the only parts where it’s visually obvious that Dark Deity was created using a game creation tool (in this case, according to the splash screens upon start up, GameMaker). The tiling feels sloppy, and interactable tiles aren’t always obvious.
During the fourth map, one of the goals was to rescue two units trapped in jail cells inside individual rooms. Doors need to be opened to access these rooms, but I didn’t recognize there even were doors upon a cursory glance at the map. It was only when I happened to stop a unit on a tile in front of these doors and was presented with an option to open something that I realized what I was looking at.
As far as audio presentation…it’s OK as well. None of the music particularly stands out, mostly feeling like generic “medieval strategy game” music. There’s some limited voice acting, with a few characters voiced by some relatively well-known names (Sean Chiplock and Amalee stood out to me). While I realize that I can’t expect an indie studio to fully voice a dialogue-game, the performers still feel woefully underused, only reliably voicing level-ups and critical hits.
Out From Under the Shadow
As I mentioned a few times, Dark Deity is the first game coming out of studio Sword & Axe. They picked a hell of a genre to start with, and the inspirations taken for the game are also going to come with a lot of criticality from the community.
That’s why I’m glad to say that, despite some issues I had with it, Dark Deity was still an excellent experience front to back. It takes a lot of inspiration from some of my favorite Fire Emblem games, but adds in enough of its own flavor to stand proudly on its own. The rough map aesthetics were disappointing, but were easy enough to overlook what with everything else functioning so well (aside from the aforementioned bugs).
For SRPG fans clamoring for games of a more “classic” style, this title comes highly recommended, especially with the replayability afforded to it through its custom campaign options. I know for sure I’ll be loading this up on the regular for a long time to come.
Review copy provided by Freedom Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Freedom Games.