The Switch is finally caught up on Darksiders... for now.
I was ecstatic when it was revealed that the long awaited Darksiders III was actually happening. I picked it up on launch day for Xbox One and despite its somewhat rough release state, I deeply enjoyed my time with it. I played it again on Xbox Series X this year, where the significant upgrade was able to brute force through any lingering technical issues. But when a Switch version was announced I couldn’t help but think back to its original Xbox One release. If it took an Xbox Series X to solve its technical issues, what hope was there for a Switch version? And yet, I had enjoyed it on Xbox One back in 2018, warts and all, so if the Switch could just get close enough, perhaps there was hope.
Darksiders III, much like Darksiders II, takes place during a time skip that occurs just after the opening segment of the original Darksiders. The horseman of the apocalypse, War, has ridden early, causing the armies of Heaven and Hell to descend upon the earth. As he sits in chains awaiting judgment for his actions (which will ultimately come in the form of a Zelda-inspired adventure game), his sister, Fury, is tasked with hunting down the seven deadly sins, who are loose on earth. Unlike the first Darksiders which takes place largely one thousand years after the apocalypse, or Darksiders II which predominantly focuses on universes outside our own, Darksiders III takes place on an immediately post-apocalyptic earth. Angels and demons fight to carve out territory, and a few human survivors cling to life. Earth in transition ultimately forms the backdrop for what is probably the most character-growth driven story the series has told. Unlike the two previously explored horsemen, Fury isn’t attempting to atone for or undo the apocalypse. In fact, she’d much rather join in. The story is ultimately one of understanding what makes humanity unique and worth saving, via an exploration of their failures. And then of course you also kill a literal tornado by setting it on fire at one point; it is still a Darksiders game after all.
The Darksiders games have long been heavily inspired by 3D Zelda, but with a greater focus on combat. For Darksiders III, the series makes a shift towards more strategic combat, taking heavy influence from the Souls franchise. Players can choose between two combat modes. The default lines up more closely with its inspiration. Healing items take a moment to use and require Fury to stop moving. Attacks cannot be interrupted with other actions such as dodges, requiring the player to fully commit to any given action. Classic mode, on the other hand, allows combat to feel a little more like the previous two Darksiders games by reversing the two aforementioned restrictions. That being said, the difficulty is maintained. This is by far the most difficult game in the series when it comes to combat. It is very easy to be overwhelmed by enemies if you aren’t watching them carefully, and many of the bosses provide a stiff challenge.
Combat is only part of the journey, however. The rest of Darksiders III is focused on exploration and some light puzzle solving. In comparison to the previous games the focus on bespoke Zelda-like dungeons is reduced, and much of the puzzle solving revolves more around using acquired abilities to access previously unavailable parts of the environment. In this way I’d compare Darksiders III less with Zelda or even Dark Souls, and more with Metroid. Over the course of the adventure Fury will acquire various upgrades called hollows. These abilities will allow her to take on different elemental forms that each grant her new movement options. One allows her a triple jump that rockets her into the air. Another allows her to walk normally at full speed while underwater. Yet another allows her to walk on top of water instead. One even gives her the ability to take on the form of a ball and attach to certain parts of walls and ceilings. The comparisons to Metroid are not hard to find or obscured. The ability that lets her walk normally underwater even turns her purple. The influences are clear, and are not shied away from.
When it comes to game design, I have very few complaints about Darksiders III. The one glaring issue, made only more evident by the comparisons I just mentioned, is the lack of a map. The world of Darksiders III is one of the most labyrinthian I’ve ever seen. It is huge, seamless, interconnected, and oftentimes very confusing. You do have a compass that points you generally in the direction of your next major objective, but going back with new abilities to clear out optional side areas is a huge chore. You can fast travel from any of the checkpoints that also serve as shops throughout the world, but the fast travel points are merely presented as a list separated only by generally themed areas. Despite playing through the game multiple times at this point, I’ve never gotten a good hold on the layout of the world. If you’re just in it to push through the main storyline, it isn’t the biggest issue, but this is clearly a game that wants you to explore, find collectibles, and even take on optional boss fights. The absence of even the most basic map system, which has been present in every other Darksiders game, is baffling.
The Switch version itself is an odd beast to critique. Even now returning to the Xbox One version years after its launch and multiple patches, it still has issues. It regularly pauses to stream in more of the world if you’re moving too quickly through it. Aggressive geometry culling means that turning the camera quickly almost always reveals a quick glimpse of the void on your peripheries. And the loading times after death generally range from 30-40 seconds. The Switch version maintains all of these issues, but at the same time doesn’t really add to them. In fact, on average loading times are about 20% faster on Switch. The general technical impression is that, outside of visual changes made to get it running on Switch, this is largely on par with the Xbox One version. This is not to say that it is technically good, merely that the issues present are not inherent to this port. In terms of raw visuals, Darksiders III makes a lot of cuts, but as a result maintains a reasonable frame rate and a decent resolution. Playing handheld it actually looks quite good. Things are a bit blurrier on the TV but not as bad as I’d have expected. You can check out my full technical breakdown below if you’re interested.
Darksiders III is a more challenging take on a series that wasn’t exactly known for being easy in the first place. It changes up its influences somewhat while maintaining its unique take on action adventure. Outside of the obvious omission of a map, the simple act of playing Darksiders III is fun, challenging, and rewarding. The Switch port, save for the expected visual downgrades, is on par with the originally targeted systems. The only problem is it never ran particularly well on those systems either. If anything the Switch version actually improves on some elements of the original performance, but it can still be a bit of a rough ride. This was always a game that required more powerful hardware to push through its shortcomings and the Switch obviously can’t totally deliver on that. At the same time, with slightly faster loading and solid handheld performance, I’d probably still take this over going back to the original Xbox One version.