Darksburg — ghoulish fun, but still needing time to rise

Darksburg revives the gameplay promise of co-operative survival games by creating some solid action in an engaging world complete with interesting characters. However, the game is currently so under-supported online and bereft of story that it leaves players wondering if they should wait a while before investing their time in it.

It is really, really difficult to talk about developer studio Shiro Games’ new game, Darksburg, without mentioning Valve Studio’s Left4Dead series. The latter was a first-person shooter set in an apocalyptic zombie world where you were a barely fleshed out character trying to make your way through shopping malls and cornfields to an end zone so you could — I’m not quite sure — endure through the dystopia?

There was a simple beauty in that game. it played almost arcade-style; you just ran and pressed the fire trigger to stay alive. There was no story. There was no greater character development. You had a streamlined gameplay experience that played amazingly and was the focus on the game. My Xbox consumed entire days of my life with this genre.

Darksburg is clearly in the vein of that four-player survival game setup. The zombie dystopia in this outing has been moved to a fantasy style medieval city where the town serfs have turned into unwelcome undead. Choosing one of four characters, you bash your way through the streets of Darksburg, taking on waves of zombies and minibosses, called Revenants, with the goal of making it safely to an endzone. There are multiple levels to choose from, each complete with some semblance of story that breaks up the fighting with tasks that you need to complete in order to progress to the safe house.

In short, it’s a beautiful world the studio has created. The soundtrack is firmly gothic rock, and the sound effects are rich and well designed, leading to amped-up moments where you really feel yourself getting into the fight and boss battle sequences. The game’s animation leans heavily into comic book/anime styles, and with a top-down view, you can really appreciate the amount of time that was spent making Darksburg visually engaging.  

Like other survival games, the gameplay is focused and well-executed. I was incredibly impressed with the character roster – Varag the werewolf plays like a tank with short bursts of damage; Runolf is a healing and damage hybrid; Rose and her pet squirrel Twig serve as a semi ranged damage fighter, and Sister Abigail is a warrior nun who serves as a brawling damage dealer. Each colorful character plays a specific role in team composition, leading to some really well thought out fighting strategies.

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Each character has unique moves assigned to hotkeys that clearly show your recharge time after you use them. There are also items for you to pick up like health packs and bombs, and coins for you to collect to spend on in-game prizes. The rest of the character actions are simple point and click. As such, the game has clear hack and slash elements to it that remind me of some of the best action moments in click games like Diablo.

While Darskburg is meant to be played with four players online, there is also a single-player mode where the other characters are controlled by AI. Another clear Left4Dead influence is the versus mode, where four online characters face off against another four-player team controlling Revenants, which populate randomly into the game. In my playthroughs, each of these modes was well done and possessed just enough variety for me to feel like there was some replay-ability to the game.  

Although the gameplay and content are clearly enjoyable, Darksburg is still early access. There were so few players online that I often spent a ridiculously long time waiting for a four-player co-op game. More than once, the people that were quitting my party because they were frustrated from waiting too long for other players ended up back in my queue after trying to join another game. “You again?” one of them wrote to me in the party chat before shortly leaving. I’m aware that this isn’t the fault of the developers or the game itself, but the fact remains that there just simply aren’t enough online players in Darksburg yet for you to enjoy certain modes.

I had the sense that the replay value of the game would quickly diminish. There is an absence of adequate content and customization for you to keep playing the game for more than a few weeks if there are only a few levels and characters. If Shiro Games supports Darksburg with continuing content development, then this won’t be a problem. I’m actually excited at the prospect of the developers adding things like unlockable player skins, a fleshed-out skill tree, and additional levels and characters. I’d certainly keep playing this game if that happened.

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The biggest issue with Darksburg is that it does so well hybridizing elements from other games that it fails to realize its own potential. The survival action genre typically has boring, one-dimensional characters because there simply isn’t a need to focus on character exposition when you’re really just there to blast through the undead. Darksburg, on the other hand, has some truly interesting characters set in a gothic fantasy world. Why not make levels, or even a single-player campaign, dedicated to showing how such a motley crew of protagonists ended up together trapped in a city filled with undead? By failing to capitalize on the foundation it creates, Darksburg becomes an homage to its genre rather than a standout. Instead of talking about the game it is, I’m left to talk about the games it reminds me of. 

There is something fun and exciting about Darksburg, but after playing this cooperative game devoid of an online community that squanders its storytelling potential, I have to conclude that the best is still yet to come. If you’re a fan of being part of an early access game, watching it change over time and come into its own, then definitely support Darksburg. If you’re looking for the complete experience, wait a little until it shows up.

 Darksburg is available on PC.

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