Reviews

Dark Deity – Indie Fire Emblem

Dark Deity – Indie Fire Emblem

To call Dark Deity “Indie Fire Emblem” is kind of reductive. It stands apart from FE by making smart tweaks to the well-honed formula we’ve come to know and love in service of creating an enjoyable fantasy tactics game. But… well, it really is Indie Fire Emblem.

That’s in no way a disparagement, mind. The Fire Emblem series has stuck around for over 30 years precisely because it is a formula that works incredibly well – enjoying a renaissance in recent years now more than ever, thanks to the 3DS entries and, of course, Three Houses. It’s frankly a little surprising that a competitor within this niche hasn’t shown up sooner.

Dark Deity wants to fill those shoes. Much like your favourite pair of worn-in sneakers, Dark Deity is comfortable, safe, and ready to carry you across well-worn, familiar territory.

Dark Deity has all the trappings of Fire Emblem embedded into its systems. It’s a fantasy grid-based tactics game. Your party consists of an eclectic collection of units with swords to slash, bows to twang, and magic to conjure. In between battles that last around 30 and 90 minutes, you’ll spend time witnessing conversations, equipping items, and progressing the linear story beat linking the last mission to the next. During battle, your units will level up, gain a handful stat points, and occasionally be promoted to new and more exciting classes. Fights are turn-based, with cool animations breathing life into the exchange of numbers between damage and hit points.

It’s all in the finer details, the smallest tweaks, and adjustments to the formula, that Dark Deity sets itself apart mechanically. The game feels more interested in providing you with information and allowing you to choose how you want to play. One of the most obvious ways this plays out is through baring each character’s growth rates, or the percentages at which the characters are likely to grow in any given stat on a level up. These growth rates vary per class as well, so you can really drill down on whether it would be better for Benji to become a knight or a lancer, for example.

The famed weapon triangle of most FE games is replaced here with something more akin to a Pokemon-style match-up chart. Different types of magic and weapons are good or bad against different classes, with the exploitation of these matchups becoming more and more important the further down the road you go. I never managed to grasp the full complexity to be honest, but the game does give you little (green) up or (red) down arrows to indicate whether the character you’re hovering over would be a good choice for taking on a particular enemy. This doesn’t always work, but it’s a general enough indicator that will help you get through if you don’t care too much, while also giving players that love making spreadsheets something to really munch on.

There is no weapon durability – instead, every character has four options with varying levels of strength, accuracy, critical hit capacity, and weight. Weapons are upgraded through a token system, helping further specialise characters based on what direction you take them. Equipable items called Aspects also provide some interesting modifiers to characters – a 10% chance to 1.5x damage, or “swap strength and speed” stats. All of the small details, all the little changes Dark Deity makes to the FE formula, are all in service of the player, allowing you to customise your time with the game and its cast to your liking.

One of the largest sticking points Intelligent Systems has had with Fire Emblem over the decades is the result of death on the battlefield. Traditional FE would have your units gone forever, causing you to have to move on without your beloved character – or, reset the game and lose the last 45 minutes of progress. More recent entries have tried different takes on this formula, from in-universe time rewinds to a “casual” mode where units retreat rather than get killed off.

Dark Deity’s answer to this is surprisingly clever, in the “I can’t believe they haven’t done this before it was so obvious” sense. When a character takes a fatal blow, they retreat from the current fight, but they aren’t just ok afterward – they take a random, permanent decrease to a stat or two. It’s a fantastic middle ground between FE’s “casual” and “hardcore” dichotomy, as it lets you play a little riskier, but not without consequence. If a swordsman loses points in the magic stat, well, so what, but if it’s strength? Making those calculations, tossing up between whether to accept the hit and finish the fight or take the L and restart the level, becomes one of the more interesting decisions the game throws at you.

There are also some extra bonuses in this strategy – characters don’t die. It means the developers know the characters are going to be around until the end, so everyone gets to be a part of the main story. FE games are notorious for having “important” and “secondary” characters – you can’t have the hero go and die, but the hero’s third-best childhood friend? In order for them to be able to die off, they have to not play a part in the later story. Having everyone stick around means everyone has their role in the rolling conflict. Even if I wasn’t using them in battle, this helped me stay attached to the whole crew rather than just a handful. Recruitable characters are also all unmissable, aiding in this cohesion brought to the tale Dark Deity tells across its 28 chapters.

That tale is… pretty generic, honestly. Your characters start off as unimportant child soldiers that grow to the saviours of the world by the end. The reasons for most battles to occur are tenuous at best, with most story beats happening Because Plot rather than for any real believable reason. But really, it’s actually fine. Saving the world from some malevolent force that’s behind the unrest and problems in the kingdom is par for the course, and never the most enjoyable part of this type of game. Apart from the tactical battles, what matters most are the characters you spend time with – and I couldn’t help but fall for Dark Deity’s rambunctious bunch.

Each of the characters has a well-fleshed-out personality and motivations, with a slew of backgrounds and lives that help really give weight and history to the world and these people. That’s the beauty of the support conversations outside of the battles – the characters have their own relationships, aspirations, and grudges, and having space to flesh out the characters you use the most in battle is more important for building that bond than directing them out on the field.

There’s also a good blend of male and female characters – an even 50/50 split in your eventual party of 30. There’s a kind of gender agnostic approach to the world Dark Deity is set, with power dynamics entirely unaffected by sex or sexual preference (I will forever stan Bianca x Samara). It’s just… unimportant. It’s refreshing.

This makes it feel all the weirder that this quite generic fantasy world – with its humans, elves, dwarves, magic, and the like – is so… white? Like there are your token diversity characters – a black man, Indian monk, Aztec warrior, and a small handful of others. But everyone is just so fantasy British, that it just feels… I don’t know. The game does comment on ideas of power and corruption but is completely divorced from every other aspect that ties those ideas into our modern experience. For the game to go out of its way to upend the idea of gender dynamics, while also completely avoiding diversity in other areas, is odd. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, it’s just… noticeable.

Everything about Dark Deity is like a warm blanket made just for those who love Fire Emblem. It makes tweaks in small but smart ways to differentiate itself while providing exactly what you expect from this type of game. Dark Deity is Indie Fire Emblem through and through, in all the ways you want it to be. And from a small team making their own dream come true, that’s more than enough.