Built in the image of the Left 4 Dead franchise, Darksburg asks players to put aside their petty differences and work with each other toward a cooperative goal. That goal is always somewhere over there, and the path between here and there is generally through a massive horde of zombies that need to be taken out bit by bit. This can be made as easy or as hard as you want it to be, and it all comes down to communication. Can you talk it out? Can you overcome gothic horror together? These are the questions that Darksburg asks.
I mentioned Left 4 Dead at the top because there’s no way of talking around that franchise’s influence on Darksburg. Four players team up (or some combination filled out with AI) and they make their way across a map, fulfilling short-term goals along the way. There’s a lot of ruthlessly hacking your way through things, but this time from a third-person _Diablo-_esque perspective instead of a first-person one.
It does, however, augment that broad blueprint with some of its own design ideas. In Left 4 Dead, the characters are mostly distinguished from one another via aesthetics. Each has a unique look and sound, but they are functionally identical in how they play. Darksburg adds to this via a class-based system. Currently in Early Access, the game’s four launch classes are varied and strange enough that the group of friends who I played the game with could find something to enjoy about all of them.
There’s an armored nun who smashes enemies with a giant cross and whose abilities are about controlling and corralling enemies. There’s an innkeeper who heals others by collecting mushrooms only he can see and heaving them with his giant spoon mace. There’s a werewolf with door for a shield and a bad attitude. And, finally, there’s an impish woman with a crossbow and an even-more-impish squirrel companion. There’s two other question mark characters that have yet to be released, but the core group so far hits all of the marks of what a game like this needs, and I’ve played enough of each to confidently say that they work and the game is, in fact, playable.
And they look good. Darksburg succeeds where so many other games fail aesthetically because it realizes that you can have a neo-Victorian, Gothic-light set of environment and character designs that aren’t steampunked all to hell and back. There’s not some clockwork asshole in here gumming up the works. There’s an innkeep with a spoon (whose braid caps are salt and pepper shaker heads). There’s a powerful nun. They exist in a labyrinthine city that feels just as confusing as real places do. These people deserve an award for visual excellence at the least.
When it comes to actually seeing these characters in action, though, I think everything has to be couched in a few caveats. Again, this game is in Early Access and is going to be iterated on. The developer is also a studio known for clever iterations. Their previous game, Northgard, is a hybrid tile game and RTS that I absolutely loved in 2018 and has received regular content updates since its release.
I say those things before noting that, currently, Darksburg feels a little bare-bones. You get people in a lobby, you divvy up the characters, and then you go into some missions that a very straightforward: Hack through zombies, do a task, hack through zombies, do a task, hack through zombies to escape this quarter of the ruined city. Now go to another map and do the same.
However, the exact same thing can be said about any of these other games, and I suspect that the quality of most people’s Darksburg experience is going to depend heavily on who they are playing with. I have only played this game with people I knew already, and we had a hell of a time defending a monastery while hunting for supplies to board the door up with or gathering hay to make a giant hay bale that would knock down a wall. We also died quite a bit. Darksburg is right at the razor’s edge of being difficult, and I think that the designers have done a great job of making the players feel like they are on their back feet at critical moments.
Beyond the general arduous task of zombie killing and task completion, the game also populates the world with special enemies called Revenants that can use specific abilities to really put your team at a disadvantage. One can hook players and render them immobile, dragging them away. Another can throw nets to paralyze and then stab. Another can dash across the map and create a damaging, fiery line to split the party and take advantage of bad positioning. There are a few others, and they all work to slow down the party, remove their resources, and generally throw a wrench in the works of best-laid plans. And then, of course, there is Baron Von Darksburg, who seemingly spawns at random (I honestly could not figure it out) to swing a sword around and generally cause as much havoc as possible. He has a metal theme that is truly excellent, although it is always bad news when you hear it.
It’s good. It feels good, like someone actually paid attention to the wax and wane of gameplay in a cooperative shooter and tried to figure out how you could League or DOTA_fy it. Playing with others involves a lot of yelling about where those special enemies are coming from and trying to figure out how you can get your allies, who are all invariably doing something other than what they should be at any given moment, to save you from the god damn Raven Man who is screaming in your face and eating every singly hit point you have. The chaos is familiar, but the isometric perspective allows you to have a perspective on that chaos that a game like _Left 4 Dead denies you via its first-person perspective. At its best, it feels like putting a puzzle together while fighting a younger sibling who is desperately trying to knock that puzzle off the table. We lost more than we won, but the wins felt excellent.
The game offers a traditional four players versus AI game mode called Co-Op Survivor and a four vs four Versus Survival mode where a team of survivors goes up against a team playing the revenants. Again, this plays out much like the same mode in the Left 4 Dead games, but the addition of class abilities for both teams really adds a significant amount of variety to it. I enjoyed both game modes when I played them, and I haven’t had a chance to check out the third, Last Stand, which is apparently about staying alive against the odds and getting a high score.
Overall, Darksburg is an iteration on a formula, but it is an iteration by a team that I have a lot of confidence in, and my expectation is that the next year will see a lot of great design space getting explored by the team. I’m looking forward to getting a few more games in.