I’m not above being lured in by aesthetic. Draft of Darkness hooked me in with its grainy, pixelated photo manipulation. It looks like a tacky game that followed in the wake of Mortal Kombat. In fact, it would fit right in alongside titles that pushed the limits of tastefulness back in the ‘90s. It’s hypnotic.
In my experience, a well-executed aesthetic can be indicative not necessarily of a game’s quality, but of its inventiveness. Not always, but sometimes. My favorite type of game is one where the developers fucked around and found out. However, that methodology doesn’t always result in an appealing game.
Draft of Darkness is so well-executed in its mechanics that it makes them seem accidental. Aesthetics aside, everything I’ve seen surrounding the game makes it out to be this quiet little project by a solo developer. But when you get into it, you find a well-tuned machine. Yet, while I find myself captivated by it, there is one unavoidable flaw that I think is going to be very divisive for a lot of people: its roguelite backbone.
Draft of Darkness (PC)
Developer: Crawly Games
Publisher: Crawly Games
Released: August 23, 2023
Dungeons and daggers
In Draft of Darkness, you pick a survivor from an ever-growing list of them. Each one is proficient with their own type of combat, from the knife-wielding Cara to the Chainsaw-swinging Rene. Each one plays extremely differently.
Draft of Darkness is a deckbuilder roguelite, but it plays a lot like a tabletop RPG. Or rather, it plays like a TTRPG if the GM had lost the will to live and was holding you hostage in a ‘90s metal music video. While your abilities in combat are controlled by the hand of cards you’re dealt, it’s backed by an abilities stat system and heavily reliant on resources you gather. If you’re carrying a chainsaw, you need fuel. If you’re carrying a shotgun, you need shotgun food.
Beyond that, the exploration system feels like something a dungeon master would draw out on grid paper. Each one is randomly generated upon entry and filled with a variety of encounters. They take place in an apartment building, in a factory, or on the streets, but they’re all very much dungeons. Your goal in each on is to try and gather power and resources for your party, then find the boss and escape to the next dungeon.
Smack the deck
Despite relying on the luck of the draw to give you a good hand, the combat is extremely deep and nuanced. While characters rely on sparse resources to use their strongest attacks, they always have a weaker alternative. The chainsaw maniac, for example, can deal an incredible amount of damage very quickly but is reliant on gasoline. She can still pull off some powerful attacks without starting her engine, which is best to do on weaker opponents.
Usually, you just want to start eating into your resources when the cards start looking stacked against you, like on bosses. However, there are characters who don’t require resources, like the knife wielders. For them, they can focus on critical hits and combos, but with Cara I liked to rely heavily on the bleeding status effect.
There are a lot of nuanced status effects, and playing certain cards in sequence can give you a huge advantage. There is a tonne of strategy from building your deck carefully so you can exploit even the most unfavorable of hand.
Feed the TV
To progress through the actual story, however, you need to trigger various encounters. It can take multiple playthroughs and attempts before you gain any ground in the narrative. This is where I think Draft of Darkness is going to miss the connection with a lot of people. It is, at heart, a very slow and methodical game, and that doesn’t really click with the roguelite mentality.
It’s a game that asks you to be very careful about your strategy and resources, and then even when you do so, it’s possible to hit the jagged rocks of a difficult encounter. Since so much of the game is random and there’s very little wiggle room, it’s very easy to get your bones crushed between a rock and a hard place. And that can mean losing hours of progress with very little to show for it.
Specifically, a “complete” run can take three hours. If I wasn’t dying at the beginning from resource starvation, I was dying at the end from sheer blunt-force boss trauma. You’re always given tokens to spend at a store that allows you to unlock additional perks. Otherwise, you’ll make progress through the various encounters that unlock characters. The store can allow you to customize your starter deck, but you’re largely starting from square one each time you start over. There are few advantages to be had.
It’s time for plan B
To be fair, Draft of Darkness has an easy mode to help reduce the likelihood of sudden death. If it was such a big problem for me, I don’t know why I didn’t use it. Pride, I guess.
I feel like this is a game that doesn’t benefit from its roguelite trappings. I feel like a more round-based dungeon approach would have suited it better. Complete a map, and move on to the next one.
The mysterious narrative does make good use of the repeated playthroughs, however. The story involves the spread of something called “Darkness” which is used rather nebulously. Sometimes it sounds like a technology, other times a disease, and then others it just sounds like an abstract concept. It goes into a lot of detail without ever being clear on what it’s talking about. The Darkness really just seems to be all of the worst qualities of humanity lumped together. Good intentions marred by greed and paranoia. The inescapable need for progress and prestige. The disgusting aesthetics certainly suit the theme.
Let the fists speak!
Despite the heartbreak from lost progress, I found myself glued each time I picked up Draft of Darkness. To be clear, you can always quit whenever you want and pick up where you left off. Throughout the review period, I preferred to sit down at the start of the evening and let myself get absorbed in the tacky, rusty visuals. Preferably with a nice greasy slice of pizza to really make things feel like living in the ‘90s.
I say that its successes feel almost accidental, but I know that it’s not true. Draft of Darkness is the result of a lot of careful prototyping and development, as well as inspiration from games like Slay the Spire. Crawly is clearly a developer who knows how to use feedback to create a tighter product.
While I think that the roguelite format is a hindrance on Draft of Darkness overall and will probably be the breaking point for a lot of people, I can’t get past my fascination for the game. While writing this review, I made the mistake of starting the game to make sure I had a few facts straight and started a new run. One hour later, I realized I was supposed to be writing, and had to quite painfully tear myself away. Even right now, Draft of Darkness is just minimized onto my taskbar, lurking and waiting for me to finish my job so it can capture my attention again.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]