Din’s Curse: Demon War – Staff Review

At first glance Din’s Curse gives the impression of a leaner, more efficient take on Diablo or Torchlight.  You know the genre by now: you’re the hero, there’s the dungeon, clear quests to get loot, kill the boss, rinse and repeat until game over.  Much of that holds true here, but get past that outer layer and you’ll find the devil in the details, and a fiendishly clever one to boot.  Where other games sit and wait for you to make your move, Din’s Curse plays back, and aggressively so.  Supported by strong and versatile gameplay, the central mechanic turns a by-the-numbers hunt for better gear into a tense, engaging, and meaningful dungeon crawl.

For this review, Din’s Curse was paired with the expansion Demon War, which does not substantially change the adventure but makes considerable additions: new environments, more NPC interactions, a new character class, and so on.  Thus, the two will be scored jointly.

The story is largely a pretext for good old-fashioned hack-and-slash action.  Din, the titular God of Honor, is displeased with your conduct in life and has consigned you to work off your karmic debt.  What you did is never explained and not really important; the point is you’re the hero whether you like it or not.  Monsters need slaying, towns need saving, and you have an image to maintain.  Much of this is interchangeable, as towns, dungeons, and NPCs are all randomly created.  Even you have no real identity to speak of, considering you don’t technically have conversations.  People talk at you, trade with you, and give you quests, which you then do.  However, the lack of a story doesn’t stop Din’s Curse from having a plot, in that things actually do happen while you’re mucking about in a dungeon.  We’ll get back to that in a moment, but for now, know that Soldak Entertainment has injected a surprising amount of drama and consistency into a random event creator.

Controls are straightforward and intuitive.  Left mouse does basic interactions, hotkeys control menus, alt highlights items and containers, and both number keys and right mouse button are programmable with your various skills and items.  Pass over anything – items, stats, skills, locked containers – and you’ll get a quick rundown: what it does, what it’s worth, what it upgrades to, the chance that it’s trapped, the effect it grants, how long the effect lasts, and so on.  On-screen prompts keep you apprised of changes in the town, such as new quests or whether a named monster has spawned.  Because of this, the interface can feel cluttered and it can be a lot to take in at once.  Indeed, despite readily accessible pop-up help text, Din’s Curse doesn’t have a tutorial so much as a bouncer.  On the plus side, difficulty is adjustable in neat ways. Apart from setting the relative level of monsters, you can also limit or change the type of events that visit the town, or even flag optional challenge modes.

Moments like this, when monsters break down a gate to get away from you, are revenge for every protect-the-NPC-picking-the-lock sequence you've ever had to endure.
Moments like this, when monsters break down a gate to get away from you, are revenge for every protect-the-NPC-picking-the-lock sequence you’ve ever had to endure.

Character building is simple enough, with you selecting from one of several preset classes or creating one of your own.  Classes are defined by pools of skilltrees covering different aspects.  Clerics, for instance, branch into melee-focused and support roles, and players are free to mix and match. Roll up a two-hander with strong elemental resistances, or train in shield defense and crowd control, and so on.  Interestingly, custom classes are limited to two trees instead of the usual three, but they can pick from any available class.  You get stat and skill points on every level, and in a welcome twist you can respec at any time for a small fee.  You’ll be tempted more than once to jumble your stats around to use that shiny new sword, and doing so is quick, easy, and rarely cost prohibitive.  Death is penalized by reduced XP gain rather than XP loss, and that debt can be partially negated if you recover a soulstone from the spot where you died.

Your overall goal is simply to build your reputation to the point where Din releases you from service, and in game terms this pretty much means questing until you feel like stopping.  Clearing one of Din’s final quests unlocks progressively higher level thresholds, letting you clear dungeons to your heart’s content.  With no firm narrative thread, there’s no inherent reason to clear each town, other than to push your level higher and round up better gear.  Saving is only done upon quitting the game, so constantly reloading until the dice roll your way isn’t an option.  While it takes some getting used to, the non-permanence of death and failure complement the system well.  It’s counterintuitive at first, but the game urges you to simply get in there, give it your best shot, and not worry so much about getting the best possible outcome.

Various features, and the game’s overall speed, help support this get-in-and-play mentality.  Building the world takes mere seconds, and moving between floors of dungeons is instantaneous.  Town portals are on every floor of the dungeon, requiring only that you find and activate them.  You move in and out of combat smoothly, and the engine never struggles even with a lot of on-screen action.  Regeneration points let you fill up on health and mana in the field.  Unknown items can be identified with a click of the mouse, while shopkeepers can identify everything you have all at once.  Virtually any obstacle can be broken down or blown up, from locked doors to barrels to fallen rubble from a cave-in.  This damages your weapon faster than regular use, though repairs can be done at appropriate vendors.  Essentially, once you get the ball rolling, it’s quite easy to keep going.

Like everything else in the package, the graphics are deceptively simple.  Low poly counts, a handful of dungeon types, villages consisting of little more than thatched-roof huts and a small market square; it’s clearly not out to win awards on aesthetic appeal alone.  With that said, screenshots miss a lot of the subtler things the game does well.  Animation is fluid and combat has visceral feedback, such that even in a crowd it’s clear whose skull you’re pounding in.  Dungeons hold a welcome variety of critters to slay, with a handy in-game bestiary breaking them down by species.  The game engine doesn’t demand too much horsepower, keeping a steady framerate even should you Braveheart your way into a screen-filling melee.  Audio is similarly subdued but effective, with solid-sounding hit noises and nice dynamic scores for dungeons, though the music can get repetitive over time.

Okay, here's the plan.  Hero, you go down below and kill everything you see.  Everyone else, take five.
Okay, here’s the plan. Hero, you go down below and kill everything you see. Everyone else, take five.

With the nuts and bolts established, here’s why the game really works, and what puts it apart from its colleagues in the genre.  It’s a hard concept to summarize, but here goes: the random element of Din’s Curse deconstructs the very idea of RPG heroics.  Things happen regardless of how prepared you are for them, yet the buildup is within reason.  Boss monsters construct machines if left alone, which cause any number of weird and harmful effects. Light levels can be lowered, fields will nullify magic at will, and violent storms may wreak havok on the town until the machine in question is found and destroyed.  Creatures often fight each other, with a select few actually leveling up into champions.  NPCs sometimes go into debt, requiring a charitable donation before they starve to death.  Hordes of monsters that build up eventually invade the town, and while citizens will defend themselves, it’s generally on you to get back ASAP and repel the attack.  Catching a thief or saboteur can end with that person being banished, and they might show up later to exact revenge.

There is merit to methodically working your way through each floor of the dungeon, but sometimes the enemy just tightens the screws and it won’t stop until you get down far enough.  You’ll be two more magic MacGuffins away from curing the plague wracking the town when a tribe of orcs breaches the surface; an exercise in snap decisions if ever there were one.  You’ll be hauling back a ton of equipment from some cobwebby cesspit, and just as you find the town portal you’ll remember your only armorer was banished after you exposed him for poisoning the food supply.  Quests can fail, quest givers can die, and sometimes your best just won’t be enough to save the town.  The monsters might be too numerous, the goal too far down, and your defenders too weak to stop the next attack.  Picture Murphy’s Law somehow coded into a game and you’ll get the idea.

If this sounds like it could get annoying and unfair, it can.  More than once you’ll come across a town that just can’t catch a break.  Fortunately, failure isn’t the game over it seems like.  If you lose a town, you move on to the next one.  If quest givers die, you’ll eventually get quests to replace them.  If that boss builds a machine, you can still find it and smash it.  When you die seven times in a row – and it is when, not if – you can reclaim all seven soulstones, and bear in mind you don’t actually lose any XP during this.  You’re never so far behind that you can’t pick yourself up, dust yourself off, adjust your strategy, and give it another go.  Even cannon fodder enemies can wear you down, but you can turn the tide with a little preparation and situational awareness.  As frustrating as losing can be, you’re always still in the game, and things can still be turned around.

This is a game that lives thoroughly in the moment.  Sometimes things break your way and that staircase will be right next to a town portal, or you’ll find a full heal/repair altar when you’re running on empty.  That epic battle you just blitzed through may have been a quest you didn’t know existed, and when you get back you’ll get the reward for putting down a monster surge before it began.  Even bosses sometimes get swarmed by other minions, and no one will mind if you take credit for the kill. Hey, who’s gonna know?  The lasting genius is that at any moment it can all come together and it’s you on top.  Click that fireshield altar, follow with a champion spell, grow twice your size and smack that horde down like the insects they are.  Break that support strut and run from the resulting cave-in Indiana Jones style, then go back and use fireballs to clear the rubble so you can loot whatever it is you just crushed.  The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but they will feel that way.

I'm cursed, not dead.  Now imagine what I'll do when the curse is lifted.
I’m cursed, not dead. Now imagine what I’ll do when the curse is lifted.

It’s an unorthodox formula, and one that requires some unlearning of conventional RPG wisdom.  Grinding is unnecessary, since critters match your level (according to your preference, that is) and you’ll be killing often enough as a matter of course.  NPCs can be equipped with basic armor to keep them alive longer, so selling all that excess loot might not be the best policy.  It pays to notice which monsters consistently retreat, call for reinforcements, attack at range, explode on death, or make use of objects in the environment.  They’re not blind to their environment either, and seeing a wounded orc go for a recharge crystal before rejoining the fight was a clever surprise.  The sheer number of prebuilt and custom classes allows plenty of elbow room between typical mage-thief-warrior builds, and being able to respec at will gives you leeway to play with abilities and experiment on the fly.

All this and more makes gauging playtime a little complicated, but suffice it to say clearing the default difficulty – cracking the level 25 barrier on Normal – ran about 35 hours, and you can run all the way up to level 100 if you like.  You’ll pretty much get out of Din’s Curse what you put into it, and fiddling with difficulty settings and challenges can radically change the flow of the game.  You’ll still be wandering around hitting things until they give you stuff, but having to worry about food and water for instance does throw a spanner in the works.  Although co-op multiplayer was not covered in this review, the mere existence of it adds yet another layer of replay icing on the cake.  On the technical side, apart from occasional glitches, such as a text box calling to a non-existent string, there were no problems of note and overall the package was remarkably stable.

In the end, a straight comparison to other such RPGs feels inaccurate.  It’s a decidedly hardcore experience, and your enjoyment may well hinge your ability to take a hit and get back up.  Din’s Curse has the trappings of Diablo, sure, but it has the soul of something much more intense.  In fact, intense is the perfect word for it.  It does for RPGs what games like Painkiller and Serious Sam do for shooters: provides a modern, refined take on a classic formula, delivers fast-paced action that still asks you to use your head, and focuses on moment-to-moment victories.  It’s part video game and part worthy opponent, and like any worthy opponent it’s going to get a few hits past your guard.  But it’s all the sweeter when you land a one-two punch of your own, when you get back up and finally get even with that smug, purple-titled boss.

In the end it’s just a game about dungeon crawling, but solid mechanics and one hell of a good hook make it hard not to appreciate.  Gear up and get moving, that town’s not going to save itself.

This game was played to completion with a developer-provided review copy.

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