I’ve always loved the fantasy genre; I remember being utterly entranced by swords and sorcery at a very early age – no doubt fuelled by the pop culture renaissance that occurred across a variety of media, following the rise of Dungeons & Dragons as a craze in the late 70s and early 80s.
Dungeons & Dragons itself was something that fascinated me; I think I first became truly aware of it when I watched ET, which features a scene of Elliot’s older brother and his friends playing the tabletop RPG. A few years after that, I was obsessed with the D&D cartoon; though it had a slightly odd concept of kids being transported to the world of Dungeons & Dragons via a magical theme park ride, it did hew reasonably close to the source material in other ways – each of the heroes in the show became a character such as Ranger, Thief or Wizard, for example; as well as this, their guide in the strange new world they found themselves in was the appropriately named Dungeon Master (for those of you who don’t know, the Dungeon Master – or DM – is the person who takes control of running the adventure itself, as well as antagonists and non-player characters in a game of tabletop D&D).
It wasn’t long before I had the classic Basic Dungeons & Dragons Red Box set myself; though there’s a story attached to my struggles in getting hold of it, I did manage to do so on my 8th birthday – thanks to one of my Aunts. Though it wasn’t something I got to play much – my peers at the time weren’t interested at all and just didn’t really understand the concept of pen-and-paper roleplaying – I did spend countless hours reading about dungeon delving, character creation, terrifying monsters (and some not so terrifying, though equally fascinating – right, Gelatinous Cube?), enticing treasure and levelling up.
Darkest Hunters seems to take a lot of inspiration from this kind of fantasy RPG. Though far from a traditional RPG adventure – as you’ll see shortly – it does contain all of the above-mentioned features. The – perhaps unexpected – difference with Darkest Hunters is that it wraps up the questing, character building and loot in the guise of what, at first glance, looks like a match 3 puzzle game.
Upon loading, Darkest Hunters goes straight into a pixel art intro – with a somewhat surprising amount of gore. In all honesty, even after watching this a number of times, I’m still not quite sure what’s going on. It’s rushed and the voiceover isn’t particularly clear – but understanding the status quo at the beginning of the game isn’t important to being able to enjoy it, thankfully.
There’s quite a lot going on, from a game mechanics point of view. Your chosen character is represented by a tile on a grid of differently coloured tiles – these are Blue for Magic, Red for Attack and Green for Health, as well as there being special tiles for treasure, enemies, the exit and more. You’ll move your character across these tiles one colour per turn, collecting the effects of them as you go (the aforementioned health for moving across green or attack strength for red, for example) – ideally creating powerful combos by moving across five or more of a single colour at a time, which creates a bonus tile that, once collected, leads to a somewhat explosive chain reaction.
Enemies – usually generic fantasy monsters such as Werewolves or Giant Spiders – move across these tiles towards you and attack when they’re in range. You can attack them with your melee weapon by moving your character towards the monster tile; you can also attack with a ranged weapon, if you have one equipped, by tapping the monster when you’re not adjacent to it (as long as you’re within range, of course). Enemies come in standard size – one tile, as your character is too – or in terrifyingly oversized form, making up several tiles on the screen, when you encounter a boss.
Thankfully, your character is much more than just a tile on an abstract map. You have a character sheet, on which you can equip and upgrade your weapons, armour and other items. Your character can level up too, which will see you spending your experience points on upgrading your attack, health and magic.
You’re given objectives at the beginning of each level; a varying number of stars can be earned by completing these objectives, which can take many forms – defeating a certain number of enemies with a bow or opening a specified number of chests, for example. Objectives don’t have to be completed on a single run, so you can come back to complete ones you’ve missed later on – and you will need to, as your character isn’t always properly equipped or strong enough to tackle some of the objectives you’re initially given.
There’s a town, which is presented in the same pixel art style as the rest of the game. Here, you can visit a number of different places between missions, including shops in which to buy and sell items. There’s an overworld map that you can choose your next quest from; this also shows you the progress you’ve made so far on each level.
The core gameplay is compelling, despite boiling down to dragging your character across lines of coloured tiles. This is due to the added layers of loot collecting, item discovery and upgrading of your equipment, which is satisfying and rewarding.
It’s not perfect, by any means. The art style isn’t particularly attractive in the way that many pixel art games can be; the intro is a good example of this, with awkward art and a rushed series of events leaving you scratching your head as to what is transpiring. The town screen suffers from this too; it’s unclear what is a building you can access and what is there just as passive scenery. Having said that, the main character design found in the levels and elsewhere beyond the intro is perfectly fine.
There’s also quite a lot to get your head around at first, with all of the mechanics and interlocking systems being explained to you at what feels like quite a rushed pace. Combat can be confusing at first, especially as enemies can attack you at range, as you can also do to them. This can see you losing health without realising why, certainly at first.
There’s also – at the time of writing – only support for touchscreen controls, which means that you can’t play Darkest Hunters in docked mode. This can make it a bit awkward to play, given that you may need to hold the Switch with one hand while using the touchscreen with the other; it does certainly limit your options when playing. That said, further control support has been promised and will encompass a wide variety of options, including Pro Controller support.
Despite these issues, Darkest Hunters is an addictive and captivating mix of RPG and puzzle game. I continue to be surprised and pleased with the breadth of experiences available on the Switch; it does seem that every game I’m being given the opportunity to try out these days is a somewhat unique experience – and Darkest Hunters continues that tradition. It’s not the prettiest game, nor the easiest to grasp, but it is a rewarding and addictive experience once you have a handle on what the game expects of you.
Review on: Switch
Available on: Switch, PC
Developer: Ultimate Games