Finding trace RPG elements in so many games these days might bother some, seeing as character statistics, gear, and progression systems – in some form – can be found in almost every new release under the sun. I’ve come to embrace this age however, since genre mashups featuring RPG mechanics can often result in experiences that can take you completely by surprise. That’s why I was instantly intrigued with Darkest Hunters on Switch, a tile-matching/match-3 RPG that proudly boasts a dark, Diablo-esque appearance. While this kind of RPG has been done before – a la Puzzle Quest – Darkest Hunters is one of the more recent entries in the subgenre, releasing first in 2017 to other platforms before arriving on the Switch just this past April.
The early PC / Genesis styled aesthetic that Darkest Hunters uses is not going to be for everyone, but as a child of the 90s I totally dig it. While its grim depiction of the medieval time period can come off as a bit “generic looking”, the same could really be said about many medieval inspired games. The characters and locations found within the first couple of Diablo games – a title which influenced the design of Darkest Hunters – could also look a bit bland at times. Regardless, for me, a gritty visualization of medieval times is just what the doctor ordered, and although the package here is in no way on par with that of the classics, it does the job well enough.
Darkest Hunters might have you believe that you’re in for some tasty lore bits, on account of embracing the whole medieval deal, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The stage is set with an introductory cutscene which tells the cyclical tale of light overcoming darkness, for a time of peace, but only to be overcome by darkness once again in the future. The takeaway here is that times of peace are only possible through the sacrifices of heroes, such as yourself.
After the tutorial stage, you can choose your avatar from a handful of dirty medieval folk huddled together at the local tavern. Sadly though, the backstories and character variety appear to be nothing more than fluff, providing only the most basic level of context and character customization. That Gandalf looking guy plays exactly like the bleached-locked Conan the Barbarian does, despite the game presenting things as if they would be unique. The lack of mechanical differences between characters is a letdown, sure, but at least their backstories vary. As for the rest of the narrative, I suppose there is only so much you can do in games like this, but I’d be lying if said it didn’t leave me wanting something more.
Before we dive into the core gameplay mechanics, let’s go over the base of operations in Darkest Hunters. This menu serves as your gateway to most of the content provided in the game, sectioned off into the tavern (character selection and bestiary), wizard (spell research), blacksmith (weapons and armor), gear (for adjusting your loadout – this function can be accessed any time though), and your map (stage/objective view).
Objectives are divided into dozens of stages, each of which house a handful of quests for you to complete. Quest requirements are varied, and are not always of the “kill x” variety. Instead, some of them require you to complete the stage using a specific weapon type – or element – while others will have you scrounging each stage for items, or a certain number of crystals. Every three to four levels presents you with a boss stage, and they are about the only task which can give you a run for your money (save for a couple of the more tricky types of quests).
Overall, the quest variation is nice, but they all tend to blend together after a while. Some of them can be quite tedious to accomplish potentially requiring multiple trips to overcome. Quests, beyond the more standard rewards (like gold and gear), provide a crucial currency in the form of stars. These are required to unlock new tiers of stages, meaning you’ll want to complete as many quests on each stage as possible. The first couple sets of stages are simple enough to unlock, but those a bit deeper in will require more effort on your part.
Like any RPG worth its salt, character equipment plays an integral part in Darkest Hunters. Gear can be found through treasure chests, purchased from the blacksmith, and as rewards from completing a certain number of quests. Each piece of gear comes with its own set of properties – some weapons will deal plain melee damage while others might be of the elemental flavor, and many can deal both types of damage. The same concept applies to armor and their resistances against the various elements. There’s no penalty to keeping multiple gearsets around, and you’ll find that being able to swap them in and out to best suit the situation is, ideally, what you should do anyways.
Darkest Hunters throws lots of gear at you, but a large portion of it will be duplicates. Luckily, the game acknowledges this up front and uses it as a means to upgrade weapons and armor. A certain amount of duplicates, as well as some gold, are required to perform the upgrading process, which boosts the potency of the item permanently. As enticing as this sounds, it cannot be used as frequently as you might hope due to the substantial costs involved. Upgrading gear is not the only gold sink – in fact, the majority of your purse will be spent researching spells. The wizard in town will grant you powerful spells and abilities in exchange for a hefty amount of gold, and by hefty I mean your life savings. Thus, a delicate balance must be achieved in order to make use of both gear upgrades and spells.
At this point, you might be thinking “screw spells, I’ll just swing an axe around instead!” Well…that will only get you so far. Since some quests require certain weapons and elemental abilities to complete, you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket and hope to succeed long-term. Spells and passives are expensive, yes, but are worth it. Fortunately, the flexible gear and stat distribution systems make it easy to re-build your character any time. The hero will gain levels, granting three stat points each time that can be allocated into one of three categories: health, mana, and attack. Health is self explanatory, but mana and attack both serve as fuel for your attacks and spells. Don’t get too caught up in theory-crafting the best allocation scheme, as you can freely re-distribute your stat points at any time, with no penalty.
Now that we’ve covered the underlying systems in Darkest Hunters, understanding how the tile-matching portion comes into play will be much easier. As a tile-matching game, you will move your character across a field littered with various tiles – or orbs – which are divided into red (attack), green (health), blue (mana), and yellow (gold) orbs. In addition, some orbs can instead be replaced with treasure chests, secrets, or the stage’s exit.
Actions are executed in a turn-based fashion, with the player performing first and the enemy reacting thereafter. Enemies have free-form movement, but player movement boils down to how many orbs you can chain together. Adjacent orbs of the same color can all be collected in a single turn, with a bomb-like crystal forming whenever you manage to combine five or more at a time. Crystals can be activated by the player, resulting in a massive explosion, or used as a trap to blast unaware enemies.
Orbs not only act as your means of traversing the stage, they also restore stat points – or reward you with gold – based on their color. Used orbs are immediately replaced by new ones that are selected at random, meaning you’ll never work your way into the point of no return. Movement can be done on a single orb basis if necessary, and often that will you’re only option to advance. At times, this can be a bit frustrating, especially when you need to cover lots of ground, and fast.
If you’re like me and play mostly with controller, you’re at an even bigger disadvantage since Darkest Hunters is best played in handheld mode and with the touchscreen. This does make sense considering its mobile roots, and I have to commend the team for at least making it possible to play the game with a controller. Chrono Clash, another mobile-based Switch game, does not allow for controller use whatsoever, so things could have been worse. While controllers work, be aware that they are substantially slower than their touchscreen counterpart.
Movement is one thing, but drawbacks of controller play really come out when you face off against enemies. When using touch controls, attacking is as simple as touching the enemy on the screen – if they are in melee range – while ranged attacks require a secondary “click” to perform. With a controller, you must slowly drag a line to the enemy from your character. Every. Time. This would not be that bad if you could adjust the sensitivity of the “mouse” movement, but I never found a way to alter the base setting, which apparently is set to “a snail’s pace.” Again, both control schemes work, but you’ll probably want to avoid using a controller long-term unless you’re a masochist.
Darkest Hunters is not a bad game, especially given its price point. But the content itself quickly feels just like you’re “going through the motions”, save for some of the more thrilling scenarios against bosses. RPG elements are here, providing an additional layer of engagement beyond that of a simple tile-matching game, though this sentiment does not extend to the narrative (or lack thereof). Quest requirements, and just moving around, can become a chore at times, with that feeling further amplified when playing exclusively with a controller. For me, if a game incentivizes touch controls, to the point that it is the clear winner, I’d rather just fire it up on a phone. That could just be me though – if the details I’ve outlined above interest you whatsoever, then purchasing Darkest Hunters might not be a bad way to spend a fiver.