Darkspore Open Beta Review

One of the benefits of being a fringe site is that you don’t have to worry about people giving a fuck about your reviews. Major sites can’t really cover the Darkspore open beta on Steam, because EA would throw a fit and demand they review the finished product, not the beta of a game that’s 99% complete. Not so here, folks! As an independent nobody, I can do whatever I want.

I’ll admit, I decided to play the Darkspore beta out of morbid curiosity. I mean, this game is the electronic equivalent of a platypus: a Diablo clone shoehorned for absolutely no reason under the banner of the most disappointing franchise ever launched. And one thing is true: this is obvious, absolute shoehorning; besides using the same character models as Spore did, there is nothing, repeat, NOTHING in common between the two. It is a massive bait and switch.

The irony is that the bait is rancid, but the switch is pretty solid.

Darkspore has a charm that is extremely simple to explain: it is a mid nineties awesome cartoon show. You know, the kind that had really excellent character designs that made the toy you had to have while simultaneously not having a plot or writing or anything to speak of. That’s what it is. As you fight through a largely standard Diablo game, you earn levels, which let you unlock another really cool character designed seemingly to become an amazing action figure. It’s neat, though. To the right person, it’s charming, and I’m definitely the right person. It gives the nostalgia in the absolutely proper way.

This is, actually, a hard game to review. It’s Diablo in space with you controlling a party of cool creatures. That’s the game’s hook: instead of playing as one character, you recruit dozens of party members, between whom you can change on the fly. That’s its hook, and, really, its only innovation beyond the standard Diablo formula by way of Torchlight; it’s Diablo 2.5 action, which means there’s an action bar and significantly less challenge than in Diablo. Sure, it’s pretty, too, and has sky high production values, but at it’s heart it’s a bog standard action RPG with a squad based gimmick.

Does the gimmick work? Yeah. Yeah it does. Someone had a good idea, and it works. You can switch between 3 party members at once to give your opponents different looks, and each party member has a synergy ability that allows you to mix and match abilities until you find really powerful combinations. It’s surprisingly heady stuff, especially in a game that really thinks its designed for kids, and it keeps the game fresh: it’s like playing Diablo as all the classes at once.

The problem is, they’ve made a competent Diablo clone with a cool innovation and then buried it under a lot of really awful design choices. For instance, your characters don’t gain experience. I know, I know, they did this so you could mix and match party members and to put the emphasis on the character customization (items raise your character level, and you attach them like in Spore), but honestly it tears the carrot right off of the stick. I could never stop playing Diablo II, or Torchlight for that matter, but I can barely play Darkspore for much over an hour. With all progression tied to collecting items, you only get the Diabloesque improvement endorphin high whenever an enemy drops a colored item, which is less than once a world. Yes, you get a good item at the end of every level, but it removes a lot of the joy of killing, replacing it with the joy of being done.

Further, the interface is borderline atrocious. Everything in the menu takes five seconds too long to load as the camera swoops around, as needless animations play. Again, these are things fine in the children’s game Darkspore wants to be, but not in a Diablo competitor. And nothing is where you think it would be: the shop is only available on the team selection screen, which means if you want to buy items, then you have to go through about 20 seconds of loading from the actual party equip screen. There’s no reason for this. These problems could, possibly, be fixed in the full version, but somehow I doubt that.

My final difficulty comes in the combat phase. I’m sure someone thought no potions was a good idea, but the problem is that a lack of potions takes all the control from the player. Speaking of control, there’s far too many enemies who delight in making it so you have no control over your character. The first boss spends all his time stun locking you, letting you get a hit in every couple seconds, which really isn’t fun.

In the end, that’s kind of what we have here: it’s a new Diabloalike that caters more to casual gamers and isn’t as fun as its inspirations. Were it the same price as Torchlight, maybe even $30, I would have no trouble recommending it to gamers who’ve been waiting years and years for Diablo 3, because it is certainly novel and competent, but for full price it’s a game that’s lacking. Darkspore is an enjoyable time waster with a special sense of nostalgia for people who long for the awesome action figures of the mid nineties or who can’t physically wait for Diablo 3, but for anyone else there are better options.

That said, this is about three times better than Spore was. So good on them.