Josh Journey: Darkness Totems Review

I have a soft spot for Beat ‘em ups. I have fond memories of playing many different games as a child, but Beat ‘em ups stand out for one particular reason. Most of the time I played these games with friends, either in two-player co-op on a home console or with four friends at the arcade (and sometimes even more – hello, X-men). It’s no wonder I am still drawn to these games now and I’m sure plenty of current developers are inspired to make Beat ‘em ups for the same reason. The latest entry that has caught my eye is Josh Journey: Darkness Totems, developed by Provincia Studio and published by QUByte Interactive. When I say caught my eye, I’m not exaggerating; this game has a phenomenal art style that looks like it was pulled straight out of a stylish cartoon. Art isn’t everything though, and I’m sure you’re wondering how the rest of the game holds up.

Josh Journey features a story with a simple premise. The Darkness Shadow has sent his army of nightmare monsters to The Province World. They have installed Darkness Totems in the four provinces of the world. Things are looking dire, but fortunately, all hope is not yet lost because Josh and his three hero friends are here to take on the darkness, to journey through it if you will. You will control all four heroes on a quest to destroy the Totems spread across the four Provinces. Josh Journey can be played in two to four player local co-op, or if you’re a lonely gamer such as myself you can play solo. While playing you have access to all four heroes and are able to switch freely between them with the right and left shoulder buttons or by pressing the right joystick in one of the cardinal directions. When playing two players each player takes on two heroes and can switch freely between the two they picked. If you are a popular person who has four real-life friends that are all in the same location at once then you each get to control one character. I was fortunate enough to play local co-op for a bit with my lovely girlfriend, but she quickly lost interest for multiple reasons.

I’m not going to make you wait any longer – I’ll fill you in on the non-art half of the game. Josh Journey’s gameplay does not hold up well at all. The core gameplay – the combat – feels shallow, and in many situations I felt like it was impossible to avoid enemies’ attacks. The game lacks an acceptable level of what I would describe as give and take, between the player and the enemies. It’s missing some basic abilities/moves that we’ve grown accustomed to in our games over the years. Only one of the four characters has a traditional block move, and only one has a traditional dodge move, both of which must be unlocked in the upgrade shop in between levels. I think if the game was designed with a dedicated dodge or block button the combat wouldn’t feel as cheap.

However, that still wouldn’t fix the level of shallowness present in the combat system. Each of the four characters starts with 3 moves: a basic and heavy attack (3 of the characters can combo these together), and a special attack that can only be performed once the small bar under your health is filled by attacking enemies. The special attack in all four cases is extremely weak, especially considering you have to build up a meter to use it. Two of the characters are close-range melee fighters and the other two have short-distance ranged attacks. Each character has a couple of new moves that can be purchased in the upgrade shop, but the ones that I have unlocked so far don’t do much to improve the quality of the combat. 

I found myself drawn to the ranged fighters because it was easier to avoid getting hit. Each character starts with a very small health bar that can be whittled away quickly by getting hit a few times by enemies’ attacks. When a character dies you instantly switch to the next available hero. You can revive the fallen heroes by holding the A button next to them; however, you have to hold the button for what feels like an eternity and if you are hit it interrupts the buildup of the revival bar and you must start over. In addition, getting the HUD to display for the A input is very finicky, I could be standing right on top of or next to the dead hero’s icon and it would only display when standing in a very small spot. Once revived they regain half their health, which is reasonable, but this brings up another issue I have with the gameplay: Healing. There are not enough healing mechanics. Only one character has a healing move, and it is restricted to her special move. This move can only be performed if you find a particular pickup in the environment, and that pickup is rare; appearing once or so per level. Occasionally you will find a health potion inside breakable objects, but it only restores a sliver of your health bar. To add insult to injury, after you complete a level or if you give up and return to the map screen you have to go to the upgrade shop to refill all of your heroes’ health. This just doesn’t make sense to me.

Another reason for my lack of enthusiasm is the fact that this game is difficult. The regular combat is frustrating and this is amplified during the boss fights. The ones I fought were unique encounters, but they also fall back on simply adding more enemies during the later stages of the fight to make things more challenging. This game desperately needs difficulty options. Or perhaps they could let you keep the upgrade currency you earn in levels when you die, that way you could make your characters more powerful if you couldn’t beat a level, giving yourself a better chance to succeed if you keep playing.

I’ve already mentioned the stand-out art style, but I have to bring it up again. Until recently when reviewing games for the Tavern, games were rated by averaging the scores of four different categories, one of which was graphics. If we still used this format it would be difficult for me to give it less than a nine in that category. Josh Journey’s art style reminds me of a cartoon you might see during the primetime block on Cartoon Network. It is stylized and they make use of many bright colors, and the color pallets they have chosen fit well together. Perhaps the most artistic aspect of Josh Journey’s art design is the level map illustrations that have a fantastic and unique appearance. There are a few facets of the game’s art design that fall a little short. First off, I feel like some of the combat animations are a little lackluster and don’t stack up to the overall quality of the game’s art design. The other thing that stood out was how far the camera is zoomed out while playing. I’m used to having an up-close and personal view of the action when playing Beat ‘em ups, but here the far-away camera view takes away from the gameplay and doesn’t do any favors for the already mundane combat. 

Conclusion

Apparently, Josh Journey: Totems of Darkness started out as a short cartoon, and the creators were encouraged to turn it into a video game. Whoever handed out this advice did their friends a disservice; I think they should have focused on creating a full-scale movie or show because art is obviously their strong point. The gameplay in Josh Journey is severely lacking, and with no difficulty options, it will only appeal to more advanced players. Perhaps this game is a blast when playing with four players, but without any online options, most players won’t have enough people or controllers to try that out. 

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This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox One console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.
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Good
  • Cartoon-inspired art style looks fantasic
Bad
  • Combat is shallow and feels cheap
  • Needs difficulty options
  • No online co-op
4.5
Poor
Written by
I started my gaming odyssey playing 8-bit console and arcade games. My first Xbox was the 360 and I immediately fell in love with achievement hunting and the overall ecosystem. That love was cemented with my purchase of an Xbox One. I play a bit of everything, but I usually end up playing fast paced games that remind me of my days spent in dark, smoky arcades spending quarter after quarter, telling myself "one more try!". Gamertag: Morbid237.

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