What do you get when you blend the combat of God of War, the acrobatic environment traversal of Prince of Persia, the world and dungeon structure of Zelda, the loot of an MMO and the art direction of a heavy metal album cover? The answer is something like Vigil Games and THQ’s action adventure Darksiders II.
I feel it’s only fair to start a review of this game with a warning: despite what you may have heard, this is not actually a game where you get to play death. That is to say, our titular “Pale Rider” is indeed called “Death,” but we discover fairly early on this is something more like an affectionate pet name than a literal description of essential nature. Which is just as well, I suppose, because it would difficult to explain how the physical avatar of the end of life could struggle with a tough boss or be defeated by a misjudged jump. It would also be at odds with the central plot of the game, which is… to reverse the apocalypse and bring all human beings on Earth back to life. Don’t worry, you’ll still get to use scythes, reap souls and look grim. Just think of him as a very competent tribute act, which, now I mention it, is pretty much a good analogy for the game as a whole.
As you can already tell, the Darksiders universe is a warped take on the cosmic aspects of the Bible. The archetypes are there – angels, demons, Armageddon, the tree of life but their implementation is somewhat unpredictable. Sometimes these tweaks are quite blatantly in service of “cool” (what if angels used guns?!) but other times there are streaks of impressive originality. The problem is that none of the story is particularly well communicated. The game both begins and ends abruptly, there’s little by way of introduction, and seemingly every odd spirit or demon in this twisted pantheon already knows Death on first name terms, forgoing the need to inform the player of anything. Death’s motivations are poorly explained and the driving force behind events is kept secret until a fair way into the game, making the start feel a bit like an aimless search for the next arbitrary MacGuffin.
Like I mentioned in the introduction, the gameplay of Darksiders II is heavily derivative, drawing from many classic titles. The risk with this approach is, of course, becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none. And this is Darksiders II’s biggest problem in a nutshell. Wall-running, climbing and other feats of athleticism are fun and responsive enough, but without the Prince’s time-reversing ability it’s impossible to create any truly focused, challenging obstacle courses. The combat is fun but largely mindless. Compared in isolation to other hack-and-slash games, it’s woefully lacking in complexity; most fights can be won just by spamming the two attack buttons and dodging now and again.
The RPG elements may be most incongruous of all. For some reason, the game features randomly generated loot with the kind of finicky stat boosts you’d expect from WoW. In a largely linear game with no party of characters, no online world and simplistic combat which isn’t very difficult to begin with, weighing up the relative merits of “+21 frost damage” vs “+15 health per crit” just seems like a waste of time. There’s nothing resembling the level of strategy that would necessitate these kinds of fine-grained gear distinctions- in the main story, at least you’ll be fine just slapping on something with vaguely big numbers and slashing away. In fact, despite gear shops being common, the dungeon drops were so plentiful that I only ever used them to sell off surplus equipment. By the end of the game I had enough money for all the souls in Hell, and had never felt challenged enough to consider buying any of the merchants’ overpowered gear. I can only imagine how much easier the game might be for one who uses the feature as intended.
The world (or worlds) of Darksiders II is/are decently vast. One can easily sink over 20 hours into exploring every nook and cranny and there are a smattering of sidequests, the most interesting of which involves hunting down optional, unique bosses. However, the game has a tendency to drag on in places. Whereas in a Zelda (last comparison, I swear!) each new dungeon offers a new aesthetic style to dig into and a new toy to play with, for the first two-thirds of Darksiders II, it’s more like one aesthetic and item per four dungeons. The visuals of the dungeons aren’t bad in fact, they’re without exception very good it can just feel like a bit of a slog when you’re exploring an old grey ruin for the third time. That said, if you’ve already committed some time to the game, it’s worth seeing it through to the end. The final third of the game shifts gears unexpectedly and for the better in almost every way. The dungeons and character designs suddenly become more varied and interesting and the story begins to focus and pick up the pace from its meandering beginnings. There are also a few fights in the latter part of the game that are genuinely tough.
The art direction of Darksiders has been something of a personal love-hate situation. While I was ready to hate it on the basis of the overly edgy without apparent irony tone set by Death’s character design, (who still isn’t quite as bad as the over-designed protagonist of Darksiders I) the game surprised me with the depth and variety of its aesthetic. It’s not all skulls and grimacing, there are lush green plains, and sun-dappled forests too. Whether light or dark, the environments in this game are breathtaking, teasing close to reality at times while always maintaining an air of the impossible: huge carved statues no human could construct, or strange, giant monsters hovering ominously on the horizon. The non-Death characters are also varied and interesting in design, and the voice performances are often excellent. Perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise was the game’s music. Once again, Death’s over-the-top, excessive, masculine grimness didn’t prepare me for a soundtrack full of subtlety. There’s no death metal, but there are lonely, haunting dungeon themes, grand orchestral numbers accompanying boss fights, and medieval-inspired overworld music that would fit in an Elder Scrolls game (Damnit!). There’s real love poured into the audio here, and it finds a way to command attention even in the game’s quietest moments.
For all the criticism, Darksiders II does a fairly good job of integrating its disparate mechanics, and perhaps there’s something original in that skill itself. While none of the borrowed elements are honed to perfection individually, none are particularly badly done, nor do they hamper the overall experience significantly. Darksiders II is not a mess. It’s more like a buffet: many individual flavours which, while not gourmet, are still pleasant and collectively satisfying. Darksiders II is a good game, and it gets better the more you play, it’s just one you might feel you’ve played a few times before.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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