Death may be a leaner figure than his armour-clad sibling – the topless protagonist less a stocky mutant knight and more a sinewy ghoul right off an Iron Maiden album cover – but the game he’s starring in is undeniably better built out.
Darksiders II – the somewhat less tangled but no less silly story of Horseman of the Apocalypse #2 as he attempts to undo the end of days and clear War’s name – presents the same melting pot of borrowed ideas as its predecessor, but with a few extra ingredients thrown in to spice up the brew. Along with the Zelda dungeons, God Of War combat and Metroidvania item-collecting come the welcome additions of Diablo’s looting and World Of Warcraft RPG-ing.
It doesn’t make for an entirely different experience – this is largely the same puzzle-heavy, dungeon-crawling, brutal hack-and-slash experience played out against Joe Mad’s otherverse of angels, demons, nephilim and a race of Scottish-voiced Makers seemingly related to Shrek – but this time there’s that extra tug of ever-increasing numbers pulling you through the world.
Death – a swifter and more agile version of his brethren – begins the game skinny and bare-chested atop an icy summit, with naught but a steed and a pair of twin scythes to his name. As you make your way from here to the Forge Lands, the Kingdom of the Dead, and some other generously sized overworlds that we won’t spoil here, Darksiders’ characteristic chunkiness begins to seep in, with a selection of oversized gloves, boots, shoulder plates, body armour and enchanted talismans to be found hidden within chests or dropped by foes upon defeat. The higher the stats, the bigger the armour, Death increasingly adorned with larger and spikier buckles, wraps, plates and flaps of ragged cloth.
There are always sacrifices to be made. Death’s stats incorporate defence, attack, arcane ability, critical chance and a number of other attributes, each bolstered or diminished by the selections you make. It’s often the case that items will undermine or counteract your decisions in other areas, so attempting to make a decision between two similar items, each offering a slightly different but no less worthy enhancement to your version of Death, can often leave you pondering for minutes at a time. Like Diablo,
that perfect loadout always feels slightly out of
reach, perhaps in just a few more defeated bosses and a couple more smashed chests. It tugs you through the game quite nicely, while adding a welcome layer of tinkering, two factors that keep Darksiders II from meandering into the same long stretches of repetitiveness that so mired its predecessor.
This said, it’s nevertheless apparent that the mathematicians at Vigil Games don’t boast quite the same mastery over the roll of the dice as Bethesda or From Software. Death is able to wield a variety of scythes, gauntlets, arm blades, oversized hammers and maces that deliver devastating amounts of damage, and for much of the game watching the small integers that emanate from every successful attack grow into huge, glowing storms of numbers in the thousands is an expertly orchestrated demonstration of how to keep combat that is largely rooted in button-bashing feeling satisfactory throughout.
However, there are problems. During our playthrough we concentrated on kitting out Death in such a way as to augment his critical damage and critical chance, while also supplementing the ‘health received’ stat upon landing these periodic critical attacks. Add to this a secondary weapon attained from the defeat of a boss that allowed Death to transfer the life force of his enemies into himself, and we found ourselves in a relatively unstoppable position several hours from the end of the game, constantly recharging our health bar mere seconds after any was lost. Even one of the final bosses, which towered over Death, posed a negligible threat as we hammered our way through the encounter with little in the way of caution and gorged on his health. This isn’t a situation that all players will necessarily find themselves in, and we were playing on normal rather than hard, but it nevertheless highlights the fact that Darksiders II’s
action and RPG mechanics are not quite as well balanced as others in the genre.
Luckily, this is but a small complaint that only players who tackle Darksiders II in a very particular way will experience. Also, much like the first game, the combat is just a small part of what makes this adventure such an enjoyable play. It’s the puzzle and exploration side that really elevates it.
The open-world map – or maps, more accurately – isn’t much more impressive than the charred Earth of the first game, serving simply as ground to traverse when getting from one point to the next, and perhaps offering the odd cache of hidden item tucked away in the geography of the terrain. It’s the dungeons – which do admittedly sometimes spill out into this open world – that are the real meat of the experience.
While they’re not quite the otherworldly aberrations we had been promised – most dungeons here are simple castles, caverns or just that: dungeons – these are seriously large arenas, often taking up to two hours to complete thanks to elaborate level-spanning puzzles that draw from every part of your inventory. They’re excellent imitations of Zelda; Vigil Games may have learned from the best, but it’s learned well, with expertly crafted spatial brain-twisters that range from the simple to the outright confounding, and they’re usually based around judicious use of whatever new item allowed access to that dungeon.
Early puzzles ask that you use timed, glowing bombs plucked from walls and ceilings to blast away the virulent ‘corruption’ blocking the path forward, while later conundrums will see you taking control of stone golems to activate floor switches. Later still, you can command Dead Lords to activate panels that you yourself cannot reach, or split Death into two apparitions, swapping between each of his halves to solve multi-step problems. Like
Zelda, these are puzzles as much about limitations as they are abilities. You continually gain new powers that open previously inaccessible avenues of exploration, but it’s how they can’t be used just as much as how they can that defines your puzzle-solving process.
It’s hardly Portal, although a riff on the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device does once again make an appearance late on in the game, but these are still brilliantly crafted brain teasers, often difficult to the point of utter confusion, but rarely unfair. If you’re stuck, you know it’s because you’re missing something in front of your eyes, not because of something so obscure that you’ll resent it when you find it. Don’t go in expecting anything as deviously crafty as the Water Temple in Ocarina Of Time, but do expect to have your brain tickled with some cleverly thought out level design.
Boss and mini-boss battles are in abundance too, but it’s something of a letdown that the majority encountered here are of the traditional hack-and-slash showdown sort and less of the ‘solve this puzzle while being pummelled by a beast’ variety. There is one rather intense encounter that demands the expeditious grabbing and hurling of sticky bombs; a battle that requires use of the harpoon analogue Deathgrip to grab and slam a writhing, snake-like creature to the ground; and an open-world QTE showdown against a Shadow Of The Colossus-esque giant stone skyscraper, but for the most part boss battles boil down to repetitions of X, X, X, evade, Y, Y, Y, and not a great deal else.
We’ve mentioned little of the story, given that there’s little story to mention. The original was nonsense, but entertaining nonsense, brought to colourful, violent life by Joe Mad’s bulky and decorative art style. There’s plenty of that aesthetic here, although it fares better in some places than in others – we’re looking at you, Makers – but the story underpinning it feels less developed than the crossings and double crossings of the original game.
Darksiders II is little more than a series of MacGuffins, Death first commanded to reach the Tree of Life, then find the Well of Souls, then the Stapler of Almighty Destruction – or whatever ominous-sounding object it is you’re being sent to after that; you’ll likely have tuned out by that point. Within these over-arching tasks, you’ll
find Death is repeatedly sent after three items – lost souls, horns, undead court members – and at one point even sent after a sub-three items while looking for one of a set of another three.
It’s a solid but timeworn action RPG cliché, stretched to breaking point by Darksiders and leaving little room for story development in what is essentially a prolonged series of
You still can’t criticise Darksiders II for its length, though, because amazingly, within those 20 or so hours of gameplay – depending on how many trinket-grabbing side quests you decide to dedicate yourself to – the game manages to never become boring. The dungeons scale in difficulty with clockwork precision; the RPG upgrade system ensures you’re always looking forward to a new power or upgrade; and the combat, although predominantly a button-mashing affair, is so awash with colour and devastating force delivered through powerful, crunching sound design that it’s difficult to grow tired of it. This is an incredibly liberal action RPG when it comes to sheer length, and while hardly as varied as any of Link’s adventures, it’s still got a few surprises up its sleeve to keep you guessing at what might happen next.
So, although it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, this Death in the family may be exactly what THQ needs to save it from its current woes. Whereas the first game dragged, Darksiders II offers loot, side quests, an engaging skill tree, and a world four times bigger than the first that constantly keep you engaged with the experience. What’s more, its various inspirations and genres feel more solidly packed together, robust and stable like a diamond formed under the pressure of the earth. It’s a rough diamond, certainly, lacking the sharper, polished facets that make a real gem like Zelda so irresistibly good, but there’s a dull gleam there nevertheless.
With a little more polish, Darksiders could be something special. Perhaps, come the next wave of consoles, Vigil can take that extra power and cut the series into something eminently more impressive. Strife, Fury, you’re up to bat.