The latest in Vigil / THQ’s apocalyptic action franchise delivers a predictable mélange of action, narrative and gameplay with a few kinks in the story along the way. Whilst the game itself is physically much larger than its younger sibling, the sequel ultimately delivers less to the gamer and is sorrowfully another banal sequel to add to the pile.
Set parallel to the events of the first game, Darksiders II gives the player control of War’s hoarier brother, Death. As the oldest and utmost bad-ass Horseman of the Apocalypse, Death’s quest is to undo the wrongs which War recently committed in Darksiders and to ironically bring Mankind back from the brink of Armageddon.
The opening sequence of the game reveals the origins of the Horsemen to be that of Nephilim¸ a product of the interbreeding of Angels and Demons. The many numbers and incredible might of the Nephilim caused a great strain on the universal balance and so the Charred Council offered unimaginable power to four of these Nephilim and in exchange ordered the extinction of their race. The Four go about their grisly genocide, restoring order to the Cosmos and becoming universal guardians of balance in return.
This origin puts the Darksiders mythology some steps away from the Judeo-Christian legend which is paralleled in the previous game; rather establishing its own unique principal folklore and embracing many overlapping lores which form the spiritual tapestry of its shared universe. The world this game is set in is rich and worthy of note; One could foresee many games, comics or feature films to spin out of it – the great work in world-building is one of the greatest achievements in the game.
As ever, the story is very strong and features Death riding to prove his brother’s innocence and to save the lives of countless humans. The narrative turns this way and that-a-way; Death encounters analogues of numerous individuals from various world religions and many illustrious and imaginative characters but the unique, Darksiders-only characters are by far the most creative and colourful.
Suffice to say, the narrative is the strongest element in Darksiders II. Much like the first game, it’s the game’s protagonist and his journey that keeps you playing the game and in the case of the previous chapter, the gameplay was more than enough to allow the gamer to have a fun experience – unfortunately that may not be the case second time around.
If you like fetch quests then Darksiders II is the game for you. Gameplay herein relies heavily on the tired design technique of red key, red door; no matter how well painted-over with shiny design mechanics, like black paint this always seeps through and ruins the job. Where Darksiders was lamented for its derision of The Legend of Zelda, it strikes this reviewer that the target for lampoon in Darksiders II is Diablo. This game plays more like a 90s dungeon-trawler than any game I’ve played on a console. Dungeons, loot drops, critical hits – it’s all here with aplomb. To be frank this approach hasn’t strengthened the Darksiders property, rather than weaken it; the series is now without a core identity and is weaker overall for the effort.
In the early stages of the game you’re treated to nice, pacy level structure. Go here, defeat that guy, get that treasure; now go here, defeat this guy and unlock that door. Simple and undeviating it may be, but there’s no attempt made to hide the fact – the linearity is fully embraced and the first game was better off for its unabashed adoption of straight storytelling. Rectilinear games are no sin; often a strong narrative forces the game to become a linear experience and there is no shame in that. It seems that Vigil have felt though that some changes needed to be made to the way Darksiders plays so have added in further complexity and ruthless padding-out of dungeons.
After ten or so hours of trawling dungeons, finding treasures and defeating bosses the game starts to drag as it becomes fairly apparent that Death has accomplished precious little in his quest. A quick look at your achievement list will illustrate just how much is left to accomplish. At around this point the game asks for everything threefold; to activate the construct find three stones; to summon the Champion collect three gems; to reveal the path recruit three soldiers. Each one of these quests involves a great deal of dungeon-trawling, a little exploration and then a boss fight. In writing it doesn’t sound that bad but in reality the inexorable echo of Death’s actions becomes invidious in short time. Once noticed it is impossible to un-notice and the magic number of three quests in place of one quickly renders Darksiders II a rebarbative experience, despite each individual element being fairly enjoyable; the exploration is fun, the bosses are challenging and the combat is enjoyable.
Combat in Darksiders II is very much like the first game; it’s nice to see that Vigil kept some vestige of the previous game intact. The most marked difference between the two games is in the combat style of the two protagonists. Climbing, spellcasting and all other elements are practically identical but the way which these brothers scrap couldn’t be more different. Where War was defined as the tank of the group, the Mighty Glacier if you will, Death performs more as the party rogue or the Fragile Speedster to use the appropriate trope. This means that War’s stoic but solid approach to bashing everything’s head in is replaced with the swift and brutal slicing attacks of Death. As our Grim hero is much more slight and nimble than his younger brother he is more susceptible to high damage moves and combinations, so to master fighting in this game one must take advantage of his speed and take your enemies apart with swift strikes and superior manoeuvrability.
As Death hacks-and-slashes his way through demons, skeletons, ghouls, monsters and everything in-between he gains experience and levels up – another parallel to Diablo. One marked difference in Darksiders II is the inclusion of a range of secondary weapons; Death can gather oodles of different weapons, with each weapon having a unique set of stats. Weapon types are twofold – slow and fast. Slow weapons comprise axes, hammers and glaives and are your usual two-handed damage dealers where fast weapons could be gauntlets, armblades or paired daggers. Each weapon will have a randomly-assigned level, damage amount and sometimes some esoteric statistics like fire damage or critical hit chance. The fast weapons offer the most synergy with Death’s already impressive speed and at higher levels the player will be shredding their adversaries with heartless celerity.
The inclusion of possessed weapons is an agreeable one – weapons that have somehow come under the possession of a demonic force and whose stats can be upped by “sacrificing” items in Death’s inventory to them. Offer them a couple of found scythes and a spare medallion and before long you’ll have a list of statistics as long as your arm for these weapons.
Gathering loot across his journey, Death is able to construct a near-infinite combination of weapons, armour and accessories to aid his quest and anything spare can be sold in-game to merchants or offered up to your possessed weapons. The loot gathering is standard fare for a dungeon-trawler but serves as nothing more than a slight annoyance in Darksiders II and just gets in the way of progress; a simpler levelling system and increased weapon stats would be all that’s required.
This in itself is fairly entertaining apart from being sorely let down by sluggish and unresponsive controls. A great many of the combos and battle features rely on timed button-presses and these are simply not delivered with the accuracy with which they were intended. One boss fight requires Death to collect bomb items and throw them at his adversary; all the while escaping ranged attacks and fending off a handful of goons. Whilst the boss fight offers its own challenge, getting Death to actually grab the bombs on the fly is an odious task in itself.
Not only does the gamer have to put up with insensitive commands but the second gripe with controller input quickly rears its head; when exploring, Death often has to climb walls, pillars and all manner of structures. There is a vast range of manoeuvres on offer to traverse the epic spaces but unfortunately the experience is left lacking due to the confusing nature of the controls. Rather than having a solid, position-relative system of input, the game seems to have a camera-relative method – by this I mean that to jump backwards sometimes requires the gamer to hold down, other times perhaps to push right. All this serves to do is to break the credibility of the game; once the gamer is double-guessing the game’s logic, the fourth wall is broken and they’re dumped back into reality only to realise they’re holding a game controller and trying to move a little man on the TV screen. A truly immersive game is fluid and organic and one can lose themselves in the motions for many hours, never once thinking that they’re moving a little man on the TV screen.
Relatively, Death is little. Not just relative to his brothers, but relative to the world. The locales on offer in this title are immense. Epic even. Pointless perhaps.
Just the first dungeon alone is colossal and progression through each additional chamber reveals further catacombs and labyrinthine passageways that are unreachable with Death’s current equipment, beckoning further play at a later date. Each successive dungeon is bigger, bigger and bigger; eventually becoming the enormous oubliettes seen in later stages. The size borders on ridiculousness and loading times are therefore constant and wildly irritating. It seems otiose to have dungeons so big – the content provided within is usually just spread thinly across these great underground vaults, begging the question of why can’t it just be smaller? With no extra content to pull the gamer through the experience, the dull trudging through stone tunnels quickly drags the game down and further demarcates this sequel from its forerunner. Vigil even included Death’s sidekick crow Dust as a device to aid the player’s navigation, obviously due to the likelihood of getting lost in such egregiously massive lairs.
The huge dungeons are reiterated in kind by the vast plains that lay between them; Death must ride his dependable horse Despair – no different to Ruin in the previous game – between each location and save for a few chests or enemies hither and thither the landscapes are bereft of anything interesting. The sizable expanses of nothingness smack of a lack of imagination and the game’s flow would have been plenty pacier had everything been but a little closer together.
In closing, Darksiders II should have been a summer blockbuster – a sequel to one of the most underrated games of this generation, finally being given the recognition it deserves. Instead what we have is a games developer losing focus of a brand they’ve created and trying too hard to artificially inflate what would otherwise be a perfectly sound experience. Had the intervals been reduced, the air taken out and the content allowed to shine this would have been a perfect concinnity of games design. As is, it’s a bloated beach ball, filled with empty space and nothing more.