A few years back THQ published a title called Darksiders, made by Vigil Games where you got to play as War, one of the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse trying to clear your name (the concept is already sounding a little batty). Having never played the game myself I wasn’t particular excited about the sequel, but a few people in my circles have turned me on to the title, making it sound exciting, the concept most definitely appealing to me. Does this unique premise manage to strive early in August or is it best to let it die and resurrect it from the bargain bin later?
In the sequel you play as Death, one of the four horsemen, and War’s brother. The main purpose for you here is to find out what exactly happened behind the main conflict in the first game and to clear your brother’s name. For someone who haven’t played the first game I felt like the narrative and the intro cinematic brought me relatively up to speed for this particular adventure. While there were references to stuff that probably happened in the first title, I never felt particular left out, or missing out on the experience by not knowing the full details of what happened.
The main idea here is that you, as Death, must somehow find the way to resurrect humanity and by doing so clear your other brother’s (hopefully from the same mother) name. On the way you will travel between a number of hub worlds (with some locations within the same area as the 1st game) as well as solve numerous problems that obstruct your path. The game is a traditional fantasy setting with a few unique twists in the story and most certainly an unorthodox protagonist. Even so, it is different enough and seems committed to invest deeply into it’s lore to be entertaining.
The voice work is what you would expect from a fantasy setting to a tee, with many characters appearing as if they’d feel right at home on a Peter Jackson set somewhere in New Zealand. There even is a variation on the Ent, although thankfully it is not a walking tree this time (regrettably it is just as slow in it’s speech). Even so, no one seems to call it in and the dialogue supports the story well, strengthening the narrative. One particular stand out is Death himself. Michael Wincott (yeah, I had to look that up) delivers a very stand out performance when it comes to voice work. While the talent doesn’t necessarily match that of Sleeping Dogs, the strong lore, and the commitment of those involved carries the narrative.
The score for the game is phenomenal. From the background music to the elevated tones of battle, everything sounds atmospheric and moody. The sound behind the action fully reinforces the somewhat fantasy setting, creating the perfect emotions for each section of the game.
Visually, the first thing that came to my mind as a comparison (and trust me, this isn’t the final comparison to other games I’ll make here) is World of Warcraft. I don’t know why but to me, Darksiders II had that similar visual style, but it capitalized on the details. The character and creature design is pretty fantastic and detailed, and it is very pleasing to see Death change his appearance based on your particular inventory choices throughout the game. The environments area also beautiful and each particular one feels unique, even the dungeons through out the hub worlds. These stylistic choices are definitely interesting and impressive.
The one design problem that I do have however is the extensive loading times, which are also far too frequent. This goes from simply loading up a save file to frequent spikes during traversal, or even opening up an inventory or map. At one point in a dungeon ever open door between small chambers prompted a loading screen. Similarly, once I had to encounter a loading freeze immediately after loading the save file while travelling within the same environment. The menu takes hours to open and feels overall clunky and uninspired to the point where I dreaded every time I picked up a new weapon, had to study the map, or choose the skills from my latest level up.
The gameplay seems to be a mix of a number of different genres. Typically these types of games struggle to decide what they want to emulate the most and fail in every aspect trying to be a jack of all trades. Not so much so in the case of Darksiders II as it takes a number of elements from God of War, Zelda, Prince of Persia, and even some MMORPGs and balances them well to creative diverse and entertaining moments.
The combat is God of War top to bottom. It’s not as fluid as the Sony headliner, with certain animations feeling clunky and slowed down, but it is serviceable and can be very fun when expectations are adjusted. You can train and purchase new moves, finishers and level up new skills to bring about diversity as you hack and slash your way through hordes of enemies. It’s fun finding the right balance between using your regular and heavy weapon attacks to dispose of your enemies, especially when factoring in enhanced skills. Quick kills are back on enemies who are severely weakened as Death will reveal his true form and do a cool finisher move that a player is no part off. You can also, activate the Reaper mode where you start to resemble the traditional image of Death from the folklore dealing double the damange.
The few drawbacks from the action part is the camera work as well as the boring boss battles. This has always been a problem for me in these types of games, is when you pack a game with diverse enemies with different levels of difficulty, it is hard to create even more challenging bosses. In this game all it boils down to is exploiting one particular weakness through a rinse repeat process. The camera doesn’t help in combat either. Sure there is an option to focus on one enemy at a time, the view will swing around so you don’t always see the particular enemy that’s about to put a knife in your back. On the later levels especially it becomes a problem as you work to develop a fluid fight/dodge balance to survive.
The platforming system is well design and would feel right at home in a game about a particular prince. In some parts the resemblance (at least to me) was uncanny, right down to the animations death uses to traverse the environments. That however, isn’t a bad thing, especially considering that Prince of Persia offers some of the best environmental gameplay available (though they haven’t done much in a while). Outside of a few camera gripes (yeah, this again) where I can’t clearly see where I’m supposed to go and fall to my death the design is exceptional and fun to be engaged with.
The environmental puzzles are not particularly earth shattering, borrowing things from a few games (Portal would be one of them), but they are entertaining enough to make you scratch your head a few times before figuring it out. Not to say they are hard, but they certainly are creative enough to spice up getting Key A for Door A and Key B for Door B dungeon question segments.
The last element of the game is more of an RPG (and in some cases MMORPG) relic. As you kill enemies Death will unlock new abilities (and points to buy them) as well as pick up new loot. The game is predicated on you choosing an appropriate way to play and dispersing the points accordingly to fit your play style. In the end, you’ll probably end up playing a mix of a few as Death needs a number of tools to survive this adventure. Similarly, it brings the loot aspect from the MMO side, where you are always encouraged to seek out chests, loot enemies as well as do side quests for more loot. Engaging at first I quickly gave up on this as it turned out to be time consuming and often not worth my effort in the slightest as the enemies dropped the best loot regardless. I just see these types of conventions as unnecessary game padding for a game like this, jammed on disk to make you play just a little bit longer. Yes, it works for MMORPGs, but those are games built primarily for co-op play, to let you show off your accomplishments to friends by strutting your stuff. Grind is the name of the game there, it doesn’t have to be here.
Verdict: Darksiders II benefits from a unique premise and setting. It’s visual style sets it apart from many games of this generation, making it almost unique. It does well to balance different aspects of it’s gameplay preventing any particular one from wearing too thin. While it does a few technical issues and a few stylistic missteps the good by far outweighs the bad in this particular sequel. If you liked the first, this is the game for you, if you never played the first and are into RPGs (or want a new Prince of Persia game soon) this title definitely warrants a look. It is solid through and through and delivers an enjoyable experience. As long as you don’t expect it to light your world on fire).