Vigil Games have side-stepped all juxtaposition found in the original Darksiders, a game that saw a pseudo-Death Knight rampage through the streets of a cosmopolitan city as war breaks out between Heaven and Hell. The story was at face value completely trite, saved by art design and the popularity of the comic-book style gratuity. Despite how bad the game could have been, the voice acting, style, and combat all created a game-play experience that, whilst rough, was enjoyable – and quite rare on PC.
War - Darksiders original protagonist – is now out of the picture (although not completely), and as we saw the three other riders (Strife, Fury, and Death) plummet towards the earth towards the end of the first instalment, we were left guessing as to who we’d be slashing and hacking through the world with next time. We got Death, who looks like a slightly plumper Raziel.
First, let’s evict that huge elephant in the room: the port. I don’t know who’d decision it was to port Darksiders 2 using as little resources as possible, but with less graphical options than Square-Enix’s recent Final Fantasy VII re-release, PC gamers will have some cause for concern. The thing is, Darksiders II doesn’t look terrible – in fact, it’s quite a beautiful game – just don’t expect to be able to change any graphics options other than the resolution: you can’t. Is this a huge deal? It’s really a matter of opinion. I played the game seated comfortably at a 37″ TV with a wireless Xbox 360 game-pad – basically as though it were on console. The immersion, art-style, music and game-play more than make up for what is in practise a minor annoyance. Designed to run on basically any machine, Darksiders II won’t win any awards for graphics, but it is still a beautiful game. I’m not sure if that’s an achievement for THQ, or a gripe.
The game world is beautifully created - reminiscent of Heavenly Sword
With that out of the way, what does Darksiders II have to offer? You play as War’s brother, Death, through a much more open and vibrant landscape than the original Darksiders. Incorporating some real RPG elements such as a conversation wheel and explorable game-fields, you’re set on an epic journey of introversion, personal redemption, and kinship.
The Charred Council, having written off War as a persona non grata, have angered Death, who has faith in his brothers allegiance to his clan. With this heavy burden, Death sets out to prove that his brother is innocent of all charges.
With loot drops, upgrades, a character sheet, and the ability to purchase and sell items, Darksiders II changes dynamic quite dramatically from its predecessor. Sure, you’ll still be smashing crates and vases open throughout the entire game, picking up pennies here and there. You’ll still be slashing and hacking a varied array of both flesh and stone enemies; there’s still platforming and puzzling, but Darksiders II doesn’t feel much like the original at all. The combat is much more varied and refined, with beautiful animations and a very wide range of gear and weapons. With the ability to equip a set of scythes with statistics (such is damage modifiers, health syphon’s, etc.,) and different styles of secondary weapons, there’s always loot drops from enemies, chests and containers to tempt you away from the beaten track.
The game features a relatively simple dynamic: visit key NPC to have a conversation, then head to the location of the dungeon, platform and puzzle solve your way to the boss: kill it. Rinse, repeat. There are wide-open spaces in-between which are slightly reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIII in length and linearity – albeit with real-time combat of course – with the theme of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. You might be thinking that the clinically prosaic way in which I’m explaining the essence of the game means that it’s fundamentally bad, but no! Not at all!
Darksiders II does everything we’ve seen before, but really, really well. I felt as though I was playing a current generation Ps2 game – a throwback to the gentle and lethargic couch-gaming sessions, where explosions and monsters didn’t have to be 2 minutes in-between to satisfy the publisher. There was some integrity to the gameplay here, and although nothing surprised me, I was certainly satisfied.
Can’t… stop… thinking of… Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
Darksiders II is as much a platformer as it is a spectacle fighter – with quite large proportions of the game aimed around getting from A-B with relatively little to no combat in-between. Platforming is well thought out, with routes interesting albeit not very varied. It uses a simple formula we’re all used to: climb on vines, grab ledges, shimmy around obsticles, and so on. The problem with platforming in Darksiders II is that there’s so much of it that it becomes a detriment to the dynamic. You can be puzzle solving and platforming for a good 40 or so minutes between any cut-scene or key-enemy to reaffirm your main goal or set the mood.
The puzzles aren’t really puzzles; they usually consist of acquiring a ball which acts as a switch in the same way that a companion cube sits on a button in Portal 2, then gaining access to whatever room you need to get to. This requires not so much brain power, but looking for the right parts to do the job. For instance, you often rely on a gooey little explosive device to dislodge the companion ball(?), with some platforming thrown in for good measure. A good way to get an idea of what this is, is to think about the missions in Assassins Creed II where Ezio had to platform his way through tombs to find the 6 pieces to unlock Altaïr’s armour; it wasn’t hard, it just took ages. This makes the bulk of Darksiders II - an eclectic mix of fast paced combat action, with long and docile platforming elements through not very varied, but very beautiful environments, known as dungeons.
The dungeons vary in length, but took me about 30 minutes to an hour depending on the length and complexity. Often, there are just a lot of doors to get through and rooms to check out – and you might lose your pacing, and then your immersion. I found myself thinking “what am I doing?” when I reflected on the context: redemption, save War; save myself. It felt a little… out of place.
It’s true that Darksiders II might, on paper, be: “platform to find this key to open this door to fight this boss to talk to this guy to (repeat)” but with a fantastic musical score and beautiful visual art-style – not to mention very competent voice-acting – it pulls it off. The important thing is the game is immersive.
Most cut-scenes play-out like vibrant watercolour paintings, regardless of your rig
The boss fights are interesting and varied to some degree. Much like everything else in the Darksiders universe, you can look no further than World of Warcraft to draw comparison. The bosses remind me of Wrath of the Lich King era raid bosses – large, poundy and kitey. Each boss is unique, with its own unique array of attacks, but they usually require the same use of dodge and knock-out for an effective attack. It’s easy to take them down once you know what to do, with a superfluously quick dodge-mechanic that is a fail-safe against pretty much any attack. Once you kill a boss, gates will open and you’ll be able to fast travel back to the location from which you got the quest.
Yes, I said it: questing is a feature in Darksiders II. I often accidentally came across items that NPC’s wanted, and handed them over – but you can intentionally set out to take quests up with many of the main NPC’s, and check them with your log as you go on your way. You’ve a world-map to guide you, which comes in useful since there is quite a vast open world to explore. To get an idea of the explorable open world and RPG elements, it’s somewhere in between Viking Battle for Asgard and Kingdoms of Amalur, but the scale certainly swings more towards Viking - a good thing considering that many players will be expecting a fast and furious hack and slash.
By no means did I feel pressured into going out of my way to complete quests or collect items, or farm for XP, and I really admired the fact that it’s there for people who want it. Indeed, the game is about twice the size of War’s original campaign, with ample breathing room for those who really do want to RPG the game to 100%.
With your horsey companion at your side (which really does look like a WoW mount) Death finds getting from A to B as easy as, well, the inevitable use of fast travel.
What does this all boil down to, though? Well, Darksiders II has me a little perplexed. I should hate the port – some readers will note how hard I came down on Ghost Recon: Future Soldier – but the game looks fine. Sure there are a few frame-spikes here and there, but the music and art-style immersed me into the world of Darksiders without me putting up much of a fight. With long and arduous platforming segments that, in fairness, did feel an integral part of the game rather than merely filler, I found myself constantly divorced from the foundations of the story, but with every interesting NPC came a well acted, well voiced conversation that threw me right back in.
With so many loot drops I literally didn’t spend a penny, just upgrade your DLC gear!
Combat was competent, enthralling and awesome – and the scale and range of Death’s special moves which grow in strength, with more to unlock from two ‘specs’ as you level up, really made for a great combat experience. Not quite as elegant as Heavenly Sword, and not nearly as meaty as Viking Battle for Asgard, the combat fit somewhere in between. It was a sweet spot I’d not really seen in this saturated genre, and for that I’m glad I played through the game.
Although the story never really got me hooked, the world around it sucked me right through the peripheries of doubt, into a surprisingly relaxing, immersive experience that felt more like a traditional console RPG for the Xbox and PS2 generation, than something released in 2012 – a decade full of explosions, space nudity and gratuitous violence… and that’s almost one of the strangest things about Darksiders II: where the original was criticised for the nature of the extreme violence, Vigil Games have created something almost sweet; certainly endearing. It might be the soft greens and browns and relative lack of blood for the most part, but Darksiders II divorces itself from past gimmicks, and replaces them with proper, solid gameplay – even if you might find yourself a little lost at times.
If you can, play the original first. Vigil Games don’t really spend much time on a re-cap, so expect to be a little confused. That’s not to say you can’t skip Darksiders - but like that awkward pilot episode, or first game, it now feels as though the predecessor was the unpolished leg-work, and Darksiders II is the reward for sticking with it. Setting you back around 8-10 hours of your life depending on how involved your questing thirst is, Darksiders II is a must have for fans of spectacle fighting or action-RPG’s – just make sure you’re up for a bit of derivative platforming and puzzle solving.