The Bible can serve as quite the muse. Swords, fire, horsemen, demons, seven seals — the more you look, you find the Good Book can inspire good hell-raising fantasy, where the fate of mankind usually hangs in the balance.
So it’s interesting that in Darksiders, Vigil Games’ apocalyptic tale, humanity has been completely eliminated from the equation. The story reduces us to dust in the wind, smears on the feet of giant bloodthirsty demons or on the armor of the angels fighting them. In doing so, Vigil has cleared the way for an action quest of epic power and scale, the kind of experience that asks — or takes — a lot from anyone who plays it.
Usually in tales of angels vs. demons, some unsuspecting earthbound souls are left to sort out the mess that occurs whenever Heaven and Hell have some kind of disagreement, like Arnold’s alcoholic cop in “End of Days,” Keanu Reeves in “Constantine” or whoever gets caught in the middle of “Legion.”
We get no such luck this time. The story calls for more powerful beings who are beyond our help. Hence, we are toast.
Enter War, one of the re-envisioned Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The game tells us the Horsemen are supposed to show up and take part in the great battle between the forces of Heaven and Hell once the Seven Seals are broken. The Seals exist as solid proof of the truce between the two sides, with the inevitable throwdown meant to restore balance. The Kingdom of Man (that’s us) is supposed to be ready for it.
But as the opening sequence of the game shows us, we’re not. We’re really, really not.
War arrives on Earth to find a modern city being torn apart by the fires and forces of the Apocalypse. Buildings fall as the people scatter around like spilled marbles, trying to avoid monsters of the underworld and heavenly soldiers. It should be noted that War and his brethren don’t take sides. Instead, they serve as sort of a peacekeeping force whose mission is to keep both Heaven and Hell in check when needed. They answer to the Council, a mysterious governing body charged with keeping the balance. What this really means for us in terms of gameplay is that War has the green light to wipe out anyone or anything he sees fit. In some ways, he’s like a mythic Jack Bauer … except Jack doesn’t mete out justice with a massive sword.
The game uses the Apocalypse as a tutorial, where you’re exposed to most of War’s moves. Sword strikes are relegated to one button- the game doesn’t discriminate between “fast” or “strong” attacks, which gives me the sense that War only knows one speed in battle. It makes sense given his look – large, imposing, heavily armored but very fast with his upgradeable sword strikes. He also has his “chaos form,” where he turns into an invincible, flaming giant capable of laying waste to everything in his path.
Enjoy it while you can, because in fashion befitting God of War and other tales of its kind, it eventually gets taken away, along with the huge life meter and whatever death-dealing power the sword would have had. This is a problem when you run into a giant demon named Straga, who promptly slaps you around and crushes you to death.
So, what happened? War doesn’t “die” really – instead, he’s left to face the Council, facing accusations that he helped start the Apocalypse too early, which led to mankind’s eradication instead of salvation. Oops. Apparently, at least one of the Seven Seals were intact, so War wasn’t supposed to be there. War, however, says he heard the call to battle and was just doing his job. He makes a deal with the Council to be sent back to the Kingdom of Man so he can find those responsible for his framing. The Council agrees, but sends him back with only a fraction of his power. If he succeeds, great. If not, then he’s dead anyway and the Council won’t have to kill him.
War’s quest boils down to finding The Destroyer, the leader of the forces of Hell. To do that, he has to infiltrate The Tower, which stands above everything else and serves as a visual reminder that yes, demons rule here. Of course, getting to the Tower is no small task, so War has to strike a deal with an imprisoned demon named Samael, who used to be pretty badass himself until he told The Destroyer to get lost. Apparently, Samael can get War into the Tower if he had his powers, which can be regained from the extracted, still-beating hearts of The Chosen, the elite demons of The Destroyer. Guess who gets to go heart hunting? By the way, that’s just one part of the adventure – you still have to go into the tower and encounters whatever awaits you there. I refuse to spoil anything, save this – one set of puzzles in the game is a triumph.
What I learned to appreciate most about this game is the sheer volume of the tasks at hand. The game has been called the dark child of The Legend of Zelda and God of War series, and it’s easy to see why. There are no simple find-and-kill solutions for War … he has to earn everything he gets via a mix of long journeying, fighting hordes of enemies of varying power and truly mind-bending puzzle work. He finds useful and very necessary special tools along the way, including as a grappling hook, a “crossblade,” which is basically the boomerang-like glaive from “Krull,” and a giant pistol called Mercy. All of these tools are accessed through an interface that makes use of the directional cross on the controller as well as the shoulder buttons, which actually make it a little confusing at first. It’s up to you, however, to assign what goes where.
War also has “companions.” There’s an impish demon named The Watcher, who is impeccably voiced by Mark Hamill. Those familiar with Hamill’s work as the Joker will know what to expect from the Watcher, whose mission is to make sure War doesn’t stray too far from his mission in the most spiteful way possible. He likes to remind War “who holds the leash.” He DOES have his uses, though. He can be summoned at will to remind War of what his current objectives are, pops out on occasion to drop hints during boss battles or guide War to the right spot on rare occasions.
There’s also the demon Vulgrim, who serves as the game’s shopkeeper and dimensional transit service. Every being War kills gives him “souls,” which are used as currency to buy weapons, moves, upgrades and other items. The travel part of the equation lies with finding places where Vulgrim hangs out in various parts of the game’s vast world, which is essentially the city he visited during the Apocalypse. However, he comes back about 100 years later, so it’s been completely overrun by everyone except regular human beings. The game gives you the ability to zip from one Vulgrim location to another, instead of using the map to trudge your way on foot from one section of the world to another. I wise more games would do this (I’m looking at you, The Saboteur), because no matter how visually pleasing a game’s backgrounds are, staring at them for more than 10 hours can get old.
What can also get old is the game’s mostly awesome combat, which is inevitable in any action game that can last for 16 to 20 hours. At certain spots in the game, you get tossed waves upon waves of enemies, some more powerful than others, and there were times where I felt the game just did that to keep you busy. That’s fine in a more linear game like God of War, where there was always the feeling that Kratos was moving forward in his quest for vengeance. War’s quest is more widespread, so gobs and gobs of combat can feel like busywork.
True repetition came when I had to open some gates (who were actually giant talking stone golems), by traveling to glowing spots in the immediate area and being forced to take part in time-trial or goal-oriented minigames. I really, really despise when designers hinge the progress of a game on stuff like that. I believe it cheapens the experience, and I compare it to telling the player you have to take out the garbage or do the dishes before you can have any more fun. Thankfully, I only had to go through a round of minigames twice.
However, the game’s puzzles are old-school frustrating, which is actually a compliment. They can range from simply finding a key to a door to having to direct a path of light several levels across using a series of reflectors and portals. There are speed puzzles that may or may not require the use of slowing down actual time. Even the eventual battle against the giant demon Straga requires some critical thinking.
Another part of the game I enjoyed were the characters. Fighting waves of denizens aside, there’s something very fulfilling about good, solid confrontations against significant and interesting people. Aside from The Chosen, there’s also Uriel, the leader of Heaven’s armies, a creature called The Jailer and The Destroyer himself, who is already part of an interesting plot twist. There’s also Ulthane, the blacksmith who create weapons of extreme power, and Azrael, the Angel of Death. Nowhere to be seen are the other Horsemen, at least until the very end, where the door is left wide open for more installments.
Darksiders is a game that completely enveloped my time. I got lost within its mythos (I’m a sucker for Heaven vs. Hell stuff), it’s storytelling, its visuals and its gameplay. It’s true that it merges the parts of other outstanding games, and some may call that derivative. However, I think its characters, level design and puzzles were enough to help it stand out on its own. Besides, how strange would it be to knock a game because it has too much stuff you liked before?
Xbox 360, PS3
THQ / Vigil Games
Rated M for Mature