In 2010, the first thing that Darksiders did was to destroy the world. It brought on the Apocalypse reserving players a front row seat as one of the Four Horsemen. Humanity was dead, and War was on the march.
Fueled by the vision of comics industry veteran, Joe Madureira, and his team at Vigil Games, it took the charred building blocks of a Biblical end and gleefully twisted them into a vast adventure battling through the aftermath as angels and demons fought over the bones of what was left. But like any good story, there’s always more to tell. And like any good sequel, there’s always more than one way to improve on the original.
As a comic book alum, Madureira defined the look of the first game fleshing out its high-fantasy backdrop which mixes together angels, demons, and the Four Horsemen who act as enforcers of the balance between Light and Darkness with his distinctive art style. In the first game, players bore the huge shoulder pauldrons of the Horseman, War, who arrives on Earth inadvertently triggering the Apocalypse which wipes out humanity with a demonic invasion. That wasn’t supposed to happen, something which War later realizes when he discovers an the otherworldly conspiracy that has set him up as a cosmic patsy.
The sequel answers one of the questions as to what the other Horsemen were doing while War was trying to find out the truth. This time, it’s all about Death, voiced by Michael Wincott, whose gravelly delivery is focused on saving his brother by resurrecting humanity. Along the way, he’ll also be visiting his namesake on everything that doesn’t agree placing the somewhat thin story of this game as second fiddle to what he does best.
The biggest change from the first game is the introduction of an extensive loot system similar to something found in action RPGs like Diablo 3 or Dark Souls. Random drops from enemies, chests, and bosses will cram Death’s inventory with armor, weapons, and even special items that can be traded for especially interesting rewards ranging from cash to physical upgrades to Death’s stats. And there’s a lot to go around along with plenty of coin. To give you an idea of how much, I never bought a weapon or a piece of armor from any of the merchants in the game throughout the entire campaign because there was so much to find in this looter’s paradise. Beneficial potions, on the other hand, were my coin purse’s best friend.
Weapons are ranked in colors with plain white for boring, low stat items, to purples with high end attributes. But there are also the “possessed” weapons which can devour whatever you want to feed them whether it’s a piece of armor, another weapon, or a powerful talisman. Even other possessed weapons can be sacrificed to these. By doing this, these hungry items can be stacked with a variety of random effects from raising your chances for critical hits to healing you up a bit after every kill.
The better the weapon, the faster it can be upgraded, making it a pleasant diversion from simply dumping stuff out of your inventory to make space. The only downside is that these can only be upgraded so far, but the final results that I have gotten were also another reason why I never bothered to buy anything new. Now everything you find can potentially be used to make Death even deadlier.
His skill set puts everything to good use with an even larger pick of moves compared to the first game. Fueled by rage which builds up as he slashes, blasts, and tears his way through enemies, these, along with his limited supply of potions, can often be all that stands between Death and his own end. As Death goes up in level, or receives specific rewards, he earns skill points players can use to develop his skill set, one that is also layered with a lot of upgrades.
The powers are interesting if not as impressive as his regular melee moves, though, as the only power that I really liked was his teleporting slash move. But there are others such as one that turns him into a whirlwind of destruction, another that summons the dead to fight for him, and even temporary shields.
Combat is fast and brutal whose difficulty scales up on a gentle curve, though if you want a deeper challenge you can always kick it up in the options. Controls are, in general, simple to use although the meaty weight of so many skills and special abilities can make sorting through them on the fly more than a little clumsy. For example, switching between his arm-based abilities such as a ghostly grapple and a pistol often became a battle of context. Shortcuts can be assigned to other skills to ease through the clutter and when it comes down to it, I did a lot more button mashing than I did in using his collage of skills outside of the boss fights. The action driven fun of its combat, though, kept things exciting when the rest of the game began lagging behind.
Visually, Joe Madureira’s direction paints the epic setting with huge, hulking, stylized monuments to each realm, characters that make Death look like a small, action figure, standing next to them, and plenty of awe inspiring vistas. Fantastic vistas made me just want to pause and look around, not only to find a way around the next puzzle but to appreciate the kind of work that the artists and designers had put into each level, especially with Jesper Kyd’s vast soundtrack covering every scene with brilliant highs and lows.
This time, the world isn’t only filled with dungeons, crumbling ruins, and burning rivers of molten hate, but a legion of puzzles converting many of these lost places into twisted tests on seeing how well you can use Death’s growing arsenal of special abilities. Puzzles were also in the first game, but in the sequel, they’re almost everywhere testing every new power that Death manages to earn. Hidden items are also planted throughout the world, often as great prizes awarding goodies or in fulfilling a side quest or two, giving you another reason to explore every corner and wall run on through to unusual niches within each tomb. It’s also hard not to avoid feeling how this can sometimes feel like a repetitive chore.
Darksiders II wears its formulaic quest structure on a battered sleeve as if it were a badge of honor. By the time I made it to the final stretch to recover a particular relic, I knew I’d have to find “three” of it because, you guessed it, it was split up. Most of the major quests follow that same structure as if someone had come up with the idea on what to do next and then a committee thought of how to break it into three more epic dungeons. The game then kept repeating this theme, making more than a few of its areas feel as if they were filler material as opposed to meaningful points of reference. By the time I made it to the end, I had already grown numb to the gratuitous amounts of wall running, ledge hopping, and grapple swinging that was pummeled into me.
Glitches also graced my experience with random lock-ups and the occasional dropped sound effect or musical interlude. At one point, a boss had hit me so hard that I ended up beneath the map with no way to get back out. While cool to see things from behind the textured world, the only escape was to restart the fight.
Death’s climbing controls are also not exactly the smoothest thing when it comes to scaling walls, either, or in targeting the points for your grapple. Being off more than a few degrees in using his grapple, for example, or seeing him miss a grapple point because the dodgy camera obscures the angles was sometimes frustrating. Stretching it across several hours of adventuring made it aggravating. Jumping from ledge to ledge can also feel more than a bit rough around the edges, something that I never had to worry about with a few other games. Death may not be as nimble as Nathan Drake, but restarting from a checkpoint because of a missed jump thanks to a dodgy case of camera context can be frustrating.
It took me about 25 hours to peel through this campaign, though your mileage may vary depending on how much of a completionist you are. A New Game Plus mode will let you start a new game with everything Death had found and leveled up with, upgrading the monsters at the same time to keep the challenge consistent. If you don’t want to do this, you can always say no which might be a wise thing to do if you have some unfinished business. Darksiders II only uses one save slot so there’s no going back if you make the jump.
The disappointing, final battle, and the ending in general, were let downs compared to the epic struggle in getting there alongside a few of the other boss fights leading up to it. But when Darksiders II reveled in breaking away from its repetition by investing its wondrous places with greater variety whether it was flipping back and forth in time within the charred halls of Black Stone or simply in hunting one of the special, optional monsters in a side quest, that’s when it felt fun again.
And that’s the problem with Darksiders II. At moments away from its filler-grade three-way splits, it pushes at the bars to reach out and bring in the kind of adventuring feast that titles such as Onimusha, God of War, and Beyond Good & Evil had raised the bar on without feeling tired of their own material.
The loot system, weapon crafting, combat, and the mythic proportions of Madureira’s visually stunning world braced by Jesper Kyd’s music make its world a spectacular upgrade from its predecessor. Yet the size of its aspirations are deceptive. Piling on the content, the creative surge sells itself short by staying within the lines despite the occasional servings of daring, making Death’s errand seem too often like another series of chores.
THQ / Vigil Games
PS3 / Xbox 360 / Wii U / Windows (reviewed on the Xbox 360)
Rated M for Mature