People called the original Darksiders “derivative,” presumably because the solid gameplay beneath the cartoonish bombast of “Grimdark Zelda” was too openly reminiscent of other good games. Not that design inertia is an uncommon sin – just because an idea is original doesn’t necessarily make it good. But though Vigil Games’ first entry was certainly a solid effort, it had an awkwardly patchwork quality, a mishmash of familiar devices mated to a story so bombastic it bordered on the ridiculous – and dripping with gleefully excessive 90s-comic-style almost naively pure of self-awareness.
But Vigil seems to have learned from their errors – and the first lesson on display in their sophomore effort is this: there are much worse ways to arrive at a strong game than take inspiration from excellent titles, so long as you take the time to polish it until it gleams. Familiar game design is hardly a sin when it’s executed with enthusiasm and flair, a pedestrian script can be compelling with a bit of style and a charismatic lead, and every now and then, throwing everything you like into a single just might work.
Which is good, because Darksiders II has a huge amount of game in it for a contemporary single-player action-adventure title.
The last time we slipped into a Horseman’s saddle, the nephilim Horseman of War had accidentally ushered in the Apocalypse early, and humanity had paid the price. Earth was left a desolate waste ruled over by demons, while the last survivors of the renegade angels who had fought in the unlicensed Apocalypse (seriously; do they need to file a permit or something?) fought a hopeless battle to take as many of the hellish legions with them as they could. The game practically dripped Dark Age of Comics excess, and ended on a sequel hook promising that War would take the battle to his former masters with his fellow Horsemen at his side.
Well, forget about that hook for the moment.
Darksiders II stars the Horseman Death, and it takes place almost at the same time as the original. Evidently even giving War the chance to redeem himself took some doing, as Death is riding across the universe seeking a way to undo War’s supposed crime and give his brother a chance to make amends – by resurrecting extinct humanity. His quest – derided almost universally as foolish by everyone he meets along the way – begins as a rescue of his brother, but quickly takes on a redemptive air as the story delves into Death’s past – particularly, the Horsemen and their betrayal and slaughter of their own kind to save the cosmos.
Death, the master of ending lives, a fearsome warrior whose own body has the unmistakable look of something half-dead, finds himself contemplating the revival of not one but two races. Talk about irony.
Darksiders II‘s plot feels largely like an exercise in world-building. The original Darksiders‘ plot was relatively sparse, and it regularly made references to factions and concepts that received very little exposition. The main narrative objective – bring back humanity – is more or less just a reason to embark upon an world-spanning journey. DSII does its best to flesh out the setting – wonder who the big, Glaswegian brute who clearly was neither angel nor demon was? Meet his race! Want to see an angelic realm? Now’s your chance! Wonder where the Horsemen themselves came from? Here’s some backstory, knock yourself out.
It’s actually a welcome development, though the game still could use a bit of work on its transitions and storytelling. The production values are quite solid, and Death himself is a sardonic anti-hero with a biting wit and a world-weary air who’s still quite likable. Like War before him, he’s just sinister and cold enough to not fall into the classically heroic mold – he clearly doesn’t mind helping others along the way, and he’s repulsed by treachery and cruelty, but he has his own purposes and isn’t fond of being anyone else’s errand boy. Other characters are largely one-note, unfortunately – more types or broad-strokes paintings than nuanced characters – but they generally serve their narrative role well enough to at least be welcome visitors to keep the plot moving forward.
Once it distinguishes itself from a generically Biblical cosmology given a heavy metal accessorizing, the Darksiders universe has a pleasantly comic-book air that’s greatly reminiscent, of all things, of the Thor setting, hinting at a wider universe in which Earth and even Heaven and Hell are only several important realms. Environments are rich and colorful, and each realm you visit feels quite expansive, thanks in part to a clearly drawn skybox that suggests at much wider vistas than those your quest takes you through. The game’s plot also has the virtue of allowing you a glimpse at more diverse realms – the mostly-lush Forge Lands of the Makers are a great contrast to the blasted kingdoms of the dead or the washed-out, crumbling ruins of Earth – and far more interaction with friendly characters to flesh out relationships.
Which brings us to the actual game. Darksiders II takes the Zelda-God-Of-War hybrid of its predecessor and decides “Hey, you know what would make this even better? Let’s throw in Prince of Persia, Diablo 3, and a bit of sandbox to taste!” And honestly, it meshes far better than one might expect, thanks in part to a wonderfully flexible control scheme, a generous fast-travel option, and sidequests and RPG elements just robust enough to engage without becoming tedious.
Combat remains a largely action-adventure affair, although players can build Death in several different fashions and equip him in an appropriate panoply for spellcasting, close combat, or a mix in a surprisingly diverse range. Reflexes and combos are still key – leveling up is undeniably helpful, but it’s rare that you ever need to grind for anything as long as you do the main quests and what sidequests pop up conveniently along the way. Randomized loot and a talent-tree system help to give you a lot of flexibility in how you want to do battle – which is good, because combat encounters can sometimes be very harsh, particularly those against enormous hordes of enemies.
Some sidequests are directly linked to the main plot, while others have short dungeons dedicated entirely to them, but those dungeons nonetheless incorporate puzzles and traversal mechanics rather than just enemies to slaughter. They feel far from token, and help to fill out the game’s run time.
Another special virtue is the game’s robust puzzle-solving and platforming design. Death is a genuine pleasure to control, an astonishingly acrobatic hero who is capable of running PoP-style along multiple walls in sequence merely by running at a smooth wall and jumping towards it, then jumping again towards another wall – as long as he has the occasional handhold, he can cover incredible amounts of vertical ground. This allows for some remarkable platforming sequences, and unlike some titles Darksiders II gives you an impressive range of motion almost from the very beginning. Platforming sections thus become matters of observation – spot the path of ascent, rather than find-the-right-tool puzzle gimmick.
And then there’s the puzzles in the game’s dungeons. Yes, like Zelda before it, Darksiders II uses a selection of tools picked up over time to complete challenges. But the use of those tools is both more prolonged than in some games and more diverse. Several tools are only used for certain sections of the game – a key to animate golems in the Forge Lands is later replaced by spectral allies in the kingdom of the dead, and so on – while others remain useful throughout, some much more flexibly so than “tool X does task Y”.
Admittedly, all this scope isn’t entirely without flaws. Darksiders II on the Xbox 360 is distressingly prone to load times, sometimes hiccuping mid-transition. Combat can be, as mentioned, sometimes intensely challenging, stopping just shy of frustration. The first two realms also clearly felt more open-world than some of the latter – a lot of the game’s scope comes from its open sidequests and dedicated dungeons for those sidequests, while the main plot becomes increasingly narrow and abbreviated near the last areas to the point that one can almost feel the budget stretching. And the review copy had the occasional bug during cutscenes – and a handful of genuine crashes, though whether that was a function of the review copy or a deeper issue is uncertain.
All in all, Darksiders II’s gameplay is sometimes like a “greatest hits” of gameplay devices from the last generation or two of action-adventure titles. Shifting from combat to puzzles to RPG elements to open-world travel to a chapter-long shooter minigame as the whim strikes it, it keeps up a compelling pace and rarely outstays its welcome. Though it’s hardly a perfect title, it represents a tremendous improvement of Vigil Games’ craftsmanship, both in storytelling and in game design.
Death may have given his series a better lease on life.