Darksiders II: Another Great THQ Game Brought to You by the Color Purple
Like most of the gaming world, I completely overlooked the original Darksiders when it released in 2010, playing through it only after my girlfriend ran across a $10 copy and said “Hey, this looks like something you’d like”. That ended up being something of an understatement. The game centered around War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, being stripped of his powers and wrongfully accused of bringing about the end of mankind. The play mechanics borrowed liberally from such diverse sources as the Zelda franchise and Portal, and what should have been a poor hodgepodge of clashing elements, or at best a mid-card God of War clone, ended up being one of my favorite games of this console cycle. So when a sequel was announced despite the original’s middling sales performance, I (along with a substantially greater number of other gamers this time around) was incredibly excited.
Darksiders II is an incredibly ambitious sequel, the kind that can either make or break a franchise. It’s several times larger than the original, spanning several unique realms and featuring more in-depth RPG elements such as branching skill trees and randomized (and plentiful) loot. Curiously, it doesn’t advance the story, but instead contains a plot which runs parallel to the events of the original. This time around you play as Death, on a mission to clear the name of his brother War. The change of locale and protagonist is interesting, and Death ends up being a much more entertaining character than you might assume based on his reputation. It does feel like a bit of a “do-over” though, and I’m curious to see how they’ll structure the series going forward, but it’s a refreshing way to tackle a sequel as long as you’re not too eager to find out what happens to War anytime soon.
Death’s repertoire of moves is pretty extensive compared to War’s, and the game supplies you with a brief tutorial to get used to everything. It’s an experience heavy with climbing and free-running, which stays pretty consistent throughout the whole game. Traversal paths are pretty clearly marked, but they’re not glowing or anything obnoxious like that, so the whole thing stays pretty organic-feeling. You also begin the game on horseback this time, and unlike the original Darksiders your horse is available to you for the duration of the game, although the option is disabled in dungeons. Unfortunately, although you can attack from horseback, it’s not really woven into the game like you might think from many of the promo images. Having a horse at all seems mostly like an apology for Death running so slowly in a world where the dungeons are so far apart. This is a guy who can run along walls, but across long distances it’s like watching senior citizens mall-walking. Between the horse and the inclusion of fast-travel though, that’s never really much of an issue.
Combat is excellent, and although Death isn’t as physically imposing as War, thankfully the weapons remain as improbably oversized as ever. Many of Death’s weapons contain roughly the same amount of metal as a small bus, but luckily that doesn’t slow down the action. Scythes are the only primary weapon option, but the randomized loot keeps them fresh and varied, with stat boosts ranging from frost damage to health-stealing. The secondary weapon options are a lot more diverse, ranging from slow but powerful axes and warhammers, to lightning-quick armblades and claws. Death also has several available armor slots, and almost every equippable item in the game has some sort of effect on your overall stats, leaving you with a lot of options on how to approach combat. The experience is further diversified by the inclusion of skill trees, letting the player choose between more powerful direct attacks, summoning allies such as ghouls or a murder of crows, or a mixture of both. A few levels in, a giant grim reaper form is unlocked, powered by its own special “reaper meter”, but this reaper form is unfortunately fueled entirely by button mashing, and feels a bit like a missed opportunity for something great.
Despite all the combat, much like its predecessor Darksiders II is puzzle-based at its core, with every dungeon requiring substantial manipulation of your surroundings to progress. Most dungeons rely on the familiar Zelda format, focusing on a specific puzzle theme and having only one correct solution. Despite the sometimes overly familiar format, the puzzles rarely feel like a hassle and are typically simple to complete. The methods for completion are pretty similar to the first game, including a hookshot-like item and an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Dev…err…”Voidwalker”. My only complaint regarding puzzles is that some dungeons will have a room buried deep inside that requires an item you might not get for another six hours, and the world is simply too large to expect that kind of backtracking. If you think you’ll want to track down the substantial number of collectible bits this game has to offer, either take notes as you hit these areas or expect to use a walkthrough guide, there’s just no other way.
On the subject of complaints, I should mention that I hit a glitch twelve hours into my first playthrough that required a complete restart. Something I needed to solve a puzzle got stuck in the environment (or rather, slightly above it), and the game’s save system made it impossible to do anything but start over. I expect glitches in a game this size; it’s part of being an early adopter, and I’m just thankful that these days bugs can be patched out without requiring a new print run of discs. But here’s the thing…you pick a save slot when you start, and the game perpetually auto-saves to that same slot. When you go into the pause menu for a manual save, it does the same thing: overwrites the slot without giving you a choice. There’s no option to copy or back up saves, and having the manual and auto-save write to the same file is just asking for trouble. The game also crashed occasionally for me (I believe four times total), when transitioning between areas on horseback. Here, the non-stop auto-saves were actually a blessing. As of this writing, Vigil has announced an upcoming patch to fix the glitch that affected my game as well as a few other issues, but the fact remains that there is no reason for a save system this primitive in this day and age. In a game this size, with this many moving parts and single-solution puzzles required for progression, it’s a very questionable decision to not give the player some sort of safety net. I was never bored during the parts I had to replay though, so that should probably count for something. The game contains little to no tedious moments, and that in and of itself is pretty impressive.
Even with the forced restart, I have no choice but to recommend Darksiders II. I’d have been remiss in my journalistic duties not to mention it, but it’d also be ridiculous to tell someone to avoid the game entirely because of it. The story is engaging in a way that few “Triple A” releases are, and thanks to the guidance of series creator and comic book icon Joe Madureira, the entire thing just oozes style. It’s no small feat to have a major character named “The Lord of Bones”, and to keep that character from ever feeling even slightly ridiculous, but this game pulls it off. Joe Mad’s art is incredible, and it permeates every facet of this game. Every area has its own unique look and color palette, and the luxurious purples, blues, and reds are like a lush oasis in a post-Gears of War landscape of entirely brown games. The voice acting and music are another breath of fresh air, and in particular Michael Wincott’s portrayal of Death is a great alternative to the “grimdark” route taken by so many other video game protagonists. The combat is exciting and strategic without requiring the memorization of excessively long combo sequences, and all the customization options mean that a wide variety of players will be able to find a style that is a lot of fun for them. If I have one real complaint it’s that the game seemed to get easier as it went along rather than more difficult, but that’s likely a side effect of the randomized loot, which makes player strength pretty difficult to anticipate.
The main campaign of Darksiders II is epic and sprawling, with enough collectibles and sidequests to keep even the most dedicated gamer busy for quite some time. There’s a New Game Plus option available upon completion, plus a substantial arena mode that comes free with new copies of the game. Called the Crucible, it’s a hundred-round battle with no resupply points, which gives you the option to drop out for a reward every five rounds, or to keep battling for the promise of something better. If at any point you’re killed, you get nothing and have to start over. The game offers a huge amount of playtime for the asking price, and aside from the occasional glitchy bit (which should be fixed soon), it’s a pretty rewarding experience on all fronts. And if you haven’t yet, by all means pick up a copy of Darksiders and give it a quick run-through before this one, the franchise in general has a ton of potential and all signs point to increasing greatness.