Darksiders II review
War’s story is told, but three Horsemen remain. Enter Death, the next to take to the spotlight as THQ develops a one-off dark horse into an awesome franchise…
There’s nothing else like Darksiders II. Unlikely to be what you’re thinking as you slide keen eyes along glossy paper. Looks a bit like one of those action-adventure things. You know, with the puzzling and the hacking and the slashing of the tuchus, the running and the jumping and the timing. But this isn’t about what it looks like, this is about what it is. And, partially at least, what it is, is an RPG.
An RPG? Yes. And no. Enemies haemorrhage loot as well as blood, and the countless chests littered and secreted about the game’s world supply more than souls and health and whatnot. They burst with armour and weapons, each elaborately colour-coded in as familiar a way to gamers as traffic lights to drivers. Grey, green, blue, purple, orange. So many lights, a multi-car pile-up of rare items and trader trash.
Death has stats. Not just health, but strength and armour and countless others. There’s a whole screen dedicated to the entinkerment of Death’s bits and bobs, his shoulder pads and boots and weapons – a place to weigh up all those pros and cons. Which of these gloves supply the greater advantage: the ones with the fire damage, or the ones with the increased critical chance? The difference sometimes breaks down to a matter of taste, but messing about with it is no less fun as a result.
It was during one of our many equipment overhauls that we first hit upon the notion that Darksiders II is actually more RPG than it is anything else. That it was not another, better instalment of its underplayed, underrated and under-loved predecessor, but a different beast altogether. An open-world, fast-travelling, pale horse-riding role-playing game that just so happens to not do some of the things RPGs are famous for doing, and by some measure of well-earned genius, is all the richer for it. Problem is, there’s far too much going on among the various mechanisms of Darksiders II to simply sit back, point and declare it an RPG.
With the series as a whole concerning itself with the various troubles of The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, it was War’s story we found ourselves engaged in last time out. The seals were broken and the resulting battle between heaven and hell had destroyed humanity. War set out to discover how it all came to pass using very few words and a very many swings of Deathbringer – a gigantic sword that, as it turned out, was rather good at tearing through the egos of a series of increasingly arrogant celestial beings.
He was a strong player-character. And having a strong player-character is not something RPGs generally do. They generally want you to create your own. Had we been able to do so, we ourselves would have created Irony, the fifth horseman who is also himself a horse. But that, we feel, would have deducted a certain amount of gravitas from proceedings. No, we’ll take Death over anything we could design ourselves. Charismatic, cool, deadly, and far more nimble than his brother.
So it’s a platformer? Yes. And no. Death’s dexterity is delivered through wall-running and latching onto distant objects using his Deathgrip ability. Up, across, around. Specific parts of the environment take the chore out of traversal. Fast and satisfying, very little is ever more than a skillful hop, skip and jump away. It also requires a fair amount of skill, but is never punishing. Should Death fall into a bottomless pit, into molten lava, anything short of being sucked into gooey black corruption, Darksiders II pings him back to his initial platform, ready to go at it again. You can’t kill Death, after all. But if nothing could, it would not be challenging. And Darksiders II is a challenging videogame, one brimming with entertaining and ingenious enemies to slice up.
So it’s a hack-’n-slasher then? Yes. And no. It’s fair to say that enemies are the ingredient injected most frequently to fine-tune the game’s overall pacing, and that lengthy puzzles are counterbalanced either by boss fights or by the very much traditional locking of all doors until everything’s good and dead. But the bosses of Darksiders II are quite puzzle-like in themselves. Very rarely does Death find himself faced with any non-standard enemy up against whom a mashing of a particular button is a viable route to victory. There’s always a method, and it’s not always clear what that method is. At least, not until you’ve had your head clouted inward a dozen times by something pointy and pissed off and at least twice as big as one of those giant thoughts you sometimes have.
There’s a lot of trial and error. Whether or not that irritates you will come down to a matter of taste. We enjoyed the process by which both the boss’s weak points and his, her or its environmentally activated vulnerabilities had to be reverse engineered to achieve ultimate victory.
It is a near-perfect combat system, all in all. If you prefer to play at moderate difficulty or less, button mashery and some well-timed evasions will do. Darksiders II knows your type and it delivers. Equally, playing the game through on Apocalyptic difficulty will make you work hard for your money. True, only those with predictive reflexes need apply, but the challenge is counterbalanced by the equal amount of satisfaction in overcoming odds stacked well in the enemy’s favour. Frustrating? Sometimes, but always with a kick of pleasure in its tail like a scorpion full of morphine.
Combat avoids thumb fatigue. Death’s main weapon, his twin reapers, are on one button, with a secondary weapon – be they slow hammers and axes or lightning-fast ninja claws – on another. Though it’s possible to mix and match the two, learning five alphabetloads of morse combo is not the name of the game here. Instead, Death’s arsenal is delivered through rhythm, groups of button taps followed by short delays. Less mash, more reward.
Even your every day, staple monster combat is far from ordinary. Darksiders II’s demonic menagerie is composed both of sneaky buggers ready to punish those unwilling to give the fight their full attention, and of sequences in which one tough new enemy, barely beaten, gives way to two or three more. Luckily, Death has a number of other tricks up his sleeve, primary among which is his Reaper Form. Like War’s Chaos Form in the original Darksiders, provided he’s accumulated enough reaper energy, Death can transform into something far more traditional as far as Grim Reaper mythology is concerned. A giant skeletal figure, purple rags flapping from old bone, able to deal staggering amounts of damage and tipping lost causes very much in your favour. You won’t be fighting the whole time, however. If anything, you’ll spend far more of the game scratching your head over its solid puzzles.
So it’s a puzzler then? Yes. And no. Puzzles are of the increasingly elaborate variety, beginning with ‘pull lever to open door’ with new powers steadily increasing puzzle complexity. For example, Death learns how to split himself in two, thereby freeing up Vigil Games’ devious level designers to deliver enigmas involving multiple switches and pressure pads, or ones that force Death to play bomb catch. With himself. Later still, Death acquires the ability to make portals in walls, like in that game whose name escapes us. Later still, a solution might involve playing bomb-catch with yourself through the portals you created. You can see where this is going.
These speak only of the individual bits of larger puzzle mechanisms. Big door won’t open? Activate the lever. Can’t get to lever? Need a key. Key protected protected by giant, branching puzzle involving six doors, eight power crystals and the bending of laser light around a spiky pit filled with oozing black death. And so it goes.
The elegance with which each meta-puzzle comes together works brilliantly on two levels. First, that each bit of it is quite manageable on its own. ‘I have to get through this door, so how do I do it?’ is, after all, a pretty straight-forward gameplay question. Second, that once all these intricate little pieces come together, you’ll be rewarded with a ballet of mechanisms and waterfalls and aqueducts and flying fortresses pulled through the sky by gigantic electric eels. It’s never less than satisfying, always pleasing to the eye, and opens up the next vast location.
The places of Darksiders II are lovely. You’re not going to find the game appearing on any year’s-top-whatever-best-looking-games-type articles come December, but that’s because it’s chosen an art style that steers well away from the hyper-real look that seems always to be of primary fascination to imbecilic lists. In Darksiders II’s giant open world, from the expansive Forge Lands to the dour Land Of The Dead, there is a consistency to the art that binds it all together like Vincent van Glue.
So, wait, it’s an open world game then? Yes. And no. It’s not GTA. But with his horse, Despair, it’s quite possible to kill a lot of hours exploring off-piste, discovering areas of the game that the main quest structure will never take you to. We passed dozens of locations that Death lacked the powers to reach, enough to know that completionists may measurably shorten their non-gaming lifespan in an effort to see everything.
The game world itself is split into several discreet parts, connected by The Tree Of Life, about whose branches are strewn portals to each. They vary in tone and flavour, lending each its own distinct personality and mood. There’s even a brief period during which Death will get to visit War’s old stomping grounds – the city streets of Earth – at which point he is handed one of two enormous guns.
Wait, so it’s a shooter now? Yes. And no. It is for a bit. And not in the way these little gameplay holidays normally appear. Less: Let’s put a shooting section in there to add some variety. Does it need to be good? Nah. More: How do we make this any more fun than it already is? Bigger guns? Yep. More enemies? Yep. Louder noises? Yep. Call the boss ‘The Noss’? Yep. The shooting in Darksiders II is too much fun and as a result it left us wishing there had been more.
If you’re wondering how all of that fits into the typical length of any of the genres we’ve talked about, barring perhaps the RPG, the short answer is: it doesn’t. Darksiders II is big. It took us 33 hours to see the end credits and in that time we accepted no arena challenges, took on no side-quests and explored no hidden locations. We did nothing, in fact, but finish the main story, fast-travelling from one piece to the next.
Now that may seem a little criminal if we’re to talk honestly about the size of the game as a whole, but full disclosure is the honourable thing to do here and so there it is. Had we the luxury of time to explore, to seek out new objectives and new places, had we, in essence, not had to actually review it, the total time played would have been closer to the fifty or even the sixty hour mark. That is a guess, but one that doesn’t begin to take into consideration its replay value.
Finishing the game opens up another, secret difficulty level – Nightmare – and the option to restart the whole thing again, character level, equipment and abilities intact. In an austere world, Darksiders II knows as much about value as it does about excellence. It’s a game designed to last, and one that any open-world-platform-action-adventure-shooty-puzzle-role-playing game fan should consider an essential play.