Reviews

Darksiders II – Review

Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (Reviewed)
Release Date: Out Now!

Developer: Vigil
Publisher: THQ
Singleplayer: Yes
Splitscreen: No
Multiplayer: No
PEGI: 16

This game was provided by THQ for review.

The original Darksiders was a game almost literally brimming with promise and potential, an action-adventure game that cherry-picked gameplay elements from various titles and stitched them together into one complete package that just so happened to feature War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The result was a fun game that earned itself a loyal fanbase, and with good reason. But it was also a game that never managed to fulfill all of that potential . Playing through Darksiders is wonderfully enjoyable, but there’s a sensation that it could have been so much more, that there was so much untapped potential lying within, that there was just more that it could have done.. It’s now over two years later and developers Vigil have spent most of that time working on a sequel,  the game that Darksiders wishes it could have been.

Unlike a conventional sequel, Darksiders II’s story runs alongside that of the original Darksiders, creating an interwoven plot between the two games that fills in some of the gaps of the overall story arc while keeping other questions open for future titles. With War on trial for bringing about the end of humanity early, Death, the second of the Four Horsemen, and the most feared, sets out on a personal quest to prove his brother innocent, disobeying a direct command from the Charred Council in the process.  Cue a tonne of fighting, platforming and puzzle solving. His journey will take him through the ruins of Earth, to the Lands of the Dead, to the forges of the mighty Makers and even into the realms of Angels and Demons, all to clear his brother’s name. It really isn’t something we’ve pictured before: a true brotherly bond between the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but it’s clearly portrayed here throughout the game, providing an interesting slant on things. Don’t get this wrong, though, this isn’t an emotionally charged story that will take you on a rollercoaster ride of sophisticated writing, drama and intrigue. You’re probably not going to find yourself deeply invested in Death’s quest to save his brother, bu it is an entertaining yarn that boasts some great dialog and terrific voice acting, and it is pretty hard not to get caught up in the awesome mythology of the Darksiders universe.  Part of its charm is because of Death himself. You wouldn’t usually imagine the Grim Reaper as the life of the party or anything, but in Darksiders II Vigil have done a great job of turning him into the ultimate bad-ass anti-hero with a tendency toward  snide remarks and threats in almost every conversation he has. He’s feared, and he knows it, and that’s awesome. He’s a surprisingly strong lead character, which is sort of strange seeing a how you never get to see his face which is permanently hidden behind a mask of bone, although this is largely for the best as the lip syncing in Darksiders II leaves a lot to be desired.

Primarily, though, the story simply serves as a device to have Death journey through the epic environments that make up the Nether Realms in which Darksiders II takes place. And good grief, what environments they are! While the game is no technical powerhouse, with rough edges and blurry textures in abundance, the art-team have been hard at work to give Darksiders II a unique stylised look that borrows heavily in places from classic high-fantasy  and to create massive environments with a wonderous sense of scale to them, giving the entirety of Death’s journey a grandiose feeling that many other games are lacking. Start to finish Darksiders II just feels epic, from the sprawling dungeons you navigate, the crumbling ruins you explore and the vast plains you ride across on your trusty stead Despair, this is just a game that feels huge in scope. The first area of the game alone, the Forge Lands, are, according to the developers, almost as big as the entirety of the first game, and damn does it feel like it! It’s also a credit to the art-team that despite Darksiders not being a technical marvel in any sense, this is still a good-looking game, solely because of the visual style it possesses. The world is brought to life with a considerably wider palette of colors than the first game which was often rather drab and grey. Occasionally Darksiders II does veer back into the realms of the dark, grey and grimy, notably a ruined Earth and the Land of the Dead, both for obvious reasons, but even then it maintains its fantastic visual flair throughout.

The pretty landscapes, however, are largely empty. While venturing off the path does usually reward you with a few of Darksider’s loot chests, which are definitely more than worth the effort of finding, there’s no a whole lot hiding out there to discover that’s not related to a side-quest or the story itself. There’s a couple of small safe-zones in which there are a few of NPC characters to chat to, pick up some side-quests and  purchase new items, but for anyone hoping for a Skyrim-esque world positively teeming with stuff to be discovered you’d be better looking elsewhere, like, y’know, Skyrim. In reality these huge environments only truly exist to serve two purposes: the first is to give the game its wonderous sense of scale. Even riding your horse Despair across the vivid green expanses of the Forge Lands it takes a while to get from one end of the map to the other. On the one hand it’s a shame to see that Vigil chose not to pack these massive worlds with more to discover and do, but there’s also nothing wrong with them existing to simply provide a sense of epic adventure to the game.  The second reason is to act as hub-worlds that are home to Darksider’s vast, sprawling dungeon complexes  filled with platforming, puzzles, loot and things to kill. It’s these dungeons that are ultimately at the heart of Darksider’s design structure, much like the first game.  Whether they’re ancient temples with massive aqueducts, open ruins covered in ice or huge caverns filled with lava, it’s these deadly areas that you’ll mostly find yourself navigating throughout the 25-30 hours it’ll take for an average playthrough.

 And yes, I did say platforming. You see Death, despite his pale complexion that suggests he doesn’t get out in the sun enough, is actually pretty athletic, able to clamber and scramble around the environment like a certain Persian Prince, albeit with a more limited and less graceful moveset. With the use of just a button and a trigger Death is able to up and across walls, leap off of walls, grab on to ledges, climb posts, hop along poles and….actually, that’s pretty much about it. Like Darksiders before it, this is like a cut-down version of the aforementioned Prince’s outings  Later on you do acquire an extra tool, called the Deathgrip, that expands your platforming repertoire a touch, but at its heart the platforming in Darksiders is relatively simplistic.  Running the walls and leaping across gaps feels nice and satisfying thanks to Death’s fluid movements, however the simplicity of it all also means that it’s arguably the games weakest feature. Not bad, just weakest. The route you must take is usually very obvious and it all becomes rather familiar far too quickly: there’s only so many times you can run up a wall and leap off of it before it starts to become pretty repetitive and mundane, and Vigil really don’t do anywhere near as much with the platforming segments as  could have, even with Death’s fairly limited moveset. Patterns start to emerge in how sections are set-up and thus areas start to become pretty predictable. You’ll be able to walk into any room, glance around and form an idea in your head of exactly how to navigate it. All this coupled with the fact that the platforming doesn’t take a whole lot of player skill means that all the leaping, clambering and running does start to blur together after a while. Also worthy of note is that the platforming is occasionally a little clumsy thanks to slightly unresponsive controls, sometimes resulting in you leaping out into space when you didn’t mean to. However, despite these problems the platforming remains fast paced, slick and fun.

The running, leaping, climbing, clambering and general scrambling is most usually paired up with the games lateral-thinking puzzles that impede your progress through the various dungeons. Your often brought to a halt by massive doors that bar your way or other such things that require you to run around pulling levers, standing on pressure plates, redirecting water flows and more, blending the actual puzzle solving with the simple but effective platforming. The puzzles start out nice and simple, challenging you to do nothing more than perhaps scale a wall and push a button or find the location of a shadow bomb with which to blow up some Corruption blocking your way. As the game progresses the puzzles slowly grow in complexity and new elements are added, including several  new powers for Death, two of which are rather interest.Firstly he gains the ability to turn his body into a giant Grim Reaper statue and split his soul his soul into two pieces, both of which you can swap between and control, and the second is the ability to create portals on specific sections of wall that you can use to traverse the environment, a bit like a certain other game……called Portal. Y’know, in case you hadn’t already figured that out. By the time the puzzles are in full swing you’ll be leaping around the environment throwing bombs to yourself through portals and redirecting light beams to open doors. Their complexity grows gradually allowing you to naturally integrate every new element as it comes. The more hardcore puzzlers out there will be disappointed to learn that the puzzles here could never be described as fiendishly clever, but then they aren’t designed to stretch the absolute limits of your intelligence. There’s the occasional one that’ll have you stumped for a while, but mostly they offer up just enough of a challenge to make you stop and scratch your head for a moment or two without ever growing overly frustrating and are almost always extremely enjoyable to solve.

When you’re not gracefully leaping across gaps or hunting down keys to open doors, a fine old gaming tradition that Darksiders is in no hurry to abandon, you’re mostly going to be getting scraps with the evil denizens of the dungeons and the occasional boss battle to boot. When it comes to the nitty-gritty of Darksider’s II’s combat mechanics, the biggest change from the original is that Death can’t block attacks, only dodge them. Perhaps he simply never learned how to block, but in my own little personal world I like to believe that Death thinks blocking is for pussies. The result is a far faster paced and mobile combat system than the original game. Hitting the dodge button instantly cancels you out of any attack animation you happen to be in at the time and sends Death leaping far across the ground, making combat more about hit and run offensives and deft maneuvering than simply running in and trying to hold your ground. Using Death’s primary weapons, which are, as befitting the Grim Reaper, dual scythes you can launch a series of fast attacks on the enemy, while mixing in your secondary weapon, mapped to Y, allows  you to dish out a wide variety of combos and moves. While you can’t have anything but scythes mapped to X, you’re completely free to choose whatever weapon you want to be mapped to Y, from slow and massive damage inflicting hammers to lighting fast claws that boast insanely long combo strings. The range of secondary weapons gives you fair leeway in terms of your fighting style. Faster weapons such as gauntlets or arm-blades offer longer combos and are effective against single enemies while the slow weapons such as hammers and axes offer more damage and the ability to harm more enemies at once.

When it comes down to actually fighting enemies, it comes off as more frenzied than refined, offering up a blur of incredibly fun pain and death. It can be a little rough around the edges at times but Death moves with feral-life grace and between your primary and secondary weapons there’s a plenty of combos and moves to find with new ones being available to learn from certain characters that you meet along the way, giving the combat a surprising amount of depth in that regard. Fighting with scythes and gauntlets offer up a far different experience  than fighting with scythes and glaives, giving you plenty of reasons to switch up weapons and experiment with different combinations and moves . The combat feels distinctly fast, meaty and massively satisfying. Each blow struck feels like it had plenty of weight behind it, giving combat a a level of brutality that makes it hugely rewarding, and the speed of it all is nicely balanced. In short the combat here on par with some of the best action-adventure titles out there.

  That’s not to say it’s perfect, however: as larger groups of enemies begin to appear the action can going from feeling fantastically chaotic to feeling just plain chaotic. There’s a lock-on system present and it’s fantastic during boss battles or small encounters, but in larger battles focusing on just one enemy at a time proves to be an unwise decision as it leaves you open to attacks off-screen that you just can’t see coming. And it’s also a little too easy to find yourself sticking to a few combos and tricks because they’re easy to spam and are highly effective. The enemies themselves, while a lot of fun to fight, don’t really require you to switch up tactics, either, which in turn again means you might find yourself spamming the same attacks or just button-mashing your way through it all. Having said that, the combat does a good job of letting you choose between simply button mashing or actually taking the time to explore the depth of combos on offer and tackle combat in a more thoughtful manner, giving it a little something for every style of player.

Should you feel the need for a more ranged option Death also boasts a pistol that once belonged to his brother Strife. You can use this to unload on an enemy by simply tapping RT. Sadly, though, the pistol isn’t that much use thanks to the fairly low amount of damage it causes, something which becomes even more apparent as the game progresses and you get access to more powerful tools of destruction. After a while it simply serves more as a tool during puzzles than a handy combat option, which is a real shame

Death also has access to a variety of powers and abilities that can be used during combat, each of which are gained via Darksiders II’s upgraded RPG mechanics. Battling enemies and completing quests earns you good old-fashioned gaming XP which in turn, once you’ve earned enough of it, levels you up and gives you a point to spend in one of the two skill trees that make up the game: Harbinger and Necromancer. The Harbinger tree offers such skills as the stupidly overpowered and easily spammable Teleport Slash and a nice spinning attack useful for dealing with crowds while the Necromancer tree allows you to play around with summoning spirits and even a flock of crows that can reanimate corpses and distract your enemies. As you would expect placing points in either tree opens up more powerful skills in that specific tree for you to play with, and so while it’s possible to place points in both it’s far more effective to focus on one and then spend a few of your excess points in the other. While Darksider’s skill trees don’t offer up the same level of depth that you would expect to find in a fully fledged RPG there’s enough meat here to be satisfying and it fits in nicely with the rest of the game as well as providing even more options in the already fantastic combat.

Thrown into the combat mix is Death’s ability to transform into an 8ft purple Grim Reaper that can dish out some serious damage with a massive scythe. To unleash this ability you’ve simply got to build a special bar before hitting two buttons to activate it. It’s pretty neat to lay into huge groups of enemies in this form, but without wearing gear that helps build the bar quicker it can take quite a while to fill it up and gain access to your more kick-ass form.

While dungeons may come in many shapes and sizes they all have one thing in common: loot chests and freaking lots of them. Like Borderlands and Torchlight before it, Darksider’s II features a random-generation system that creates its loot on the fly, meaning that  you’ve got access to literally thousands of pieces of equipment that all boast unique stats for you to ogle at and drool over. Or is just me that does that? Anyway, loot is also dropped from the corpses of slain enemies meaning there’s a continuous stream of new and better gear awarded to you as you play, acting like the ultimate reward and progression system to keep you playing. This may differ for other people but during my time with the game I was changing gear around every 30-minutes or so, giving it a nice pace – not too much and not too little. And with loot comes a solid degree of customisation: alongside new scythes and secondary weapons to equip you’ve also got boots, gauntlets, chest pieces and pauldrons to choose from, each of which boasts their own strengths and weaknesses. The sheer amount of gear on offer and the various it gives you plenty of room to kit Death out to suit you and your playstyle, and also means that your Death should be different from anyone elses, although for obvious reasons there’s a limit to how many aesthetic designs there are for the loot. Actually, speaking of that, while it is completely understandable that the art-team couldn’t sit down and design thousands of styles of armor, you do start to see the same types of gear popping up over and over earlier in the game than I would have liked. That’s not a huge flaw, though. The only thing limiting what you can actually equip at any given time is what level your Death is: a level 7 Death can’t go equipping that fine pair of level 9 scythes that you just earned by decapitating an enemy using one of the games beautifully brutal finishing moves.

On top of the loot pile are of course the legendary items that are often presented to you as rewards for completing certain quests or defeating an evil boss. These are completely unique items crafted by the developement team that often boast very special abilities and looks. However, as awesome as they are legendary items are pretty standard fare in any game with major amounts of loot. No, what’s really interesting here is the Possessed weapons that you can acquire. These badboys boast the interesting power to actually cannibalize other items, making themselves more powerful in the process. By simply flicking through your inventory (Darksiders II features a pretty slick user interface) you can “feed” any piece of loot in your possession to your Possesed weapons. Feed ’em enough and they’ll level up, boosting their base stats and allowing you to pick a new power to be added to them, like fire damage or stealing an enemies health when you hit them. This is also a pretty neat way of handling inventory management: you can either sell your excess gear or just feed it to your pet hammer. The only true flaw with the system is that Possesed weapons have a finite amount of levels and thus after a while you’ll have to ditch them in favor of something new and better, which in Darksiders II doesn’t take long to find. It would have been nice to be able to hold on to them for longer, although in fairness being able to do so would probably result in the entire random generation system going somewhat to waste.

In truth the loot system that Vigil have crafted here has only one flaw, although it’s also its biggest strength: the random generation system. On the one hand the system means that you’re always looking forward to the next chest and the next enemy because you never know what piece of awesome loot you’re going to get. Even the weakest enemy that takes a single measly hit to destroy can drop a rare and powerful chest piece or mace. On the other hand, however, this also means that you can sometimes battle massive beasts that take major punishment only to find yourself rewarded with the world’s crappiest pair of boots for your efforts. Truthfully, though, this just comes with the territory.

Vigil have also introduced a system into Darksiders called Tomes that allow you to share your loot with your friends, bringing a social element into a game that otherwise has no multiplayer elements. These Tomes can be found in the little towns/safe zones that are sprinkled across the worlds and when used allow you to type out a message, attach up to four pieces of loot and then send it to any of your friends. It’s a pretty neat concept and before long I was happily trading bits of gear with my friends. It should be mentioned, though, that access to the Tome system is locked. To get access to it you either have to enter the code that comes with brand new copies of the game or you’ll have to purchase the code separately if you buy a second-hand copy of the game. This code also unlocks the Crucible, a loot-filled arena in which you battle waves of enemies.

As we near the end of this review it’s about time that I touch upon the size of this game. You see Darksiders II isn’t just big in terms of environments, it’s actually packing a decent amount of content as well. On my playthrough of the game I clocked up 30-hours, and that was only doing a handful of the side-quests along the way, so to see and do everything should take you an easy 40-hours. However, that does bring me to one complaint that must be made: while the side-quests are fun simply because they use the games awesome core gameplay mechanics, more could have been done with their narratives. A prime example is a side-quest called Spark of Life which features a golem being brought to life. The basic setup is promising and provides plenty of scope for a great tale about playing god and the pain of the golem itself, but past a few lines of dialog there’s just nothing to it. Also, some of the side-requests fail to offer any really cool rewards for completing them, which is a shame.

After you’ve finished up your initial playthrough Darksiders II goes out of its way to offer you some reasons to come back and play it again. First and foremost is New Game+, which allows you to restart the game from the beginning but with your level, loot and abilities intact. This is more than worth your time simply because the best loot in the game isn’t available until your second playthrough, plus it’s just plain fun.  The second incentive Darksider’s offers is reserved only for the more hardcore players: Nightmare more. In this mode death in combat results in all your save games associated with that version of Death being deleted, essentially meaning that your character actually, “dies”. Don’t panic, though: if you simply fall into a boiling pit of lava or off of a cliff you’ll still respawn normally, it’s just during combat that you’ve got to tread carefully.

And worthy of special mention is the games astoundingly beautiful soundtrack that’s been crafted by Jasper Kyd. If that name sounds familiar to you then that’s because Jasper has also been responsible for the music in a load of games, including the Assassin’s Creed series, Borderlands and its upcoming sequel, several Hitman games and more. But in Darksiders II he’s surpassed himself, offering up a score that suits every moment in the game almost perfectly, from the soothing music unique to each realm that plays as you venture across the landscape to the more intense combat scores its outstanding work. The best compliment that I can hand out is that I’d be willing to actually by the soundtrack, something which I very rarely do.

Back in June fans were nervous when a qoute from THQ seemed to indicate that the future of the Darksiders franchise was uncertain, and with the companies recent struggling to stay afloat there were worries that even Darksiders II may never get to see the light of day. Since then THQ have clearly stated that their qoute was taken the wrong way and that Darksiders is one of their core franchise. Still,to justify a Darksiders III THQ are doubtless going to be wanting some pretty large figures from Darksiders II, and so  I make this open statement to THQ: you’d be nuts to let the Darksiders franchise fall because that would deprive gamers of a series with so much more to offer. The first game was a fun action game let down by a host of flaws, and while its sequel is certainly far from perfect it takes everything that made the first game great and does it even better. The new RPG and loot mechanics have blended together to create a fantastic system that constantly rewards your progression through the game, ensuring that you always want to keep pushing forward. On top of that the combat is a satisfying mix of speed and brutality, the dungeon designs are great, the platforming solid, the storytelling enjoyable and the art-style beautiful. Perhaps Darksiders II isn’t pushing the boundaries of what can be done in games: it’s not tackling deep subjects or attempting innovative new gameplay elements, but what it is doing, and doing fantastically well, is something that a lot of modern games struggle with: fun.

The Good:
+ Death is awesome.
+ LOOOOOOOOOOT!
+ The art-style.
+ The combat.

The Bad:
– Massive worlds, but not a whole lot in ’em.
– Rough around the edges.
– Slightly clumsy platforming.

The Score:

Graphics: 8
On a technical level this is rough around the edges and has blurry textures and a lack of detail, but the art-style is a beautiful blend of high-fantasy and spiky armor that looks awesome.

Sound: 9
The sound effects are great and the voice acting is surprisingly good, but where it shines is the utterly entrancing musical score that goes from relaxing melodies to soaring drama.

Story: 7
An enjoyable that doesn’t tie-in as much with the first games story as I would have perhaps have liked to have seen. The dialogue is also strong throughout.

Gameplay: 9
There’s definitely flaws, but above all else Darksiders II is just fun to play and somehow manages to never feel boring, even on a second playthrough.

Lifespan: 8.5
A single playthrough consisting of everything should take 35-40 hours, but New Game+ and Nightmare mode bump that up considerably.

The Verdict: 9
In many ways Darksiders II is an 8.5, but I simply had so much fun playing it that I just had to award it a 9. While it doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, it is a great example of what a sequel should be, retaining what made the original game great while expanding upon it in numerous ways. A fantastic, thrilling adventure game from start to finish, this is one you shouldn’t miss and undoubtedly one of the best games of the year.

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