Since time immemorial, Heaven and Hell have been at war. Angels and demons clashed in vicious and mighty battles across the universe, leaving worlds charred and blasted in their wake. In the midst of this turmoil rose the powerful Charred Council and a ceasefire was forged, enforced by the brotherhood of warriors known as The Four Horsemen. Between them, War, Death, Strife, and Fury, were tasked with intervening and stopping conflicts as they brewed between the belligerent angelic and demonic forces. At the centre of it all are the Seven Seals, designed to be broken only when the Apocalypse was ready and Mankind could rise and fight.
Darksiders (PC, PS3, PS4, Switch, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed], Wii U)
Released Jan 2010 | Developed: Vigil Games / Kaiko | Published: THQ
Genre: Action-Adventure, Hack-and-Slash
Darksiders is, fundamentally, a game about bureaucracy. The beginning of the game sees War arrive on Earth in a great aura of fire and chaos. Unfortunately, he notices too late that the Apocalypse that he has rode for has not arrived and the Seals are not broken. Mankind is slaughtered, the angel general Abaddon is killed, and War is defeated. Turns out, the Apocalypse wasn’t supposed to be called yet; War rode too soon and for this the Charred Council strips him of his power and charges him with finding out what went wrong and to try and correct it.
If you think it’s all a bit melodramatic, well that’s because it is. Darksiders has a comic-book mentality filtered through the lens of a Warhammer player; every line is either bellowed with gusto or menacingly whispered, and every interaction has the same overblown sense of theatre to it. It’s quite endearing in a way; I’m not entirely in love with it, mainly because the actual material of the plot is so terribly thin and lacklustre, but the all the pomp and bluster reminds me of great times spent roleplaying, when every action had to be world-ending and every speech spoken was either sickeningly heroic or malicious and dastardly.
Darksiders wears its influences on its sleeve. It clearly owes an awful lot to both God of War and Devil May Cry in its combat though unlike these lofty predecessors, Darksider‘s combat is fine but without flair and with little variety. Many of these kind of character action games tend to give a range of attack types and weaponry, whereas Darksiders eschews this. You get by with mainly mashing the one main attack button – it uses a variation on the Devil May Cry system where being locked on, the position of the left stick, and timing and delaying your button presses can change your attacks. You can unlock new attacks and combos but unfortunately for fans of variety the standard 3-hit combo will see you through the entire game; if you’re feeling extravagant, the forward-dash attack that can be bought very early on is also a reliable move until the credits roll. The rest of the movelist is broadly unnecessary.
Like God of War, enemies at low health feature a button prompt that enables War to dispatch them with a brutal kill animation. however Darksiders’ take on this mechanic, similarly to its combat, falls flat. There’s just no agency in it; compare it to God of War where the prompt leads to a rare example of well-implemented quick-time events that serve to give the player a sense of achievement when pulling off the attack, whereas Darksiders features simple uncontrollable animations, wrestling control away from the player lest they interfere with War’s flashy moment. Like the rest of the combat, there’s very little flair or weight, which makes them even less interesting.
At first glance, the game seems to be a God of War clone due to the combat animations, finisher button, and the way War, like Kratos, collects souls as currency and experience. However, in reality, it’s actually a secret Zelda game. As War travels the overworld you notice paths are locked off. in order to pass them you are pushed towards dungeons in which War finds abilities and artifacts that allow him to defeat bosses and unlock new areas of the map; many areas feature a deeply tedious repeating task that force War to undergo a series of combat challenges in order to progress. Not content with being a Zelda-clone, Darksiders also recycles elements from other games – bullet-time comes in about halfway through the game, and a later dungeon even brings in a portal gun for puzzles; not that this is especially bad though, as they’re all used reasonably well, but it feels characteristic of Darksiders to have a dearth of original ideas.
The Warmastered remake (the less said about that name the better) adds in a stable 60 frame per second framerate, which does genuinely help make Darksiders look and feel significantly better than its original release. It’s so much more smoother, particularly in combat and movement; though it doesn’t completely allay my issues with the game from when I originally played it, it certainly is an improvement and helps paper over some of the cracks.
Those 60 glorious frames haven’t fixed the laggy controls though, especially when jumping. Time and time again War ignored me pressing the jump button and instead opted for a fiery death or dropping into a bottomless abyss rather than a safe and short hop across a gap. Once is funny but that it happened on a regular basis throughout the entire playthrough is frustrating. He’s also so fucking slow! War just plods everywhere, stomping around like a big baby, and it makes getting around the game’s reasonably large areas so tiresome.
The choice in voice acting is also weird. Much of it is appropriately over the top, and almost cartoonish, fitting the art and aesthetic but War is a personal bugbear of mine – Liam O’Brien is an excellent voice actor but a very perplexing choice for War. The avatar of conflict is, I feel, a little undermined by having such a soft and dolorous voice; his companion, the Watcher, is literally just Mark Hamill doing his Joker voice, but the quality of the dialogue is stilted and he brings little character to the table.
In yet another mark against it, Darksiders commits a cardinal sin of gaming and makes War trudge through what feels like a million turgid sewers. In fact most dungeons trend towards lengthy and quite dull-looking; more frequent, shorter dungeons in more interesting locales would certainly have helped Darksiders retain my initial interest but alas that is not the way. Eventually it grinds you down with its tepid and tired dungeons; one late-game dungeon is just a great black tower filled with abstract floating platforms and no sense of direction and that I cannot abide.
Though some are a bit childish, I love some of the character designs. Samael’s funky upside-down wings really please me for some reason but War is heinously over-designed. A lot of it feels very Warhammer 40,000-esque but as if sifted through a chunky poppy comic-book filter, particularly with War sporting such an action-figure look. It extends to the world as well; certain elements are quite appealing – I like the big slow stone guardians with their dopey eyes and World of Warcraft-style massive blocky chins – but for every bit that’s visually interesting, there are even more bland gray apocalyptic wastes that do nothing to inspire.
I really wish Darksiders was more interesting. On paper I feel like I should have enjoyed it far more than I did; I’m a big Warhammer nerd, I love comic melodrama, and the apocalyptic war scenario is bombastic enough to appeal to my love of big dumb action. There’s just something lacking from the final product, that sparkle it needs to be elevated. Darksiders fails to really do anything with its core narrative ideas, getting lost in its own lore at the audience’s expense, the ruined Earth War is dropped into is a generally insipid wilderness, and its combat is without flair or life. Darksiders is a perfectly average game, and enjoyable nevertheless, but it will never be one that inspires any great sentiment for me.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE. A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.