Darksiders is a series which seems to have a real cult following. The first game is certainly one which seems to have some devoted fans. Personally I found it to be a disappointingly mediocre experience which, while it had its moments, failed to shine at well, anything, resulting in a perfectly adequate game. I’m not terribly surprised though to see it was popular enough to spawn a sequel, and with any luck it will improve on the first.
Darksiders II (PC, Switch, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Released Aug 2012 | Developed: Vigil / Gunfire | Published: THQ / Nordic
Darksiders’ plot is largely concerned with the great war between Heaven and Hell, which converges on Earth and results in the extermination of Mankind. This Apocalypse was caused seemingly accidentally by War, one of the Four Horseman, who heralded the end of days too early and rode on his own and as a result War is imprisoned by the Charred Council for breaking the universe’s precarious balance.
Rather than focus on this specific conflict, Darksiders II goes out of its way to try and expand some of the franchise’s wider lore. War, along with the other 3 Horsemen Death, Fury, and Strife, are nephilim, part of a race which waged a bloody conquest across creation. In exchange for their powers as Horsemen, the four commit genocide against their own kind at the behest of the Charred Council. None regret this more than Death, and so when War is accused of causing the destruction of Mankind this resonates strongly with him and he journeys to try and prove War’s innocence.
How he does this though is a little woolly. A seer points Death towards the Tree of Life, whose roots link all worlds in creation; there he will find the fabled Well of Souls, and from it restore mankind to life. Quite how this proves War’s innocence is left unexplained, but I guess returning all of mankind is at least a noble goal regardless. Unfortunately Death finds the Tree riddled with Corruption, a dark sickness which covers everything in black tar and eerie yellow crystals, and poisons the minds of all who come into contact with it. This Corruption has spread through the roots of the Tree to all the worlds of creation, and so Death finds he needs to journey through the realms in order to quell the spread of Corruption before finally reaching the Well of Souls.
Just as with the first Darksiders, the plot is a mess, a bloated mass of semi-religious iconography, Warhammer-style poe-faced melodrama, and a distinct lack of concise or tight explanation. Despite the efforts of the writers, I couldn’t tell you where this fits with the first game – I think it’s sort of parallel to it? I also find myself slightly lost at the rapid expansion of the Darksiders mythos. It feels almost alien, a complete departure from the first game; some familiar faces make an appearance later in the game but otherwise Darksiders II almost feels entirely disconnected, as if it were intended as a spiritual successor rather than a sequel. There are far more fantastical elements here, and the development of the lore from “angels v demons apocalypse” to a larger and more diverse cosmos is one I enjoy, but equally, as with Darksiders, it remains absorbed and lost in its own sense of pomp. Once you get past that though it feels just as torpid and dull as the first game, relying on a sense of comic book spectacle to push you along rather than a story with any depth.
The gameplay offers a significant evolution from the first game. The Zelda influences are still here as Death must traverse a swathe of dungeons, each filled with enemies to slay and puzzles to overcome; there’s a little more emphasis on platforming and environmental puzzles this time around though. Whereas War got laden with artifacts and abilities to traverse his dungeons, Death has a slightly reduced pack of magical gadgets, and often these are used chiefly for platforming and puzzles rather than ever being that useful against bosses. The platforming is a real point of improvement; whereas War felt stodgy and slow, lumbering around the destroyed Earth like a pissed-off glacier, Death is lithe and mobile, moving with much more freedom, and flipping and vaulting over obstacles. He also moves much faster than his brother when platforming, so the dungeons you enter are more inclined towards being huge and expansive as you can clamber about them and explore more easily.
Just as Death is faster and more expressive in movement, he is also more fluid in combat. For a start, the animations during fights have been hugely improved, with far more flair. Death attacks with his paired scythes which are a little more suited to crowd control, while he can also equip a secondary weapon; in a pleasant change from the first, these two options can actually be paired together in combos, and switching between them no longer feels like the game makes a juddering lurch from one set of animations to the other. Combat now though is all about the numbers game as we’ve gone all RPG-like; yes, whereas the previous game was about repeatedly pressing the attack button until you finally got a quick-time event kill, Darksiders II brings a bit more depth to proceedings. Rather than Zelda, perhaps the more obvious influence on Darksiders II is older RPGs like Diablo and Baldur’s Gate.
This isn’t in terms of the presentation, clearly, but like these storied and venerable games, Darksiders II cares all about the loot. As Death cuts his way through swarms of baddies, he can find a veritable smorgasbord of equipment to hoover up and try out. You’ll constantly find yourself fiddling in the menu with his gear, whether it’s to find the most efficient scythes or to test out the range of secondary weapons and you’ll also need to keep track of his armour as well. I do enjoy that this system allows an element of playstyle customisation, with different pieces of armour buffing separate stats; if you prefer a tanky build you’ll find yourself gravitating towards the bulkier pauldrons and harnesses, whereas other pieces of equipment boost Death’s arcane powers, but often at the expense of his defence.
While it is definitely a welcome change from Darksiders, it feels a tiny bit thin; I wish there was more variety, especially in the secondary weapon slot, which mostly comes down to big swingy slow stick or fast gauntlets. Like with all looter RPGs, I feel like eventually you have a build set and the random nature of loot drops means you inevitably end up with loads of crap cluttering up your inventory, the only purpose of which is to sell. Money is kind of pointless though: there are only 2 combat trainers in the game who each give you more moves; as a sidepoint, these are totally unnecessary as the basic combos will get you through the game perfectly well, just as in the first game. Once they’re depleted the only thing left to buy is the obscenely expensive gear from merchants but given it’s all random and everything you can hit with your scythes can drop loot, you have to wonder why you’d bother patronising them at all.
The RPG influences don’t end there though: alongside his journey to clear creation of Corruption, Death can also accept sidequests from the NPCs he meets. I get the sense that Darksiders II kind of got out of hand for THQ. It’s clear that they had an idea to make a grand, sweeping RPG, and they very nearly did it – the first two worlds Death visits are massive, with clear elements of distinct civilizations living in them, and multiple quest chains that drive you to explore the breadth of the land. The first, the Forge Lands, gives us a clearer look into the ancient Makers, Darksiders’ take on dwarves who crafted the earliest pieces of the universe. It’s a gorgeous land with myriad biomes to trek through, from the searing heat of their volcanic forges to the pallid snows of the southern fjords. Across it all, ruins lie scattered, and all of them are explorable for more loot and collectibles. The second, the Land of the Dead, is equally vast, with great fields of bones and dust stretching between huge funereal fortresses, behind which a network of spiritual aristocrats judge souls.
This is what draws me to Darksiders II, and it’s what I’d love to see more of; that brand of bombastic creativity is the kind of fantasy that I thrive on, even if I don’t care much for the storytelling. What makes it a shame then is that clearly the developers must have ran out of time or money, or maybe both, because the latter half of the game is an absolute mess. The final two worlds lack all of the detail of the former ones; they’re both simple corridors whose only function is to funnel you to dungeons in quick succession, and it leaves a bad taste as the finale rolls in. It’s not a wholly negative experience though, since Darksiders II is a half-decent game, but certainly the game is soured a little by the endless trudge of dungeons as Darksiders II tries to hastily wrap together its narrative. One late game sidequest really epitomises this I feel as it involves delivering a message to 2 different characters, but between each one you need to return to the quest giver; it takes place across 3 worlds and is simply an exercise in fast-travelling, pushing the one button and sitting through loading screens until it’s completed. Contrast that to earlier missions which see you hunting down Corrupted heroes or subjugating unruly spirits, and the difference in quality between the beginning and the end becomes stark.
It’s not my only bugbear either, regrettably. I played the remastered “Deathinitive” edition (and I thought Warmastered was bad) on PS4 and I found it to be an extraordinarily buggy game. No fewer than 3 hard crashes forced me back to the PS4’s home screen. I had Death fall through the scenery once, and get trapped behind the world at least twice. Sometimes subtitles failed to display and sometimes pop-ups recurred in an endless loop. A quick bit of searching online led me to find out that the damage indicators which pop up with each hit actually break the game and my build – a rogue-like one which relied on pumping out critical hits from my fast gauntlet weapons – was causing too many numbers to pop up in quick succession and so the game just gave up. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for your game to be able to handle your own in-game options, but that’s just me, and judging by the reports online, I’m not the only one to have come across this bizarre lack of quality.
Although Darksiders II succeeds in many ways, it still falls prey to some of the same faults as its predecessor, and especially by the final third I was growing very weary. Thanks to the dungeon crawling and world exploring it’s a much longer game than the first – my playthrough clocked in at just shy of 20 hours – and the barrage of dungeons in the late-game crafts a tangible sense of fatigue. Still, it’s undeniably an improvement on the first game, and don’t let my grousing convince you otherwise. While it’s tempting to label its overblown narrative as a waste of a good concept, that’s probably snobbery talking; as it is, it represents a good-enough pulp fantasy which should still entertain.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.