Darksiders II – Review
There’s a revitalizing vibe of old-schoolness illuminating from Darksiders II. In a time where developers are pushing the current generation of consoles to the limit with near-photorealistic graphics in bombardments of explosive set-pieces, scrabbling to spend an extra few minutes in the limelight, Vigil Games have admirably travelled in the opposite direction. No, Darksiders II doesn’t concern itself with feasting your eyes on hardware-destroying beauty or relentlessly force feeding you with deafening set-piece-driven destruction every five minutes, instead opting to focus more on classic adventuring and stylised graphics, so if that doesn’t sound up your street then you’d better carry on looking. But for anyone tiring of the current crop of somewhat-samey military shooters and yearly iterations then roll up now.
It’s fair to say that the original Darksiders was a fresh take on the Apocalypse, a dungeon crawler mash-up of God of War hacking and slashing against angels and demons in a world structured not too dissimilar from Zelda rather than the hackneyed “end of the world by zombies” take that we’ve all grown accustomed to. It wore its influences on its sleeve, but could never quite escape from their looming shadow thanks in part to an uninteresting lead character in the form of War, a burly lumbering brute and the one quarter of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse accused of prematurely igniting Armageddon, and a fairly uninspired Earth-bound setting that largely consisted of washed out greys and browns. It was destined for cult status rather than all-time classic, but complimentary comparisons to its inspirations ensured interest. And that interest has led to here…
Darksiders II is exactly what you’d expect from such a sequel. It keeps and improves upon everything that was good in the original while building on top by liberally adding platforming and loot while topping it off with a light sprinkling of RPG elements for good measure. War is out, Death is in, and immediately it’s clear that he’s more interesting than his hulking brother ever was. Lithe, sleek, even sarcastic at times, Death is, as the kids might say, a badass; a no nonsense kind of chap and anyone who hinders his progress in proving War’s innocence will at best be met with a mocking remark, or at worst will grow rather intimate with his duet of scythes.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be scythes. While they are Death’s primary weapons of choice, always mapped to the X button, with Y you can equip whatever tickles your fancy from a multitude of pain bringers: ginormo hammers and axes, Wolverine-esque claws, or hard-hitting gauntlets. Usually they’ll come with some form of elemental flavour to spice things up a bit too – my Death favoured a pair of flaming scythes that would set alight most enemies in a flurry of fast and furious strikes, and a humungous hammer that could entrap foes in a block of ice after a couple of slow but heavy blows. It’s tricky to tell whether these facets add anything more than cosmetic changes though, because combat in Darksiders II is a bit of a walk in the park.
There are a handful of tough encounters for sure but, more often than not, you can get away with repeating the same attack combos or simply button bash your way to victory, and no more than twice did I feel the need to activate Death’s Reaper form (read: rage mode) during my 30-hour playthrough on the normal difficulty setting. Still, if you’re a game that lasts such a length then maybe less than challenging combat is necessary. What do you reckon, Dark Souls? Oh…
A modest pair of skill trees and emphasis on dodging rather than blocking do help to shake things up, but there’s more to Darksiders II than mindless hacking and slashing. At its core, Vigil have created vast and diverse environments that simply beg to be explored, some of which are almost as big as the entirety of the first game’s map, making the ability to fast-travel and ride on horseback more than welcome (Death’s steed, Despair, is available from the get-go this time). Whereas the Elder Scrolls’ Tamriel feels like a true living, breathing world, these lands give the impression that they’ve been purposely built for exploration. A brief return to an Apocalypsed-out Earth later on in the game does grow rather yawnsome, but most of your time will be spent in amazing fantastical lands infested with dungeons that conceal secrets at every bend.
There are side-quests to complete, pages of the Book of the Dead to recover and, if you’re extremely thorough, garden gnomes to collect (yep, GnoMAD’s garden gnomes in a nod to creator Joe Madureira – Joe Mad). Everywhere you go there’s something or somewhere new to find although, undeniably, it can’t quite match the same sense of discovery attained when traveling the realms of Skyrim, Lordran or Hyrule. But the sheer quantity of things to do, most of it worthwhile, means that those who do go a-wandering will get more bang for their buck, both in and out of the game.
Arguably the biggest new feature in Darksiders II is random loot. Whether treasure chests spit them out or fallen enemies drop them, the pursuit of that perfect piece of equipment (and gold!) is the driving force behind any good loot-em-up, and Darksiders II is no exception. You’ll play for hours and then it all clicks together upon discovering that 300+ damage-dealing axe with an increased chance of critical damage you dreamed about, and that health-boosting armour piece that grants bonus experience. Colour-coded stats make it easy to compare your currently-equipped items against those you find in the field and a generous inventory capacity means that any unwanted wares can be sold at a number of merchants across the land. Or if you’re lucky enough to find a rare possessed weapon you can feed it with your extra load in order to upgrade it.
While loot is generally the virtual reward given for venturing so far into the hidden depths of these lands, exploring the numerous dungeons themselves is a reward in itself. On the whole, each one is grander than the last and all have a specific flavour of their own. From icy caverns drenched in the deepest of blues to long-forgotten ruins of fascinating architecture, the designers at Vigil have done one mightily-impressive job in dungeon crafting, while throwing the odd clever puzzle in there as well. Even though the use of gear-gated areas is noticeably underplayed, anyone who insists on exploring everywhere in their games will have a field day here.
The dungeons also demonstrate Darksiders’ newly found platforming segments to great effect. Death’s leaner figure allows him to scramble up vertical surfaces, bound from pillar to pillar and run across walls like a certain Prince from Persia. Even though the controls could do with tightening up, the platforming proves to be a valuable addition and will be sorely missed if not present in future instalments. Unfortunately things can be a bit hit and miss at times, with wall runs and other actions not always registering correctly (or at all) and usually leading to Death plummeting to his, well, death. Luckily it’s all very forgiving with instantaneous respawns allowing you to dive back into the thick of it straight away. It’s almost as if Vigil were aware of such problems and decided that if they couldn’t fix them then they would at least minimise the frustration instead.
However, other niggles do persist. Technically, things are a mite untidy with clipping issues and drops in the frame-rate rearing their ugly mugs from time to time. The game is also prone to crash during longer play sessions (on 360 at least) and, graphically, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking that this could pass for an early generation game. But the gorgeous art style pulls through and the addictive dungeon crawling renders the technical shortcomings almost redundant.Pros
- A modern take on old-school adventuring
- Gorgeous comic book aesthetic
- Impressive boss battles
- Majestic melodies from Assassin’s Creed/Hitman composer Jesper Kyd
- Combat’s too easy. Play on Hard…
- Some hit and miss platforming
- Fetch-quests within fetch-quests. “I grow tired of these diversions” Death says. So do I.
Zelda, God of War, Prince of Persia… Like its predecessor, Darksiders II is certainly derivative. But then again most games are nowadays. However, unlike its predecessor, Darksiders II manages to hold its own. Just. This isn’t quite the game that will define studio Vigil, but by the looks of things THAT game is on its way. And when it does arrive we’re all in for one hell of a treat. In the meantime, though, take pleasure in playing a game that in all likelihood won’t be winning many Game of the Year awards but will probably be fondly remembered upon all the same.
Last five articles by Tim