I didn’t get a chance to play the original Darksiders, but that might’ve been because all the reviews touted it as a ‘mature version of Zelda’, which is a certifiable method for me to not buy your game. This isn’t the space to justify my antagonism toward Zelda, but I was more than happy to set aside my feelings about that unique brand of action/puzzle/platformer for just a moment to enjoy Darksiders 2. As Death, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you feel far less like a harbinger of destruction and agony and far more like the Prince of Persia if Todd MacFarlane had a pass at him. That’ll probably be fine for you, but underneath all this hacking, slashing, and blood-letting, the creaking bones of this game made me weary.
A Beautiful Seat For The End of the World
In the first game, your brother War was framed for the oncoming of the Apocalypse. Death, voiced by the wonderful and gravelly Michael Wincott (Yep.), seeks to both relieve War of his guilt and, y’know, save humanity. After a brief tutorial in the icy caverns of the Veil, you’re stranded on a forested world of Irish juggernauts, which serves as your hub for many of the subsequent dungeons to follow. Your goal, at least initially, is to seek out the Tree of Life to hopefully restore the peace, but a strange corruption has gotten its mitts on this world and made humble creatures vile. Thematically, the place doesn’t feel dissimilar to many of the WoW zones you’ve probably traveled through, or put another way, it feels like a bright and sunny version of Too Human’s techno-viking wasteland. The baddies are imaginative and bosses were always memorable.
While Darksiders 2 isn’t a technical marvel by any means, for every shader pass and detailed texture it doesn’t have, they make up for with a very realized, painterly world and well-animated characters. The art direction is incredible here, reminding me of what Blizzard could be doing if they updated World of Warcraft’s graphics engine more often. This frees the team to create a very beautiful world without much expense to the hardware, although the game is still locked in at 30Hz. The game is a little sluggish on the narrative, offering you pint-sized portions before and after dungeon runs with real-time cutscenes and then, confusingly, stitching in motion comic scenes to try and fill you on the backstory. I mentioned I didn’t play the original and it felt like it immediately, like I’d been dropped into the second season finale of that show you watch and I don’t. Also, they’re motion comics, which are the ghettoized cardboard theater of storytelling.
Still, the game looks really good. What isn’t as great is in how it plays.
Jeckyll And Hyde, Right Inside The Controller
If you’ve played any third-person action-adventure game (and you’re probably already sold or bust on this game from that phrase alone), you know exactly what kind of game Darksiders 2 is. You fight dudes, you solve puzzles. You also jump a lot.
Tri-Stone serves as your “town”, allowing you to acquire better instruments of destruction and chat it up with a few of the game’s strange handful of juggernauts, but most of your action top-side will come in the long jaunts to the next dungeon. The overworld offers plenty of opportunity to not only flex the creativity of the art staff through its various biomes, but will also have you spending plenty of time on horse gallivanting across largely empty terrain and scooping up the local fauna with your blades. Like Zelda. There’s plenty of collectibles and secondary currencies to soak up while you’re exploring every nook and cranny — and there aren’t many because the overworld is a series of tubes. (That and the game is more than happy to point out items like chests along the way, anyway.) You acquire currency through hacking and slashing which can then be spent to buy gear, although I found myself wealthier in just selling the crap I didn’t need than in grinding on baddies. There’s plenty of loot to be had, but I found flipping on the auto-loot toggle and letting the game decide what the best pair of greaves were was probably for the best. There are some thin layers of player progression as you gain experience, allowing you to advance down the talent trees, dedicated either to conjuration or destruction. I favored destruction, so rather than summoning ghouls to do my bidding, I enjoyed having more colorful slashy-slashy action.
Combat is the thrill of the game, handled through the X and Y buttons (or square and triangle if you happen to be that kind of folk), which sounds undercooked, but mashing buttons has made every other fighting game enjoyable, so why not here? Your roster of combos fills up as you advance and keeping tabs on the moves list allowed me to effectively dispatch my enemies. The left trigger rights your camera for aiming and grants you a lock-on, which I found silly when multiple enemies were on the field, while the bumpers modify your attacks so you can begin to pull off combos. (Of course, someone forgot to playtest this at some point because sorties in the open fields of the overworld often accidentally summoned my horse.) The thrill of slashing and hacking never ended, but the game isn’t content with simply letting you mash buttons, you’ll need to manage your high level abilities to and juggle your tactics so you don’t perish quickly as tougher villains emerge.
Where the game starts to tumble is in how old this feels. Remember the days when you had to fight the video game’s camera? Yeah, it’s all gonna rush right back to you. Getting stuck in weird corners isn’t a rare experience and neither is glitch-grinding against the game’s fortress of invisible walls. Platforming in Darksiders 2 feels similarly ancient, like drudge-up-fifteen-years-of-all-those-dreadful-memories-of-jumping-and-wall-running ancient. The game is incredibly strict about where, why, and when it wants you to jump and to where. Places where the game wants you to shimmy will feature a specifically designed ledge that has no issue popping out on any feature or surface the developers wanted to put them on, sometimes comically so. You can run straight up a wall, and you can run sideways, but you can’t do any sort of combination of both. This makes it a fantastic experience when a shimmy ledge is stapled onto an actual ledge, so when you jump up to shimmy, you end up vaulting over the thing instead. The game seems to have passed on the evolutionary branch of action-platforming that Assassin’s Creed’s wonderful dynamic climbing has ushered in that would’ve served it oh, so well. Then there’s the repeated dying because you didn’t time your jump at the precise moment the designers intended you to: at one point, the number of attempts hit thirty and I threw my controller down and shut the console off.
Since the game funnels you down these pre-built assets of platforming, everything else is off-limits. Ledges and obstacles you’d be able to mount in any other game? You can’t. Invisible walls. Darksiders 2 asks you to ditch intuition in favor of its haggard old style of 3D gameplay. When you manage to pull it off, it looks fantastic; it’s getting there that’s the struggle. Not helping matters is your bird, Dust, which can be triggered to give you a hint when you’re stuck… most of the time. In one area, I was stuck in a tall room where shimmy ledges were lined up above me to take me to my next objective. Dust told me to hop onto a particular ledge about fifteen feet up, well out of Death’s reach and lacking a shimmy ledge itself. So I spent the next ten minutes trying to vault up and down, wall run, or even place Death into crazy positions from which to leap from repeatedly. This was all a waste of time of course as the proper course of action required me to backtrack and advance through another door. Twenty minutes later, I was back in that same spot, except I’d now flooded the area, and could now easily access that ledge Dust had pointed out earlier. Stupid bird.
The Pale Rider Awaits?
Despite having a solid combat engine, a vividly realized world, well over 20 hours of gameplay, and Michael Wincott, I can’t help but feel that Darksiders 2 is sluffing it a little. The original game was a surprise, selling over a million units and garnering a respectable-but-not-great 80% review average, so it seems THQ and developer Vigil didn’t want to rock the boat too much when it came to delivering on a sequel. Maintaining the status quo is fine when the game is insanely polished with solid gameplay, but Darksiders 2 doesn’t bode well for the future of the franchise, like a car on cruise control right before it sails off into a field of wheat. The game earned my attention and it can definitely be super fun at times, but its wheezing core barely gets it through this game, much less whatever comes next.
Hopefully Pestilence gets a better trip.