Darksiders II

Review

posted 8/14/2012 by Nathaniel Cohen
other articles by Nathaniel Cohen
Platforms: 360
Darksiders 2 represents a bit of a Hail Mary for publisher THQ, and possibly for “hardcore” games in general.  In a world where “experts” keep telling us that triple-A titles are going to eventually either destroy the gaming industry or simply disappear in a puff of cheap-to-develop indie and mobile games, Darksiders 2 seems like it shouldn’t exist.  It has nothing going for it if you think about it. 

The original Darksiders was a good game, but was nothing like the juggernaut it needed to be to make a sequel seem like a forgone conclusion.  It shamelessly copied elements God of War, The Legend of Zelda, and even Portal to create its combat and puzzle-dungeon gameplay.  It was a true casserole game - a delicious casserole to be sure, but such casserole games often get brushed off by the media and gamers as being copies.  Combine this with THQ’s seeming desire to move away from big, expensive games, or at least force them to be molded into something lesser and more easily monetize-able, and you can see why someone might be a little mystified as to how Darksiders 2 became what it is. 

Instead of condensing the first game into something, more action oriented and with a narrower focus on world design, Darksiders 2 is the exact opposite.  Frankly, Darksiders 2 deserves to make a ton of money, in part, to remind publishers and industry analysts that triple-A games that don’t have “Halo” or “Call of Duty” in their titles still have a place in the world, and also because Darksiders 2 is an excellent game and should be the biggest sleeper hit of the year.  It’s the kind of videogame that videogames were meant to be.


So, if you’re reading this and didn’t play the original Darksiders, let me give you a little bit of story background for context. 

Darksiders, as a franchise, is a mixture of both Christian and Norse mythology.  It’s a world where smiths forge the universe around us while angels battle for control over the realm of Earth.  The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are charged with Earth’s protection, but in the original Darksiders, War seemingly broke the seven seals and prematurely brought on the end of the world for humanity.  While he sat in judgment before the Charred Council, his brother Death set out to prove his innocence.  The original follows War, while Darksiders 2 follows Death during roughly the same time frame.   

To me, the most amazing thing about Darksiders 2 is how big it is.  It maintains the same hub-world/dungeon structure of the original, but there’s just more of it in Darksiders 2.  Where Darksiders had one hub-world, Darksiders 2 has three or maybe four depending on how you want to define “hub-world.”  The dungeons themselves are more numerous and even include optional dungeons just to flesh out the world a bit more.  Others are tied into side-quests.  The open-world structure remains the same as well.  You can go anywhere at any time you have the equipment to get there.  The collectibles return with many more types whose collections all reap different rewards.  I’m not even sure I came across every type of collectible because there’s no quest handholding.  Icons don’t appear on the map whenever an NPC has a side quest available, and many quest givers are hidden - some are even straight up camouflaged.  So obviously, exploration is a huge aspect of Darksiders 2. 


The worlds shrink a little thanks to Death’s trusty steed, Despair, and he has a pet crow named Dust that will point Death in the direction of his quest or goal, but he’s really only there to keep you from getting hopelessly turned around and lost in complex dungeons.  Despite those aids, there’s a ton of content you can miss by not sticking your nose into every last corner of the world, including under water.  Swimming makes its return and be prepared for hidden underwater passages galore.  Finally, don’t think that this extreme increase in world size led to a lot of copy-and-paste dungeons or drab, samey, world design.  It’s exactly the opposite.  Each world has a unified art design, but there is much variation within that design, and there are many truly awe-inspiring sights in Darksiders 2.  However, the price to pay is that the hub-worlds can suffer from significant screen tearing and object pop in.  It’s not a constant issue, and it didn’t impair my enjoyment of the game, but it’s there.

Moving on…Do you remember earlier when I said there were side quests?  That fact dovetails nicely with the second most amazing thing about Darksiders 2: Vigil turned it into an RPG, or more accurately, a Role-Playing Action-Adventure Platformer.  After what THQ did to the Red Faction series, I would have expected Darksiders 2 to be less complex than the original, but instead it’s more.  Darksiders 2 now features loot, levels, and skill-trees. They’re not as deep as a pure RPG, but most RPGs don’t feature the kind of combat and platforming that Darksiders 2 features. 


Loot is often a big deal to gamers, and drives the desire to explore the game world and take on powerful enemies.  Darksiders 2 throws loot at you via hidden chests, enemy drops, and shops.  Death has five “armor” slots and two weapon slots for that loot.  He can equip many different cowls that cover his upper torso and shoulders, “covers” that covers the lower torso and thighs, greaves (armored boots if you don’t know the terminology), gauntlets or hand wraps (gloves, armored or not), and a talisman.  Each item affects Death’s stats that range from health and Wrath (magic), to critical chance, or offer XP boosts, and other tertiary qualities.  Every one except the talisman shows up on Death’s in-game model as well, so be prepared to play dress-up in Darksiders 2.  Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of variety in how the armor pieces look.  There are maybe four different models of each piece; however, the stats are as varied as they should be. 

Along with armor, there are lots of weapons as well.  They too suffer a bit from re-used models, but you come across epic weapons that look different from everything else long before you find epic armor so it’s less obvious.  Death’s main weapon is a magic scythe that can be duel-wielded.  To complement his scythe, he can carry one of an assortment of secondary weapons, either heavy or fast.  The heavies include mauls, maces, and axes while the fast weapons include gauntlets, claws, bucklers, and arm-blades.  Since you can only equip one secondary weapon, you’ll have to match it to the scenario.  Do you need maximum damage in a wide arc?  Then equip a maul, mace, or axe.  On the other hand, choose a fast secondary weapon when you desire attack speed at the expense of damage.  There’s a third kind of weapon as well - the possessed weapon.  Possessed weapons can be upgraded by sacrificing other pieces of loot - either weapons or armor - and the higher the quality, the more it advances the weapon’s level.  You’ll often find yourself unable to decide whether to sell rare loot or sacrifice it to the possessed weapon so it gains another level.  As a possessed weapon levels up (there are five levels) you’ll be able to customize its attributes, eventually ending up with a very powerful weapon. 

The scythe and the two classes of secondary weapon each have their own attack combos, but the inputs are the same across each, so you really only have to learn one list of moves.  You just have to hit a different button.  Just like the original, the combat in Darksiders 2 is fast and brutal, but it’s not just a button masher.  Timing a block correctly leads to a parry, and that is a very effective tool.  I don’t know if you can block every single attack every enemy has to offer, but it will pay off to get that timing down.  There is a lock-on system as well where you can switch target with the flick of a stick.  You can evade also, and when you’re surrounded, quick strikes followed by evasions are key.  In addition, to keep things grounded, you can only chain together three evades before Death needs a second to recover.  One ill-timed third evade can mean death so you have to learn when to hold back. 


To complement the armed combat, Death gets access to two different skill trees as he levels up.  These magic abilities are fueled by Wrath, which can be refilled a number of ways.  Potions, certain weapon attributes, executions, and scythe attacks all work in tandem to keep your Wrath bar topped up so you’re never without the ability to use your magic attacks for very long.  Along with Wrath, Death also can accumulate “Reaper energy” through skillful combos.  Weapons can also come with Reaper energy-boosting attributes through executions.  As an enemy nears death, there’s a chance he’ll become weakened to the point that you can execute him with a simple button press When such an opportunity arises, the execute icon will appear over their head and then you simply have to hit the right button while they’re within weapon range.  Executions can also refill health and Wrath depending on what attributes your weapons and armor are sporting.  When Death’s Reaper gauge fills up, he can transform into his reaper form.  This reaper form greatly increases damage dished out while reducing damage taken.  Just like in the original, you’ll want to horde it for bosses, mini-bosses, or any hopeless combat situation you need to get out of.  It doesn’t seem to me however, that this combat “super weapon” is as useful in Darksiders 2 as it was in the original.  The damage boost isn’t that great given how quickly the Reaper Gauge depletes, and it can take a long time to refill.  Look at it this way: at least it’s not gamebreakingly overpowered.  That would arguably be much worse.

Along with combat, the platforming in Darksiders 2 remains basically identical to the original.  You can wall run, shimmy up poles or across ledges, leap from beam to beam, or traverse across patches of ivy.  It remains as smooth and fast as before - refreshingly so - and as the game progresses the areas get more complex often requiring many different platforming moves pulled-off in quick sequence.  It’s not super-challenging, and the threat of failure is only minimal.  Death can fall great distances without sustaining damage, but a fall too far or a fall into lava causes death to transform into his reaper form and fly himself to the ledge nearest to where the failure occurred with only the loss of a tiny amount of health - and, as far as I can tell, you can’t actually die from it even if you have less health than what is normally taken away. 

Your normal array of platforming moves are augmented by various tools you get access to as the game progresses.  Again, the later into the game you get, the more you’ll have to rely on your specialized platforming tools, like Death Grip, for example, that allows you to grab distant items or attach to contextual hooks to launch yourself across large gaps.  You also get the ability to summon spirits that allow the manipulation of multiple switches and/or pressure plates simultaneously.  When you combine the platforming with the often complex “unlock the door” or “raise the bridge” puzzles gamers are familiar with, you get dungeons that I found to be mostly delightful.  It’s the “puzzle room” as I call them, that’s responsible for the kind of gamer I am today.  There’s nothing groundbreaking about that stuff in Darksiders 2, but old ideas get reused for a reason - when they’re executed properly, you don’t care that it’s essentially identical to another game because it’s so much fun, and so fulfilling when you finally figure out the obtuse solution needed to advance to the next area.  Furthermore, I’m pretty sure I’m addicted to the sound of ancient stone doors creaking open and rusty mechanisms engaging after countless years of disuse.  Darksiders 2 did not disappoint me one bit in that regard.


Also not disappointing is how Darksiders 2 looks and sounds.  Graphically, it probably won’t win any awards, but everything from the character and weapon models to the art design of the various worlds is easily classified as “solid” and often can shift into “beautiful” territory.  Vigil games definitely didn’t put graphics ahead of gameplay like other Western developers do according to some Eastern developers, but they made an interesting, immersive world full of creative-looking characters and environments.  On the other hand, the voice acting and soundtrack for Darksiders 2 are both bloody brilliant.  Darksiders 2 is a joy to listen to.  I listened to the soundtrack as I wrote this review, and I have to say that Jesper Kyd is probably far and away the best soundtrack composer working in the gaming industry today.  His soundtrack for Darksiders 2 is just stunning.

So everything I’ve spent this review informing you about, the nuts and bolts of Darksiders 2, are so not the point about Darksiders 2 I want to make.  Yes, the gameplay, story, soundtrack, and voice acting are about what any reasonable gamer should expect for a single-player only title that was obviously made with care by developers that clearly poured their hearts and souls into making videogames for all kind of gamers to enjoy.  The point I want to make, and what I’ve hopefully convinced you, the reader, of is that Darksiders 2 is the kind of game gamers deserve.  It cuts no unreasonable corners, it’s not dumbed down, and it doesn’t have a tacked-on multiplayer or co-op mode.  More and more, people want to tell gamers that their favorite pass-time is just too expensive to take seriously anymore.  Why make a hardcore triple-A title with top-shelf production values that not enough people will buy because it’s not Call of Duty?  Darksiders 2 is why. It shows why developers shouldn’t abandon triple-A titles for casual mobile games and indie downloadable titles.  If THQ, a company that really seems on the brink, can publish a game that is exactly what is apparently wrong with triple-A games then other developers can as well, and maybe, if Darksiders 2 is as successful as it should be, they’ll remember that.  It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it crystallizes everything that is right about videogames.  It’s why I became a gamer, and probably many of you as well.  Do yourself and your favorite hobby a favor and pick Darksiders 2 up.
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