For a minute, let's say Darksiders is a big bowl of gaming stew. Like any stews there is a main ingredient that the stew is built on and then other things are added to add new flavors to the mix. In Darksiders is a stew then the core ingredient is God of War but the folks at Vigil have added giant chunks of Zelda along with a dash Dragoon Orta and a few of other spices to create a gaming stew that hard core gamers are going to eat up.
In Darksiders you play War, one of the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse who is charged by the Charred Council to keep the forces of heaven and hell from destroying Earth before the apocalypse is signaled. Once the apocalypse is on, War and his three brethren will be summoned to oversee the battle. It turns out the someone triggers the apocalypse a bit pre-maturely, summoning War but not his three brothers. Because of his bad case of "premature apocalation" War is blamed for causing the early apocalypse (which is won by the forces of Hell) and is now responsible for tracking down what went wrong and putting everything back the way it was.
War is stripped of most of the powers (if you don't see that coming you need to play more games) and must regain them before the inevitable climactic battle at end of the game. He's escorted by the Watcher, an ethereal spirit bound to him to ensures that he doesn't wander off and "Go Native" with the demons who now rule the Earth. This isn't a bad thing as The Watcher is voiced by Mark Hamil who is using a toned down version of his Joker voice for the character.
While the story arc of the game will be familiar to most gamers, what differentiates Darksiders is the art design of Joe Madureira. Mr. Madureira comes from the comic book world and brings that aesthetic to the game. This extends to the writing as well as Darksiders feels like a bit like a full length interactive comic book without the ads for X-Ray specs at the end. This will probably be turn off for some people who loath this kind of writing. It's not quite as over the top as Heavy Metal or the Spawn movies but it does push ever so slightly into teenage boy realm a bit here and there. As a character, War is a bit overwrought and brooding. There's not a lot of depth to his character but he gets the job done. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but don't expect War to be as nuanced or deep as Kratos or Gordon Freeman.
The real genius of having Joe Madureira though, comes through in the character and environmental design. Sure we've seen zombies, demons, and angels in games before but Darksiders has some amazing character designs that are a step beyond what I've seen in other games. There is some fantastic creature design in the game and they reminded me a bit of the bestiary Guillermo Del Toro crafted for Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies. These characters help forge an immersive environment that's easy to stay in for large stretches of time.
The audio is solid but doesn't really stand out the way the visuals do. The game does pass the girlfriend test of not overly re-using dialog (my girlfriend listens while I play and mocks overly used dialog). The soundtrack is solid but not memorable. For me music in games is usually like a good offensive linemen in football, you don't really notice them until they screw up which in this case is a good thing.
Killing enemies releases their souls which War can collect. Like M&M's the souls come in three flavors: green which restore health, yellow which restores wrath, and white which serve as currency. Given that War is an angry guy he uses wrath to power his special area of effect attacks. In other games this is what is usually called Mana but I do appreciate the attempt to do something different. The attacks you get are well done and can be leveled up by purchasing them from shops around the game. Yes there's a shop system that forces you to buy upgrades. I've never been a big fan of the "Savior of the World has to buy stuff to save the shopkeeper" logic but it seems to be ingrained in our collective gaming subculture as a valid game mechanic.
Moving War around the world is straight forward as the control scheme is very tight. Movement and looking is bound to the thumbsticks in the usual manner with the A button handling the jumping, the X button handling attacking with your sword, the B button handling interacting with the world, and the Y button serving as your alternative fire. The right bumper allows War to dash in one direction of block an incoming attack while the left bumper serves as a modifier to determine which ability War can use.
The tricky part comes when you want to use the Crossblade, a four bladed boomerang that War can use to solve puzzles and attack multiple enemies at once with. You can just blindly throw it by pulling the right trigger or you can enter the aiming mode by pushing down the right stick and then charge your attack and aim at the enemy in your cross hairs. If you really want to get fancy you can hold down the left thumbstick and select multiple enemies by hovering the cross hairs over them. Once you release the right thumbstick the Crossblade will then work it's way through the enemies you've selected. For some reason this took my mind a bit of time to work around as my fingers had some difficulty mastering this very important skill.
The combat in Darksiders forces you to use multiple tactics in order to get through some of the harder areas. For example you need to Crossblade to keep one mini-boss occupied while you take out another in some areas. This forces you to alter your tactics from time to time and prevents the game from being one long button smashing adventure.
The puzzles in the game are also solid. They aren't too tough but some of them do require you to sit down and think about how you approach them. Vigil does a good job of forcing you to keep using new and old skills to solve puzzles. Most of the puzzles are things you've seen before (move item X here to gain access to switch Y) but there are a few original items tucked into the game.
It's worth noting that Darksiders isn't an easy game and if you're looking for a casual experience you should either play through the lowest difficulty level or skip the game entirely and go play some Peggle. The hard core crowd will find a lot to like in Darksiders as there are a lot of good challenges both in the puzzles in the game, some of the heavy combat areas, and the boss fights that are sprinkled throughout. There's an easy 12-16 hrs of game play just in the core story but if you're anal retentive and want to find everything in the game you're looking at at least 25 hrs or so.
I had a hard time coming up with faults in the game as the game has a nice polish to it. The difficulty was a bit frustrating in parts as I lost about an hour trying to defeat the first major boss in the game (it didn't help that the strategy guide THQ provided was wrong about how to defeat her but that's my fault for having to rely on it). The game does have a few odd pacing moments from time to time as you are forced from the main plot line to complete a series of challenge mode style quests. These felt a bit awkward to me for some reason but they do force you to learn specific game mechanics that are required later on in the game.
As I mentioned earlier the writings comic book roots will probably polarize those who didn't grow up on the medium but I did enjoy the writing. Then again I have bins of comics in my basement so maybe I'm not the right person to ask.
Darksiders is a very easy game to recommend to people as it's more than the sum of it's parts. The pace of the game keeps you involved and they folks at Vigil switch the gameplay up as the game progresses to keep you on your toes. There are a few misses in there but I think most people will enjoy their time with the game.
A solid, well written, well executed game. If you're looking for something new and original, Darksiders is your game.