September 07, 2012
Darksiders II is huge. From the hulking, chunky characters and vast landscapes, to the towering bosses and the apocalyptic storyline, it's a whopping great big monster of a game, drawing on influences with statures to match. Everything about it is massive.
This is reflected in the breadth of experiences that Darksiders II encompasses. It's an action adventure game at heart, with flowing hack 'n slash combat, but it's bolstered by an effective loot system, skill trees and platforming, each of which could form a solid foundation for their own game.
Indeed, many of these elements have already done just that, in such lauded series as Diablo, God of War, Prince of Persia and, of course, Zelda. Jack of all trades and master of some, Darksiders II borrows from the best and does a surprisingly good job of it. It's just lacking in many ideas of its own.
That won't bother you much while you're playing though. Instead you'll be too busy stomping, slashing, jumping, slaying, collecting and tinkering with your inventory to worry. Despite some undeniable problems, Darksiders II is a generous and enjoyable game.
Running parallel to the events of the first title in the series, Darksiders II’s story follows Death on a journey to redeem his brother and fellow Horseman of the Apocalypse, War. Across the game our bony hero traverses a series of fantastical locations ranging from lush green lands, to fiery depths and dead plains. Each of these environments are colourful and attractively built, yet they lack a sense of place.
The very best game worlds are memorable. They wind their way into your mind, filling your imagination with their architecture and flora, their narrow passes and sweeping vistas, their nooks and crannies. Darksiders II, while handsome, will not live so long in the memory. Its world is relatively sparse and lacking in geographical character, and its triumphs are technical rather than creative. It does the job with little or no flair.
This is a side-effect of the game’s scale, which impresses not just horizontally but also vertically. This necessitates the use of Death's pleasingly varied platforming skills, which are lifted pretty much wholesale from Prince of Persia. You can wall run, pole climb and clamber along vine strewn walls in much the same way as the titular Prince. And while it doesn’t play out quite as smoothly, it comes surprisingly close.
Darksiders II’s debt to Jordan Mechner’s creation even extends to one of the series’ more controversial innovations. Just like 2008’s Prince of Persia reboot, you can’t die as as a result of a ballsed-up jump. Instead of falling you get scooped up in the wings of some shadowy demon and plonked on the safety of the nearest ledge. When Vigil decides to nick a game’s ideas, they don’t mess around.
You’ll spend just under half of your time exploring the world in this way - platforming across open environments and gear-gated dungeons, while the rest of your time will be spent smashing and slicing the crap out of everything with your array of weapons. And oh what weapons they are.
As befits Darksiders II’s style, Death’s weapons are ludicrously big scythes and whopping great big maces, hammers and glaives. The trick is to mix up the quick primary weapon attacks with the bigger, slower whomps - all while acrobatically diving around to avoid the swarming enemy masses.
It’s not particularly sophisticated, nor does it require any great strategy, but it is enjoyable. There’s a satisfying, chunky, powerful thump to it that only shows signs of wear and tear many hours - and indeed many dead beasties - into the adventure. You can even spice things up a bit with abilities like Death Grip, which allows you to pull enemies towards you before bashing them to a loot-filled pulp.
As well as the weapons and coins that come tumbling from the bowels of downed foes, there’s armour to to collect, sell, equip or otherwise fiddle with too. It’s all handily and straight-forwardly colour coded and stat-ridden. Darksiders II is not as loot-driven as Diablo, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy farting around trying to find the best combination of gear with the game’s easy to use and streamlined system.
When you’re not flexing Death’s combat bones, you’ll either be exploring overground and underground in towns and dungeons. It’s this aspect of the game that draws obvious comparisons with The Legend of Zelda, but Vigil’s work falls short of Miyamoto’s, for all its solidity.
Where Zelda’s dungeons are often intricately crafted little clockwork puzzles, Darksiders II’s feel looser and a little more rote. They sport the same map, master key and gear-gating flow, with a set of distracting puzzles, yet they lack the inventive magic that binds it all together. Unlike Zelda’s best, nothing about Darksiders II’s dungeons is surprising or particularly inventive. That may seem like an unfair comparison, but if you come at the king, you best not miss.
Indeed, Darksiders II’s main failings come from similarly slippery sources. Judged in isolation, the combat, platforming, overworld and underworld exploration sections are each enjoyable and decently made. Instead it’s the manner in which they thread together that is flawed. Along with the lack of any real ideas of its own, that’s where Darksiders II fall short.
Much of the problem stems from pacing. While there’s variety in the gameplay, over the course of Darksiders II’s huge campaign it stretches a little thin, turning what begins as an enjoyable romp into a bit of a slog. It’s a big game, but it’s in danger of outstaying its welcome with a routine that becomes predictable and overfamiliar. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better, especially if you don’t know what to do with it.
The achievements, meanwhile, are solid if uninspiring. Offering very little in the way of creativity, they exist to steer you through pretty much everything the game has to offer. You’ll have to grapple with two playthroughs and beat all of the side quests to reach 1000G. We’ve seen far worse lists.
Perhaps its all comes down to expectation. The original Darksiders wasn’t perfect, but it was a pleasant surprise. It arrived with very little fanfare and built a strong following with those that adopted it as their own. As a result, Darksiders II caries inflated expectations, but fails to live up to them. It’s a big, silly, enjoyable romp that offers plenty of value for money and not insignificant craft. Yet it falls short of brilliance thanks to a surfeit of fresh ideas and bloated adventure. We wanted it to be great, but instead it’s just good.
While Death’s voice track is handled with throaty glee by actor Michael Wincott, the soundtrack can be uninspired and repetitive. It’s also occasionally poorly matched to the action, standing apart from what’s happening on-screen instead of enhancing it.
The World of Warcraft-esque colourful fantasy art style may be overfamiliar, but joyfully chunky character models save it. And while the world itself is crafted handsomely, it won’t live long in the memory thanks to some underpopulated, characterless environments. It’s a solid effort.
The platforming, combat and exploration elements of the game may not have any ideas of their own but they are skillfully executed. It’s only as the lengthy campaign drags on that they start to show signs of strain. Regardless, this is a fun game.
You can’t fault Darksiders II for size. Beat the storyline, tackle all of the side quests and take your time to look around and you may end up spending 30 hours in Death’s shoes. It’s a generous package that offers value, but it comes at the price of clarity and pace.
There’s very little to complain about in Darksiders II’s list, with manageable collectible achievements and a lack of any ridiculously challenging tasks. And what it lacks in creativity it makes up for in function, guiding you through the game’s storyline and encouraging you to look a little further afield.
Darksiders II may not be the world-destroying beast we hoped it would be, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. Whether you are jumping around on ledges, exploring the overworld, puzzling through dungeons or waving your massive axe around, there’s a fun, rewarding adventure to be had. Only poor pacing and a lack of new ideas lets it down.