When Darksiders was released in 2010, it was met with positive reviews, winning people over with a distinct visual style and excellent gameplay. While I didn’t give it the time of day at first, when I tried it I found that I loved it. I was delighted about getting to spend some quality time with the sequel, but of course I was nervous — considering THQ’s precarious financial situation, I wanted this game to be great. I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my hopes for it, or that it wouldn’t be as good as they truly need it to be.
My worries were unfounded – Darksiders II is much better than the original.
The first thing I noticed about Darksiders II was how beautiful it is. Joe Madureira's art direction gets more of a chance to shine here, as not everything is a crumbling ruin. The first realm in particular, The Forge Lands, is nothing short of breathtaking. There are towering hills, lush green forests, tumbling waterfalls and crystalline lakes. Even the other realms, some of which are decidedly less cheerful, were still visually stunning. It’s hard to make lands based on death and darkness look beautiful, but the art team succeeded. I really can’t praise the art direction enough — I think Vigil Games must have some of the most talented environment artists in the industry right now. Of course, the characters that inhabit these locations are just as much of a treat to look at. The humanoid NPC designs are intricate and complex without crossing the border into noisy, and the monsters are equally impressive (although it’s hard to get a good look at them when you’re ripping into them with your scythes).
In game design, there’s a lot of talk about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. In this context, extrinsic rewards are tangible items that your avatar gets – a new ability, a new and improved weapon, and so on. Intrinsic rewards don’t give you a physical item showing what you’ve accomplished, but they’re a reward in the sense that they make the player feel good because of something they did. Darksiders II is basically Intrinsic Rewards: The Game (although you’ll also get quite a few extrinsic ones along the way). It feels like with every action Death takes, the development team asked themselves, “How can we make this cooler?” The result is a ton of these little intrinsic rewards. Death never just opens a door – a ghostly pair of spectral arms appear above him and throw the door open. He never just opens a chest – those same arms smash the lid off the chest and tear it apart, occasionally reaching inside and offering the contents to you. It’s little things like this that make the experience all the more enjoyable for the player, and make sure the game stays fun up until the end.
Combat in Darksiders II is great fun to play, with a few changes made to reflect the new protagonist. Death never blocks, choosing instead to make liberal use of backflips and dodging to lend the game a much more fluid and hectic atmosphere. He isn’t limited to his scythes, either – you’ll find plenty of secondary weapons ranging from giant hammers to bladed gauntlets. The scythes and secondary weapons can be used in rapid succession, leading to more impressive combos and more ways to tailor the game to your own play style. You’ll also have more opportunity to customize your skills, with two separate skill trees for physical and magical damage. Within these trees are four central abilities each, which can then be further enhanced to give them additional powers. There’s also loot this time around, which can be found in treasure chests or on the bodies of your foes, and provides even further customization and adds replay value.
It’s clear that Vigil listened to the feedback they got on the first Darksiders, and they’ve made some welcome changes. In the first game, in spite of you being a Horseman of the Apocalypse, you only got your horse halfway through the game. Here, you start the game on the back of your horse, and have plenty of space and opportunity to use him. They also did away with the copious amounts of backtracking that plagued the first installment, implementing a fast-travel system and including convenient exits at the end of most dungeons.
The game isn’t perfect, but there aren’t many glaring flaws here. I was consistently experiencing sound issues where the voices were much, much quieter than the rest of the game. There are also a few niggling issues with the game’s camera that led to some undue and distinctly not-fun frustration, particularly when I was fighting in an enclosed space and during some of the platforming sections. While the game has been hyped as being much bigger than the original, this isn’t necessarily a good thing for the story.
At the start of the game, you’re tasked with going to the Tree of Life. But the Tree is blocked by Corruption, and the only way to get rid of it is by bringing life back to the Maker’s Forge (there are a lot of Important Capital Letters involved in the story). To bring the Forge back to life, you need to restore the Fire of the Mountain and the Tears of the Mountain. Then you need to go wake up the Guardian — but of course, it’s not that simple. You then need to get three crystals to activate the Guardian so he can destroy the Corruption blocking your path. This pattern continues up until the game’s very end, and soon you are become Death, errand boy of the apocalypse. It’s a tired storytelling device that action RPG fans know very well, and Darksiders II relies far too much on it. In addition to being a little trite, it doesn’t serve to put you in the mindset of a power-fantasy extravaganza that playing one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse should. It’s hard to feel menacing and all-powerful when you’re running errands for everyone in every realm.
In spite of its shortcomings, Darksiders II feels like a love letter to video games. The clear influence of famous franchises such as Zelda and God of War is still there in full force, and thankfully the development team stays firmly on the side of being inspired by these titles as opposed to ripping them off. The first game made the unfortunate mistake of veering into copycat territory, with most of the items War collected coming straight out of Zelda with little to no changes. This time around, the equipment Death uses is more unique, clearly still inspired by other franchises but with an original spin to make it more their own. Vigil Games has embraced their chosen medium fully – Darksiders feels wonderfully video game-y, for lack of a better term. This was clearly a labor of love, and the amount of hard work the team has poured into this game shines through brightly. There are entire optional dungeons and areas, and it says a lot about the development team for spending more resources on areas that the player might not even see. They’ve kept their audience in mind throughout the design process, and it shows.
Even if Darksiders doesn’t seem like your kind of game, I’d urge you to give it a try. I was surprised by how much I found myself enjoying it. Trust me, don’t write it off as a generic hack-and-slash – you’ll miss out on one of the best titles of 2012 so far.