Most men of modern profession have the good fortune to face death but once in their lifetime. These brave and critical souls stared into those empty sockets for hours and did not flinch... much.
Steadfastly refusing to spare anyone over 'til another year, Death rides his pale horse into the spotlight in Darksiders II, otherwise known as the franchise with at least two more sequels in it, if my apocalyptic horsepersons count is correct. Following in the beefy footsteps of his brother, War, Death uses the free time afforded him by everyone already being dead to try and save his sibling from a fate worse than him.
Judging by the reactions of these stalwart game critics, Pestilence and Famine are going to have their work cut out for them if they wish to step out of the shadow of their big brothers. I guess they're used to that. Here goes.
Death may be a leaner figure than his armour-clad sibling — the topless protagonist less a stocky mutant knight and more a sinewy ghoul right off an Iron Maiden album cover — but the game he's starring in is undeniably better built out. Darksiders II — the somewhat less tangled but no less silly story of Horseman of the Apocalypse #2 as he attempts to undo the end of days and clear War's name — presents the same melting pot of borrowed ideas as its predecessor, but with a few extra ingredients thrown in to spice up the brew. Along with the Zelda dungeons, God Of War combat and Metroidvania item-collecting come the welcome additions of Diablo's looting and World Of Warcraft RPG-ing.
Darksiders II further fleshes out the story of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse introduced in the first title - this time with War's brother, Death, at the helm. Death believes that War has been wrongfully convicted of destroying mankind, and seeks to restore humanity to clear his brother's name. The narrative is pretty entertaining, if not severely overdramatic. Though it should please anyone solely in the market for ‘epic,' it lacks any trace of subtlety and often comes off as sophomoric. Given that the end result of any plot advancement is inevitably that Death needs to gather three of something and thrash some skeletons, hearing the characters go on about the old ways and soul judgement just feels a bit silly. However, if a healthy dose of ridiculous doesn't faze you, the contrived reasons for Death's various escapades through heaven, hell and everywhere in between do provide an amusing backdrop for his quest.
Everyone wants something and no one's going to help out a horseman for free. So like any other proper video game protagonist, you're going to spend most of the 20-25 hours helping out the people around you. It starts by getting a forge going and discovering that much of the world in Darksiders II is overcome by corruption. This force is creeping across all the realms, infecting enemies and even the land itself, which is peppered with glowing rock formations that can be destroyed with bomb flowers. You'll work your way through multiple realms, each with its own version of the Tree of Life (or Death, as the case may be) and its own unique landscape and features. The story pushes you from one quest giver to the next, and everyone seems to have a few things for you to collect, be it the two keys, three parts of a staff, and so on. Though the story may be pretty straightforward, the dialogue is well-written and acted well, giving the game a weighty feel, overall.
If the original Darksiders was an action/adventure/puzzle game, then the addition of loot drops role-playing elements into that mix, which brings to mind a potential concern: Darksiders was already a heavy mixture of recipes that had come before, recalling games like The Legend of Zelda, God of War, and even Portal. There were so many mechanics and so many tools to keep track of that the game struggled to find its own identity.
In Darksiders II, a funny thing happens on the way to the apocalypse: it establishes an identity all its own, rather than one defined through the games that inspired its existence. The game's expanded scope (about twice as big as the first game) and thoughtful pace (about twice as long as the first game) are most responsible for this. You now have a chance to breathe between battles, and each new mechanic has time to settle in before a new one is introduced. The more leisurely sense of pace is obvious from the very beginning. Darksiders' first hour was front-loaded with explosions, angelic cries, and the bloodcurdling sights of demonic forces swarming across the earth. Here, there are moments to take in the frozen chasms beneath you, and to enjoy the slick new motion mechanics that have you defying gravity in heady flights of fancy. (You won't miss War's wings in light of Death's fleet-footedness.)
What's truly impressive is the concentrated quality on display in all that dungeon design. Dungeons are layered and loop around on themselves in a way that pushes you in the right direction while maintaining a sense of scale and limiting downtime. Instead of endless hallways or a series of closed-off arena battles, virtually every room centres around one or two challenges - a puzzle to be solved with Death's expanding tool set or a Prince of Persia-style platforming segment that has Death scampering up the walls and showing off the game's beautiful animation work.
Even when dungeons don't hide a new tool for Death, they introduce one-off gimmicks such as lanterns that must be carried between statues to unlock doors or the ability to time travel to a past version of the dungeon. I wish Darksiders 2 placed more new toys into Death's toolbox - only one isn't a repeat from the first game - but even with a familiar inventory, I was always challenged and satisfied with the brain-bending solutions.
With a game over 24 hours on your first run, you might question pacing. Darksiders II paces the items and powers out so you aren't getting inundated with new gadgets and powers all the time, instead scratching that itch with the loot system. The dungeons are heavily varied, and the puzzles don't repeat in other dungeons. Fresh approaches to puzzle solving should push this title away from the Zelda comparisons levied against the first title — Darksiders II stands on its own.
But when it does work, it's a gloriously stupid romp that's far more entertaining than it has any business being. By the time the player has trained a few scythe combos and special skills, combat is satisfyingly solid, and the ability to customise weapons, gear, and skill choices lets the player craft a combat experience well-suited to his or her own preferred play style. I grew to find myself actually liking Death, by the time the heavily-foreshadowed end finally came.
Ultimately, the bugs in the PS3 edition of Darksiders II are a disappointing stain on an otherwise entertaining game. It would be nice to give the game a YES, but we don't yet know if the Xbox 360 and PC versions are clear of the bugs I encountered on the PS3. Hopefully, the game will see a patch sooner rather than later.