Review: Darksiders 2

There exists a bias towards originality, even if an original work isn’t very good. A bad game can often escape the full fury of critics and even come away with a bit of unusually enthusiastic praise if it’s sufficiently different. Conversely, a game which borrows heavily from other creative works will often take a particularly severe lashing for its lack of originality even if the borrowed elements themselves are well-recognized.

While Darksiders received a warm reception back in January of 2010, there seemed to be a caveat attached to the praise, as if it was good in spite of borrowing so heavily from the Zelda series. The game was a fluid hybrid of Kain’s or God of War‘s frenetic combat and Zelda‘s dungeon-crawling. Had it botched the execution of a well-worn formula, it would be an understandable thing to criticize it harshly. After all, when you’re building on such an established skeleton, failure becomes less excusable. But Darksiders polished everything it borrowed to mirror shine and stood out by adding unique flourishes rather than building something never before seen. It dusted off a few skeletons and put fresh meat on them.

Vigil is no more afraid of borrowing now than they were then, and they’re certainly no worse off for it.

Developer: Vigil Games
Publisher: THQ
ESRB Rating: M
Released: August 14, 2012
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U [Release TBA]
Version Reviewed: PS3
Unlike most sequels, Darksiders 2 runs in parallel to the events of the first game. You play as Death, brother to the first game’s protagonist, War, who stands accused of starting the Armageddon prematurely and thus dooming the ill-prepared mankind. Death journeys out seeking absolution for his brother’s alleged crimes, but becomes tangled up in a web woven by his own personal demons.

The main plot trots out of the gate and moves along at a steady pace and manages to neither be striking nor grossly offensive. The veil of immersion is quickly stretched thin as the game occupies the player with favor-chains. There are many legs to Death’s journey, and at the start of each one you can bet there is somebody who wants three things from three places which require three aritfacts to access. The conceit is, as always, to contrive an excuse to send you to fun places full of puzzles and monsters, and those fun places usually do the trick of pulling you back in, but the experience could certainly stand to be shorn down.

While the main plot itself wasn’t striking, the characterization of Death and his arc was. Thankless toil and remorse have embittered him and made him into a dry, pragmatic, cynic. As opposed to his brother from the first game, he is not so dogmatic and seething, and he often lets his dry wit and sarcasm shine through for some comic relief. His inner turmoil is represented both figuratively and literally, and it always has one hand on the wheel while driving the plot forward.  Death’s struggles even manage to pose some very important questions on the nature of morality and identity as they relate to the emotional baggage we carry.

Another point of distinction that Death earns over War is in his less bulky frame which goes hand-in-hand with the much improved platforming. In fact, the way in which the platforming has been improved likens the already stew-like game to yet another series: Prince of Persia, except for the fact that platforming sections in this game are far more guided and, thus, less engrossing. They do their job of breaking up the puzzle solving and combat with a nice flowing visual sequence tacked on, but more freedom while platforming could have taken a well realized idea to much greater heights.

Opposite to the platforming, the combat hasn’t done much evolving at all. The fluid well animated combat of God of War, and its control scheme, still applies. Press Y for a heavy attack, X for fast light attacks, and use your dodge button to ward off threats. The introduction of more complex combos, air juggles, and the integration of an arsenal of spells obtained from the newly introduced skill trees deepen the combat later on, but the main attractions are still the boss fights and puzzle solving.

One welcome change Vigil has made to the combat is the much quicker generation of your spell-casting resource, wrath. This allows you the opportunity to actually play with the toys you’re given on a somewhat frequent basis instead of spending most of your time staring longingly at the packaging.

Unfortunately, all the abilities one can get through the two skill trees plus the several necessary puzzle-solving items introduce an interface issue not prevalent in the first game. You only have four hotkeys for these spells and items, and most of the later dungeons require 2-3 different items for a single puzzle sequence. This creates an uncomfortable juggling act between what you need to have hotkeyed, and what spells you can leave equipped to play around with without going in and out of the clunky radial menu.

Boss fights run the gamut from spectacular to hum-drum. Unfortunately, the most spectacular boss in the game is one of the earliest, and it also happens to be the one spoiled the most heavily by pre-release media. The fight involves riding around an open field dodging the attacks of a colossus until you can find an opening to dismount your horse and ascend the titan like something ripped from the pages of Shadow of the Colossus. It incorporates every element of the game taught to you up to that point on a grand scale and is the shining example of what a boss fight should be, but later bosses just don’t do nearly as good a job following the example it sets. This is especially true of the game’s final boss who is disappointingly straightforward and, 25 hours later, failed to provide adequate closure for the arc established in the opening 20 minutes.

As far as the gameplay goes, the puzzles are what really grabbed me. It is a long game with a great curve to its puzzle complexity. Each major dungeon is a holistic package with many moving parts that, when properly aligned through your efforts in each chamber, come together to offer a great sense of fulfillment. The payoff when you’ve solved a dungeon’s final puzzle and see how things have come together is bliss. The dungeon items start out familiar – the hookshot, for one. A time-altering version of the first game’s portal gun opens up some fantastic puzzle-solving moments later on, and there are, of course, items with more unique properties that come into play during the course of the game. The downside is that, as I mentioned previously, they are encased in dungeons that seem slavishly devoted to the rule of threes

I mentioned the skill trees before, which is how Death gains access to his spells (many of which are borrowed from the first game), but the game goes further with its RPG qualities by adopting RPG staples like the emphasis on loot and stat management. Be warned, though. If you ache to fire up your spread sheets and compare stats between two different chest pieces, these RPG systems aren’t robust enough to scratch your itch. What they succeed at is adding extra customization and an added layer of depth to an already dense game.

One of the most interesting additions to the game that comes packaged with the new RPG flavoring is the presence of possessed items. Possessed items function identically to normal items, except that you can ‘feed’ your other loot to them to level them up. Each level a possessed item gains gives it a stat upgrade, and allows you to choose to add one bonus stat modifier from a short list of possible bonuses to it. This mechanic introduces two important choices: do you vendor junk items in the hopes of making enough money to buy upgrades from vendors, or do you power up your possessed item? And which attributes do you choose to add to the item in question? This one mechanic does wonders to enrich the character building.

My thoughts on the gameplay, the story, and Death’s characters are easy to articulate. Tackling the world itself, though, is an entirely different beast. This next statement will no doubt be controversial, but if Darksiders is fated to forever be compared to Zelda, than this game may be its Ocarina of Time. The comparison is apples to oranges in so many ways for so many reasons – though I would argue that some of each game’s greatest strengths lie in their cohesive dungeons and puzzles – that it seems absurd to even try, but hear me out.

All these years later the memories of wonder instilled in me during my first playthrough of Ocarina feel fresh to me, and Darksiders 2, in its own way, rivals that whimsy and fills me with a similar sense of wonder.

The first open section of the world, and the first hub, feature whimsical, almost exotic music reminiscent of Chinese instrumentation. The landscape, for the most part, is serene; almost pastel. It’s populated with the lyrical brogues of faux Scotts. From the word ‘go,’ the overworld feels more complete, and it’s easy to fall victim to wanderlust. It’s easy to get caught up in this foreign land and be totally engrossed by it.

Chaos quickly set in, the edgy tone of the game drove the action, and the setting eventually changed to something far less peaceful, but the sense of wonder never changed with the tone. That is why I compare Darksiders II with Ocarina – the wonder of its world building.

Settings that come about later in the game are gritty and edgy in the exact same way that Spawn was; in a campy and sophomoric way, gloriously reveling in it. It is the world of an over-the-top late 80s/early 90s cartoon with more blood and guts. It is less strictly grounded in biblical lore, and more of a nostalgic love letter to a time when things didn’t need to disguise their immaturity by pretending that having blood and guts and cynicism made for a more adult experience. Death himself may be the embodiment of all those things, but he also stands as the biggest illustrator of the point that these elements – the things typical of modern M-Rated games – aren’t actually what they pretend to be: dark, gritty, and mature. In some ways it’s satire, in others it’s happy to let you enjoy the silliness of a skeletal king titled ‘The Lord of Bones,’ without trying to justify that silliness as being something more mature or grandiose than it actually is. Even when it does appear self-serious, it doesn’t let an insecure concern with disguising immaturity as maturity bring the game itself down.

Darksiders 2 is a complicated beast. It transcends the first game while being similar in almost every way. It’s a game that borrows from the very best; a pastiche of genres and classics, and yet it’s more than the sum of its parts. Where Darksiders 2 wins out over the first game is in its world building. The combat hasn’t changed much, but it still satisfies. The pacing is still poor. While the specific dungeons and puzzles are new, neither game feels more or less inspired than the other in these categories. There are some small weaknesses and strengths that Darksiders 2 brings to the table differentiating it from the first game, but it’s the world of the game – the fantastically morose, silly, grand world – that makes a lasting impression.

Darksiders was an excellent Zelda clone. I’m not using the term ‘clone,’ to disparage it, I’m merely calling it what it was. It hadn’t fully developed its own personality yet. Its sequel has. Darksiders 2 might not be blazing a trail, but it’s found its own path to walk.

8.0 / 10

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