If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Vigil Games’ Darksiders series hands out an awful lot of compliments to its peers. It apes its structure from The Legend of Zelda’s mixture of overworld and dungeons, its combat from the sanguineous combo fuelled God of War and its platforming from the fluid ledge jumping and graceful wall running of Prince of Persia. And this second series instalment adds yet another inspiration to its increasingly cumbersome collage – Diablo style loot and light RPG upgrading.
Darksiders was born as a patchwork elephant of inspirations, one held together by a singular note of originality – the lore of Vigil’s universe: Loosely based around the Book of Revelations’ four horsemen of the apocalypse, Darksiders occupies an enticing pulpy Warhammer-esq world in which thick set men are chiselled from rock, the muddled forces of heaven and hell battle on a shattered earth, and ghouls, stone goblins and demons roam mystical plains on ethereal floating worlds.
A parallel sequel, Darksiders 2 tells the story of Death on a quest to prove his fellow horseman War innocent of the originals’ events. Fuelled by Michael Wincott’s dry gristly tones, Death is a more loquacious and intriguing protagonist than War, even if his journey is a less interesting one.
His tale is bookended by the events of the original and does little to meaningfully progress the mythology of the universe, holding it together with sticky tape and badly hammered nails rather than a rock solid superglue style adhesive. It never progresses beyond a singular goal, and the entire experience in getting there is essentially one long protracted fetch quest to accrue items and complete tasks for barriers dressed up as NPCs.
Instead of clarifying, Darksiders 2 manages to clutter the cosmology of the universe, introducing a number of confusing players with clouded motivation. The Well of Souls, the Lord of Bones and other things of things struggle to find a clearly defined role, purpose and place within Vigil’s mythology, making proceedings all very trite, with most quests feeling arbitrary rather than necessary. It all feels like strict adherence to the industry mantra that bigger = better as far as sequels are concerned, without consideration for quality.
About the only thing that hasn’t grown in this sequel is the protagonist. Death’s form is more slender than that of War’s, a fact that is indicative of a new style of play. The Grim Reaper is more agile, able to traverse environments with greater fluidity, and dodge foes with flips and rolls on the battlefield, which is necessitated due to the lack of a blocking ability this time around. His fighting style is more fluid and varied than the lethargic repetition of War’s limited combo’s, but the sheer veracity and enthusiasm with which he flits around a battlefield makes it all a little incomprehensible at times. It truly is hard to tell what is happening when any significant number of combatants meet due to the volcanic eruption of animations, lighting and particle effects that swarm on-screen.
It’s also hampered by a control issue in which the left trigger serves as the lock-on and the left bumper the contextual magic/item selection button, creating a tangled set-up that requires fingers with the dexterity of spaghetti to accomplish both at the same time. Still the solid ebb and flow of fighting is an enticing affair, successfully echoing the feel of a Platinum Games title at times.
There’s a welcome new variety of combative options, allowing for personalised and varied play styles – Use the Death Grip (essentially Nero’s Devil Arm from Devil May Cry 4) to fling yourself or enemies around the battlefield, or maybe summon minions to do your dirty work and use Strife’s pistol to shoot from afar. But the lack of enemy variety, and (up until the final quarter) difficulty, can all too often draw you into the typically dull X, X, Y button mashing combo.
Abilities are unlocked through a progression tree in which skill point’s awarded through levelling can be spent to upgrade and add to Death’s melee and magical abilities: Creating a tanking hulk with temporarily boosted defence and attacking attributes, or summoning the souls of undead and a flocks of crows to fight alongside you are just a few of the available options. And the frugality of awarded points wisely demands that you specialise and clearly define your fighting style during progression.
Handled less well is a looting element, which is an unnecessary (if harmless) addition to an already meaty mixture of gameplay elements. The amount of weapons, clothing and items accrued during the course of the journey becomes a little cloying because it’s too difficult to objectively compare the abilities of one weapon with another as not every weapon possesses the same statistical metrics.
Structurally Darksiders 2 takes that most magic of numbers within the action-adventure genre, three, and wrings it of all vitality it might once have held. The number of convoluted fetch quests that require Death to collect three of a certain item and then kill three of a certain creature to acquire said item is frankly ludicrous and tiresome, lacking the variety in progression that kept the latest Zelda title, Skyward Sword, fresh and interesting.
But despite lacking that variety, Darksiders 2 manages to settle into a comfortable and familiar rhythm that isn’t all too often mixed up; except for a misjudged near endgame section that predominantly revolves around gunplay. And whilst it is familiar, it’s also well-paced, blending gameplay mechanics well to balance progression with increasingly difficult puzzles and combat scenarios throughout.
This is all wrapped up in the comfortingly familiar aesthetical style that adorned the original. Visually Vigil’s world is one born from a drunken one night stand between Gears of War and Starcraft, after having met at a neon-lit Halloween party, and the consistency of the art style is one of Darksiders greatest strengths. Death’s summonable horse bursts from the ground licked in luminous blue flames, and the Forge Lands of The Makers (A race of world creating humanoids) are composed of trees, stones and humanoids so chunkily muscular, they’d make Mr Schwarzenegger blush.
It’s a shame then that the technical underpinnings holding it all up can’t quite support the hefty weight, as frame rate dips and the occasional restart requiring technical glitch rear an ugly head from time to time.
Still there’s nothing to truly derail the familiar, which is exactly what Darksiders 2 is – multiple games that you have played before, and in slightly better incarnations. It’s in the enthusiasm with which Vigil mashes them together that Darksiders begins to find its place. It peaks and troughs like a well-constructed rollercoaster ride, gliding from open-world horse riding, to underground dungeon scouring, with numerate enemies to scythe in half and cranks to turn inbetween, and an occasional boss battle punctuating progression.
These highlight the best and worst of Death’s journey: Behemoth’s with interesting tactical attack patterns that provide and require intelligent use of items and abilities are the cream, whereas damage sponges that simply require thumb undulation atop the X button are the curd, and they’re present in roughly equal measure throughout the weighty adventure.
Much like its burly inhabitants Darksiders 2 is an experience of substantial girth, with a 20 hour, side quest stuffed journey. It’s a generous buffet of the finest experiences the genre has to offer, the problem with this being that each offering is a discernibly weaker imitation in comparison to the original source it is drawn from.
Fighting never provides that gut-punching fluidity of impactful feedback that God of War achieves, traversal never scales the silky heights of Prince of Persia fleeting feet, loot collection never feels as satisfying as Diablo’s, and nothing within Death’s journey quite matches the consistent creative vernacular with which The Legend of Zelda’s overworlds, dungeons and puzzles are constructed. So whilst Vigil have successfully added to an already burgeoning list of inspirations (the deranged mutants from id Software’s Rage even make an appearance in a later dungeon), Death, much like his warmongering brethren, remains a jack rather than a master of his trades.