At the beginning of 2010, THQ and Vigil Games pulled off something akin to a miracle – the successful release of an action-puzzler based on an original intellectual property and boasting a unique artistic style. The game was called Darksiders, and it was a solid success on every level, garnering critical praise and significant good will for its clever and loving cherry-picking of familiar elements from a host of successful games, from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to God of War, and even Portal. Darksiders was a peculiar mélange, to be sure, telling the tale of the End of Days through the perspective of War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but Vigil’s debut effort felt like an archetypal ‘videogame’ made for traditionalists, and as a result, gamers have clamoured for a follow-up ever since its tantalizing final moments. Fortunately, commercial success has allowed Vigil to refine its formula and tell another tale of the Apocalypse with parallel sequel, Darksiders 2, which heralds the arrival of Death, the leader of the Horsemen, on his own journey through this treacherous fantasy world.
For those who have never played the original Darksiders (and really, everyone should), it told the semi-Biblical tale of War, an immortal entity framed for prematurely bringing about the Apocalypse and causing the demise of Earth, and of humanity. Darksiders 2 is something of a side-story, largely taking place during War’s imprisonment at the hands of the Charred Council (the shadowy force responsible for maintaining the balance between the forces of Heaven and Hell), and seeing Death, the rider of the pale horse, confront his tortured past while simultaneously attempting to unravel the conspiracy which has seen War falsely accused. The introduction of a brand new protagonist in Death allows Vigil the perfect excuse to shake up the series’ core mechanics, making Darksiders 2 feel distinctly different from its predecessor. While Darksiders most strongly evoked Zelda in its structure of dungeon-exploration, mixed with puzzle-solving and accessible combat, Darksiders 2 is less clearly defined. Death, being leaner and more agile than his brother, is capable of quick traversal, which allows Vigil to inject a heavier dash of platforming action into its recipe. In this regard, the developer has taken clear inspiration from 2008’s under-appreciated Prince of Persia, with its fluid, accessible, and timing-based traversal mechanics, and while comparisons might be lazy, they can also be apt. In addition, Darksiders 2 is also more of a pure RPG than its predecessor, allowing players to enhance Death’s abilities through leveling up, and introducing loot drops into the equation. This, more than any of the game’s new features, is Vigil’s masterstroke – creating an accessible action-adventure with an undercurrent of role-playing complexity that is never forced upon the player. If you have no interest in diving into the stats of any of Death’s particular side-weapons, armour or talismans, then you need not do so – a smart, intuitive user interface allows one to quickly identify Death’s most potent weapons and armour and equip them with ease.
Loot drops quickly become a key part of the core gameplay loop, but Darksiders 2 never becomes Diablo 3; at its heart, its core emphases on puzzle-solving and combat continue to evoke the best parts of Zelda, God of War and even Soul Reaver. Combat is fast, brutal and accessible from the get-go, with Death boasting twin scythes as his standard, primary weapon and a range of side-weapons (including axes, hand-claws and hammers) to choose from, each with their own unique qualities, whether it be chance of successfully performing a critical hit on an enemy, or giving Death increased resistance to magical attacks. Effective combos often require a deft mix-up of primary and secondary attacks, and timing is critical given that Death cannot block, only evade. Given how combat-heavy Darksiders 2 can get at times, it’s fortunate that the fighting holds up to scrutiny and experimentation. Further expanding Death’s arsenal are his special abilities, which are unlocked via skill points earned when leveling up. These special abilities fall into two distinct skill trees: the Harbinger path, which focuses on melee combat, and the Necromancer path, which opens up a host of magical abilities, such as the raising of ghouls to assist Death in combat, or the unleashing of a murder of crows to do damage to enemies and rejuvenate Death’s health. Combat in Darksiders 2 is smartly designed and balanced, and remains fresh throughout the twenty-hour adventure on account of the constant expansion of Death’s abilities and the dropping of new weapons.
Unfortunately, the solid combat is slightly undermined by a ragged technical performance on the Xbox 360, which falls foul to an uneven frame rate, occasional screen-tearing and more than a few hard freezes which require us to reset the console*. The frame rate issues in particular, while not serious enough to seriously impact the game’s quality as a whole, did on occasion cause us difficulty in combat scenarios where timing was key. In many ways, Darksiders 2 is technically unimpressive, with some blurry texture maps and jerky animations rearing their ugly heads, but, luckily, Vigil’s art team save the day, rendering the game’s more fantastical environments with style and imagination. Each of the game’s four massive hub-worlds are distinct, creative and awe-inspiring to behold, emphasizing Joe Madureira’s chunky, tactile style, and greatly improving on the ‘scorched Earth’ aesthetic which dominated the original Darksiders.
Despite the raft of improvements Vigil has made in Darksiders 2, pacing is still something of an issue. While the game’s predecessor took too long to throw War headlong into the game’s first dungeon, and presented too much in the way of busy-work for him to overcome between the game’s main challenges, Darksiders 2 moves very quickly, almost to a fault. Without much context to the story or the world, the first real ‘dungeon’ in the game occurs at about the 30-minute mark, before players have the chance to learn much about Death, his world, or his mission. From then on, Darksiders 2 offers up dungeon after dungeon with little time for respite in between, and while most of these labyrinthine areas are terrifically designed, each revolving around a few ingenious concepts which we dare not spoil here, there are arguably too many of them which feel like filler, when all players really want to do is learn more about Death and the characters around him. As an example, one particular mid-game area sees Death encounter the Dead King after many trials and tribulations, but instead of rewarding the player with interesting dialogue or an exciting encounter, the character merely sends Death out on an errand to collect three ‘MacGuffins’ before he will agree to help him. Collection of these objects takes place in three, well-designed dungeons, but the whole endeavour is completely ancillary to Death’s main goal and does nothing to advance the story or characters; it is well-executed filler, but filler nonetheless, and this example is emblematic of Darksiders 2’s approach to narrative and pacing. This is a generous game of some twenty hours for the critical path (double that length in taking account of side missions and a new game plus option), but the game’s story is too slight to be sustained over such a long duration and never reaches a satisfying climax or meaningfully intersects with the much more interesting plight of War. It’s never a good sign when a player is surprised to see the end credits roll on account of an endgame feeling so anticlimactic, and the presence of this issue is surprising given that the original Darksiders concluded on such a strong, epic note.
Don’t misunderstand us, though: for whatever slight issues Darksiders 2 boasts, this is, on the whole, a superior game to its predecessor and one of the best games of the year to date. Vigil has approached its sequel with intelligence and care, branching out from its debut game in meaningful and natural ways. This balancing between old and new is difficult to achieve, as is evidenced by the preponderance of me-too identikit game sequels, and Darksiders 2 accomplishes it with aplomb. In many ways, and in spite of the numerous sources from which Vigil draws inspirations, the Darksiders franchise is among the most unique out there. Few developers outside of Nintendo even try to make games like this anymore, and in many ways, Darksiders 2 betters some the venerable Japanese developer’s recent efforts. Gorgeous art, exciting and customizable combat mechanics, and some of the best puzzle and level design we’ve seen in years: this is the treasure on offer from Darksiders 2, and we can’t wait to see where the series takes us next. Long live Death.
* Note: the aforementioned hard freezes may be attributable to the game or the launch-model Xbox 360 on which the game was tested. Should we be able to ascertain that these freezes are solely hardware-related, we will update this review accordingly as soon as is possible.