Review: Darksiders II

DarksidersII

The Darksiders universe is an interesting one as it was conceived to be an integral part of a product to be sold to Americans. Shin Megami Tensei as a series did not get off to a great foot in the States because the game explicitly referenced Yahweh (“God”) and Lucifer as characters that the player can choose to align himself with.  The subject of many sermon in that dungeon crawler are not the absolute entities of good and evil they are generally accepted to be. People can get really touchy about religion, particularly when The Lord of Hosts is portrayed as anything less than all powerful and benevolent.

To be sure, games like Diablo and DOOM take some cues from the Bible with the idea of demonic forces and some infernal names, but it is not playing with the religion, just taking a few words from it. Darksiders is a reimagining of the Book of Revelations as credited to John of Patmos with the breaking of the Seven Seals, the loosing of Hell’s legions on the Earth, their war against Heaven’s angles and agents of the end times in the middle of it all. Some people get really upset when in this context the word “mythology” is used, so to avoid a DDoS attack, I’ll say that the main character of the first game and the second are both Horsemen of the Apocalypse inspired by Biblical imagery. Darksiders II is a fun, long game that has far more impressive visuals than a beast with seven heads and ten horns.

The events of Darksiders II take place in parallel to the first game, meaning that the overall plot from the first game does not advance, but new players do not have had to play the first game to enjoy this one. The Four Horsemen are the last of the Nephilim, the offspring of angles and demons who have been charged by the Charred Council, a sort of metaphysical arbitration committee, to help maintain the balance between Hell and Heaven until humanity is ready for the end of times. War, the protagonist of the first Darksiders, is accused of having broken the Seals holding back the White and Red hosts, prematurely bringing about the apocalypse and dooming an unprepared mankind to extinction as the archangels of the Holy City scourge the Earth battling pitfiends in a globe-spanning grudge match that turns the land to a poisoned desert, the rivers to blood and catches all of mankind in the crossfire. You know, for Jesus.

Death seeks for a way to resurrect humanity and thereby clear his brother’s name by way to erasing War’s crime. In this self-appointed task the Horseman will travel to many worlds and meet several beings who will assist him, sometimes after a bit of sickle-based persuasion, and introduce to him a new threat: Corruption. It will take the entire game to find the source of this ever growing and creeping threat, but Corruption’s threat of pure nothingness and chaos is something that will constantly be at hand, infecting everything (and giving an excuse to slay “corrupted” angels). When he can’t, or won’t, kill them, Death will assist the denizens of the otherworlds by completing quests to either get something or to temporarily stop the spread of Corruption that threatens to overtake all of existence with its seeping, black ichor. The overall game will take easily over twenty hours, or closer to forty if every potential sidequest is completed.

The thing that will strike anyone with a copy of this game and an ability to press Start is the artistic impact this game presents.  The game starts out with Death riding to a gigantic spire on his flaming horse, surrounded by gusts of wind and a dull, grey background set off by him and his vibrant destination.  The looks keep going like that from there to the end.  Everything is colored in green flames, skulls, glowing runes and sigils and is otherwise TOTALLY METALIZED!  It’s a Disturbed album cover come to life; Todd MacFarlane would be proud.  You can almost hear the developers saying at a meeting, “No, that guy isn’t extreme enough. Let’s put huge spikes on his armor with a couple of human skulls on it!” 

This philosophy even extends to the animations for doing basic things like opening a chest to get a key.  Death doesn’t open a lid, he manifests an aspect of his true Reaper form and ogre-sized, glowing-purple, skeleton arms come out of nowhere, slam both fists on the chest, tear it asunder, and then pull out the key to hand it to Death with the same awe and respect that a knight would use in handing his family’s ancestral blade to his liege.  When foes are on their last breath, the Horseman will cut them to pieces, alternating between running up a back in his rider form and then transforming into the cloaked Grim Reaper form with its beskulled giant scythe.  One could easily say that it is a little much, but this all takes place – literally – at the end of the world, so the skyscraper-sized bosses and horned devils fit.  Darksiders II earns its mature rating with a high level of violence, but there is not as much blood and guts as seen in other games, the effects of Death’s attacks causing green flames to erupt and burn his foes away into nothingness.  The whole game feels like epic action, not a series of gross cyclops eye rips.

While War’s path in the first game was structured very much like a modern Zelda game, going to temples to get new doodads to use in that temple and to unlock previously visible but inaccessible paths in the world, Death’s quest to redeem his brother is more like a mash up of Diablo and Prince of Persia. The older Horseman will traverse columns, pressure plate traps and wall run from one objective to the next, stopping to deal with bad(er) guys every other step in the Lands of the Dead and beyond. While the architecture of any given dungeon looks the same as the next, this only holds true until the next world is reached.  Every realm has its own challenge and a consistent look and color that stays in line with what one could expect of Nether realms that are scorched with ash and brimstone. 

War might have only sought to stop the designs of The Destroyer (a primary evil in Hell) on Earth, but Death will end up warping all over many various worlds in his quest. The only thing the realms have in common is the World Tree that links them. Other than that they are diverse and spectacular in a way that will make you always look forward to seeing what is next. And while I will not spoil it and say how many there are, I will say there are more than you’d think. A Grappling hook equivalent is found and the Portal Gun-lite, the Voidwalker, from the first game shows up again, but there are not a lot of reasons to backtrack to gain additional items or seek out previously unreachable areas. Most of the things in chests are completely random, so there is little incentive, unless you love achievements/trophies, to go back to the first world after all of the traversal gear is acquired to explore every passageway. It is nice that the option is there, but since Death can buy the same, if not better, items from the merchants as can be found in the secret places, it is not worth the effort. Maybe there is a penultimate item to be had after he gets everything there is to get which I did not bother to find, but then if I did have it, I would have already seen all there is to see, faced and defeated every challenger, so there is no reason to need said uber item.

The Diablo influence shows itself whenever Death rips open a chest or slays a mighty enemy, as a glowing piece of loot will pop out for the player to snatch up. Each one of these pieces of gear has a similar appearance but has different abilities and stats depending on whether it is common (green), uncommon (blue), rare (purple) or unique (gold). All of which should sound real familiar to fans of action RPGs. Throughout the game players will gain and swap out new chestpieces, shoulder pauldrons and the other means of hiding the Nephilim’s naked shame with the usual areas that can be fitted with item slots. The single expectation being the head slot as Death will always appear with his long, straight, black mane and his featureless mask fully on display.

The weapons which will have the greatest impact on how Death will attack are the the twin hand sickles that are shown on just about all pieces of promotional concept art.  There is no means to block in this game. Damage is avoided solely by reading the enemy’s movements, predicting attacks and dodging out of the way at the last second.  The fights are not very hard, even on the highest difficulty setting.  In part this is because the Horseman is so agile that it is possible to spam a string of three dodges together to avoid most attack patterns, and also because if he screws up and gets tagged a few times, he can just down up to five health potions with no cool down.  While not enjoyable, it could be possible to just potion spam one’s way through the game by warping to a merchant after every fight.  But, system exploits aside, the enemies only do so much damage and should provide no challenge to most players on the default difficulty setting.  There is no need to do so, but it is possible to make the game show all of the damage that is being done to enemies in number form on the screen.  Facing off against half a dozen demonkind and laying waste to them while scores of numbers, all representing the objectively measurable ass kickin’ they are taking, pop up all over their heads is a delight.  The moves are flashy but there are not a ton of different ones.  The only thing changing things up are the secondary weapons and Death’s magic.

Naturally the slower damage dealers (hammers, glaives, etc) are sluggish but do more damage per hit over a large area and the faster ones (claws and gauntlets) make mincemeat out of one foe at a time. A little deeper in the stats screen it is possible to find the damage per second for each weapon to determine whether or not it is worth trading out the new green-colored hammer for the old, trusty purple on that has felled many an animated skeleton. It is a shame that both fast and slow secondary weapons cannot be equipped at the same time to allow players to change things up without having to drop into the equipment menu to equip the other kind of secondary weapon.  Rounding out all of this equipment talk is the great idea of possessed weapons. In addition to the other standard colored item names, some drops will yield red weapons that can be leveled up by sacrificing unwanted armor pieces and weapons. Maybe there is some fantastically amazing unique item out there that I never found, but in my experience a fully leveled up possessed item will hands down out perform a regular rare or unique one. So, in addition to making a grossly powerful hammer, players will avoid having to free up bag space constantly with gold that will lose any meaning it may have once had only halfway through the game when it is possible to buy anything of desire from every merchant.  Maybe not everything at once, but certainly the best of everything.

The remainder of the Blizzard dungeon crawler influence shows itself in the skill trees that Death has access to. Anyone playing RPGs nowadays knows the drill: gain a level, get a skill point for a bonus or ability, you can’t have them all and some have prerequisites. The two skill trees in the realms beyond center around arcane and physical attacks. One could say this is a matter of preference, but in my experience the arcane tree is not very useful. Most of the spells quite simply do not do enough damage to quickly take out the hordes of demons and corruption spawn which pop out in varying numbers and usually at predictable times. (Hey, I just came into a big empty room, will it stay empty unlike the last six of these?) Wrath, Death’s mana, is only regenerated by damaging enemies, consuming limited potions, or by waiting eons and eons for Wrath Regen items to fill the mana bar. So after burning through all Wrath and wearing gear optimized for arcane casting, a lichified Death is going to be in a tight spot when he wants to generate more Wrath to continue to put out a pitiful amount of damage with his puny spells. This is a big shame because the robes granting bonuses to otherworldly abilities flow with soft and detailed textures that look far more impressive than the shirtless wonder that is a combat focused Death. He is a dynamic necromancer when he raises both arms, coffins pop out of the ground and ghouls pour out to assault those who would stand before him, but it is a big letdown when all of their attacks do as cumulatively as much damage as two swings of a heavy weapon, if that. Still, it all looks effective.

Since the game has been out for awhile, I would be remiss if I did not discuss the downloadable content that has been released. (There are paid item packs if that is your thing; they seem unnecessary to me given how often loot drops.) Players who buy the game new are given access to The Crucible. Simply put, this is a series of arena battles where Death faces off against wave after wave of nasties to get random drops every five waves or forgo those trinkets to risk it all to get unique gear after every 25 waves. As a bit of a nicety, only the tiered levels of the Crucible have to be restarted. It would make it time consuming indeed to have to go all the way from Wave 1 each time. While it may go without saying, on the hardest difficulty level, the higher levels are really hard.

The other two larger chunks of DLC are forgettable. Each is an easy and straightforward dungeon that does not add a lot to Death’s quest, the Darksiders universe in general, or give an impressive loot payoff in the end. The Demon Lord Belial pack is the best of the lot as it is always fun to visit post-demon-pillaged Earth with its abandoned cars next to the dead agents of Heaven and decaying – sometimes animated – human corpses, and Belial as a boss is a challenge (maybe the math just worked out for me this way, but every hit he did caused 666 points of damage, which is consistently thematic and a lot of pain). While it might be the best, it is over in a few hours and the asking price of ten bucks is too high for my tastes.

Disappointing DLC aside, the sequel to Darksiders is a very solid game that with take players a long time to complete. The most impressive thing about this is that rarely does it feel like Death is backtracking across the same settings again and again, unlike War’s comparatively shorter journey. The story could be clearer as it is difficult at times to keep all of the Biblical names and motivations straight and how they all play together, but the game is such a near constant battle/obstacle course with a loot carrot hanging in front of your nose that you’ll probably not notice or care a great deal about why this demon is mad at that demon or why that angel is crazy. The game does feature a New Game+ mode with various levels of difficulty, including a save-limted Nightmare mode, but generally will not be a real challenge for veterans of most character action games (Devil May Cry, God of War).  This means there will be little reason to not have the difficulty set to “Apocalypse” for such folks from the get go – thereby decreasing any desire to replay the game, New Game+ or no. The fighting is not as varied or combo driven as it often is in most games of this ilk, but the tale of this Horseman makes up for this shortcoming with artistic visuals and new environmental challenges throughout the game. There is enough here to fully justify a purchase, even if it is with the knowledge that it will only be played once. Darksiders II is a fun ride on the back of a Nephilim’s hellbeast while it lasts.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Epic, richly detailed setting
+ Manages to tell a satisfying story without interrupting the action too much
+ Environment puzzles are clear yet challenging
+ Voices are distinct and believably over dramatic (as one would expect from the mouths of angels and demons)

Cons:
– Combat is simple
– Once beaten, little incentive to replay
– Forgettable DLC

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PC, PS3 and Wii U
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Vigil Games
Release Date: PC/PS3/X360 – 8/14/2012, Wii U – 11/18/2012
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.