It’s been about two and a half years since Darksiders was released. I haven’t played it in almost as long, so some of the finer details of its story are foggy to me. I remembered that War, one of the four Horsemen, broke the eternal rule of appearing even though the Seventh Seal was not broken. His long adventure battling the forces of Heaven and Hell was amazing, and has sustained as one of my favorite games this generation. It took the opening cutscenes of Darksiders II to remind me that War was in danger of being sentenced to oblivion by the Charred Council. Fellow Horseman and brother Death refuses to believe that War is guilty of humanity’s extinction, and is intent on saving him before the Council rules. To do this, he must first find the Keeper of Secrets, the first main quest, but within minutes Death finds himself in a new realm, unaware of how to escape and how to continue his mission to save his brother.
Darksiders II (DSII) plays a lot like the original. It’s an action-heavy third person adventure with large areas and dungeons, containing numerous platforming, RPG, and melee combat elements. A variety of gameplay mechanics are introduced just as you think you might have seen all the game has to offer, a very practical design, given the sheer size of the game world. Many areas, especially the large ‘nexus’ ones that seamlessly interconnect multiple sub-areas (or dungeons), can be quickly traversed with Despair, your horse. DSII offers Fast Travel to areas previously visited from the World Map, helping to make the hours poured into playing as efficient as possible, something I’ll also elaborate on later.
Death handles similarly to War, but he’s more agile and quick. There is a lot more Prince of Persia style gameplay here, where Death scampers up walls, jumps off vertical and horizontal holds, runs along walls, bounces between them, and so forth. One of your earliest Abilities, Death’s Grip, makes these sequences further engaging as it lets Death extend his reach to select holds to reach new areas. You will see these markers long before you can actually use them, so just like in the first Darksiders, there is good reason to re-explore areas as you unlock new Abilities, or you could just wait and circle back during a new game+ playthrough.
Death’s combat is also swift and responsive, although I was surprised that no blocking function is included, only evasion. Evasion can be used offensively however. Death carries scythes with him as a primary weapon, but you also discover over a half dozen other secondary weapons to experiment with and master. Secondary weapons include gauntlets, axes, maces, hammers, claws, armblades, grieves, and bucklers, running the gamut from slow and strong to fast, short-range, low damage. All weapons have a variety of attributes that are easy to compare, giving you a lot of customization and options in combat. Using weapons feels natural to anyone familiar with the genre; Square is used for scythe attacks, triangle is used for your secondary weapon. Chaining combos and purchasing new moves from key NPCs expands your available skills.
Death wears a lot of other equipment too, from chest armor to gloves, boots, shoulder protection, and talismans. All of the items, just like with the weapons, have a list of attributes. These include modifiers on Arcane ability, Strength, Defense, damage (fire, frost, shock, piercing), resistances, Wrath and Health regeneration, and more. DSII delves deeper into the RPG element than did the original, and I think it’s better off for it. During my first hour, there were enough items around that I was growing concerned that I would be micro-managing too much, like Dungeon Siege III. This doesn’t turn out to be the case though, as each item you come across instantly pops up its stats and Green and Red text gives you the jist on whether or not it’s better than what you have equipped. You can enable auto-collect too instead of pressing Circle to pick up items. Inventory space is never a problem either (although you can only carry five health and five wrath potions, which seemed a little arbitrary), and if you come across a new item you want to instantly equip, you just have to hold Select for a moment.
In addition to the pop stats, the names of items and weapons also tell you a lot about the quality of the item; the more you level up, the more you will see items change from a series of names like ‘Brutal’ to ‘Slayer.’ Equipping different items changes Death’s appearance instantly, and there is a considerable variety to how Death looks from say hour one to hour ten, although you generally only see his back. Cutscenes mimic your current appearance too, which is a nice touch.
Gameplay flow mirrors the first pretty closely, but it’s a tried and true formula. You are presented with a very large area, with ten or so sub-areas to explore. Multiple NPCs help you figure out where to go, offering up main and side quests to give you more reason to explore and XP to level up. It’s not uncommon to have a half dozen ongoing quests at a time, although just because they are available does not mean they can be completed. Many quests do boil down to very simplistic endings, though. For as cool as the lore and the environments are, I was irked by finding the last step of a quest was pulling a big ass lever that opened a door a hundred feet away (you know what I mean). This type of design lets the air out of the room so to speak; it’s very anti-climactic when you take the otherwise very well presented gameplay and essentially dumb it down to find the switch. In the second half of the game, you get a new ability called Soul Splitter that makes for some cooler, more engaging puzzles, but it doesn’t do enough to overcome the aforementioned issues.
Overall, I think this would be my biggest complaint of DSII, and it was similar with the original DS — the fact that some aspects of the gameplay just don’t show the effort that other parts of the game do. This goes beyond quests or major sequences ending in pulling or pushing a switch, too. It extends to other perhaps picky things like including tons of arbitrary breakables, like wooden boxes and barrels to smash that seem out of place and unnecessary. Some of the level design is disappointing too, as it and the items within are designed in such a way that it’s obvious you’re playing a game that was made exactly so, if you know what I mean. It doesn’t leave much to the imagination in other words, you know that if one of those sticky bombs is around, you’re going to be using it.
Additionally, much of the time you are inside of a dungeon, where, if you’re paying attention, you’ll realize there are a whole lot of ‘corridor fights’ and doors, including locked ones. Multiple quests also involve “retrieve three of these things,” and while I realize that’s a standard, time-tested way to design, I would have loved to have seen more creativity from Vigil in this area. I don’t claim to have a lot of better ideas off the top of my head, but I think anyone who has played a lot of third person action-adventure games would agree that it would be exciting to see some renewed creativity.
Those last few sentences could be applied to just about any game, and any genre, and is not meant to be a direct rant against DSII. Instead, it’s meant to bolster my point that DSII does an awful lot right, it’s just a letdown that the effort shown in areas from the soundtrack to the weapons was not completely shared in other parts of the game. RPG elements are very well done, for example. Inventory management is easy, there are a ton of items, and the differences in the weapons and equipment is tangible. Death’s own upgradeable Abilities are interesting as well, giving players a variety of intriguing offensive and defensive moves to turn the tide of battle. My favorite ability has been the completely upgraded Exhume. When summoned, three frantic ghouls bash the crap out of any enemies in the area. Now completely upgraded, they unlock additional Wrath for me and they do Fire damage while attacking and they explode when they die or when the spell runs out. One scene in The Deposed King’s lair saw me, my ghouls, and about a dozen skeleton warriors in a massive brawl in a very small room. It’s worth pointing out that the framerate never flinched despite an absolute flurry of graphical effects and mayhem.
DSII’s presentation is another positive and improvement over the original. I actually played the original on Xbox, but if memory serves, I think the PS3 version may have had the same ‘tearing’ issues the Xbox one did. DSII does not suffer from such problems and load times between areas is also swift. Framerates stay smooth, whether in the large outdoor environments or in a confined dungeon. Effects are lavish and plentiful; from an art design standpoint, I thought they did a lot of nice things with the scale of the environments, as well as their colors and ambient effects, like gusts of wind blowing and unsettling streams of debris floating high and far away in the air. Death’s field of vision in open areas is far and impressive as well. I would have liked the ability to disable the HUD to further appreciate the visuals, but that’s not currently an option. Technically speaking it’s excellent, but not the most impressive I’ve seen this gen. As for the sounds, effects are very good, voiceovers are well done but I didn’t care for some of the voices used (Death’s and Draven come to mind immediately) and the soundtrack, composed by Jesper Kyd, is excellent. The first Darksiders barely had a soundtrack, but DSII features one prominently and proudly, and I’m happy about that. It’s very fitting and makes those long play sessions more enjoyable because of it. One other neat point about the presentation is that when you do fire up a savegame, you are given a sort of customized, brief cutscene that begins “this is the tale thus far.” It’s pretty neat, and for those several seconds while the game is loading up, you are able to get a quick still-image-with-voiceover recap of some of the key events to that point.
While I have some issues with some of the gameplay design, this is one of those great games where the hours just flyby as you tackle quest after quest, dungeon after dungeon. There is a continual supply of tantalizing quests and new areas to embark on and explore. This is not your traditional 8-12 hour third person action adventure. My first playthrough in the original topped twenty-three hours, and I did not complete all of quests nor find all of the collectibles. In DSII, I passed twenty-three hours somewhere in the second Realm; this is a very large game indeed, and a superb bang for your buck ratio at that. Even after you complete the game you can go back with all of your goods in new game plus, or tackle The Crucible to fight wave after wave of enemy, with leaderboard support too. Additionally, the Serpent Tomes are a way to share items with other players online, perfect for exchanging Possessed weapons which can be upgraded as you sit fit up to five times and given a completely custom name.
Another reason that makes DSII so much fun to play for hours on end is its forgiving death and save system. Before any major battle, the game autosaves and you can save whenever you like as well. Furthermore, when you fall to your death from a platforming mishap, you aren’t punished with a long death animation, failure message, load times, or set back at some checkpoint. Instead, within about three seconds you are positioned at the start of the platforming sequence to try again, with only a small health penalty deducted. Mistakes happen; and while it’s pretty rare that I mess up a platforming sequence, I love the fact that I’m not penalized for it and forced to start back a few minutes in the past. This isn’t a revolutionary feature for the genre, Uncharted does this as well, but not all games do.
Death in combat is handled similarly; players are able to restart very nearby where they died. I think this type of design invites experimentation and most importantly, keeps me playing. There’s nothing like having to redo sequences over and over to get me to stop playing a game (for a while, that is). Life is busy enough that I don’t want to spend hours in a game redoing things arbitrarily. DSII, like its predecessor, has subtle features like these that make every hour of play a progressive one, and I think that’s great.
To the summary…