Darksiders II Review: A horseman by any other name

When trying to classify a game such as Darksiders II, it can be very confusing because of just how many influences the title draws from. Do we call it an action game because of the Devil May Cry and God of War inspired combat system? Do we call it a RPG because of its use of levels, skill trees, and a randomly generated loot system reminiscent of Diablo? Do we call it an open-world game because of the wide environments and the various parkour skills that remind us of Assassin’s Creed? Do we call it a platformer because of how we can leap from one structure to another in a manner similar to Mario? And what of the TPS elements that comprise an entire dungeon, bringing back shades of Gears of War?

True enough, this mixture of genres has been appearing more and more frequently in gaming, not that this can be considered a bad thing. However, for a game such as this one that draws from a plethora of existing material, it would be prudent to better analyze which influences that the game does manage to get right, and in some cases, what it gets wrong.

The story for Darksiders II has the player taking control of Death, the second horseman of the Apocalypse, and is tasked with trying to find a way to prove War’s innocence in causing the Apocalypse prematurely. In his travels, Death learns that to clear his brother’s name, he must achieve the impossible: resurrect all of humanity, and undo the crime that has been committed. Along the way, Death travels through various different realms, including the Kingdom of the Dead and the human world of Earth itself, to find the answers he seeks.

Death isn’t alone on his adventure, though. Along the way, the Pale Rider meets many faces, both friendly and not so much, that can assist him along his journey. They will all give him information on where he needs to go next, and some will also provide side-quests that take players a bit off the beaten path, allowing them to explore more of the world as a whole. There is also a healthy amount of backstory, as the game defines how everything is linked together by the growing plague of Corruption, which has spread even to the Heavens, as well as covering Death’s own personal history. Death is also accompanied by his trusty steed, Despair, which allows him to traverse the open world at a faster pace, as well as his crow, Dust, who helps in showing the player the direction they need to go in towards the next objective.

Although this is what the game tries to convey to the player, the actual tasks that Death takes on tend to steer him a bit away from his ultimate goal. The majority of the primary storyline consists of various “bread crumb” quests, designed to take you to your destination in small steps, rather than just going straight through to what you want to accomplish. These quests vary in their requirements, and while they may conjure up memories of the same redundant patterns that World of Warcraft’s quests have fallen into, the game manages to keep itself from going into “keel seex snow moose” territory.

The majority of these major quests also take place in their own dungeon, where you’ll need to undergo a series of trials and puzzles in order to progress the story, each culminating in a large scale boss battle, and taking one or two hours to complete. While this format of dungeon exploring follows the Legend of Zelda inspirations that the previous game held, many a time it will feel as if you’re just being given the runaround for no reason, a feeling that even Death is more than willing to make vocal on several occasions during the course of the game. Errands such as being forced to collect three crystals before fighting an arena champion just to get an audience with the Lord of Bones, who then requires you to find the three members of his Dead Court, all in their own separate dungeons, before he can even speak to you, gets just plain ridiculous. It all comes off more as a desperate attempt to pad in enough game content to justify the $60 price tag.

Combat, meanwhile, is fairly easy to get the hang of, as simple button presses can allow Death to perform devastating combos. Although it can feel a bit button masher friendly sometimes, a bit of experimenting can allow players to find some spectacularly devastating combos that both decimate your opponents, and fill your Reaper meter, which, when filled, allows Death to assume his true form and annihilate everything around him for a limited time. In addition to his dual scythes, Death can also wield a variety of sub weapons that fall into either the slow or fast damage category, and help to compliment his array of vicious attacks.

Death can also utilize a variety of spells to help keep things in his favor during battle. Two separate skill trees hold these, and players can pick and choose which ones they want to use and upgrade, with more being unlocked as you gain levels. All of them have different uses, from summoning a swarm of undead ghouls, to causing our Grim Reaper to turn, quite literally, into a tornado of death and destruction. This amount of freedom, when paired with the random loot system, allows players to customize their Rider to accommodate their own playstyle, whether you wish to be more of a spell flinger, you prefer getting in close and personal, or a hybrid of the two. And if one kind of setup isn’t working out for you, respecing is as easy as visiting a certain demonic merchant and paying a negligible fee.

Against solitary opponents and bosses, everything works out well enough, as players can use the lock-on camera to keep their focus on their prey, attempting to nimbly dodge any attacks they make, provided the camera decides to work with you. Against multiple targets, however, things get more difficult to handle, as it then becomes an exercise in how patient you can be in the face of frustration. The lock-on system becomes useless at this point, as the awkward camera angle not only sometimes makes it difficult to dodge in the right direction, but also keeps other enemies from your field of view.

Even when you do make a successful evade, an enemy’s attack is more than likely going to hit you either way unless you time it to the very last moment, since most everything tracks your movements, no matter how far or in which direction you move in. Focusing too much on one opponent, however, can open you up to abuse by the target’s friends, who won’t hesitate to swarm you at any given chance and beat on your face relentlessly. This results in a fairly big conundrum, where you need to juggle jamming your finger on the evade button as much as possible to keep from getting overwhelmed easily, while figuring out how to whittle at the enemy hordes as much as you can. It all causes combat to be much more nerve-wracking than it should be. Fortunately, health potions are a plentiful commodity, and there are skills that help to restore his health that you will definitely want to invest in.

These issues become easier to handle as you progress through the game and gain access to more skills and better gear. Loot drops like candy from a piñata, and you should have no trouble equipping yourself with epic level armor in no time. If you do have problems finding a specific piece of gear, merchants sell armor as well, and with the vast amount of money you’ll be collecting, and with nothing better to use it on, you’d be hard pressed not to take advantage of it. This sadly creates an unbalance in the difficulty curve, where the game is at its most challenging at the beginning when you discover the cheapness of your opponents, and becomes a cakewalk later on when you’re able to ignore it all by using sheer brute force. Boss fights fair a bit better in this regard, though they often waver between boring and uneventful, to incredibly cheap and annoying.

Exploration is also a tasking endeavor. Death can traverse the environment in numerous ways, running up walls, leaping from pillar to pillar, and dashing across the environment with surprising speed and grace. Death can also learn an ability part way through the game that allows him to grapple onto certain pieces of the environment with a ghostly hand, and pull himself across large chasms. All of these are used to tackle the monotonous puzzles that the dungeons are comprised of.

Sadly, a lot of these cases don’t even make much sense in the grand scheme of things. While Death is more than capable of grabbing ledges and climbing walls, you’re limited as to exactly which ledges you can grab, and which walls you can run up. Finding out that the Pale Rider can’t even climb up a shoulder high piece of granite, or even grab a solid edge that he should be able to after a long jump, is extremely discouraging, especially when trying to find a way to get to a treasure chest, or finding a way to progress through a dungeon. The extreme abundance of invisible walls specifically meant to block your path, which appear even on seemingly flat ground, doesn’t help matters, and creates a scenario where it’s less about where you want to go, but rather where the game wants you to go. For a title to tease open world exploration, then heavily restricts you on what paths you can take, it sets a new level of annoyance in level design. Because of this, expect the majority of your deaths to be attributed in learning how the environment works the hard way.

The rest of the issues that swarm this title vary from small, to pretty major, yet they all add up just the same. Excessive load times when entering different rooms or areas bring questions of how fully optimized the game is, while awkward control commands for quick-using skills come across as the developer’s attempts to cram as many abilities into the game as they can. Meanwhile there are several cases in the game where glitches take center stage, whether it’s awkward NPC pathing that causes them to get stuck in the environment, the complete loss of Fast Travel for no reason whatsoever at random times, to audio cutting out entirely on several occasions (the latter two can be fixed by fully restarting the game). For the record, this is based on the Xbox 360 version, so whether these kinds of blemishes hold the same on the PS3 and PC at the time of this writing is unknown.

Thankfully, there are enough positive things to help save Darksiders II from complete mediocrity. The story and writing are the game’s strongest points, and the various quests you can undertake help to establish the setting and the world around you. The worlds themselves are humongous and rendered beautifully, showing an impressive sense of scale. You can literally see landmarks in the distance close in as you approach them, rather than acting as pre-drawn backgrounds, and these locations are also accompanied by a stellar musical score. Characters you encounter, paired with an impressive voice cast, are all very likeable, and you should have a hard time finding an easily forgettable face. Death himself also fits the bill of anti-hero to a tee, with his snarky attitude and the brutality of his attacks, and is more of a victim of the mundane game elements forced upon him than a willing participant. When everything does work the way it is supposed to, however rare those occasions may be, the game truly is a sight to behold.

Darksiders II can largely be seen as a metaphor for THQ’s financial struggles as a whole: In the company’s attempts to carve a foothold among the hardcore gaming crowd, and abandon their once reputation as a publisher of kid-friendly titles, they wanted to weave an epic story and create a truly unique gaming experience. Despite this lofty goal, they have instead created a title that belies an inner conflict, as it tries to make itself stand out within the AAA gaming market, but can’t find out just how to do so on its own. All of the game elements that feel shoehorned into the data in an attempt to make the title stand out end up dragging it down more than they should.

That’s not to say that the game is completely terrible, and while I may be sounding overly critical, the game itself is worthy of some merit, as it shows the company is still sticking to their guns in their newfound spirit, especially in choosing the Grim Reaper as their main character, and likely future company mascot. Sadly, that spirit seems to have been spent more on the marketing aspect of their vision, rather than the fine-tuning of the various intricacies of the game itself.

For fans of the previous Darksiders game, the story should keep you engaged, and the ability to play as the Reaper of Souls is definitely a plus. For everyone else, you may be deterred by the sloppy stage design, the redundant quests, and frustrating combat. If you choose to stick with it, though, then you’ll find that there is some heart in the title, albeit requiring you to shove your fist into the chests of numerous demons before you can find it.

Final Grade: C+

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Michael Revis
Michael Revis 219 posts

Michael is a man of many things. Journalist, writer, gamer, professional procrastinator, cosplayer, super hero, whale wrestler, evil mastermind, and robot master. And that's just on the weekends.