Review – Darksiders 2

I can’t tell what happened with Darksiders 2. Did they run out of money? Did the development team get bored with their own product halfway through? Or, through some voodoo magic lost to the mists of time, were they hip to the fact that players would want nothing more than to just ‘wrap it up’ around the halfway point of the game?

I don’t believe I’m alone in this attitude. It comes out whenever I play a supposedly ‘epic’ game like Assassin’s Creed or Skyrim, one choked with side-quests and collectables. I start out strong, going out of my way to claim every tower or find every (fucking) feather. The storyline takes a backseat to my insane drive to collect ALL the things. Then, usually about 10 hours in, a switch flips in my brain and I realize that, should I continue down this path, I’ll never actually finish the damn thing.

My leisurely stroll turns into a break-neck sprint for the end, the promise of some other, newer, game driving me forward like a twinkie on a string. I may initially feel a twinge of guilt when I blow past another out of the way collectable widget, but that doesn’t last long. “I’ll totally go back and get it once I finish the game, there’s a new game plus mode right?” I may say to myself, but deep down I know there’s no fucking way I’m going to unlock that achievement, find that ancient weapon, or defeat that crazy bone lord.

I’m being optimistic of course. Odds are that the piddling final half of Darksiders 2 was driven entirely by rapidly approaching deadlines and THQs decidedly murky financial future, but a man can dream right?

The original Darksiders was Zelda as imagined by a 10 year old fan of the WWF and Image comics. Its characters wore size 25 boots, gave symmetry the finger, and shopped at Skulls Etc. It told the story of one of the four horsemen of the capital A Apocolypse: War. He rode around on his horse, found items in dungeons that he then used exclusively inside those dungeons, and by the end of the story made absolutely no forward motion in the plot. It was a solid, if somewhat forgettable, game for fans of the genre.

Darksiders 2 throws many of those ideas out the window in its quest for identity. The Zelda-like dungeons are mostly gone, replaced with sprawling levels that contain a select few abilities that are actually pretty unique in their application. No hookshot here folks. This time you get the ability to split yourself in two, which is actually used pretty creatively (and thankfully, never during a boss fight.) The portal ability from the first game is back, but the overly long and painful level it was used in during the original is not.

Despite this, Darksiders 2 doesn’t entirely escape comparisons to other games. In many ways, it’s heavily reminiscent of the 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia, with its emphasis on desolate wastelands and high speed platforming segments. Expect to do a lot of wall running while wearing the mask of Death. This is hardly a bad thing, as it more often than not captures the simple beauty of running around a beautifully serene landscape without the frankly awful combat that PoP2k8 tried to shoehorn in. Jesper Kyd’s amazing soundtrack adds a lot to the feeling of solitude that most of the levels have as well.

Outside of the platforming, Darksiders 2 has rewritten the heavily counter based combat of the original. In a nod to the ARPG genre, Death now gains levels and enemies explode in different colored loot. With each level, you gain skill points that can be applied to two different skill trees, each focusing on a style of play. You can turn your Death into a whirling dervish of sickle-based doom or a fearsome leader of undead hordes, a welcome break from the back and forth business of combat in the original. I chose to rely on my ghoulish minions, who, based on my selections, could act as meat shields and allow me to slip in behind my foes for devastating attacks with my giant mace. The combat, while no Ninja Gaiden, is deep enough to keep you from getting bored while not being overwhelming.

Another place where Darksiders 2 makes significant changes to the original is in pacing. Instead of moving from dungeon to dungeon, you’re now placed in a large overworld (one for each of the games 4 main worlds) that’s rife with secrets and optional sub dungeons. There are a wide range of sidequests (most range across multiple worlds) and the requisite item collection tasks. One of the biggest quality of life additions to the game is a fast travel system which allows you to warp from place to place once you’ve gone there once. It’s a massive improvement over the original game’s wormhole system, which made backtracking a complete pain.

Unfortunately all of these optional tasks make Darksiders 2 feel more padded than a 12 year old girl’s bra. Everywhere you go, somebody needs you to get three of something for them before they can give you one of the three things you need for somebody else (a nod either to Zelda or the Catholic church.) This isn’t helped by a storyline that is completely limp. By the 2/3rds mark, even Death starts to make comments about how pointless it all is.

Then, rather suddenly, the game ends. After sinking 20 hours into the first 2 worlds, the game rather rapidly wraps itself up. It’s abrupt but not entirely unwelcome, as the game’s shtick does start to wear thin after a while. It’s difficult to consider such a thing to be a positive, but in many ways it is for Darksiders 2. It doesn’t entirely overstay its welcome, but it does come close.

The control scheme for the game does represent a massive step backwards for the game. With the addition of so many new and interesting abilities, the standard 360 controller (my input of choice for these kinds of games) finds itself woefully inadequate. You’re only given 4 quickslots for abilities and, at any given time, you’ll find yourself using anywhere from 6-8, requiring menu diving in the middle of combat. Also, whoever decided to have the ability quickwheel tied to the left bumper while the left trigger is used for lock-on targeting must be skilled at prestidigitation, as it’s a damn feat to hit both at the same time.

I did play the PC version of the game, which was a middle-of-the-road port at best. There weren’t many advanced graphics options and it was actually pretty unstable. More than once I found myself kicked back to the desktop during cutscenes, often forcing me to repeat a tense boss battle. It even crashed out during the ending scene before the credits could roll.

Click for a full-size version to get a feel for the texture quality.

Additionally, even with the bevy of additional graphics options added with the post-release patch, the lack of high resolution textures often hampers the quality of the well-constructed visuals. Nothing worse than meeting a visually impressive character and realizing that they’re actually just a blotchy mess. That said, as with most action games, the ability to run at a silky smooth 60fps makes the PC the optimal choice, especially considering how particle heavy the game’s combat can be.

Many sequels tend to get crammed full of additional, and unnecessary (that’s right Assassin’s Creed, I’m looking at you,) features to try and expand on the original without changing it too much. Darksiders 2 is a great example of what happens when a dev team uses the success of a conservatively made original game to take a chance. Darksiders 2 strikes out on its own path and finds a much stronger sense of self as a result. It’s a real pity THQ’s fate is in question, as I’d love to see where Vigil wants to go with Darksiders 3. Dating simulator staring Strife? MAKE IT HAPPEN!

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