What a curious game franchise Darksiders is turning out to be. Criticism of the first game almost universally focused on its derivative nature, and the critics were right – Darksiders was a game that seemed to have pilfered the best ingredients from a handful other games and stewed them as some kind of apocalypse-flavoured gameplay gumbo. Of course, the second part of nearly every critic's review of Darksiders was going on to say that this concoction turned out to be a surprisingly fun – perhaps even excellent - game.
So here's Darksiders II, and following in the footsteps of its predecessor, much about its gameplay mechanics seem awfully familiar. Although Death takes the protagonist's role, Frankenstein's monster might have been more appropriate, for Darksiders II is once again a game cobbled together from the bits of other games in a way that probably shouldn't be natural. Games needn't be altogether new in everything they do, of course, but it's the uncanny degree to which Darksiders II manages to provoke at times a feeling of out-and-out déjà vu that is worth mentioning.
Gamers who have previously enjoyed the God of War and (especially) the most recent Prince of Persia titles will experience the strange feeling that they've done some of this all before, but beyond just those two titles, and a big Zelda influence, Darksiders II can also induce sudden flashbacks to specific gameplay elements from titles as diverse as the current generation of Tomb Raider games, Fable III, Devil May Cry, and even Shadow of the Colossus. The real surprise turns out to be that, for a second time, a game that borrows so heavily can end up working as well as it does.
Darksiders II's setting is concurrent with the events of the first game, set in an angel-and-demons themed multiverse in which War, one of the Four Horsemen, was framed for an apocalypse he didn't initiate. Bad for War - but worse for all mankind, who took an extinction right where it hurts. With War blamed for this unscheduled calamity and subsequently in trouble with the Charred Council - an authority charged with maintaining the balance in the multiverse - War's brother-in-arms, Death, takes it upon himself to clear War's name and return mankind to life. To succeed, Death must travel the multiverse, continually shifting between besting opponents in combat, navigating the epic fantasy environments with his agile platforming manoeuvres, and solving puzzle rooms.
Those opponents who think it might be a good idea to get into a fight with Death find him always armed with his trusty twin scythes, as well as his choice of either a fast and light or slow and heavy secondary weapon. Combat is from the (mostly) two-button school favoured by the likes of the God of War and Prince of Persia series – the X and Y buttons can be stabbed at randomly to produce a flurry of fairly effective attacks, but for those who like a bit more depth, a reasonably extensive list of combinations can be performed, and new moves are purchasable throughout the game. These encourage the player to learn and master some damaging and spectacular combos for use in various tactical situations.
Death can also call on various “Reaper form” powers and attacks in combat, with a two-branch skill tree offering choices for learning new powers as he levels up. These range from power moves, such as a damaging 360 degree swipe, to slightly more cunning magic tricks, such as Death raising ghouls to fight and distract his enemies, or unleashing a murder of angry crows onto his opponents. Death also acquires a pistol before too long, which allows him to stylishly (if fairly ineffectively) blast away at distant opponents.
Combat is largely enjoyable even if it's a bit easy on occasion. Death's dodge move is particularly effective. The setpiece arena battles the game regularly throws at the player are definitely fun, but there are perhaps a few too many token fights in which a mere handful of monsters are thrown at Death, and slashing through these can become a chore at times.
The environments Death passes through have had their epic sliders set to maximum. The art direction is probably best described as belonging to the Games Workshop or Blizzard school (armour is disproportionally huge), and the world map - double the size of that in the original game - is positively overflowing with everything from huge grassy plains, desert valleys, chunky forgotten temples, to skull-adorned and pointy-surfaced crypts.
Travelling is essentially divided between the large open connecting areas, where Death can call on his trusty spectral horse for some added speed, and dungeon-delving at the locations dotted around the larger world map. Exploration is often rewarded with loot, and Death able to collect gold for use with merchants, improve his armour and weapons, and even do a bit of weapon customisation with “possessed” weapons, an enchanting system fuelled by sacrificing unwanted gear.
In dungeons, Death needs to make use of his abilities to scamper up walls, jump and cling to columns, and run along walls to get from point A to point B. This is where the game seems awfully similar to the adventures of a certain member of the ancient Iranian royal family. There's some initial frustration early on as to working out just what Death can climb up, stand on, or grab: waist-high ledges and bars with gaps large enough for Death to simply walk through can turn out to be impassable obstacles. It's at this early stage of learning the game's physical rules and visual cues that players may find out that – whoops – they've just jumped Death through a wall, where he is now stuck. Worse than this, though, is the occasional system-crashing hang-up.
Knowing where to go next can also be tricky. Death's pet raven, Dust, can be called upon to guide him to his destination by flying ahead and lingering over the right door or route forward. This is a nice idea, but too often the mechanic just doesn't work. It's not unusual for Dust to lead Death a good distance down one way, only to turn and fly straight back over his head in the opposite direction when called upon a second time. Often, the map is not much help in locating the objective either. In fact, the menus in general are slow to load, and rather annoying to use.
As Death progresses, the player learns the game's patterns and visual cues, and it becomes more obvious as to where Death can and can't go. The game begins to hit its stride as it adds new options for movement and puzzle-solving, and the disconnected parts of gameplay begin to appear as a more cohesive whole. Before too long Death is wielding a phantom grappling hook, piloting ancient stone golems around, and splitting himself into multiple copies in order to simultaneously activate pressure pads. The game's puzzles increase in complexity as these new abilities and features are introduced, and it can produce a feeling of real satisfaction to crack one of the tougher ones. As Death learns new abilities, he can also travel back to dungeons he's previously explored and use his new powers to access new areas and complete side quests.
The setting and plot do deliver a few neat ideas, but also some non sequiturs: Death seems largely unaware as to what the Land of the Dead is all about, for example. In keeping with the gameplay, the setting and characters are a patchwork of well-worn themes and influences, but the presentation, characterisation, attention to detail, and good artwork seem to be enough to bring a certain level of panache to the whole enterprise. For example, the character design of Death seems to have an odour of the WWE about it, or perhaps suggests a metal band's album cover from the late 1970s, but as a character he manages to exude a certain amount of cool in spite of it - perhaps due to the fact that he is played by the gravel-voiced Michael Wincott (Hollywood bad guy of The Crow and Alien IV fame), whose sardonic rumblings are note-perfect for the character.
While the brazenly derivative nature of its gameplay, and some technical and execution issues hold Darksiders II back from greatness, its impressive presentation, the inclusion of one or two neat ideas, entertaining combat, and some good puzzles make for a playthrough that even cynical gamers might find themselves enjoying almost in spite of themselves. Those looking for bold new innovations in gaming won't find them here, but anyone that likes the idea of watching a wiry guy in a skull mask sprout bony wings before burying his giant scythe in the head of an angry rock monster should give Darksiders II a crack.