Darksiders 2 (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)
Developer: Vigil Games
Release date: August 14, 2012
Most game series these days content themselves with being trilogies, but Darksiders seems bound to be a quartet.
The first game concerned itself with War, the aptly-named horseman of the apocalypse, who answers the call to begin the destruction of humanity only to find once he's carried it out that he was duped. With War awaiting the judgment of the almighty Council, then, it falls to Death—War's fellow horseman—to clear his brother's name.
Darksiders 2 begins rather pointedly, with a purposeful visit to the secret-keeping Crowfather, but soon dissolves into aimlessness. There simply isn't enough plot to sustain a 25-plus hour game, so it's been padded out with fetch quests within fetch quests, with a conclusion ever-hinted at but never quite reached. Thus, a third and fourth entry are all but guaranteed—aren't you dying to find out what the other horsemen, Strife and Fury, have been up to this whole time?
Yet somehow I never tired of it. Like the first game, it takes a few hours to sink its hooks into your brain, but once it does, its steady rhythm of combat-traversal-puzzle and ever-increasing challenge—plus some great new ideas—will keep you engaged for far longer than the narrative warrants.
A Melting Cauldron of Other Titles
Darksiders 2, like its predecessor, wears its influences on its sleeve. It's just the influences that have changed somewhat.
It's still chock full of Zelda-style dungeons, though it's less formulaic in that regard—the line between dungeon and overworld is often unclear, for one. And equipment often transforms and gameplay is altered to suit the needs of the rambling narrative, rather than the other way around (as is so often the case in Zelda-Metroid-Vanias).
Darksiders 2's combat is still essentially God of War's, though Death is considerably more nimble than his brother War. So combat in Darksiders 2 is faster, more complex and more rewarding than in Darksiders, with a far greater degree of customization.
There's another reason the combat is more interesting, though, and it has to do with one of Darksiders 2's new influences, the one that alters the formula the most: Diablo.
THQ and Vigil promised that Darksiders 2 would be a loot fest, and the game does not disappoint in this regard.
Enemies range in size from large beetles to Shadow of the Colossus-sized behemoths (that one's the best boss battle in the series so far), and anything larger than a dog is practically guaranteed to drop something. Sometimes that's just gold, but armor (head, shoulders, feet, hands, etc.) and weapons both primary (scythes) and secondary (axes, hammers, arm-blades, swords) also appear with frequency.
Particularly fun is the addition of "possessed" weapons that, when fed your unused items and equipment, level up and give you a choice of different stat buffs. You can even rename them; my custom scythes, the "Bum Ticklers" and "Sperm Shovels," served me well for much of the game.
You'll be very familiar with the menus by the time you're done with Darksiders 2, and thankfully they're quite functional. It's easy to see what items are new and compare them to your current gear, change your active quest (there's a great selection of interesting side-quests), and spend skill points in Death's new ability trees.
And death's skills cover everything from summoning fiery, exploding ghouls to warping behind enemies and defensive and offensive buffs. There are numerous ways to augment each ability, and it's dead simple to respec and try out different builds. It's all rounded out by a sort of Super Saiyan mode that lets Death go berserk for a short time.
Eat Your Heart Out, Nathan Drake
In Darksiders 2 it seems climbing, jumping and swinging are the new running (with running being the new standing still). I can just imagine the meeting where this new mechanic was devised. An executive-type says, "We need more variety, damn it!" A creative type replies, "We could make it more like Uncharted." Everyone in the meeting goes wild and there you have it.
This works in part; it's fun to string together long chains of parkour-like wall-running and post-hopping, but Death's ability to scramble up and across vertical surfaces is far too dependent on a small set of all-too conspicuous visual clues.
For example, no matter how inviting a ledge may appear, if that out-of-place-looking wooden scaffolding isn't there, Death will simply slide off instead of grabbing on. And how strange it is that architects and engineers across thousands of years and in wholly separate realms connected only by magic portals employed the same conceits of construction that left such traversable relics behind!
Don't even get me started on the fact that Death reveals countless times that he can, in fact, transform into an ephemeral reaper and fly wherever he damn well wants, because he will only do this when it doesn't help at all, or when you tap "B" at the right time in combat to trigger a flashy execution (though I feel like mentioning that that's the extent of the game's QTEs—have a hat-tip, Vigil).
Of course, I'm nitpicking, and these new traversal mechanics—run at a wall, tap "A" to jump to another one, push forward to propel yourself off a post—serve as a satisfying (though simple) distraction between battles and puzzles.
Angels and Demons
If you can overlook its contrived and often-irrelevant story, there's plenty in Darksiders 2's gameplay to warrant a couple dozen hours, especially for fans of the original. You'll even see some familiar faces, though Death's quest doesn't actually have much to do with anything until about the final third. Seriously, it's all pretty random stuff that continuously begs the question of Death's quest-givers, "Can't you just do it yourself?"
But the dungeons are well-designed and varied, elements like ridable stone constructs—like the fantasy version of mechs—and the ability to summon powerful dead lords to help with rudimentary puzzle-solving (I find that hilarious) manage to keep things feeling surprisingly fresh. A later level turns the game into a clunky-but-fun third-person shooter, and not one such far-fetched mechanic ever overstays its welcome.
Darksiders 2 is unpretentious, despite its pseudo-Biblical angels vs. demons trappings, and as a game it's just modern enough. A crow flies with you to show you the way if you get lost. Fast-traveling out of a dungeon to buy more potions sets a waypoint so you can fast-travel right back in. It even catches you up on the last major plot point every time you start it up.
It's rough around the edges; I experienced no fewer than three hard freezes, not to mention the time the sound cut out for a half hour or so. And astute players may notice some muddy textures. On the other hand, the voiceovers—particularly Michael Wincott's performance as surly, wisecracking Death—and Jesper Kyd's mesmerizing score are outstanding.
Don't expect any answers or closure from the ending, though naturally it sets things up for the inevitable Darksiders 3. But from there, hopping into a new game to level Death up more (and better prepare for the addictive "Crucible" arena mode) is a must, and that just goes to show how good the gameplay actually is.