Darksiders II for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Lots of people saw the first Darksiders as a something which did little more than plunder gameplay elements from other, more innovative, games and smash them together into one. They’re not wrong, but I believe that these critics were missing the point. Darksiders II can be best described as The Legend of Zelda crossed with Devil May Cry, with some Prince of Persia thrown in, a smattering of Diablo, a dash of Portal, a bit of Shadow of the Colossus, and a final sprinkling of God of War. Hell, there’s even a Mass Effect conversation wheel. By all rights, all of these disparate elements should create an absolute mess of a game; playing Bully: Scholarship Edition taught me that attempting to be a jack of all trades will usually result in a ridiculous cluster of mechanics which don’t quite jell together and are all inferior to other games on the market. However, like the first Darksiders, the sequel does an admirable job of creating a coherent whole out of its many disparate influences. Darksiders II is not a pile of derivative drivel, but a post-modern masterpiece.
The lore and plot of the Darksiders universe is undoubtedly a bit…schlocky and esoteric. There’s a lot of cheese in Darksiders, but I’m not convinced that that isn’t intentional. Where the gameplay apes that of other incredibly popular games, the world of Darksiders at times seems to verge upon parody. Darksiders II doesn’t actually follow on from the plot of the original, but instead runs concurrently with it. In the lore of the Darksiders universe, a race known as the nephilim had begun a terrible war, outraged at the handing of Earth to the inferior humans. Four nephilim turned on and exterminated their kind for their crimes, and these became the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
In the first game, War, one of the horsemen, had been framed for breaking a pact between heaven and hell, leading to a war which results in the desolation of Earth and the death of humanity. In Darksiders II we no longer play as War, but instead take on the role of his brother, Death. Death seeks to clear his brother’s name, and to resurrect humanity at a location known as the Well of Souls. The problem is, Death has no idea how to reach the Well, and so begins a journey through a variety of realms to find the answer he seeks. I found Death to be a surprisingly likeable protagonist, much more so than his predecessor War. There’s a bitter and sarcastic anger underpinning Death, although attempts to imbue him with any particular depth are not very successful. Other characters always tell Death that he carries the burden of guilt for turning on his people, but this guilt never really manifests itself. There’s actually nothing wrong with allowing the plot to simply be a fun silly ride, which is exactly what the Darksiders story is. I like the setting enough that I’m certainly interested to see it explored further in future games. Sadly, the plot is let down by an incredibly abrupt ending, which seems to suggest that the game was originally intended to be a bit longer (although the game as it stands is easily long enough.) It’s not a Mass Effect 3 level of disaster, more of a Halo 2.
Many games are built around just one or two core game mechanics, such as jumping in Super Mario Bros. or shooting in Call of Duty, but Darksiders II does a rather admirable job of doing well in a large number. It is fair to say that Darksiders II never exceeds its influences; for example, the platforming isn’t nearly as smooth as in Prince of Persia, the combat isn’t as deep as Devil May Cry and the bosses aren’t as epic as the Colossi, but it manages to be more than the sum of its parts. This game has better combat than Zelda, a wider world than Prince of Persia, more customisation options than Devil May Cry. There’s almost something innovative in the way the developers so seemingly shun innovation, creating something, which despite being an amalgamation of many different games, winds up being something which feels rather new and interesting. There really is nothing else out there quite like the Darksiders games. The addition of loot is a welcome one, and although the loot system is nowhere near as deep as in something like Diablo or Torchlight, it really doesn’t need to be, as anything more would distract from the overall experience. Excepting a truly dire section in which it tries to be Gears of War, the game thunders along nicely, never losing pace and constantly throwing new and interesting game play mechanics at us (all admittedly cribbed from other games, the Portal gun being a real highlight).
The game is made up several major hub worlds, each with a fairly distinctive visual style and vibe. These are, mostly, an absolute joy to explore, although the exploration aspect feels slightly curtailed from the first one. The first hub world, the Forge Lands, is a luscious and lovely location, an absolute joy to explore. The realms of the angels and demons are beautiful and badass respectively, but things stutter slightly at the Land of the Dead, which is (unsurprisingly) a bit on the dreary side. A high point is the voice acting, particularly the sneery Britishness of Death, but with plenty of other great performances all round, of particular note being James Cosmo, the Old Bear himself. Sure, a lot of them are over the top and silly, but so is the whole game, and it’s all part of the fun! The music, whilst not in any way catchy, is suitably atmospheric and does a great job of setting the scene.
One of the basic foundations of post-modern thought is that of self awareness, and the lie that is originality. There are plenty of games out there which are shallow and derivative, offering nothing new or of interest, perhaps relying on a silly gimmick (I’m looking at you Inversion). Darksiders II wears its influences upon its sleeve (the achievement for learning to create Portals is called ‘I can haz cake’ for God’s sake). It can be tough to pin down exactly where the Darksiders series succeeds where countless other ‘rip-off’ games fail, but I believe that it is in this very own self awareness, respecting it’s influences and shamelessly plundering from them to create something which, ironically enough, is utterly unique.