Some say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. At least Vigil Games was honest about their pairing of two exclusive franchises. Darksiders played chemist, synthesizing the mind-boggling frustration/satisfaction of probing temples as Link and the barbaric vivisecting of minotaurs with Kratos and his Blades of Olympus. War planted his Horseman hindquarters somewhere in that middle ground, not quite matching the quality of the games he called family. However, the apocalyptic showdown between angels, demons, and Horsemen held my attention longer than any Sunday bible class. The use of familiar mechanics traipsed the line of plagiarism-versus-homage like a tightrope walker without a safety net. Now the developers look to distinguish Darksiders II from prior inspirations with gameplay improvements made across the board.
Most of these improvements derive from the focus on Darksiders’ new protagonist. Contrary to its nomenclature, Darksiders II does not progress the story of War despite the original game’s ending. Rather, the cynical Death steps in to verify his brother’s innocence and nullify the extinction of humanity in this prequel of sorts. While War awaits trial from the Charred Council for accusations of disobedience, Death rides to undo the damage on Earth... somehow. The Pale Rider’s encounter with the Crowfather leaves Death stranded in the Forge Lands, home to the Tree of Life that connects various realms. Yet his infamy holds little power over the region’s giant inhabitants that send the Kinslayer on errand boy quests across photographic plains defiled by Corruption, the demonic scourge that repurposes the minds it infects. Three realms later, NPCs still reserve the right to divulge information until Death completes some menial task. Twenty hours in, I had only made slight headway in my attempts to vindicate War, and in all honesty, Death’s sole meaningful contribution to the fiction occurs within the final few hours, featuring a villain that we seldom see throughout the Horseman’s journey.
Death never was a Predator fan.
But like War, Death would prefer to clash swords than mince words. Death is every bit as deadly as his larger brother, though his smaller stature prevents him from blocking incoming attacks. Instead, evading becomes a top priority, but Death adapts with deceptive agility. That speed shines through in the Kinslayer’s combat techniques, from blinding flashes of scythes that split corrupted beings where they stand to his notorious Reaper form that beheads bosses with divine and flamboyantly purple retribution. Being a shepherd of the dead yields extra benefits too. As Death grows stronger with each level, two unique skill trees allow you to punish the corrupt how you see fit. Necromancy quickly caught my eye. Ghouls burst forth from their summoned coffins as ethereal crows take to the skies to pester and distract enemies from the real threat: a Horseman with torso-length scythes. The addition of several skill points granted my birds the power to freeze adversaries while simultaneously draining their health. My skeletal minions then closed in for the kill as their ignited forms detonated upon the spell’s dissipation. However, I could have pursued the Harbinger route, beefing up Death with forward dashes that stun opponents and leech life, or briefly empowering his attacks with increased strength that boosts the chance of critical hits. Such options make Death a more versatile slayer than his lumbering brother.
Dodging can be finicky, and what would a third-person action game be without camera issues? When locking onto a single target in a swarm of swords and fangs, the widescreen view cuts off a good quarter of the display, making attacks from behind difficult to anticipate. Getting surrounded makes the situation worse, as rolling away from one enemy’s axe just puts you in reach of another’s blade.
Normal difficulty already tests your timing, but the game’s hardest setting (Nightmare) is best suited for masochists. With the health and damage debuffs of Apocalyptic difficulty, you’ll find your palms sweating when fodder enemies erupt from the ground. Like The Witcher’s Dark mode, if Death dies, you’re done; that save file is wiped. Platforming errors do not count. Death’s Reaper form extricates the Horseman from lava, spike pits, and bottomless chasms at the cost of a smidgen of life. So what’s left once the proud few face down the impossible? Well, New Game Plus gives all players the option to start fresh with their previous powers, and the hundreds of scattered collectibles, side dungeons, and Crucible challenges polish the experience with nearly ten supplementary hours.
You golems just got served.
Beyond the combat, the same agility translates well into the frequent platforming. Death must have reaped the Prince of Persia during the former’s prolonged lifetime because no other video game protagonists match these two in sheer traversal. Death bolts along walls, scampers up vertical rock faces, and swings from wooden rafters without breaking a sweat – whatever perspiration may look like given his bony complexion.
Not even what Vigil Games refers to as “nosses” – a portmanteau of the words “not” and “bosses” – can fracture Death’s composure. These monstrous minibosses interrupt the dungeon puzzle solving to remind you why War’s brother earned the titles of Death and Kinslayer. The sad part is, Death lives up to his moniker too well. No creature poses a threat to the unshakable Horseman. Every not-boss and boss can be overwhelmed by the same initial attack and roll combos no matter how large the beast before Death stands. Their imposing size may often be misleading, such as the Colossus-like Guardian battle, but at least they look cool.
The whole game looks beautiful for that matter. From the icy peaks of Veil to the ashen Kingdom of the Dead to the auburn glow of autumn trees in Lostlight, Darksiders II incorporates a well-rounded visual personality. Think of Bethesda’s Shivering Isles expansion in terms of color contrast. The sense of scale is more pronounced than in the previous Darksiders too. The Tree of Life extends to the clouds, dwarfing the Pale Rider, and looming mountains wait in the distance, never seeming to draw closer as Death and his horse Despair ride toward them in full gallop.
Death begins his quest with Despair unlike War who obtained his horse after Darksiders' halfway mark.
Within these environments of stone and decay, many taxing puzzles await. Darksiders II provokes identical emotions found in Portal and Zelda when the solution eludes your haggard gaze. The deliberate expanding of Death's abilities with the Voidwalker and Soul Splitter mold gamers into the most intelligent yet boorish people on Earth interchangeably, though not to the brink where the explanation demands the replacing of the controller for a keyboard and brief Google search.
The hidden chests give players much incentive to explore these vast dungeons. Loot distributes between scythes, hammers, glaives, axes, boots, pants, shoulders, gloves, talismans, and so on while the color-coded rarity affects the number of stat bonuses per item. The typical green, blue, purple, and yellow names indicate the piece’s worth, but the yellow subclass of weaponry is divided between two categories: Legendary and Possessed. Both are equally rare and fetch thousands of pennies from merchants. However, Possessed weapons can be fed other blades and armor to upgrade their level (a maximum of five) and damage. They also inherit one trait from the item that raised its level. Nonetheless, the prominence with which Darksiders II vomits loot voids most Possessed weapons’ value within an hour’s time.
And yet the soundtrack only fuels the search for concealed treasure. Jesper Kyd represents the evil genius behind the brilliant score, arousing the lure of the supernatural. Renowned for his work on the Assassin’s Creed series (“Ezio’s Family” anyone?), the man continues to leave his mark on the industry alongside Harry Gregson-Williams (Metal Gear Solid), Marty O’Donnell (Halo), and Jack Wall (Mass Effect). Jesper avoids the booming symphonies one would find in RPGs like The Elder Scrolls or Final Fantasy. Take Skyrim for example. Every dragon encounter builds the tempo of the “Dragonborn” theme until the chorus reaches a thunderous draconic chant. Instead, Jesper’s tranquil arias meld into the exploration effortlessly, selling each dungeon’s sense of disrepair. For several minutes at a time, I would let Death rest idle while soaking in the hypnotizing chimes of “Into Eternity” and “The Corruption.”
See the speck near the bottom left of this screenshot (blocking the leviathan's neon blue scale)? That's Death.
But greater than any boss Death encounters are the technical problems that prey on my patience. After installing Darksiders II on my 360’s hard drive, the game still pauses to load with every other door opened, sometimes resulting in the odd crash during cutscenes. Other times, a black screen that fades the conversations back to gameplay refused to dissipate. Subtitles failed to load repeatedly, and elevators in particular liked to glitch on Death, disappearing completely for several seconds. My journey through the City of the Dead befell numerous audio problems too. The music and sound effects cut out, and no amount of restarting the game or my Xbox could solve the dilemma until I fast traveled to a different waypoint. The City of the Dead’s final boss theme kicked in, though, and would not relent after his passing while Death spoke to the NPC in the following cutscene. I wish I could declare these occurrences rare, but all these issues mine away at the presentation until nothing’s left except a chunk of unrefined ore. Hesitant buyers should prepare for much unwelcome jank.
Ignoring the narrative letdown, Darksiders II seals Vigil’s franchise as a sum greater than its borrowed, individual parts. Faster traversal and frequent loot drops add something new to the Darksiders recipe, but what I cannot ignore are the technical smears that torment every waking minute of this sequel’s gameplay. I kept a running tally for the number of times I needed to restart my Xbox from the insatiable crashes and belligerent bugs that did not retreat upon quitting to the main menu. I lost count at nine. Nine times I hit the guide button to power off the system in hopes that Death’s quest would continue without disruption. I would be remiss not to acknowledge the enjoyment I gleaned from reaping opponents’ undead bones and besting every boss not familiar with the saying, “Size isn’t everything.” But thanks to each immersion-breaking glitch, this is one apocalypse I hesitate to revisit.
Developer: Vigil Games
Release Date: August 14, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC