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 with 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. The apocalyptic showdown between angels, demons, and Horsemen, however, held my attention longer than any Sunday bible class, even if the familiar mechanics traipsed the line of plagiarism versus homage like a tightrope walker without a safety net. Now, the developers aim to distinguish Darksiders II from prior inspirations with gameplay improvements across the board.
Most of these improvements derive from the focus on Darksiders’ new protagonist. Contrary to its nomenclature and the original game's ending, Darksiders II does not progress the story of War. Rather, the cynical Death steps in to verify his brother’s innocence and nullify the extinction of humanity in this parallel storyline. While War awaits trial from the Charred Council for accusations of disobedience, Death rides to undo the damage on Earth, though an early boss encounter leaves the Pale Rider stranded in the Forge Lands. Home to the Tree of Life that connects various realms, Death's 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 minds it infects. That may be a lot of narrative exposition to digest, but 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 players seldom see throughout their journey.
Death never was a Predator fan.
But like War, Death would prefer to clash swords than mince words, every bit as deadly as his larger brother, even though his smaller stature prevents him from blocking incoming attacks. Instead, evading becomes a top priority, and Death adapts with deceptive agility. His speed shines through in the 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 the shepherd of the dead yields extra benefits, too. As Death grows stronger with each level, two unique skill trees allow players to punish the corrupt how they see fit.
Necromancy quickly caught my eye. Ghouls burst forth from their summoned coffins and ethereal crows take to the skies, distracting enemies from the real threat: a Horseman with torso-length scythes. The addition of several skill points also 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 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.
Sadly, 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 downs a good quarter of the display, making attacks from behind hard 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. At least 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 combat, the same agility translates well into the frequent platforming. Death must have reaped the Prince of Persia during his 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 colossal 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 boasts a well-rounded visual personality – think of Bethesda’s Shivering Isles expansion in terms of color contrast. Of course, the sense of scale is more pronounced than 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 similar emotions found in The Legend of Zelda when the solution eludes your haggard gaze, and the deliberate expanding of Death's abilities mold gamers into the most intelligent, uncivilized people on Earth interchangeably, though not to the brink where puzzle explanations demand a 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 remain 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 times) and damage. They also inherit one trait from the item that raised its level, but the prominence with which Darksiders II vomits loot voids most weapons values' within an hour’s time.
Even so, 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 also avoids the booming symphonies one would find in RPGs like The Elder Scrolls or Final Fantasy. Take Skyrim. 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 the screenshot (blocking the leviathan's blue scale)? That's Death.
But greater than any boss Death encounters are the technical problems that preyed 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, the black screen that fades between conversations and gameplay did not dissipate. Subtitles repeatedly failed to load, 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 cut out, as did the sound effects, and no amount of restarting the game or the Xbox could solve the dilemma until I fast traveled elsewhere. The City of the Dead’s final boss theme kicked in, at least, but would not relent 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, even if I cannot ignore the technical smears that torment this sequel's every waking minute. I kept a running tally for the number of insatiable crashes and bugs that did not disappear upon quitting to the main menu. I lost count at nine – nine times that 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 after every immersion-breaking glitch, Darksiders II is one apocalypse I hesitate to revisit.
Developer: Vigil Games
Release Date: August 14, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC