Darksiders II Review
Developer: Vigil Games
Genre: Action RPG
Platform: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Humanity has fallen and, in an ironic twist of fate, it’s up to Death to bring it back to life. Darksiders II picks up where the 2009 blockbuster left off, with promises of a bigger, better experience. As it is both of those things, Darksiders II may also serve better as a time capsule of some of gaming’s most popular tropes and mechanics, all stuffed in one package. Death’s romp to bring back balance is a long one, and shows glimmers of both brilliance and lackluster every step of the way.
The story is a big one, reaching upwards of thirty hours. Death’s journey takes him world hopping through portals, fighting in undead arenas, even slaying the demon menace on a fallen Earth. But the actual delivery of the plot is shoddy. The reasons you end up from point to point is super contrived and almost silly. In fact, most of the story is almost “too epic.” Dialogue, though well-acted across the board, is delivered over dramatically, like a stage play. There is absolutely no subtlety to it. It’s reminiscent of Kratos in the God of War series, though frankly, not quite that bad. Death doesn’t scream every line and is capable of showing more emotions then simple anger.
The story is almost too long, and the tasks given to you to complete to get from place to place are boring and repetitive. You walk to a guy for answers, he will give you answers so long as you go to this dungeon. The dungeon involves opening three doors/finding three souls/closing three valves, then fighting a boss. Then you return to the guy, who then gives you your answers. You find instances of this pretty much every step of the way. Repetition in games is one thing, Mario always jumps and eats mushrooms, but what makes Mario interesting from game to game is the many ways Nintendo has developed to make his jumping and eating mushrooms interesting.
These quests don’t even hide the fact that you’re about to go do something extremely similar to the thing you just did a couple of minutes ago, and after a while, you feel just as annoyed as Death does. Very few of the quests feel like they really needed to be there. In other words, many of the quests are simply game filler, to extend the length of the game. Vigil could have probably removed a great deal of them, and trimmed a good ten hours from the game.
The story itself doesn’t do much to highlight any real personal growth within the lead character himself, either. He never really grows or changes as a person in any significant way, even though the game, at multiple times, likes to treat the current plots as if he has. Darksiders II always alludes to his “burden” but you really have to just take their word for it, because he never really appears all that burdened. Though other interpretations could construe that his curtain demeanor is very much the results of him feeling the effects of said burden. Maybe such subtle storytelling is just out of place in a game like this. To each their own.
Gameplay has been super expanded from the first game, fully embracing RPG elements to create a more complex character progression than in most action games. Weapons and armor add various abilities to combat, like increasing the chance of critical hits, or adding elemental damage to your attacks. The amount of findable loot is truly staggering, bringing a lot of the Diablo-esque loot grind element to a genre that it’s pretty foreign in. To add to that, some weapons can be upgraded by sacrificing other weapons to it, adding some very interesting depth to the equipment collection aspects of the game.
If you’ve played any action game or beat-’em-up in the past couple of years, than you’ll be fully familiar with the combo based combat of Darksiders II. Mid combo, you can switch between your primary weapons, your scythes, and secondary weapons that can range from hammers, to claws, to glaives. This makes attacking enemies pretty strategic, in the sense that your secondary weapons can also have the same stat altering effects as your primary ones. Suddenly, you can mix flame and ice attacks into the same combo, allowing you to have the right tools for any mix of bad guys.
Though you can buy more moves from trainers throughout the many different hub worlds, combat will always feel like it could be doing just a little bit more. Your combos aren’t as fluid as other games with similar gameplay. Unlike War, Death doesn’t block; instead he dodges with grace and style. But his dodge isn’t always the most responsive. There is no rhyme or reason as to why executions do or don’t happen. You can buy armor and weapons to increase the chances of them occurring, but they’re a combat tool that you can’t rely on when things get heavy, and that’s not great combat design. Also, the lock-on button is in an awkward place on the lower left trigger, with the special move variable button above it. Without a little getting used too, trying to execute special attacks on enemies you’ve locked onto can become a finger tangling frustration.
Special attacks themselves are unlocked with skill points, that you get by gaining levels or obtain as quest rewards. Each of the skills, divided into Harbinger and Necromancer trees, can be upgraded and enhanced by branching add-ons that can also be leveled up. For example, Teleport Slash on the Harbinger tree can be upgraded to do more damage, and you can also choose to enhance the ability by adding the chance of adding fire damage to the enemies hit by it. The fire damage itself can be leveled as well. The system is, all in all, a pretty interesting one. Not as deep as standard RPG’s, but far deeper than most action games.
Overall, combat is a satisfying experience that doesn’t break technical boundaries, but doesn’t lift a lot of eyebrows as far as the extensive RPG elements are concerned.
Traversing the various landscapes is a sort of bland experience. The platforming takes a lot of its cues from the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy, but fails to not only add anything new to the formula, but really even execute the already established formula that well. There’s really no challenge involved in it. On very few occasions do the obstacles stay anything by static. Not like in the Uncharted series, where frequently the handholds and cliff faces are crumbling under your weight. The puzzling aspects of jumping and climbing don’t produce much challenge either. If it looks like you need to jump to that ledge by running on that walls, then you do. The straight forward approach to this makes the idea of platforming a real bore in this game, and makes you wonder why it’s even there, besides filler material.
The use of the tools you’ll acquire does make jumping and swinging interesting upon their initial findings. Deathgrip allows you to grapple objects and pull you towards it, or vice versa (it also has DMC4-like combat implications). The Soul Splitter allows you to break into two Deaths in order to solve puzzles that require an extra set of hands. As interesting as the usage of these, and many more items are in solving problems, how and where to use them becomes pretty obvious rather quickly.
They’re also more than a few frame rate drops at key moments in combat and traversing, which ended up in unsavory situations. When a lot of monsters are on screen, like when Liches summon seemingly endless amounts of skeletons, expect to chug through combat until the model count goes down. Some button recognition issues happened when trying to grab onto walls or ledges, resulting in missing the jump completely. Especially when hopping off of walls of ledges and trying to quick grab Deathgrip locations, the prompt would be unpredictable. Sometimes I’d grab the ring without effort, other times, I would grab air four or five times before finally resigning to my fate. There are various points in the game where it just freezes entirely, and you become both angry at the idea and thankful for the frequent autosaves.
The game does look great, though. Every new world comes with well-designed architecture and characters, even if some of the characters themselves are shallow and archetypical. The colors are bright and engaging. Fields of green look lush and vibrant, and the ivory walls of angelic towers gleam with holy warmth. The lights and shadows of the world really add to the epic feel of everything. Character animations are fluid and active, as watching Death work can be a real spectacle in and of itself.
The sounds are stellar too. Effects like the whipping blades of your scythes while you work over groups of baddies really stand out. Voice work is generally good, though somewhat ridiculously over done at times. Death has a constant tone of distaste and is generally unimpressed by everything around him, and his quick, biting wit is well voice with malice and brooding. The music is Tolkien movie material, and does its part to enhance the game’s size and stature, as well as keep combat steady and focused.
Darksiders II’s greatest achievement is showing the world that its best gaming ideas can be combined to make an admirable game. A robust loot system goes swimmingly with the beat-’em-up style action gaming. A layered and progressively difficult puzzle platforming design can really be a great way to diversify normal RPG gameplay. Darksiders II’s worst points are that of the many games it draws inspirations from, it does nothing to push these ideas to the next level. You’re still better off playing God of War, Zelda, or Uncharted if you want inventive swordplay, puzzles solving, and adventurous platforming. This is far from a bad game, but with its unnecessary length, mediocre adventuring, and frustrating technical issues, the Apocalypse may be too much for this rider.