Review: Darksiders II (Microsoft Xbox 360)
by Sean Madson on August 14, 2012

Darksiders II
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Vigil Games
Genre: Action/Adventure
Release Date: 08/14/2012

The original Darksiders game was something of a surprise hit for me. Here was a game that unapologetically snatched elements from various games, such as The Legend of Zelda, God of War, Prince of Persia, and even Portal, and blended them together into one game. These were titles that belonged to vastly different genres, and yet, Vigil Games was able to combine them into a package that was not only cohesive, but in some cases, better than the titles it had shared elements with. Even more impressive was the fact that this was the first major release from this studio.

When Darksiders II was announced, I was excited to not only revisit the Apocalypse as established in the original, but to see what kinds of new mechanics would be introduced in the sequel. Sampling the title at E3 only furthered my confidence in it, as it not only recaptured the gameplay that I enjoyed so much from the original, but managed to add more gameplay elements to the already impressive set that it has to juggle while still remaining cohesive. Now that the final product is in my hands, it’s time to see if my faith in the Four Horsemen has gone rewarded.

Let’s Review

Story/Modes
Darksiders II casts you in the role of Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as he sets out to find a way to free his brother in arms, War (the protagonist from the first game), from his impending judgment from the Charred Council. He decides that by reviving mankind, it would effectively erase the crime of which War is being accused, thus granting him a pardon. To do that, he seeks the aid of a man known as the Crowfather, who at first refuses, but ultimately grants you entrance to another world to seek the Tree of Life (after some “persuasion”). The only problem is that this world is plagued by Corruption, which, to put it simply, gives everything it touches the Darksiders version of rabies. So in his quest to save War, Death is indirectly tasked with saving this world, and all others affected by the Corruption.

My biggest issue with the plot, as it stands, is not so much with the premise itself or the introduction of a new lead character. On the contrary, I think Death was well cast and is actually more fleshed out than War was, as there are a few scenes that highlight his background and how he became known as the “Kinslayer.” For those that finished the original game, there was something of a cliffhanger ending that implied there was going to be a sequel, which was especially bold for an untested IP, but was nevertheless successful in building anticipation for the next title. Since Darksiders II‘s plot runs alongside that of the first, the momentum built from that moment has been lost. I don’t want to spoil anything about the ending or how the two games connect, but I will say that the momentum is never regained.

Instead, the plot can best be summarized as “Death runs into a few inconveniences on his quest to revive humanity.” We get a little bit of background on his character and learn a little bit about the origins of the Four Horsemen, but that is the entire plot in a nutshell. The first Darksiders paired War with a little bastard of a helper known as Watcher and was filled with a number of backstabbings and betrayals. Death’s only consistent partner, besides his horse, is a crow named Dust who doesn’t speak and merely serves to point you in the correct direction. This isn’t to say the story is bad or poorly told, it just doesn’t evolve much beyond how it starts out. It’s a fun ride all the same, it just could do with a bit more twists and turns along the way.

Story/Modes Rating: Decent

Graphics
One of the things I really enjoyed about the original Darksiders, and likewise with this one, is the overall art style and character design. Death has a particularly stand out design, especially with the skull mask that he wears on a consistent basis, and he looks even more menacing when he transforms into his grim reaper form. The landscapes of the various worlds that you visit differ wildly from one another, and even visiting different lands within the same world offers a vast transformation from those areas that are affected with Corruption and those that aren’t. The game is pretty good about mixing up enemy variety, though most enemies within the same world will at least share a similar theme.

While things generally look good and run very well, there were a few hiccups along the way. I noticed a number of textures that didn’t load completely until you were practically on top of that particular part of the scenery. I did appreciate that moving from the overworld into dungeons was virtually seamless, as there wasn’t an obvious point where one begins and one ends, save for checking your map, as it doesn’t have to load into it. The trade off is that the game will have to load sometimes while you are in the dungeon itself, displaying the loading text in the corner as you attempt to open a door. Installing the game seemed to improve this slightly though, and it’s not as if loading screens will ever become extinct, so it’s a minor issue.

Graphics Rating: Great

Sounds
I was quite surprised by how mellow the overall soundtrack is. For as much as you engage in combat in Darksiders II, there was a distinct absence of incredibly upbeat songs to go along with the action (although there are a few). Not that it has to blast hard rock music to the level that Devil May Cry fancies itself in doing, but I thought it was an interesting observation. That aside, the music was generally pleasant and well done, which made the frequency in which some of the songs were played more bearable. The final boss battle music in particular I felt was quite spectacular.

The real star of the show here, in my eyes, are the voices. While it may be hard to compete with Mark Hamill’s rendition of the Watcher from the original, I think Michael Wincott does an excellent job with the character of Death. A big part of it has to do with how well the voice seems to fit with the character itself, but there were a few sarcastic lines that the character has that were delivered with such seriousness that I couldn’t help but laugh. One exchange in particular has a character remarking about how Death may lose his soul, and he replies with “It’s a good thing I have a few to spare.” The line in and of itself I don’t think was meant to be particularly humorous, but it’s the fact that Death says it, and you wouldn’t expect someone named Death to crack jokes when engaged in such a serious situation.

Sound Rating: Great

Control/Gameplay
Learning the controls can be a bit of a daunting task at first, given how many things Death can do. Luckily, the tutorials do a good job of introducing all of the game’s features piecemeal throughout the game, and will generally walk you through how to do something for the first time. Unlike his predecessor, War, who wields a large sword, Death has scythes in each hand that are controlled with the X button, and can subsequently combine into one large weapon during certain moves. You can also equip a secondary weapon to the Y button, such as axes, hammers, and more that can be mixed in with your other combos for more devastating results. Once weakened, you can grab enemies with B and perform an execution, which will not only kill them instantaneously, but also have a chance to drop health or wrath power ups. The left trigger will keep your focus on an enemy, allowing you to maneuver around them as well as view their health bar. However, you have to hold it down in order to keep it active, as I couldn’t find a way to just simply toggle the option. This is problematic when you want to perform equipped skills, as they often require two additional buttons to perform, so you end up holding a total of three buttons at the same time. You learn to work around it, but it’s a bit of a hindrance in the design.

In addition to the combat, Darksiders II has a heavy platforming emphasis, though none of the jumping and wall-running puzzles are difficult to the point of pulling your hair out. If you jump on a wall with the A button at an angle, you can run across it for a bit before sliding down or grappling onto something at the other end. You can also jump from wall to wall, both horizontally and vertically, and you’ll have to master both to complete the game. One thing I found odd was that there are only certain kinds of ledges that Death can grapple onto. If it doesn’t have the distinctive wooden planks on the end of it, he will just slide down the wall, even if you are at the correct height to pull yourself up.

There are a number of items that you’ll pick up along the way that you can map to the right trigger. If you need to switch between them or use healing items, the directional pad will pull up the list of skills at your disposal, and you can map to the left bumper in combination with one of the face buttons. Using it in tandem with the right bumper will summon your horse, which is primarily used for long distance travel, though he is utilized in at least one boss battle. Combining it with right trigger will transform Death into his grim reaper mode temporarily, allowing him to dish out more punishment for a limited time (while looking awesome doing it). There are other buttons mapped to blocking, dodging, and going into a zoomed in mode with crosshairs too, so I was impressed that none of this felt overwhelming considering how many buttons have multiple functions.

New this time around is a loot system similar to what you would find in most MMO’s or dungeon crawlers like Diablo. When you defeat enemies or search treasure chests, you will often find things like boots, shoulder pads, tunics, and more that can be equipped on Death and will change his appearance based on the specific items you have. These items have a level assigned to them, though you can generally judge the value based on the color of the text describing the item. For example, white items are your most common, green are uncommon, blue are rare, etc. Sometimes it’s not so cut and dry, as a higher level item may not do you any good if it doesn’t fit with the kind of character build you are going for. This level of preparation in managing Death’s equipment was a nice addition, and fits in nicely with the other game mechanics.

As you defeat enemies and gain experience, Death will level up and earn points that can be dumped into one of two skill trees. One of them is primarily for melee combat and the other is for magical skills (which rely heavily on a wrath meter). Each talent in this tree can have three points placed into it, and while some skills have prerequisites, you don’t necessarily have to stay exclusive to one tree. If you want to play an all-arounder, you have the freedom to do that.

While most story driven quests are simply given to you by going to places marked on your map, there are a number of NPC’s that will offer sidequests to partake in as well. Talking to them will open up a dialogue tree of sorts, similar to BioWare titles like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, where you have several options in how to respond to them. Often, the various choices are simply there to give you more information about your situation or a quest that you have, but the ones with blue text will actually give you a quest to embark on. Beyond that, the dialogue choices don’t appear to change the story so far as I can tell, but it was nice they at least gave you options in regards to how much or how little you want to know. Others will offer items for sale, so if you don’t find anything worthwhile during your journey, you can buy some decent items using a currency called Gilt, or you can sell the junk that you’ve picked up.

It’s an overwhelming variety at times, but fortunately, all of the pieces fit. So I commend Vigil Games for making it all work well.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Great

Replayability
I was able to clear the main story quests while making a few detours here and there in just shy of twenty hours. I think that’s a reasonable length for a game like this, as it’s long enough to feel fulfilling, but not so long that the experience seems padded out. Beyond the story, there are a ton of sidequests scattered about that you can undertake for the various NPC’s out there. A number of them relied on bringing back items picked up from fallen enemies or tracking down collectibles, though many I was able to complete while I was naturally progressing through the game. There are even bonus dungeons and bosses that can be tackled outside of the ones you have to complete.

Also new is an arena mode called The Crucible. If you’ve played a game like Gears of War or Halo in last few years, you should know how this works. You are placed in an arena and must fight through an onslaught of enemies for as long as possible. There are one hundred waves in total, though if you choose, you can stop every five and be offered an award instead. Not all of the waves will be accessible to you from the get go, as new waves unlock as you progress through the main game. The Crucible itself isn’t available until you receive an in game mail through the mail system, which also allows you to send gear to your friends should you choose to do so.

When you beat the game, you unlock New Game + mode, which allows you to go through the game again while hanging onto your levels and gear. I’ve always found this to be a great mode for games with RPG elements, as it allows you to experience the game again without starting from scratch and building your character back up again (even though it feels like cheating sometimes). Some unlockables and achievements can only be earned in this mode as well, so completionists will likely want to delve into it.

Replayability Rating: Great

Balance
While some of the battles can get very challenging at times, maintaining good gear and building up your levels can make all the difference in some of the more hectic battles. Even if you should fall, you will restart from your last autosave and Darksiders II tends to save very frequently. If you’re still having trouble, you can fast travel back to a merchant anytime outside of battle and go buy healing items or better gear should you need them. Even the jumping puzzles are rather forgiving, teleporting you out of danger if you mess up rather than making you restart and go through a load screen.

There are multiple difficulty levels, though you don’t unlock anything beyond normal until after you’ve beaten the game one time. On top of that, The Crucible serves as a nice challenge all its own, as trying to tackle all one hundred waves in one go is a daunting task (there’s a wave one hundred and one that requires you to do just that). Especially since it would take at least a couple of hours to do, and a defeat would force you to start back at the beginning. There are various statistics tracked by the game that are posted to leaderboards if you prefer to compete with others playing the game.

Balance Rating: Great

Originality
Despite how much the Darksiders franchise has truly begun to come into its own, it’s hard to deny the comparisons to other games. Especially given how strikingly similar some of the elements are. The game does offer a unique setting and premise for what that’s worth, and its homages to other games do not detract from the experience. If anything, they make it better, as for every game that has its mechanics added strengthens it that much more. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Darksiders is the video game equivalent to Voltron. Each part is fine on its own, but combined together, it becomes something truly awesome.

Originality Rating: Poor

Addictiveness
One of the benefits in utilizing gameplay styles that are tried and true is the opportunity to take what has been done and make it better. Darksiders II has effectively taken pieces from all of my favorite games and combined them into one title, just as the first one had. There is no time to get tired of one aspect of the game, because another one comes along to enjoy, alternating at a consistent enough basis that I didn’t even notice the hours fly by. Now that the franchise has a loot system, it brings with it the obsession of improving one’s gear and marveling at not only the resulting appearance of Death, but how powerful you’ve become as a result. As someone who used to play MMORPG’s very heavily, this is a powerful tool to keep me engaged, and I’m certain that others will find themselves in the same boat.

Addictiveness Rating: Classic

Appeal Factor
Another advantage of piecing together a game using various genres is that now you have a larger crowd in which to draw an audience from. I’m sure Vigil Games is tired of hearing the comparisons to The Legend of Zelda, but the fact remains that it’s a very powerful market that you’re appealing to. Think of all of the gamers who grew up on Nintendo systems playing that series, now to be offered something that is more adult and much darker in tone. Especially since Microsoft and Sony both lack a game that is its equivalent in popularity.

Further, now that Diablo III has recently released, you have an opportunity to bring in that crowd as well. While Darksiders II is not the click fest that game is, nor does it have multiplayer capabilities, it still offers an experience that drives the player to find better gear for their character. A game like that keeps players engaged for a long time. The only thing holding it back was the lack of marketing for the original. THQ seems to be pushing this one a bit harder (as I’m already aware of the commercials for it), so I get the feeling that this is really going to take off for the mainstream.

Appeal Rating: Great

Miscellaneous
When you begin a game of Darksiders II, it keeps a total of one save for you that it constantly autosaves for itself (though you can manually trigger that to happen if you’re going to quit for the day). The problem is that you aren’t granted the ability to keep multiple saves from different spots in the game, and even beginning a New Game + will overwrite your current adventure. So you have to be absolutely sure you’ve done everything you’ve wanted to do before doing New Game +. Personally, I prefer the ability to revisit old saves if I want to witness an iconic scene or fight a particular boss, so this is a detriment for me personally, though I understand not everyone will even notice such a thing. Also, if you want to make a backup save, you’ll have to do so by copying it to a flash drive or uploading it to the cloud if say your power goes out in the middle of a save or something.

Sometime after the game’s initial release, there will be DLC to supplement the experience, so if you’ve mastered the game and unlocked everything, there will be something to look forward to. The franchise is also expanding to encompass books as well, so it will be interesting to see what direction it takes going forward. Darksiders has a well established set of lore, so I am anxious to find out if future games explore the other members of the Horsemen or what else will be added to the sequel. RTS elements? Tower defense? Visual novel? I can’t wait to see.

Miscellaneous Rating: Great

The Scores
Story/Modes: Decent
Graphics: Great
Sounds: Great
Controls/Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Great
Balance: Great
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Great

Final Score: Very Good Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Darksiders II manages to invade more genres, all while staying true to what made the first game fun in the first place. Everything from the combat to the platforming controls well, and the puzzles are very methodical and well thought out. While Death as a character is interesting, and the game explores his background thoroughly, the story as a whole is a bit of a step down from the prior game and doesn’t really answer any of the questions left by it. Despite that, it’s still a quest worth undertaking, as the worlds you visit offer plenty to do, and modes such as The Crucible give you incentive to keep playing beyond the credits. If you enjoyed the first game in any capacity, then pick this up as well. Otherwise, if you have any attachment to games like The Legend of Zelda, God of War, Prince of Persia, Portal, or Diablo, then this is worth checking out for you as well. As for me, I hope this isn’t the last we see of The Four Horsemen.




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