Darksiders II Review
I've been waiting for Darksiders II since before Darksiders I came out. I was given the chance to play through a pre-release copy of the first adventure and had the whole thing finished about three days before most people had the chance to buy it and start the adventure. The game was, in short, unbelievable; it still holds as one of my highest scoring console games ever (98/100) and, like Resident Evil 4 and Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!!, subsequent and numerous playthroughs have been pretty common around my house. The first game's ending was an obvious setup for a sequel (no spoilers here, not yet anyway), and ever since the beginning of 2010, Darksiders II has consistently topped my "most anticipated" games list. Well, it's finally here. Finally. Does this sequel measure up to the first game's brilliance? Or will it be Death that does us part?
If you never got around to playing Darksiders, shame on you. Being the nice guy here, I'll catch those of you who missed it up on the story. One of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, War, was tricked into, and then blamed for, the death of every human on Earth and the end of the world. War's quest for redemption eventually brought him face-to-face with the Destroyer and the very being who set all the events in motion. The last shot of the game was of the three remaining Horsemen riding to War's aid, and it was crazy awesome. Darksiders II takes place at roughly the same time as the first game, only this time players control another Horseman, Death. The new hero's (Is Death really a "hero"?) motivation is clearing his brother's name by restoring the Earth, but you and I both know it won't be that simple. The story plays a big part in the proceedings, and there are plenty of allusions and references to characters and events from the first Darksiders. Gameplay is king in Death's tale, as it was in War's, but the plot does engross and flow more smoothly than it did in the original.
Sadly, though the plot is a little stronger than it was last time around, you'll often forget completely what your overall goal is supposed to be in the face of some seriously long questing. For example, your goal in the Kingdom of the Dead is to seek out the Well of Souls, an objective set for you the moment you step through the portal that brings you to the massive area. But after I'd fought in an arena, talked to a king, gathered some of his subjects (some of whom had sub-subquests required to obtain their allegiance) and returned, it was nearly six hours and almost as many dungeons later. When Death once again spoke of the Well of Souls, I was like, "Oh, yeah... That's what I was supposed to be going for..." And speaking of Death, you won't find much in him to attach yourself to emotionally. He can be funny and condescending at times, but mostly he remains a soulless action hero as you guide him through quest after quest. War didn't have much of a personality either, but he looks positively fascinating when compared with his brother.
Predictably, Darksiders II looks fantastic. The world, created by personal favorite comic artist Joe Madureira (Uncanny X-Men, Battle Chasers), is not just mind-bogglingly huge, it is beautiful and detailed down to the most minute little flairs. Madureira and Darksiders fans alike would be able to recognize the game easily simply by how the characters, the landscape, et.al., look. Huge stone gateways are carved to look like Viking faces, doors situated right under their granite moustaches. The spires of evil towers scrape the clouds and make Mordor look like a daycare center. The characters are expertly designed and carry that trademark Madureira "weight (there is no way any of these guys could get through any door you've ever seen)." Even startup load screens, which tell of "the tale thus far," feature hand-drawn Madureira sketches, any of which I would proudly hang in my living room, given the chance. The bosses, as they did in the first Darksiders, take the cake when it comes to visuals. Monsters like the Guardian (a stories-tall stone behemoth), the Wailing Host (a tentacle-faced, screen-filling monstrosity) and Achidna (a huge spider fought in an almost lightless cave) never cease to impress; standard enemies are also nicely designed, but it's tough to get excited when you've hacked them up for the billionth time. From an artistic standpoint, Darksiders II is one of the best-looking games of all time.
From a technical standpoint, however, things aren't quite as nice. I noticed a lot of screen tearing through certain sections, and it is not uncommon for Death to freeze in his tracks while the game loads the next area. And this can, and does, happen everywhere; the overworld, inside dungeons, even at seemingly calm hub centers. Though not as frequent, missing textures and falling through floors also hurt the score. As artistically beautiful as Darksiders II is, it breaks my heart to see issues like this drag things down, especially because THQ delayed the game from June until August to work on polish. Isn't "polish," as defined by gamers, the working out of these very issues?
The sound is pretty good, not great. The blah, unmemorable background tunes of Darksiders are gone, replaced in the sequel by a full orchestral score. Every area, from the icy intro to the final boss features some good, if not totally amazing, music, though you'll hear some of the hub worlds' tunes on an endless loop while exploring. This can get annoying, especially in the Forge Lands. So much woodwind! The voice acting is also just pretty good; most actors deliver lines extremely well; the problem is most of the lines suck. Certain characters' use of fantasy media clich�s suggests that the verbiage will be illegal tomorrow, and it often seems the characters are talking past one another, rather than conversing. Perhaps most annoying of all are the Makers, a race of giant Viking-like creatures with Scottish accents. Remember Ulthane from the first game? He was a Maker, and you'll run into more than a few of his kind in the first hours of Darksiders II. The thing is that all the Makers' accents, again, thickly Scottish, sound stupid and forced, like a first time standup comedian doing his best to imitate Disney's Brave, Shrek or Sean Connery. It's tough to take much they say seriously in the face of such poor vocal work, and it actually made enjoy dealing with them less. Other characters fare much better, providing the game with auditory features both naughty and nice, boy-o. See? Boy-o? Annoying, right? You ain't heard nothin' yet.
Ok, so now you know about the story, the visuals and the sound you'll experience in Darksiders II, so let's talk gameplay, the most important of all subjects. Darksiders II will be instantly familiar to those who played the first, but it doesn't take long for the basic formula to change. While the first Darksiders had shades of the Legend of Zelda and God of War, Darksiders II more closely resembles a true action RPG, with loot drops, side quests and the like. This sequel does, like its predecessor, keep the action and puzzle solving at about 50/50, but Death is a far more formidable warrior than his brother. He can run along walls (if you played the Prince of Persia reboot, it's like that), split himself into two separate controllable characters, swing from grappling areas, ride his ethereal horse, Despair, and, of course, fight like hell. Death can use two weapons at a time, his scythe and a second destruction device, which can range from ultra quick claws to huge hammers and swords, depending on what you manage to find or acquire. Much like with War, alternating is usually the key to victory, though when you find a weapon that is particularly nice, you can forget about the other for a while. Supplement all that with a firearm obtained early in the game, some purchasable and upgradable special attacks and Death's Chaos form, a super huge, super purple "rage mode," if you will, and Death is a force to be reckoned with.
Death's varied abilities are a big part of what makes Darksiders II so fun to play and explore, with the other half of the equation being the world and the quests you'll take on. Through four massive areas, you'll have to explore and seek out all kinds of things, from ghosts to rocks to items and everything in between. Darksiders II's dungeons and the overworld are integrated so seamlessly that you'll oftentimes not realize you've entered a new area until you check the map screen, and said dungeons are everywhere. Unlike War's adventure, things aren't set up with quite the same linearity. Entire continents are available for exploration the moment you set foot in them, whereas War had the hub, the path to the dungeons and the dungeons themselves; no muss, no fuss. It never gets any less fun to find a new area, and a fast travel mechanic makes getting from one location to the next a breeze. Darksiders II also has a ton of different items, beyond just random loot drops, to search out, and finding them all looks to be a 40-50 hour process, not counting a New Game + second playthrough. In a lot of ways, the scenery and landscape has more character than Death himself.
The quests are almost always interesting, though they do contain minor annoyances here and there. This main problem I had was the game has a tendency to feel "fetch-questy." For example, you are given a quest to find three separate members of a dead king's court. You fight through two dungeons to find the first two, but the third only agrees to go with you if you find him three specific items. This prompted my wife to wonder aloud, "Can't anyone do anything for their damn selves?" In the world of Darksiders II, no, no one seems capable of completing any task without your help. Some generally excellent objectives before and after this instance more than make up for it, but you'll spend at least a few hours feeling like Death is a glorified bike messenger or courier.
To go along with the visual technical issues I mentioned earlier, the game also has its share of gameplay-related technical issues. Using the circle button to grab enemies or activate switches doesn't always work on the first try, and sometimes not at all. For example, in an area where Death must hang a lantern from a large statue, only hitting circle will get him to do so. After 20 minutes of cursing, I reloaded my save file only to have it work again on the first try. Huh? This extends to enemies as well; the game prompts you to hit circle to instantly kill weaker beings, but it only works about a third of the time. In the original game, this mechanic was so well-implemented you could jump from flying enemy to flying enemy without touching the ground; in the sequel, you'd be lucky if your third or fourth try gets a grip on a bad guy. The final issue has to do with some of the puzzles. In places where you must move statues or stone robots to certain places, it isn't uncommon to leave the room and return only to find them missing. Couple this with glitchy circle triggers and you're looking at about half a dozen of reloaded save files through no fault of your own. Again, where is the "polish" we had to wait two months for?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Darksiders II and I will probably end up playing it through a second time in the near future (some items only show up in New Game +). The visual artistry is second to none, the combat is tight and fun and the world is massive, but I feel like Darksiders II isn't the game it could have been. Technical errors distract and infuriate, being an errand boy is never fun and the Makers simply couldn't be any more annoying or artificial-sounding. The loot drop system is a boon for the franchise, but some of the stuff left out or minimized since the first title makes me wonder if Darksiders was a flash in the pan, rather than a start to a truly amazing series. Darksiders II just doesn't have the magic of the original, but I can't think of a better new game on the market, warts and all. Death may not have parted myself and the Darksiders franchise, but it dampened my expectations and hopes of walking down the aisle again with part three.
Final Rating: 87%. The visual artistry is second to none, the combat is tight and fun, and the world is massive, but Darksiders II isn't the game it could have been.