By John Walker on August 14th, 2012 at 5:00 pm.
The original Darksiders managed to frustrate us. But that was two years ago, and it’s a fresh start. And no suspense here: the sequel is absolutely fantastic. I’ve been playing Darksiders II in every waking hour for days, and can now tell you Wot I Think.
According to the game’s own clock, I’ve been hacking, slashing, punching, puzzle-solving, horsey-riding, chatting, and massively stomping my way through Darksiders II for 20 hours. According to reality, it’s been a lot longer than that, including re-attempts, inventory fiddling, stat adjustment, re-attempts, shopping, cutscenes, and re-attempts. And I’m only two-thirds of the way through.
Unfortunately, with review code only arriving late Friday, despite my best efforts I’ve not had time to finish this before writing. But with a huge amount of time already put in, I feel pretty confident to tell you what a splendid time this is. It really is.
Darksiders II is massive in so many sense of the word. Obviously in the realm of RPGs, 30 hours doesn’t seem too extreme, but this is primarily a third-person action game, and in that world it’s positively epic. It’s also a third-person action which is doing a damned good impression of an action RPG. And a puzzle platformer. Then there’s the vast scale of absolutely everything within, from the multiple massive worlds to the gargantuan enemies, to the sheer volume of every action. To call it bombastic is to underestimate things to a ludicrous degree.
It is also derivative of just about everything imaginable. There’s barely a single original idea in here – and yet that never proves a bad thing. Instead this is a lucky dip of great game ideas from everywhere else, compiled together in one enormous project, dwarfing its inspirations in terms of size, if not always in design. Within the game you’ll find one huge chunk of Prince Of Persia, a generous slice of Zelda, no inconsiderable lump of Metroid Prime, and a car park full of Ratchet & Clank. Then there’s the bucketfuls of Shadows Of The Colossus, all served with a massive side order of Diablo. And these aren’t reaches – these are bold, clear influences, and what a bloody good thing that is. What a fantastic list of games to be reminded of, all at once.
This is, rather obviously, the sequel to Darksiders. I must admit I’ve not played the original, and you can hate me for that now:________. Good, let’s get on. With the first game’s protagonist, War, imprisoned for the crime of wiping out humanity, this game’s sort-of-hero, Death, is determined to prove his innocence. By… going to a tree.
There is, in fact, an enormous amount of story here. Vast mythologies about the various realms that share our universe, the Nephilim and Death’s murdering of them, a terrible Corruption that’s destroying all the realms, and a long, elaborate quest to free War. Along the way you learn background details of various races, as well as completing sidequests relevant to their interests. And despite all this, I haven’t a flipping clue what’s going on. This doesn’t seem to be to do with lacking the story from the first game, but rather because it appears to be opting to tell you Death’s tale in a completely mad order. You know he’s done a bad thing near the start, but you don’t find out why, or when, until much later, and then it still just obfuscates further. It matters not a jot – in fact, it might even be quite clever. But what really counts is that you’re told to go somewhere and find a thing/kill a guy, and you do it, and it’s so much fun to do so.
Time is split about 2:1 between fighting and exploring. In the latter, it couldn’t feel much more like Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time. Right down to the animations of how Death moves, the pattern of wall-runs (indeed, the pattern on the walls to hint you can wall-run too) and pillar climbs, rotating devices to raise platforms, there’s even what’s essentially a rewind mechanism for when you fall off ledges. You’re magicked back to the spot where you fell with minimum penalty. And just how much does every right-thinking person long for more of Sands Of Time? Exactly. You’ve got it here.
Fighting is more dominant, although most of the time it takes the form of a more action-RPG style, dozens of enemies attacking you in waves, as you deploy your various skills that you’ve bought from trainers or earned through levelling up. However, here it’s much more about combos rather than just hitting number keys, carefully timed moves with both of your equipped weapons and various assigned skills, along with jumping and dodging. It’s incredibly frantic, and yet even for a fighting game klutz like me, impressively easy to get to grips with. There’s an enormous amount of variety of how to shape your Death, despite a rather lacklustre two-pronged skill tree, letting you choose from a squillion different weapon types and tactics. I’ve opted for claw-based special weapons, and my obligatory scythes are just the finest you’ll see.
Weapons are the most Diabloey of all. There are plain whites, nice greens, fancy blues, and oh-so-very-fine purples, dropped from the many chests found in hard-to-reach places, or bought from the traders you’ll meet on your journey. It manages to capture that perfect sense of desperately wanting to always be upgrading, while feeling regret when it’s finally time to move on from a favourite hammer. And there’s a lovely addition here too – sacrificing equipment. Better than all the other item types are the orange, upgradeable weapons or armour that improve themselves by devouring others. Sacrifice your busy inventory to them and they’ll gradually level up, boosting their primary stats, and letting you choose to add many others. A five-time-levelled orange item is a wonderful thing. And best of all, when they’ve finally been outclassed by drops, they sell for a fortune to a merchant.
The final prong, I suppose, is platforming, although it mostly overlaps with the POP:SOT action. Like everything else in the game, dungeons and towers are vast, and figuring out correct routes through them is where most of the puzzles appear. This starts off as your basic switch pressing and route-finding, but deeper into the game you’ll have conjurable accomplices, whose deployment makes puzzling far more elaborate.
Then there are the bosses. Many a great game has ruined itself with its bosses, and Darksiders comes damned close on occasion. There are possibly a hundred bosses here – I’m guessing in the dark – and they come thick and fast. Pretty much any room wider than a corridor is probably going to slam up a gate behind you as you walk in, and ask you to kill something five times the size of you. Or five hundred times. And mostly, you know what, they’re fine. Killing them is less about attrition gaming, and more about judiciously employing the skills you’ve learned, making excellent use of the dodge, and not forgetting you have an occasional ability to turn into a giant winged form of yourself where you can squish most things flat.
There are, however, a couple of exceptions, where the game’s occasional glitchiness combined with poor flagging of weaknesses can mean much swearing and hand-slamming takes place. The dodge, while very entertaining to use properly, fails to fire for indiscernible reasons, and that never, ever feels fair. Also, one of Death’s later skills, a purple magicky thing that’s essentially a grappling hook, is also extremely twitchy, failing you at stupid moments that can be far too frustrating.
Other glitches appear throughout. It’s a bit too easy to get stuck in the furniture, although the utterly exemplary checkpointing means this is rarely too severe a problem. (Seriously, no game has ever had better, more frequent checkpoints than this one.) And at one point an entire lump of exposition was lost when a cutscene went mad, swathes of dialogue went missing, and I awoke in a different location.
In the end, Darksiders II is about two things. Size, and detail. And it’s just so brilliant at both. It’s hard to convey just how enormous everything is. Death himself is a huge man, a horseman of the apocalypse, beefy and armoured, carrying weapons twice his size. And he’s the smallest thing in the game (bar some stupid buzzy bug things). The first group of characters you meet are the Makers, a race of giants who seem to have had a pivotal role in creation. Each towers over you, but they’re nothing compared to their constructs, golems the Makers built, the size of houses. Except, well, they’re the titchy ones, because by the end of your ten hours with these chaps, you’ll be freeing and fighting creatures who step over hills. This is a game where you don’t just open doors or look in chests. Here enormous purple ghostly hands roar open vast hulking doors, making colossal slamming sounds, or rip chests into chunks to empty out their content. Everything is as loud, as huge, and as dramatic as it possibly could be.
The detail is so impressive too. I love so many things, like how when Death climbs a vertical wooden beam, he makes a galloping sound. And talking of which, his horse, Despair, is meticulously crafted, walking, trotting and galloping with pristine animations, one of the best gaming horsies since Shadow Of The Colossus. There’s Death’s swimming – it sounds such a trivial thing, but swimming is where exactly 100 percent of action games go wrong, but not any more. His stroke is that of an Olympian, again remarkably well animated, and actually a pleasure to play with. For once water sections don’t induce a groan, but actually a cheer. And I love that when you reload the game it gives you a topical “story so far” recap to remind you what you were up to.
There’s some bad news too, I’m afraid. To call the port half-assed is an insult to chopped up donkeys everywhere. The graphics options are minimal, and the menus are utterly insane if negotiated with a mouse. In fact, you can’t go “back” with a mouse at any point, despite the buttons appearing on the screen. The game doesn’t even offer a “Start New Game” option, instead asking you to load one of three saved games, all blank obviously. And that’s after making sure you’ve been warned that it’s going to auto-save, and not to switch off your PC mid-save, every time you load it.
There’s no option to switch between keyboard/mouse and 360 controls, so if you want to play without your controller, you’re going to have to unplug it before you start the game. That’s just abysmal. Although honestly, despite there being adequate options for traditional PC controls, it’s a game obviously designed to be played on a pad, and I strongly recommend you do.
It can take quite a lot to make you forget an obnoxiously bad PC port for menus, but the only reason I’ve remembered to include it is because I wrote it on my pad. I’m totally sucked in to this world, absorbed by an epic game. No, there’s not an original bone in its body, but it’s like playing a best-of of gaming, on an extraordinary scale. I haven’t finished it, so I can’t say with any surety that it doesn’t go completely stupid with boss fights toward the end – I fear it, but I don’t know yet. When I get there, I’ll be sure to post to say. But the first 25 hours or so have been worth the price of entry (not that I paid, but I’m great at empathy).
I just wish they hadn’t called it Darksiders II. I’m not exactly in the minority not having played the first game, and it would seem too great a shame to put people off playing this. It should really have been called Darksiders: Death, so let’s all imagine it was.