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Retrospective: Darksiders II - Deathinitive Edition

Death Becomes Him

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Returning to Darksiders II [official site] nearly five years after I first reviewed it, for a worrying time I wondered what on Earth I’d been on about. I remember absolutely loving the game, and writing a rave review back in 2012, so why was I struggling to even want to carry on in the first hour? It turns out, it just has a really dull first hour, because ten hours in I’m so utterly engrossed, and want to rave about it all over again.

Another thing I’d forgotten is that Darksiders II is a ridiculously enormous game. Far, far bigger than it ever needed to be. Realising that after ten hours I wasn’t even close to halfway through, and even then leaving many side quests untouched along the way, I’m absolutely staggered. If it had ended at the end of the quest chain related to the Makers in their Forge Lands, everyone would have said, “Splendid! Good work! But what was the rest of the skill tree going to be for?” That it just keeps carrying on is extraordinary.

This is the tale of Death, reacting to the events in the original Darksiders (which for some reason I’ve never played) featuring War. He’s awfully cross about his brother’s predicament, and is determined to reach the Tree Of Life to prove War’s innocence, which involves asking a pesky chap called the Keeper Of Secrets for some help. Except the Keeper is an old grumpygrump, cursed by an amulet full of the souls of the Nephilim that Death once slaughtered, and- oh, look, there’s a lot of plot. Mostly Death is ironically trying to restore life to the world. That leads to Death killing the Keeper and being dragged into a portal created by his demise, plopping him out in the Forge Lands, surrounded by the monolothic Makers. They themselves are in a spot of bother, their giant world-creating forge broken via something called the Corruption, which Death must remove through a series of elaborate quests. Which, as it turns out, is only the beginning.

I think what I most like about Darksiders II is that it’s a game that makes you feel really good at playing it. It is, in many senses, the antidote to Dark Souls. A third-person action game in which you rush around fighting enemies many times bigger than you, in waves of attacks, except it really, really wants you to be the winner.

Attacks are capable of being enormously complicated, but you can feel super-good at fighting without delving into the complexities of the controller juggling. There are special moves that require holding down about seventeen buttons at once, that I look at and just think: nope. Because I can still win the fights by jumping about the four face buttons in random and silly patterns, somehow pulling off mighty moves. Were I to try harder, the game would reward me by offering more interesting combat, but it so splendidly caters for my approach anyway.

Which isn’t to say it’s easy. Fights are often challenging, especially when faced with the most gargantuan opponents, and dying isn’t unlikely. It’s just that when it starts you off again right next to the fight (although unfortunately doesn’t have the sense to let you skip the accompanying reveal animations, grrr) you get the feeling the game’s rooting for you. That seems so very old-fashioned, so quaint, some five years on.

Of course, Darksiders II was also a massive Tomb Raider/Prince Of Persia rip-off too, and fantastically so. With absolutely no shame at all it mimics just about every athletic move Lara had at her disposal, seemingly only forgetting to let Death pull himself up into a graceful handstand. You spend a wonderful amount of time nimbly climbing, leaping, swinging and backward somersaulting off poles in a manner surely unbecoming of a Horseman, and it manages to deliver something that gets close to Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time’s thrilling acrobatics.

The result of messy (or precise if you’re a cleverclogs) combat and spritely leaping around, is a game that captures that purity of controller-led antics. It’s just so damned playable. I realise that’s a pretty criminal word for a games critic to use, but it feels just so perfectly right to describe this. While many of the best games are about asking you to outdo yourself, or delve deeply in, or chip away at, Darksiders II is just there, in front of you, waiting to be played. It’s a giant plate of fast food. Feet up on the desk, chair tipped back, controller in your lap, and you munch away at it, devouring the hour after hour of entertaining fat.

I guess that’s also why it’s an oddly disliked game. People seem to have strong feeling about it, for not being quite enough of something or other, for falling short of some expectation. But for me it fills a massive need, the sort of game that’s like a favourite action movie you can never switch over from when you stumble upon it on TV.

Which almost feels rude, and definitely doesn’t give credit to the ridiculous levels of story and lore they’ve put in place here. Mostly because I just want it to be quiet so I can carry on biffing and jumping and riding the horse really fast across the giant lands. Reaching the secret chests, solving puzzles the size of mountains, winning a fight against an enemy fifty times bigger than me. It’s for this that I celebrate it, and that I find it a game that’s so enjoyable to return to (after that dreary opening hour). I feel daunted by its enormousness, it’s too big of a game for me to have time to finish, but I love that it’s all there, so easily enjoyed.

This was my first time playing the Deathinitive Edition, Nordic Games’ tidied up version after they bought the license in THQ’s fire sale. Which is already notably out of date, being nearly two years old. Nothing problematic, other than its professed support for 3440×1440 not working for me – I got a stretched image which made Death look very silly. And there’s no better time to grab it, in Steam’s Summer sale down 80%, for just a fiver.

Which all leaves me very excited for the finally-existing Darksiders III, so long as THQ Nordic can resist the temptation to jump on the Dark Souls bandwagon and take the series away from being a giant comfortable beanbag, to a spiky uncomfortable throne. Early footage looks promising, except for that awful-looking weakly whip. And if it doesn’t get there, I’ll still have the remaining dozens of hours of the second game to entertain me.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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