At a recent event in Dublin I got the chance to play the first few hours of the apocalyptic action-adventure, Darksiders II. It's not really important that it was in Dublin, but it adds flavour. You can now imagine the Liffey drifting slowly by as I got all wrapped up in the first few moments of Death's adventure. An adventure I realised was rather derivative, but also that there's nothing wrong with that.
Darksiders 2 takes place in the same timeframe as the first game, but in a series of tangential worlds. Bizarrely, it's about the brotherly love between the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. You're now in control of Death, as he sets about trying to prove that War - star of the first game - didn't deliberately kickstart the Apocalypse. Hands-up if you already love the lore? You can be a demi-god, with undreamed of power, but if you annoy someone they get all twiddly moustache on you and plant bloody gloves and knives in your pockets. Death views his brother as the most moral of the demons that will bring about the end of the world, who couldn't possibly have done what he's accused of. But instead of pouting, he scythes demons in order to prove War's innocence. War. Is. Innocent. That's brilliant. Also: scythes!
Not that there's much detective work. Instead you set about problem solving the way all action heroes do. Death's able to scrabble up or along walls, like Prince of Persia. He can jump between poles and dangle over drops, like Lara Croft. And now he can collect loot, like Mister RPG Diablo Face. Darksiders 2's Death is daringly derivative.
That range of movement translates into a fun darting ball of killification. The fighting is combo and timing based, working between the softer swifter hits, and the harder but more difficult to pull off assaults. Coupled with the lock-on and dodge buttons it can feel a little button mashy to begin with, but it grows into a decent, reactive system for scything things. It nimbly responds, and you can eagerly take on clumps of demons, whacking them, jumping, and dodging in the same move, ducking out of attacks and finishing off with a blast of heavy combat. The only issue here was sparse health potions - it's a tough slog, and health doesn't regenerate.
Exploring will help the Makers (giant Scots who made the world) get their mojo back (Weirdly, the same is true of Jim - Ed), who'll assist you in helping War. The journey to these story-centric dungeons can be a slow fight over huge plains, or if you fancy just avoiding it all, you can hop on Death's horse, Despair, and ride past it all. I'm glad you can just canter around (does Death's horse canter? Is there a more despairing word? Answers in comments, please) at your leisure, because the world is huge. Big and ugly in that beautiful way, with corridors filled with meteor showers, and building-sized eye-balls clinging onto mountain sides. It's a step away from the crumbled cityscapes of War's game, but still has the hub and spoke layout cribbed from the likes of Metroid and Zelda.
DSII feels like a mega-biff enhanced version of Prince of Persia, with wallruns, dramatic leaps, climbing, and lots of environmental puzzles. Again, these are nothing new, but they are fun, particularly as the levels are designed with the sort of garish ridiculousness that the story prompts. Places like the Charred Pass and Weeping Crag lead you to vast dungeons of molten metal, or sodden, empty palaces - huge, environmental puzzles that house problems and demons. There's an impressive pacing to them - just enough fighting and just enough puzzling, although at least one fight threw an annoyingly over-powered lizard thing that could swipe half Death's health away in one grab. I only cleared it by fleeing instead of fighting, which is at least an option.
The main addition is progression and loot. It was all a bit too simple the first time around, which limited you to whatever the game doled out. Now there's a split skill tree, shops, and drops to customise your demi-god. It's Choose Your Own Death. It's Dr Kevorkian's favourite game! Although in my hands-on it wasn't obvious quite how widely it differentiates, as there's only so much I could do with the opening sections. I plucked a few new scythes and fancy shoes from corpses and bartered for a few upgrades, and it felt generous enough to provide plenty of options. With a stack of things to sell after a couple of hours, it bodes well for loot hoarders.
The only real bum note in all this is that lack of something to make the game distinctive. It has lovely art and good acting, but it's missing an obvious innovation, instead relying on calling in ideas from all over for a big group hug. It has character, but lacks soul.
Although, as a genre that is under-represented on the PC, it's not all that bothersome. In the end this short play showed sink hole of inspiration, cobbling together an interesting and entertaining experience from a lot of sources. It was good, it was fun, and while it may not offer originality, it borrows wisely and delivers it well.
Darksiders II should be out in August this year.