If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Nintendo must have felt honored when Vigil Games released the original Darksiders back in 2010. Taking obvious cues from The Legend of Zelda franchise, along with other notable series like God of War and Portal, THQ’s tale of a Horseman out for redemption managed to meld various familiar elements into a solid, if not familiar, experience.
What’s important is that the project was successful enough to warrant a sequel, and trust me when I say that that’s a good thing. Darksiders II drops War as its protagonist and instead ventures forward with his brother Death, but fortunately, the results are far from grim. While still shameless with regards to its design inspirations, Vigil’s second outing both improves and expands on the successful facets from the first game while incorporating a slew of interesting elements you never even knew you needed. Piles of loot and bundles of collectables will keep you exploring the expansive world for hours, but it’s the engaging moment-to-moment action and brilliant sense of movement that make that time slip away almost unnoticed. A few questionable design decision may hold it back from its true potential, but Darksiders II manages to borrow bits and pieces from what seems like every successful franchise of the last decade and still surface as a grand, unique adventure.
Though Death’s quest is considered a sequel, the narrative actually runs concurrent to the events of the original game. What makes Darksiders II a separate experience is the game’s focus on a new Horseman, Death, and his journey for both his brother’s redemption and his own absolution. After Death learns of War’s conviction by the Charred Council, the masked Horseman drops his fatal duties and defies those whom he believes falsely accused his fellow Rider. War, in Death’s eyes, is the most honorable of the Horsemen, so the Pale Rider travels across both Heaven and Hell to see his brother’s name cleared. New wrinkles discovered while traveling the long road add depth to both the core story and the protagonist, but the goal of restoring War’s honor at any cost stays consistent throughout.
The character change is more than welcome in Darksiders II. War may have been a solid hero to lean on in the original title, but the added dimensions of Death’s conflicted past bring are a breath of fresh air in a world so full of dark, one-sided creatures. Though self-serious and forever brooding, it’s difficult not to appreciate (and maybe even relate to) the reaper and the rest of the colorful cast you’ll bump into as you journey along the expansive open world. Both the voice acting and writing are spot-on for the narrative being delivered, and while this isn’t an emotional tale that will stick with you long after the credits role, it certainly keeps you interested from dungeon to dungeon.
There’s plenty to do and see during Death’s mission, as the world of Darksiders II is twice the size of the original game’s. It really feels that way, too. There are plenty of linear, structured areas to conquer, but exiting a central hub and entering the open field reveals significant land masses just waiting to be explored and pilfered. Secret treasure chests, collectable items that can be sold to merchants, dangerous tombs and plenty of other unique mysteries occupy the open world, but similar to the Zelda franchise, the real meat of the game is located within the multitude of puzzle-filled dungeons.
Each story beat nudges you in the direction of a new lava-filled temple or harrowing catacomb, and while these areas do little to show off the true scope of the game, they are where you’ll find the most focused puzzle and combat sequences. It can be overwhelming to see the numerous locked doors, unsearched rooms and rabid creatures waiting to greet you upon first entering a new dungeon, but as long as you keep a level head and take each location one segment at a time, the correct path becomes both apparent and feasible. Puzzles incorporate items discovered within the dungeons themselves, allowing for surprising new twists on gameplay up until the very end. A spectral hand will help you traverse wider gaps, an object that splits Death into two parts assists in timing-based puzzles and time travel even makes a special appearance. No single riddle ever brought me to a point of frustration, but there’s an undeniable challenge throughout that will keep players’ brains working as they’re slicing and dicing the hordes of demons.
When not solving clever puzzles or galloping across the wide-open planes on your horse, you’ll be spending time silencing enemies through whatever means you prefer. While War carried a noticable weight, taking a more methodical pace (or “approach”) to combat, Death’s movements are as fluid as they are deadly. There’s a brilliance of movement in Darksiders II that wasn’t found in the first game, as both simple platforming and the act of swinging a scythe are supremely satisfying. Instead of a heavy block-and-counter system seen in most action titles, the key to success in battle is constant movement and explosive bursts of action. Death can quickly roll both toward and away from his targets, and while his speed makes one-on-one encounters a breeze, group battles require both quick reflexes and a sound understanding of the abilities of your custom character.
Loot plays a mammothrole in how each enemy encounter is handled, too. Treasure chests, merchants and random drops all contribute to the massive amounts of armor, weapons and amulets that help make Death an unstoppable force. While there’s a random element to the loot dropped by enemies, more advanced equipment can only be picked up later in the game. Your primary weapon will consistently be a scythe, but the secondary tool can range from a massive hammer to a pair of quick, razor-sharp claws. All the stat-boosting gear also has an aesthetic effect on Death, as he continues to look more menacing with each new piece of hardware. You’ll find yourself obsessing over the perfect combination of gear, and with plenty of room in your inventory and hundreds items to be gathered, the possibilities are seemingly endless.
Skill points earned through achieving new levels also add a layer of customization to the game, with the help of an expansive skill tree. Abilities that can be mapped to specific button combinations on the controller help add an ever greater level of variety to the core combat, as both active and passive maneuvers have the power to turn the tides of battle in an instant. However, activating these skills does feel a bit clunky. Techniques are attached to a combination of the left shoulder button and one of the four face buttons, with your lock-on mapped to the left trigger. On a PlayStation 3 controller, keeping a lock on a target while activating a skill feels unnatural, and you’ll often find yourself accidentally letting loose an unintended action. You’ll become more familiar with the control scheme as the game progresses, but it never quite becomes intuitive enough to ignore.
Even with so many high points, Darksiders II doesn’t ride off into the sunset without at least one stumble. Though the majority of the game keeps you engaged with break-neck action and a solid story, the structure of the quests begins to become too familiar as the game progresses. Death comes to each new area with one set goal, but instead of being directed toward the specific object or person needed, some odd circumstance inevitably requires the Rider to jump through far too many hoops beforehand. Instead of “complete this dungeon to find this important key,” you’ll be forced to find a magical rod. On your quest for that rod, you learn that it’s been shattered to pieces. Now, you’re searching for the first piece of a rod that you only need to find the original key, of which you’ll require two in order to progress.
This is a common trope in Japanese RPGs. It does a good job of stretching out the narrative and increasing total playtime, but becomes a bit disheartening when you arrive at an objective only to learn that you need to gather some miscellaneous trinket locked away in a dungeon first. It certainly helps that these dungeons you’re exploring are both well-designed and entertaining, and the entire game doesn’t suffer from this problem, but it’s still an issue that takes some of the steam out of the adventure.
Even if you do grow tired of being sent from one end of the map to the next, you’ll at least be able to enjoy the journey there with both your eyes and ears – as long as you don’t make use of the nifty fast travel feature. Darksiders II is a truly beautiful game; nailing down the comic-book vibe that saw so much success back in the first game. Bright colors that you wouldn’t expect to witness in such a terrifying land pop right off the screen, and the orchestral score has a knack for ramping up just when the action reaches a crescendo. Both work in tandem to produce a truly singular experience for the senses; one rarely seen in a genre so dominated by little more than heavy guitar riffs and violence.
A handful of sidequests, as well an arena-style, wave-based addition called Crucible Mode that incorporates online leaderboards, help make Darksiders II a fully-featured title, providing any type of player hours of entertainment. The inclusion of New Game Plus is just icing on the cake, and even after sinking around 18 hours into the game on my first run, I continue to have the urge to score more loot and take down more massive bosses.
Vigil Games’ open-world franchise may forever be linked to its many inspirations, but there’s no denying that Darksiders II has emerged as a quality title with its own personality. A sharper, more fluid combat system added to deep RPG elements and a bevy of worthwhile content make this sequel a significant improvement over its already impressive predecessor. You can make all the comparisons you want to other successful franchises on the market, but it’d be a terrible mistake to look past one of the finest games produced this year. Just play it, have fun, and hope that we’re lucky enough see the Horsemen ride again.
Darksiders II was developed by Vigil Games and published by THQ. A PlayStation 3 copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.