Darksiders II Review


Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U
Release Dates: August 14, 2012 (PS3, Xbox 360, PC); Fall 2012 (Wii U)

Darksiders is my favorite Zelda game. Hot off the heels of a failed attempt at Ocarina of Time, Darksiders came into my life and subsequently consumed me because of its intelligent puzzles, sense of progression, and thick layer of mystery surrounding War, the protagonist. Seeing Zelda‘s influence bordered on plagiarism, but it’s incredible polish and overall presentation quickly silenced any haters… and probably Nintendo’s lawyers. I even remember saying that a second attempt should try to seek out its own identity. Darksiders II comes and promises to be a massive step over the original with plenty of new systems and areas of land to explore. I did say I wanted something different, but sometimes I should be careful of what I wish for.

War’s false accusation has sent him to prison for a century, letting the player control one of the other horsemen, Death. Knowing that his brother has been wrongly accused of wiping out humanity, he begins a journey to figure out how to clear War’s name at whatever the cost. The Tree of Life is said the bring answers.

Meet Death. He’s a people person.

Despite his name, Death is full of life and sarcasm. He may look like something off an Iron Maiden album, but Death actually has an endearing personality worthy of making him an interesting character to listen to. His somber, gravelly voice often spurts out clever lines to the supporting roles and shows off some quality writing. Non-playable characters are well-spoken too, but Death snatches the spotlight.

It’s just disheartening that he has to be involved with a mostly flat narrative. Within the first hour, Death finds out about his goal for the Tree of Life. Between the beginning and the end, expect plenty of artificial roadblocks to postpone the eventual goal. You’ll need to go talk to this guy, who requires you to find three things for his neighbor, then the new guy three more doodads, and the cycle repeats over and over again until the credits roll.

Elongating the story diminishes any impact because it makes it feel as though nothing is crucial or important, as it stretches tasks so far apart and fills the middle with dull fetch quests. Going against the ideals of a man with Death as his name, I felt like an errand boy eager to mow anyone’s lawn just to be pointed in the direction of the next lazy demon king I could talk to. Not to mention that very few instances feel stimulating enough to generate much interest. Death is a cool cat, but he gets tossed into a cyclical tame mission structure that doesn’t allow him to interact with many people that generate any sort of shock. It would be like watching Joel McHale (or whoever your favorite actor is) wait in line at the bank, buy groceries, or balance his checkbook. You like that character, but you just want something exotic or risky to happen. If Darksiders II was a graph, it would be relatively flat with tiny peaks and valleys.

That certainly is a big world.

Dungeon design is fairly similar to the story structure. The original Darksiders followed a steady formula that worked to the game’s benefit: enter dungeon, get item, use item on devious puzzles, and then use it on the boss. This blueprint worked like a charm and didn’t hold your hand too much. “Puzzle” has taken on a whole other meaning in Darksiders II. Whereas the first game’s puzzles actually felt like brain teasers that required trial-and-error or critical thinking, Darksiders II‘s puzzles don’t generate the same brain activity.

Except for maybe three or four times in the whole game, you’ll walk into a room and immediately know what to do and how to achieve that goal. Death collects a smattering of devices during his quest, but they were never all put to the test simultaneously and each felt like they desperately fell short of their potential. Putting your car key in the car door and then the ignition is as much puzzle as most objectives in Darksiders II. You just sort of do them without much seismic activity in your noggin. Because of this, like the story, it just feels as though you are moving throughout the world without much mental input. Disappointingly enough, even the bosses just require basic hacking and slashing to win.

However, these basic hacking and slashing attacks have been radically refined since the last outing. Death is far more agile that War, and it shows on the battlefield. Similar to Devil May Cry, movements have been sped up and combos have been given much thought, with upgrades available almost right off the bat. With a few different types of at-the-ready secondary weapons in combination with the main scythes, hookshot-like death claw, pistol, and magic powers, the combat feels far more fluid and allows for juggles that would almost make Dante blush. Fights feel rather open and offer depth that make the first game look like a playground slap fight in comparison.

Can Death die? Sounds like a job for the Mythbusters

Picking up weapons is something that can be attributed to the new loot system. Upon death, enemies defecate materials ripe for Death’s arsenal. Gear is of the standard affair, offering different stats for each piece you find, but the possessed weapon system is a bit different. You won’t use a grand chunk of the stuff you pick up, but it may be useful to funnel into the rarest of the items. Called feeding, each weapon you drain into the possessed item allows to take different stats each time. A fantastic system like this allows for players to sculpt custom weapons for a certain playstyle and offers a small twist on a tried concept.

Length, pacing, and the plot call for the main, big negatives, but the game holds a myriad of smaller issues in almost every facet. Menus, for example, are sluggish and can take far too long to shuffle between the many pages. Death’s crow, Dust, acts as a guide, but judging by his constant puzzled state, I’d assume he was the Hellen Keller of birds. He’ll honestly leave you more confused when you beckon for his assistance as he shuffles awkwardly from door to door. The game also halts and loads far too frequently after most doors, sometimes just out of the blue.

Dust must have designed iOS maps.

The bigger of the nigglers go hand in hand. I did say the combat had been drastically improved (and I stand by that), but it still has a few bugs to squash to become mentioned in passing. Dodging can be interrupted, which has never been a good decision, along with magic attacks and some of Death’s attacks can’t be interrupted by a dodge. Auto-targeting is non-existent, meaning it is far too easy to whiff attacks and swing away at the blue.

But isn’t there a lock-on button? Why yes, there is, but it causes more problems than it fixes. Locking on to one enemy narrows the focus too much and basically begs for Death to get blindsided by off-screen baddies. Since the perspective changes a bit, controls (mainly for dodging) get too wonky and distract from actual combat. Up is left, down is right, making dodging a bit wonky. Locking on also makes the camera, which is naturally problematic, freak out and get stuck on the geometry or, better yet, corner you and the enemy so nothing relevant is visible. The lock-on made sense in a Zelda world, but moving away from the Zelda also should have required it to ditch the antiquated Z-Targeting in the process.

Z-Targeting is only semi-passable with a single enemy left.

The art style is not antiquated in the slightest. While the argument can be made that all the inhabitants are overdesigned with maybe one too many wings or too many pieces of armor, these angels, demons, or monsters all have a sense of style. Having this style lets the game look different from everything else out there, carefully striking the balance between comic-like and gritty, boring realism. The variety of worlds present showcase this powerful art direction as well and each looks remarkable. The final world holds up there as one of the coolest hubs out there, with a giant blackhole sucking away in the sky. The audio presentation is robust as well, with battle tracks pumping the necessary energy and calmer tracks playing smoothly in the background while you explore. Soundtrack repetition is par for the course in open games, but at least it is easy on the ears.

Seeing this world in motion made me stop and pause. Maybe I just like black holes?

Darksiders II has good times sandwiched between the beginning and end, but they went far too heavily in the scale direction, making the good moments feel too distanced from each other. The exorbitant length hurt in more ways than one, negatively attributing to the already bland story and seemingly making each dungeon deceptively simple. Improvements are found within the combat and loot system, but they are found in a package that got a little too big for its britches. “Bigger and better” is a popular tagline for sequels, but Darksiders II, while still valuable in its own right, only definitively nailed the first half of that slogan.

Pros:
+Melee combat has been drastically improved and given plenty of delicious depth with stats, a loot system, and big combos
+Death is a strong character, fueled by strong voice acting and good writing
+Distinct, vibrant art style with a thoughtful, if repetitive musical score
+Long, meaty game with a plethora of quests and a few different modes…
Cons:
-…But it feels like the game is too long
-Narrative drags on and doesn’t pick up enough steam
-Niggling issues within the combat, combat scenarios, pathfinding, design, menus, and technical presentation
-Most puzzles are overly simplistic and rarely the least bit challenging
-Camera gets erratic in most situations

Final Score: 7.5/10

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