Darksiders 2 – Death Lives!
Title: Darksiders 2
Studio: Vigil Games
Platforms: PS3 and XBOX 360 (This review was on Xbox)
All images are courtesy THQ/Vigil Games
If you liked Darksiders, you HAVE TO buy this game. No questions asked. If you haven’t, there is a shortage of narrative hooks to explain why you should care about Death’s story, but plenty of gameplay and interesting NPCs to make it worth your investment. Honestly, the worst thing I can say about this game is that it will keep you busy until the Fall Game-A-Geddon strikes its annual destruction upon our wallets. But for best results, buy the original used and then play this awesome game.
I am a truly huge fan of the original Darksiders and of War’s wrathy goodness. It was an epic send-up of all things Zelda, while drenching itself in the darkness and combat intensity of God of War. Some judged it a bad game for its obvious inspiration, but I felt it was exactly the game the other two had prepared me to want. Add to that the epic depth and weight of Vigil’s new world with its rotting modern landscape, multiple detailed beyond-human factions, and very real, very relatable characters, and you had yourself a bit of a stealth hit. Once the dust settled from initial bad mouthing, the title sold quite well on the strength of word of mouth and its similarity to the aforementioned older games. Two and a half years later, we have a game poised to benefit from the gap in time, a larger budget, and a now-known pedigree.
Darksiders II does effectively broaden the overall narrative of the series while falling somewhat short in its own execution. Having Death, of all creatures, tasked with restoring the human race while plagued with his role in destroying his own people is evocative and powerful. The game swiftly turns sins of the past and the mistakes of righteousness into a prevailing theme, as we see Death beset in the same manner as War but for very different choices and reasons.
This sequel also logs as a solid game-play entry, with truly impressive smart-running throughout the various platforming and traversal elements. I really can’t say enough about how seamlessly and effectively the seemingly-insane traversal mechanics are so fluidly worked into the game. I would routinely make my way across a particularly convoluted section and not be able to tell you how exactly I managed it other than that the necessary button presses JUST MADE SENSE.
THAT is good game design. There are also Diablo-style randomized gear drops that rain from the heavens, and smashed crates, like multi-colored mana of ass-kicking somehow manage to effectively scale with the surrounding enemies. This massive influx of gear could have easily been cumbersome, but 2 avoids the constant doohickey-checks of the original by classifying new toys as either primary weapon, secondary weapon, or armor. This eliminates a lot of the menu swapping to navigate puzzles that made the latter parts of Darksiders a bit cumbersome.
Leveling causes Dath’s abilities to broaden, while gear handles the vertical growth. Each level grants a skill point that can be invested in a variety of useful but completely unnecessary magics. They are in the game to give you more toys but not to tie you to their very existence. There are also numerous methods of gear progression that allow you to actively strengthen Death: world farming, boss drops, improvable vendors, random caches from Vulgrim, and hidden possessed weapons, which can be leveled by sacrificing other weapons and armor to their hunger.
Throughout, Death himself feels quite powerful without becoming the beat-down power-house epitomized by his brother War. In fact, this protagonist doesn’t even have a block button: an often key factor in surviving the first game. Instead, Death’s highly nimble evasion and swift weapon transitions make for unstoppably brutal attack combos and, if your timing is good enough, truly dickish counters. On top of that, Death doesn’t resort to War’s brutish punting of doors and smashing of chests. Rather, he lets his spirit self wrench open the loot and pry open the doorways in delightfully varied fashions. The trade-off is that War’s Wrath form had an almost constant presence in fights, whereas Death’s Reaper form is a rare-but-devastating option saved for only the worst conflicts.
The second the game loads in, you’re hit in the face with just how high quality Jesper Kyd’s music feels and sounds. Every time I started to worry about the overall game, Kyd pulled it back. Add to that the seering ambient noise of the game’s opening windswept icy cliffs, an immersive auditory environment that carries through every dungeon and zone, and your ears are in for an unrepentant treat. Additionally, throughout the game, music tempos would change to suite the rate at which I was traversing an area, the intensity of a given fight, and even with bigger musical brush strokes in the boss fights.
I’ve played other games that had fight-specific music or tried to match tempo, but this is the closest I’ve ever heard it executed to what I would consider perfection. The overall quality of the voice casting and delivery were completely solid, but there were a few points at which I think the editing could have been tighter, with responses coming a little too slow/fast or sharp volume differentials between two participants in a conversation. Also, Death’s raspy and sometimes (‘scuze the pun) deadpan delivery was perfect for the character, but almost felt weak in comparison to Liam O’Brian’s (FF XIII-2) epic and grandiose delivery as War. I feel like they made an interesting performance of the character itself but one that needed something to show his equality to his brother War.
The game had an occasional tendency to telegraph its intentions, like when I would walk into an open space and think: “This feels boss fighty.” KRAKOOM “Yup, boss fight.” But on the reverse, there were places later in the game where I was fully expecting to get attacked in a particular room and nothing would happen. But when I blithely wandered back through that room later, it would be death from skies and a million bad guys everywhere.
Mind you, the boss fights themselves generally alternated between bigger than average baddies I could defeat but needed to dance with a lot and a variety of “gimmick” fights. The bosses in the second group were generally so immense that it becomes clear fairly quickly that you’re not going to scythe them to death. The game even gives you a little while to flail away and try to guess at the solution before working in a quick cut-scene to point out where you should be thinking of attacking. Whether it’s explosive growths on a joint or eggs that fall from the ceiling, you have to then decided what and how to use them to win.
The same applies for the way the game helps you to solve the various level puzzles. Your “Navi-like” companion Dust is a glowing crow that spends most of the game roosting in corners or flitting around the room aimlessly. It’s not until you ask for his help that you even really have to deal with him as more than an accent for the character, and that suites me just fine. The previous game’s Watcher never descended to “Hey, listen!” territory but he often spoke more often than I cared to hear, and I’m sure that was mostly to get the bang for their buck in hiring Mark Hamill for the role. Dust, on the other hand, will simply fly over to whichever exit you should be trying to go through and sit on top of it, occasionally crowing, while you’re left to figure out how exactly to get TO said exit. As the overall complexity of the puzzles feels streamlined, if not quite dumbed down, the lack of hand holding keeps things from the doom pit of “too easy”.
Vigil also manages to keep changing things up in interesting ways by occasionally working in NPCs or random environmental objects that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in the gaming world of “push the box, pull the box, push the box”. Whether it’s the Maker that occasionally holds a door open or chucks you a hundred yards, or timed eggs that function like you normally expect blocks to… you’re kept guessing in all the best ways.
The game really does seem to put effort into learning from its predecessor’s errors, as well as providing an experience that has the definite personality that reflects the change in protagonists. But what I cannot stress is how much BIGGER this game is than its predecessor. The very first of the four main zones, the Forge Lands, with its 4-story dungeons and 3 side dungeons took 10+ hours to complete, and that’s with many a side-quest uncompleted and many a corner unexplored. Additionally, these weren’t hours spent grinding, banging my head against walls, or running around on useless courier events. The game’s fast travel system is light years ahead of the prior game, with the simple ability to warp to anywhere you’ve been and to warp back to the exact room you left in an in-progress dungeon. Considering the rain of gear throughout the game and the benefits of buying new toys every time you level, not penalizing me for trips to the store hub is a huge plus in my book.
The addition of Crucible mode and the Tome’s system adds an interesting twist to a solid game. In the Crucible, you must survive waves of enemies for ever better rewards. Some of the best gear in the game can be earned by making it to 100 waves. It’s a fun time sink, and a great way to really hammer out the finer points of Death’s more esoteric combat combos. The Tome system takes advantage of the games excessively high number of gear drops by letting you mail pieces of gear and weapons to other players, thus making gear that might not suite your play-style suddenly useful to trade for things you do need. I think the system isn’t going to get used quite as extensively as it could be, but it might make for an interesting grounding for an actual auction house in future titles in the series. Lastly, the inclusion of the ever popular game+ system – where you can start over and play through again with all your current benefits – will actually come in handy here as I am just DYING to play through again on the deadlier difficulties.
And if all that didn’t get you salivating enough, this video really ought to put you in the right mood: