You could see the first Darksiders as a Legend of Zelda for those dumb enough to think they’re too big and bad for Nintendo’s best. Out went all that fluffy become a hero, save the princess nonsense. In came War, one of the ultimate tough guy antiheroes, a lot of comic-book dark fantasy and a combat system that could have come straight from a Devil May Cry or God of War. It should have been awful, like a metal band butchering a classic pop song, but as it turns our Darksiders was pretty good. It might not have been as smart as the real deal, but it was a very entertaining clone.
Darksiders II is even better. It still won’t win any points for originality, but by stealing so many ideas from so many genres and somehow making it all work, the guys at Vigil Games have made something that still has the feel of a Zelda, but operates on several other levels. We’re not sure if it’s the first action/RPG/platformer/brawler, but it’s definitely one of the best.
There is no War this time around, with hero duties now taken by his fellow horseman of the apocalypse, Death. Where War was a hulking, raging sword-swinging powerhouse, Death is slightly weaker, but lighter and faster on his feet. His favoured weapon is a pair of chopped-down scythes, backed up by an array of axes, pole-arms and hammers, and his best defence is his speed, evading enemy attacks then closing in to lay the smack down. If War was basically a slower, beefier Kratos, chaining together brutal combos that relied on strength and power, then Death is Kratos Turbo, stripped-down, but quicker to the punch.
That’s reflected in his movement too. Death spends a lot of time traversing strange lands on horseback or on foot, but the meat of Darksiders II is in its dungeons, where puzzle-solving and platforming have as big a part to play as combat. The puzzles are as reminiscent of Tomb Raider as Zelda. There is a lot of rolling huge stone balls around to activate elaborate mechanisms, with some nice conundrums using Death’s ability to jump-start giant stone golems or split himself appearing later on. The platforming sections show the influence of Prince of Persia, with lots of slick wall-running, ledge-grabbing, beam-swinging moves to string together along easily spotted routes.
And then there’s the RPG bit. In Darksiders II every downed enemy means two things: experience and loot. Get enough of the first, and you can level up, giving you points you can spend to unlock new combos, attacks and abilities, with two diverse and interesting skill trees to explore. One takes you along a warrior’s path, with new combat moves and benefits, while another is the necromancer’s route, with abilities to raise undead minions and have them join you in the fight. Darksiders II makes you work hard for every level, so it’s impossible to build a character that can do it all. Instead, you have to work out which style works best for you.
Meanwhile, mangled monsters have a lovely habit of dropping loot, not just the usual gold, but weapons, bits of armour and charms. That means you’re constantly fiddling to work out the best combination you can field at any moment, and that the game has the same vicious cycle of addiction as Diablo. You want to bash things to see what you pick up, then you want to bash more things to see how well the new stuff works. There are even possessed weapons to which you can sacrifice other items, giving you the option to trade in the magic hammer, scythe and axe you’ve just collected for beefier statistics on the scythes you’ve already got. Darksiders II is packed with this kind of detail.
To be honest, it fails in some areas where a Zelda would succeed. In a Zelda game, the world that connects all the dungeons is full of secrets, mysteries and interest, with a whole cast of characters to give it life. Darksiders II has a handful of great characters, but the world areas feel a bit bare and work a bit more like a glorified hub. The fact that the game encourages fast travel between landmarks says a lot. The story, which has Death attempting to save War from damnation, is interesting enough to keep you going, but it’s short on surprises and heavy on disguised fetch quests.
Meanwhile, Darksiders II hasn’t quite got the exploration appeal of a Zelda, a Castlevania or a Metroid. Once you’ve cleaned out a dungeon or made your way through an area there’s usually little reason to return. Where Zelda leaves you thinking whether the new super-gadget-gizmo you’ve just found in dungeon X might open up a new passage in area Y, Darksiders II keeps pushing you on to the next objective. It’s a more linear take on the style.
In the end, this doesn’t matter because the next objective keeps on getting more interesting, more challenging and more jaw-dropping. We’re not going to drop spoilers and wreck anything here, but everything works on a heroic scale, each dungeon has some new twist or some new style of puzzle, and there is always some bigger or more ferocious creature to test your mettle. Death learns spectacular new moves and uses them to duff up spectacular new monsters, and the game moves from boss battles that could have come from Zelda to boss battles that could have come from God of War.
We’re big fans of the art style, too. Sometimes the cel-shaded, comic-book approach can seem like a lazy answer to a fantasy setting, but here it fits perfectly with the bigger-than-life story, which owes as much to Marvel as it does to Tolkien. No dungeon is complete without some grand architectural flourish or intricate motif, and no character is complete without some tasty bit of ornate armour or muscles that put Death’s to shame. There could be a bit more variety to the baddies, but the ones that are there are easy to distinguish and fearsome in their own way. The orchestral score has a nice epic movie feel, and no matter how ridiculous the line, the voicework from a collection of animation veterans is always good.
Darksiders II is a really meaty game. It might not be as big as Ocarina of Time or The Twilight Princess, but it’s big enough to lose yourself in for a week or two of gaming, and more than entertaining enough to make you not regret the time. There’s something nice and old-school about it. Darksiders II isn’t trying to dazzle you with graphics or distract you with co-op modes. It has new worlds to explore and a tale it wants to tell, and it does everything it can to keep you pushing through until the end. There are some difficulty spikes along the way, and the odd patch where the pace slows and the action starts to drag, but most of the time it’s a game that captures the same feelings of excitement and wonder that great games used to create.
This grim reaper hasn’t an original bone in his body, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By carving great bloody chunks from Zelda, God of War, Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider and Diablo and patching them together, Vigil has created a magnificent monster of a game. In some areas it cannot match its inspirations, but as a whole it’s a lot of fun. It’s nearly every game you ever loved in one package, and well worth picking up.