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Aug 21st
2012

Darksiders II Review

Everyone should embrace Death.

The ‘sequel’ can often be a callous creation. Spawned from the eternal thirst for commercial success and the incessant cry of the almighty dollar, sequels can take on many forms. Throughout this console generation alone, there have been more sequels, prequels and trilogies than any other. It seems that if a new (or old) IP has garnered favourable sales and enough critical praise, then it’s almost an guaranteed eventuality that the game will birth a sequel.

But the question that tends to arise, as fans gobble up another inevitable outing, is whether or not this new offspring, joined by a numerical figure, is worthy of its noble lineage. That, is usually the stickler.

Commonly, sequels can fail to surpass their original’s excellence. As might be expected, it’s difficult to, as they say, “bottle lightning twice”. And the creative risks that were present and lauded in the first, are never quite as awe inspiring as they were before.

There are exceptions to the rule. Uncharted 2 set the standard for what a sequel should be. Bigger, more ambitious and an improvement in every sense of the word. Others have admirably tried to improve upon the original game’s foundations too much, resulting in a loss of identity and consequently, a substandard product. Admittedly, there’s a fine line to cross, but for those who make it, the spoils are aplenty.

A plaited beard is a far stronger than a common beard.

But, sadly, there are those who flaunt the status of their franchise’s fame. The cash cow that is Activision’s Call of Duty has arguably been milked dry: the teats of the monster franchise, tugged raw. The refinement over reinvention formula found in Assassin’s Creed has grown tiresome and the annual EA sports football game is always chastised for being nothing more than a new set of shirts and a squad of new players (perhaps an unfair criticism these days).

Yes, the message sent down from the publisher bigwigs seems to be, ‘if it ain’t broke (and it sells), then let’s give them more of the same’. And, with THQ’s financial difficulties all too public, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this agenda would be firmly in place for Darksiders II. Thankfully however, Vigil Games didn’t listen.

Your Soul Is Mine

Vigil Games’ Darksiders was met with a lukewarm reception and minimal fanfare when it released back in 2010. Those who spent time with the Horseman, War, were generally content with the rider’s affair. A believable story, solid mechanics, and generally pleasing visuals rounded off an arguably generic, though entertaining, package. Unfortunately, the game was eclipsed by Sony’s immovable Ghost of Sparta, casting Darksiders into the pool of ‘category B’ obscurity; the prospect of obtaining ‘Triple A’ status, a lavish dream. But remarkably, two years later, Vigil Games have realised this goal.

Riding in on a ghostly steed named Despair, brandishing two scythes and a fearsome reputation, the Horseman, Death, has cometh.

Riding in on a ghostly steed named Despair, brandishing two scythes and a fearsome reputation, the Horseman, Death, has cometh. And he’s managed to catapult Darksiders II into the stratospheric heights of gaming greatness.

Forget what you knew about the original Darksiders as the sequel is the very definition of a dramatic overhaul. The genre has changed for one thing, meshing an addictive RPG experience with a highly adept brawler. The linearity of the previous game has been thrown away, with grandiose worlds and even more complex dungeons now awaiting exploration.

Admittedly, after attending the preview event for Darksiders II I was left rather disenchanted by it all. However, after spending over eighteen hours of quality alone time with the Kinslayer known as Death, I’m happy to say I’ve been proven wrong.

These walls were made for runnin’. So that’s what Death’ll do.

Death Comes To All 

Let’s start off with the most prominent change in Darksiders II: the lead character. Darksiders II’s new protagonist is a sickly delight. The piercing red eyes, hidden behind a bone mask, framed by jet black hair. The sinewed muscles, bound together by pale, lifeless skin. Death is the epitome of the fabled anti-hero, and one of the most memorable leads to date. That’s not to say he’s as witty as Nathan Drake, as marketable as Sackboy or as psychotic as Kratos; he is what he is… He is Death.

For this very reason he’s instantly familiar; recognisable; feared. Everybody knows The Grim Reaper and his purpose. Everyone knows what the scythe signifies. A backstory isn’t needed. And consequently, the bond between player and character is instantaneous.

He Ain’t Guilty, He’s My Brother

With War imprisoned by the Charred Council, Death sets out to prove his brother’s innocence. With humanity extinguished due to War’s accused actions, Death must travel through the underbelly of the Nether Realms, conquering mythical beasts, appeasing numerous favours, and above all, stopping the Corruption that plagues the land.

The story can be convoluted at times, mostly due to the plethora of locations, names, and links between the two, but you’ll thoroughly enjoy dishing out cold justice throughout Death’s arduous but awesome journey.

Death will have to test his bond to his brother by becoming a servant to those he meets. With each quest, Death will be ordered to perform a variety of errands, be it finding an item, vanquishing a monster, granting a favour, or anything in between for those who hold the key to his progress.

There’s countless unique and twisted individuals to meet along the road to War’s redemption, and Death’s interaction with the characters and his vocal delivery is spot on. The Pale Rider detests those around him, but instead of leaving the impression of a moody or overly aggressive persona, Death’s lines are delivered with a lash of sardonic indifference and satisfying arrogance. His quest may be a noble one, but Death is anything but.

Notably, each quest has significant weight, with side-quests indeterminable from the primary plot quests. There’s no fruitless errands here. You’ll actually want to complete your assigned tasks and seeks out more. Nonetheless, it’s understandable that after a while the toil of quests, and the work you need to put in, can feel strenuous; however, the unbelievable level design of the game’s dungeons will make each one feel like a pleasure as opposed to a chore.

Dungeon Keeper 

Darksiders II’s dungeons are impeccable in their design, rivalling, if not besting, the quality seen from The Legend of Zelda series. Laced with genuine brain teasers and clever, inventive puzzles, making your way through the depths of these carefully crafted labyrinths is an absolute delight. You never feel lost or thwarted by a badly designed area. Instead, the pacing of each dungeon and accessible, intuitive means of  progression keeps you driving forward with satisfying momentum. The slick traversal system in place is also beneficial to the dungeon crawling experience as Death can wall run and effortlessly move from ledge to ledge.

Every dungeon has its boss. Just like every night has its dawn.

To help you with your plundering, the mini-map is a vital guide, revealing the locations of nearby treasure chests and locked doors. You’ll also be accompanied by Dust the raven who acts as a guide, though his competence is often questionable. Still, he’s there. And when you’re exploring the unknown, it’s nice to have a bit of company. Surprisingly, you never feel lost as the game always knows how to steer you in the right direction.

Each dungeon is truly memorable in its creation and is distinct and unique. You never feel a sense of repetition with either level and that, in itself, is a remarkable achievement considering the size of Darksiders II single player campaign. A campaign that will take you no less than a staggering 15+ hours for your first playthrough. Even though I had the urge to find the majority of the chests hidden away in each dungeon, I rarely strayed from the story’s primary path and clocked in a commendable 18 hours. Scarily, I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of what Darksiders II can offer the player who is hard to the core. To speak candidly, the game is epic in scale.

All of this excellence is captured in a fantastical world to explore consisting of hubs, the aforementioned dungeons and breath-taking locales. Again, repetition cannot be found here as each location has a sense of individuality. Unsurprisngly, Darksiders II’s scale is daunting at first, as you step boldly out into an unknown land. But the world that Vigil Games has crafted is waiting to be explored and is easy to do so; it’s a personal playground peppered with secrets, enemies and a hell of a lot of precious loot.

The Ecstasy Of Gold 

For the loot lovers out there, it’s impossible not to fall in love with Darksiders II’s penchant for gold. There’s chests to rip open, pots to smash, items to earn, equipment to buy and even a gifting system in place.

Your conquered enemies will also drop Gilt (cash), health potions, magic potions, or weapons and armour. Players can equip Death in countless combinations that will improve or impact your performance in combat, as well as change your aesthetic appearance. Pleasingly, Death can carry a whole heap of gear and will never succumb to the annoying encumberment situation found in other RPGs. An auto-loot system is also in place which is a great, time-saving addition.

At first, the loot system concerned me. I thought it would be a tacked on, meaningless feature. However, I soon found myself yearning for the next weapon or armour as I sheepishly, and knowingly, subdued to its inescapable lure. Is it possible to resist opening a chest or smashing a nearby pot? I for one, cannot.

Role Playing Gain

The RPG system in Darksiders II works admirably. Players can level-up and gain experience with each kill or completed quest. Skill points can be earned to buff up Death’s abilities which are divided into the Harbinger class and Necromancer class. Would you prefer to despatch of your enemies with an army of the undead, or take them down in a flashy teleport of pain? The choice is yours.

The RPG system never feels intrusive and gratifyingly takes a backseat to the rest of the action. Enemies now sport a health bar, with hit points, stats and game rules affecting the combat. At times, the integration between the action-combat, exploration and role playing elements in Darksiders II can feel so seamless, that it almost feels like you’re playing an entirely new genre. The menu interface isn’t as responsive as I’d like, and definitely takes a bit of getting used to, but overall, it works well enough to never impede on your overall enjoyment of the game.

The inventory screen. Or as I like to call it, ‘Loot-View’.

Death, Deliverance, For You For Sure 

During your time with Death you’ll get to live up to his namesake on more than one occasion. And it helps that Death’s exceptional at delivering exactly what he’s famous for. The Horseman is quicker and more flamboyant than his clunkier brethren, War, but this boils down to some clever tweaking of the fighting mechanics as a whole, not just the swiftness of our new Nephilim hero.

Though the two weapon system remains, moves feel easier to perform and far more powerful. Context sensitive executions are determined by chance and secondary weapons have the ability to transform Death’s fighting style. The use of magic is far more relevant, accessible and crucial to overpowering greater foes. Pitting your skills against hordes of demons, freaks, bugs and ghouls is equally as enjoyable Darksiders II’s predecessor, if not more. And the boss battles are genuinely exciting and fun.

Darksiders II continually impresses with its visual presentation, jaw-dropping level design and charming art style. The graphics are razor sharp, textures are vivid, and the art direction provides a distinct, almost watercolour/graphic novel style that is visually compelling throughout. The frame rate performance does take a dive on a number of occasions due to the hectic onscreen action (things can get mental), but this feels owed to the ageing hardware as opposed to poor optimisation. Screen tear is negligible and load times are satisfyingly kept to a minimum despite the frequent transition between hub worlds and locations.

New Game Must

What awaits you on completion of the game is the opportunity to do it all again with all your items intact and hard-earned experience in place. Whether you’re determined to finish every quest, find every secret (good luck!) obtain the rarest armour or simply listen to the wonderful, evocative musical score that accompanies your journey, Death awaits with delight at hand.

This is a game that pays back every penny of your investment and every hour of your time. I for one have already succumbed to Death’s will and found myself embroiled in yet another playthrough. This is how you do a sequel. (Bar one atrocious level where the game strays away from its brilliant formula.)

A review copy of Darksider II was provided courtesy of THQ. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 3.

Ride Of Your Life

Awesome!

Darksiders II can proudly hold its own with the top tier titles of the industry. It cuts through the overbearing shadows of its peers, cackles in the face of other titles ambition and offers immeasurable longevity and replay value. In many respects, Darksiders II shames those it dared to oppose. Straddle up and take a ride with Death today.

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