Through the Valley – Darksiders 2 Review
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360
Comparisons to other titles in Darksiders 2 are unavoidable. By this, I mean you must resign yourself to the fact you will at some point exclaim, “That was just like (insert title here)!” In the normal course of things I would now launch into a scathing assessment of how the ease by which comparisons come to my lips is a sign of lazy development on the part of Vigil. I will instead submit to you a maxim of mine: a game does not have to be perched on the bleeding-edge of design to be good. It merely has to be good. Competent execution of core mechanics does a game far more credit than it sporting any system or game type shoehorned in because someone had an ill-conceived concept they felt would be shiny and new. So, is Darksiders 2 good? Yes, though not without some missteps.
Running in parallel to the events in the original Darksiders, Darksiders 2 tells the tale from the perspective of the greatest of the Horsemen, Death, and his quest to clear his brother’s name. Bigger and better were apparently two of the design commandments for the development team, who swung for the fences with Darksiders 2 running across multiple worlds, each with its own slew of characters (designed by the incomparable Joe Madueira) and enough side quests and collectables to give the completionist crowd a sizeable list of goodies and challenges to work through.
The redoubled effort on character development is evident out the gate, as the intro sequence itself gives more of the Horsemen’s backstory than the entirety of the first game. As you progress in the game, the how and why of events in the previous title are fleshed out, and the world of the Horsemen becomes an actual thing, rather than a hinted-at backdrop. Likewise, unlike the dour War, our dual-scythe-wielding protagonist is easy to get behind, as top-notch voice work by Michael Wincott lends a surprising amount of emotion to a character wearing a mask made of bone and whose primary occupation is reaping souls.
In conjunction with solid writing (“Forget what I said about sparing you”) the player quickly establishes a fix on Death’s personality. Driven, sardonic, and at times surprisingly (if subtly) empathetic. Contrasting heavily with his monotone sibling, the writing and voice acting for Death leave players with the feeling Darksiders 2 has an actual personality driving things along, rather than the protagonist plodding after a goal preset by the plot. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the voice acting and the writing. The art design resulted in some very colorful characters, and attention was evidently paid to ensure personality was provided to each one.
Personality stems from the player-driven development of their own personal Death as well. Thrown upon the RPG loot-treadmill exemplified by the Diablo and Torchlight franchises, players will spend a great deal of time playing mix-and-match with weapons and armor to find the perfect balance among item stats and traits to complement the unique skillset chosen to be developed amongst the two distinct skill trees. I give kudos to those heartless sadists at Vigil for threading the needle of functionality and form to provide me no choice but to resurrect the stat-and-loot-fiend I required therapy to suppress after Torchlight, itself having triggered a relapse stemming from my Diablo 2 addiction. My meds are on your heads!
The contrasts extend to play style as well. War was a brick of a combatant, and Death was designed in a much different fashion. Combat in Darksiders 2 is a rapidly paced, fluid affair. Armed with dual scythes, a secondary weapon of either the heavy and slow or light and fast variety (there are four choices for each), and a smorgasbord of moves is available for each, Death is as formidable an opponent as the name would imply. Particularly on Apocalyptic difficulty, though, aggressive enemies keep the player with a finger on the dodge button at all times.
Speaking of the dodge, here we tap the cask of my strongest issue with Darksiders 2. At several points in the game, the beautifully detailed job of animating Death actually becomes a liability. In both exploration and combat, on more than one occasion I fell victim to either environmental pitfalls or enemy attacks due to a delay in my angry little reaper transitioning out of the animation of whatever the preceding action was, causing me to become exceedingly familiar with the loading screen. I can appreciate the attention to detail, and praise the job which was done, and curse how it actually impairs, if slightly, the gameplay.
End of rant.
Between repetition and mostly intuitive mapping, the mechanics of battle will be second nature quickly. Flipping and rolling will come to you naturally and you will become keenly aware of when and when not to use the accurate and user-friendly lock-on function. The usual actions are mapped to the usual buttons but I confess I have a minor quibble with the mapping for the special powers, though in fairness I’m torn whether that is attributable to an actual failing in design or just my preferences. The combos fall on the border of driving themselves versus more technical examples of the third-person actioner crowd, but given the one-misstep-and-you’re-dead/dying situations I found myself in when facing the more powerful enemies or damnably relentless mobs of regular ones, I can forgive the dev team for wanting to err on the side of caution and make combat a more accessible affair.
Game balance was also the recipient of an overhaul, with far less disposable enemies than in the first game. Even the smallest of foes are capable of quickly whittling down the health bar to insta-kill levels for the (at least) one big bruiser typically closing on you way faster than something that big should be able to. Enemies demand respect in Darksiders 2.
Another contribution to leveling the scales came from a noticeable nerf to what I called the ‘nuclear option’ in the first game. When pressed into a corner, I would activate Chaos Mode. This turned War into a Balor-sized asskicker and initiated a frenzy of button-mashing until what was irritating me was messily expired. It was incredibly powerful and typically lasted long enough to dig me out of most whatever hole I had landed myself in. This has been replaced by, wait for it, Reaper Mode (surprised?). However, the increased level of badassery, as the resulting model is sweet enough to now occupy a spot on my Christmas list, was paid for with longevity and a bit of sheer hitting power. While undoubtedly creating a supercharged version of our protagonist, it is no longer the last word and is best treated as a tool for closing the deal vs. turning the tables.
Other changes lie in the realm of navigation. With the massive increase in sheer size of each realm, movement through the maps comes either on foot or riding Death’s appropriately creepy steed, Despair, with a slew of chests and collectables damned near everywhere and making it sometimes difficult to focus on exactly where you were going because you were heading for – oh wait is that a shiny over there too… To provide a means for the loot-collecting ADD individuals to forego temptation the now-ubiquitous fast travel option was thoughtfully included. This quickly pays dividends because the maps are big enough to impose a sense of isolation not unlike that found in other games with a similar protagonist, but also run a severe risk of ennui. Environments show an attention to detail, though I found few which left me so in love with them as to want to keep riding through them over, and over, and over… However, one note about riding: mounted combat provides a significant increase to attack power, making it fun to one-or-two shot enemies who were causing such irritation earlier.
I ran into no issues with slowdown, try as I might to jam as much onto the screen at once as I could. The screen-tearing from the first Darksiders is blessedly absent, though some flickering here and there when manually manipulating the camera raises the specter. Automatic camera positioning was smartly done and makes the platforming segments of the game simple affairs, but plays a bit differently in the high-speed combat of Darksiders 2. More than once I found myself after a slew of quick evasions, forced to sacrifice a few moments I couldn’t much afford to spend to regain my bearings and is one of the few things in the game I can’t believe was left as-is.
Overall, Darksiders 2, even more than its predecessor, is an impassioned “thank you” to other great games across a broad swath of genres. It does a solid job of improving on the initial title and left me excited to see where this franchise goes. Honestly, given there are so many obvious influences I was surprised at myself for not taking the easy road and potshotting Vigil for cribbing from a plethora of sources, but that’s because I can’t in any spot legitimately accuse them of taking ideas for the sake thereof. Each element was obviously selected for the purpose of aiding an earnest effort to make something greater than the sum of its parts. A goal handily achieved here.
About This Post