August 16, 2012
Darksiders II takes place shortly after the events of its predecessor. The apocalyptic events surrounding humanity's demise continue to send shockwaves throughout the known universe, threatening the fragile biblical balance attempting to hold it all together. War was blamed, and subsequently imprisoned, for causing this chaos, prompting Death, the second Horsemen of the Apocalypse, to begin a quest to clear his brother's name by resurrecting the human race. This lofty goal sets in motion a series of interdimensional events to decide the fate of heaven, hell and the survival of humanity.
As with the original Darksiders, Death's dilemma represents a brilliant premise for an epic adventure, at least on paper. Unfortunately, the game's narrative never fully lives up to the promise of its intriguing backdrop. Aside from the generally strong voice-acting and occasionally charming dialogue - wherein Death lightheartedly draws attention to the trivial tasks he undertakes in the face of a wider catastrophe - the vast majority of characters and encounters in Darksiders II feel like afterthoughts with little depth to them beyond surface-level introductions. They simply serve as vessels to bookend periods of dungeon-crawling. Additionally, the often lengthy gaps between meaningful plot points create the impression that story took a backseat to a series of other aspirations. That being said, the story's sense of urgency picks up heading into the final act, but it's a long road to get there.
Since Darksiders unashamedly draws from Zelda's tried-and-true structure, characters also act as the gatekeepers of quest initiation. Sadly, many of these missions amount to little more than tedious fetch errands of the dreaded "Gather three [Insert Object]" variety. Even for an action-RPG, the frequency and blatant use of this contrived device surprised me. One could say the game is at least self-aware, as Death cheekily protests his courier role here and there, but it's of little consequence when he inevitably completes the task anyway.
Fortunately, regardless of quest objectives, Darksiders II offers players a generous fast-travel system to streamline the process of traversing great distances. This time around, the hub-world is much more open in design and massive in scale, so being able to easily teleport between discovered locations - midway through a dungeon, if need be - is a welcome and essential inclusion. Whether it's hunting down mysteriously powerful creatures, finding hidden relics or deciphering collected clues, you'll likely find yourself warping around the map to see a good portion of the interesting side-content, not to mention the main questline.
Speaking of quests, exploring Darksiders' numerous dungeons - hacking, slashing and puzzle-solving along the way - will make up the lion's share of your journey. Much like the hub-world, dungeon environments tend to skew large, in terms of their cryptic layouts and spacious courtyards. However, these initially grand impressions eventually reveal themselves as well-crafted illusions - dungeon progression is a deceptively narrow, guided experience. Typically, there's predetermined, clearly marked path forward. While linearity isn't inherently a bad thing, it feels restrictive in this context, as the game's other moving parts actively encourage experimentation.
Puzzles also tend to fall on the simple side of the spectrum. Genre staples such as moving blocks, pulling levers and raising platforms are well represented, alongside a toolset of bombs, grappling hooks, ghostly phantoms and more. Despite this apparent variety, Darksiders II ultimately boils down to a relatively flat difficulty curve and series of frequently repeated puzzle mechanics, which can make the process feel tedious and robotic.
Beyond puzzle-solving, combat will occupy a good portion of your time. Staying true to the God of War mold, melee attacks are separated into two camps: quick, light jabs, and slow, heavy onslaughts. The focus isn't on comprehensive combos, instead relying on occasionally timed strikes for depth. While magical abilities also add some flexibility to combat, a steady dose of button-mashing and dodging will suffice for most encounters, thanks to a limited range of enemy behaviours. Additionally, Darksiders II prefers to conjure up increased numbers of familiar foes in an attempt to raise the stakes, which doesn't exactly encourage a nuanced approach - certain boss fights notwithstanding.
The inclusion of role-playing elements, in the form of a levelling system and loot collection, definitely adds a degree of strategy to combat and general progression in Darksiders II. Experience gained from the list of aforementioned activities rewards players with Skill Points, which unlock magical abilities and corresponding upgrades. Whether it's protective shields, a murder of crows at your disposal or a whirlwind burst of energy, these enhancements add some personality to otherwise run-of-the-mill battles.
Along those same lines, loot collection is used effectively to customize primary and secondary weapons, body armour, and so on. Rare items are easily accumulated into your inventory by opening chests and defeating enemies, a la Diablo. Comparison stats and auto-collection options help streamline the process by limiting your reliance on convoluted menus, which is good because navigation quickly gets frustrating. It's a well designed system, but one with a handful of minor issues. Important information isn't always communicated clearly, but more importantly, perks that enhance health - especially regeneration - wreck havoc on attempts to balance difficulty. Let's just say that when you regain health after every hit, any lingering fear of collateral damage goes out the window.
Overall, the relatively open world of Darksiders II is one of its stronger assets - the grandiose and varied environments throughout are consistently worth seeing. Although, I suspect there's pragmatic reasoning behind the large-scale environmental design - namely, to keep you from looking at things up close too often, because the visual presentation doesn't hold up nearly as well under close scrutiny. That being said, while the occasional blurry texture, pop-in shadow or minor hiccups can be excused, abrupt loading sequences are a noticeable performance drawback. These instances remain the exception to an otherwise vibrant graphic-novel aesthetic and generally polished package.
Vigil's return to its biblically-inspired fantasy universe adds scale and depth in almost every meaningful way. The addition of loot collection and levelling systems headline the naturally-expanded world of Darksiders II, which also features massive, largely open environments, and a wider variety of ways to traverse, battle and puzzle through its vast dungeons. The sheer amount of content, filled with mostly worthwhile side-missions, will likely be enough for those who enjoyed the first game, but Vigil's ambitious drive to increase scale comes with a number of growing pains. Darksiders II is simply too long for its own good, needlessly overstretching its campaign with tedious fetch-quests, repetitive puzzle-solving, simplistic platforming, and hordes of dull enemy encounters. Consequently, these pacing issues often grind plot progression to a halt, making Darksiders II feel like more of a chore than it should for prolonged periods. Things do eventually come together in the final act to redeem some of the previous missteps. Bottom line: stricter editing would have gone a long way in making Darksiders II a sequel to recommend without reservation.
Darksiders II was reviewed on the Xbox 360. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.