Review: Death Kills in 'Darksiders II'

The first Darksiders was a surprise hit for developer Vigil Games and publisher THQ. The concept--let's remake Zelda as a mature title--might not necessarily seem like the easiest pitch in a marketplace already crowded with remakes, demakes, reboots, and sequels, but Vigil's designers were very clever in the ways they stitched together so many points of reference beyond Zelda into an action adventure game that was thrilling in its own right.

Two and a half years later, Vigil is back with another Rider out to undo the apocalypse, Death, the very motivated brother of Darksiders protagonist War. And with a new protagonist, the sequel also gets some modifications to its gameplay with a greater emphasis on loot, a deep combo-based combat system, and some technical issues that mar what's otherwise one of this year's most exhilarating action games.

Taking place in the aftermath of the first game, Earth is still a burning mess of dead people, and having taken the blame for jumpstarting the end of days, War is a prisoner of the Charred Council. To free his brother and fellow Rider of the Apocalypse, Death sets out to bring humanity back to life, thus wiping the slate clean for War. That will involve making his way up the Trees of Life and Death to ultimately reach the Well of Souls, taking Death across time, space, and down to Hell.

With the exception of a surprising sprint near the end of the game, Darksiders II feels very open and expansive, with vast, wide environments and all sorts of ruined, ancient environments to explore. The world and enemies have the imprint of Vigil Games' Creative Director and comic artist Joe Madureira, featuring colorful, highly-exaggerated enemies. Death in particular has just the right mix of muscular, extreme stylization with his chains, claws, dual scythes, and inexpressive mask, sans arrangement of elements that still lets the character be badass thanks to powerful, almost feral animations.

As a character, Death isn't fleshed out too much beyond ultra-competent tough guy but the game's script makes a lot of noise about his feelings of guilt in taking down legions of his nephilim bretheren in the game's backstory. What's exciting and a little frustrating about Darksiders II is all of the implied narrative, this rich set of worlds of creatures and ancient beings fighting the spread of a ruinous corruption. Occasional dialog options with key characters flesh out some of the backstory but Death never really gets to interact with any of it--these worlds are dead and gone by the time he gets to them. The story is also hampered a little by the rule of threes: quite a few missions revolve around Death being sent on fetch quests to find/kill three things (in one egregious case, you're tasked with fiding three macguffins to unlock a fight with an enemy to get the opportunity to talk with a character who immediately sends you out to find/fight three more enemies).

If you've played the first game, the basics of combat will be familiar: medium strength attacks with your primary weapon with heavy and light attacks using various secondary hammers, claws, glaives, and axes. Throughout the 20-hour or so campaign, you'll discover dozens of weapons of differing rarity, along with stat-boosting armor and talismans. Death's basic moves can be aided by a series of upgradeable abilities in his skill tree, mapped to the bumpers and a face button (this takes a little getting used to) along with his powered-up Reaper form which provides you with a powerful melee attack and increased resistance to enemy attacks. Abilities are tied to the Wrath meter which is in that sweet spot of generally keeping you from spamming these special attacks while keeping just enough in the meter for you to execute at least one technique.

Early on, you'll also acquire a pistol which doesn't really do that much damage to enemies (a lack of upgradeability to this weapon was a missed opportunity, I think) but can be used in puzzles, lost stone collection, and most importantly, sustaining a combo chain when you need to roll out of the way of an enemy. Plus, near the end of the game, Darksiders II briefly turns into an all-out third-person shooter with a pair of heavy, devastating weapons in a level that speaks to Vigil's kitchen sink approach to the game (in a good way--I personally loved this section).

The biggest change to the series might be the sheer amount of stuff dead enemies will leave behind or scattered in the ubiquitous chests, pushing Darksiders II deeper into RPG territory. You might spend as much of your time checking out Death's stats and added status effects as you will leaping around the game's enemies and racking up kills.

Loot collection loses some of its luster thanks to an imperfect menu system that, beyond categories, doesn't provide any way of coherently organizing all of the stuff you pick up, which is particularly annoying when it comes to weeding through your secondary weapons which are all dumped into the same bucket together. The menu system also has a curious performance lag as you switch from inventory to skills, to the map (this was on the 360 version of the game, saved directly to my HDD). It's a minor thing, but can become especially irritating when you accidentally navigate from the menu screen to the skills screen by hitting the bumpers instead of the triggers as you meant to.

For all of the changes to the game and upgrades an improvements over the first Darksiders the sequel is plagued by the same issue that bedevils so many action games and that's a camera which poses a greater threat than even the game's enemies. To attack enemies, you have to target them with the left trigger, which fixes you, the enemy, and the camera on the same axis, but so often, the camera will whip around to Death's side or get pressed up against a wall and down on the enemy, making it nearly impossible to figure out what's going on. The camera counted for maybe half of my deaths in the game as my attempts to strafe around a monstrous opponent would be undone by the camera which couldn't decide where it needed to be.

Where the camera seriously compromises the overall experience, there are so many reasons to recommend Darksiders II thanks in large parts Vigil's love for drawing in disparate gameplay experiences into something very coherent and often exciting action adventure game with some light RPG elements. If you're willing to wrestle with the not-great camera, and a story with an ending that concludes with more of a whimper than a bang (I'm still trying to decide how I feel about it, but the ending is more quiet and contemplative when compared to the big, crazy action of the rest of the story). I guess the surest signal of how I feel about the game is that I'll definitely be going back in to play a new game-plus as soon as I get a chance.

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