Darksiders II Review
Darksiders II is Vigil Games‘ and THQ‘s latest installment in the Darksiders verse. Given the first Darksiders game was well received by gamers, does the second follow in its stead, or is Darksiders II a dark disappointment? Tash shares her thoughts on Darksiders II below.
Darksiders II sees players step into the shoes of Death – one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – who is on a mission to find proof that his brother, War, has been wrongly convicted for kicking off the apocalypse a touch early. The plot itself is exceptionally well told – cutscenes provide enough information to ensure you know what’s going on and the reasons for why you’re doing what you’re doing. What is excellent about Darksiders II is that you need not have played the first game to understand what is happening in the second. The game does a great job of explaining the story so far, and yet those who have played the first game will not feel as though they are being hand-held through events or given an unnecessary history lesson on things they already know. It’s a very fine line to navigate between providing enough information for those new to the series to understand what’s happening on the one hand, and not alienating your established player base via in depth recaps of events they already know about on the other hand. Darksiders II navigates this line with aplomb and regardless of whether you’re new to the series or an established hand, you’ll enjoy the plotline and be drawn into the world equally as much.
The dialogue and voice-over work freatured in the game is spectacular. Each character you meet is unique and has their own motivations and interests. Death himself is a standout. Michael Wincott’s work as Death is sublime – he absolutely nails his lines and even though Death isn’t a chatty character, you really do get a sense of what’s driving him to do what he’s doing. The voice-over work from other characters leaves no doubt this is a Triple A title, and immersing yourself into the world of Darksiders II is a veritable pleasure on the ears.
The soundtrack featured in Darksiders II simply heightens this pleasure. I can safely say that the score featured in this game is one of the most enchanting and captivating video game scores I have ever experienced. The music rises and falls with the action unfolding on screen, and is a hauntingly beautiful accompanyment when Death is traversing areas. I can admit to leaving the game on its title screen simply to listen to the score. It’s beautiful. It’s mesmerising. It’s every positive word you can use to describe a videogame score and it will stay with you long after you have turned off the game.
Another area in which the game shines is in its environments. The areas which Death traverses are absolutely stunning – from ice mountains to verdant jungles to fiery forges and everything in between. This is a game that takes beautiful environments to a whole new level and delivers an experience which will cause your television or monitor to atrophy on the orgasmic explosion of colour. The environments do more that simply look spectacular, however – they are so well realised you will feel as if you are there. Traversing the icy mountains will make you feel cold. You’ll feel the warmth of the sun’s rays through the dappled sunlight on the forest paths. It’s hard to communicate just how the game manages to create an almost tactile awareness of its environments, but it does. And it is glorious.
The areas in which Death finds himself are varied and diverse, and this is always a welcome addition in an industry which seems to favour 50 shades of brown. There is a beautiful mix of vibrant and sombre – in some places the palette is so vivid and dynamic the colours almost jump off the screen, whilst other areas offer a more shadowy, murky experience that reminds you of the enormity of the task set before Death. It’s a perfectly balanced mix of dynamic and dark, and it means you’ll never feel that monotony that sometimes results from overuse of similarly styled areas. Put simply, the graphics make Darksiders II an absolute joy to play through. Special mention must be made of the world map, which is beautifully styled and looks like something directly out of a fantasy world artbook. If I had the ability to transfer it to canvas and hang it on my wall, I would.
Cutscenes are handled exceptionally well, and combined with the excellently written plot they provide motivation for you to continue your mission as Death, playing on to experience just one more area, or one more boss fight. It’s this ‘just one more’ feel to the game which makes it very difficult to put down, but if you are able to stop yourself from devouring the game in a single session, you will experience one of the most expertly well done features of a game I have seen. I won’t spoil what this is but trust me – save your game, step away from it and come back to it to experience this feature for yourself. It’s a creative, unique, practical feature expertly implemented and I hope to see more games use this in the future.
These small, inventive touches are apparent throughout the game, and it is these surprising little extras that elevate Darksiders II above your rank and file action/adventure platformer. It is always a good sign when a game surprises you with unexpected inclusions – and the first time I put down my controller and returned to the game to find Dust, Death’s crow (or raven for US readers) perched on his shoulder like the most natural thing in the world – I’ll admit, I grinned.
When it comes to gameplay, Darksiders II shines once again. Sitting somewhere within the junction of action, adventure, puzzle and RPG, the game manages to be each of these genres successfully, offering a unique amalgamation of these play styles that takes the best of each and leaves the worst. For action-adventure fans, the combat system is both incredibly satisfying and nuanced – whether you like to study the moves and perform chained combo’s which make you feel like an untouchable badass; or if you simply like to run up to enemies and beat on them until they’re dead – the game is flexible enough to handle both styles and everything in between.
The levelling and skill trees are well-balanced and the trees provide such fantastic abilities you’ll want to seek out every enemy you can find in order to level up and choose your next skill. The skill trees encourage multiple play throughs in order to experience all the different abilities and play styles and given the gameplay is so enjoyable, you’ll want to try different abilities using different weapons. The skill trees truly are exceptionally nuanced and their design is a strength of the game – you can’t level up every single skill in a single playthrough – and this forced choice between skill trees increases the replayability of the game.
The fact that the game features an incredible loot system simply enhances this replayability. Throughout Death’s travels, he will encounter a variety of enemies, some of which will drop items and/or weapons which Death can equip and use. These items offer a variety of boosts and increases to critical hits, defense, health and other abilities which makes exploring the world and engaging with enemies strategically beneficial as well as damn fun. For players who aren’t so taken with exploring the world but who do not want to miss out on some excellent loot – vendors scattered across the areas sell a variety of excellent items, weapons and potions – so players needn’t feel that they need to explore to get the best look. Similarly, for those players who do not want to spend their in game cash on vendor items – you can find all you need to complete the game from loot dropped by conquered enemies.
Given that you can equip multiple items at once (Death is quite the fashionista in his get-up, let me assure you) and combine different boosts and increases means the loot system becomes more than just another great feature – it becomes an avenue of exploration of the different weapon and item combinations. In addition, the way in which the items are laid out within the inventory system is fantastically well done with a practical focus. One look at items shows you whether the item selected is better than the one you currently have equipped, and the listing of special properties of the item is a godsend when deciding what weapon/item best fits your play style. The loot system in Darksiders II, and the way in which it effortlessly supports and compliments the skill tree, results in an incredibly refined and balanced game which practically begs to be played multiple times.
The exploration mechanics and in-game instructions are also fantastically implemented. The game provides you with hints and tips the first time you encounter something new, and then lets you go about your business without further interruptions. These tips never feel like an imposition and even without reading the manual or studying the game controls you’ll be able to discern what to do simply by playing the game. The game’s environments are quite linear in nature, however if you do become stuck or need help in figuring out where to go next – Dust – Death’s trusty crow companion who will show you where to go is only a button press away. This inclusion isn’t a new feature of the game, but similar to Darksiders II’s other game mechanics it is implemented amazingly well and provides practical, welcome help without making you feel slow on the uptake.
The level designs combine combat, environmental traversal and puzzle solving and excel in doing each equally well. Having said that, there is a pattern to level exploration in that you will be doing similar things and solving puzzles with the same available items, however it never feels overdone or tired and the mixing up of focuses between the three elements provides needed variety. The combat is free-flowing, as are the level traversal acrobatics, and the wide array of moves Death can use to navigate the areas will have you feeling like an accomplished aerialist in no time. The controls are responsive and whilst misjumps do occur and Death will sometimes jump in a direction completely different to where you wanted him to jump, the results are never too frustrating to make you give up in annoyance. Dying by environment doesn’t kill you and force a load screen – it merely drains some of your health bar and resets you next to where you died to try again. There’s no long loading screen, meaning you can jump back into the action without losing momentum.
The puzzle elements are varied and well implemented – they are challenging but not maddingly so. Solving problems is simple at first, but the puzzles become more challenging as the game progresses. Solving them requires more and more steps – in the first areas you may only need to complete step A or step B to solve puzzles, but later areas will require you to employ step A and B as well as action C and D together to solve them. They require thought, but because they are challenging, the sense of achievement you feel when you finally solve the problem is worth it. If you ever become stuck, all you need to do is stand back, look around you, and you’ll see what needs to be done for you to proceed.
In a similarly challenging vein – the boss battles featured in the game are very tough – and even on the lowest difficulty you will die often. Those new to the genre may become frustrated at the challenging nature of the battles. The impulse to curse and put down your controller is a very real one – and some of the boss battles defintiely had me yelling at my tv. I will admit to putting down my controller and walking away from a particularly grueling boss encounter – but by that time Death had his scythes firmly embedded in me and I returned to face the challenge. Similar to the puzzle elements, the boss battles require thought, and once you realise what you need to do they become a matter of using the right strategy and technique. It’s refreshing to see the boss battles are more than just ‘hit the glowing body part’, requiring more from the player than simply mashing a button to hit the enemy until it’s dead. In Darksiders II, you’ll need to focus your awareness on multiple threats at once if you wish to survive the boss encounters. The challenge associated with beating the bosses does provide a real sense of accomplishment when you finally manage to topple an epically huge foe (and trust me – some of the enemies are practically god-like in their epic-ness). But this epic-ness does also mean that sometimes you may be forced to run and take a defensive stance rather than attack creatures scythes and hammers blazing. In some cases, I was forced to run around the boss taking potshots at it with my ranged weapon and whilst I’m sure this isn’t the best way to attack the bosses, it was the only way I was able to survive the encounters. Using this strategy made me feel completely death-masculated (to create a term). I shouldn’t have to go on the defensive and play shoot the creature from afar – I should be carving that beast up with my scythes because I’m Death. This is a small criticism of the boss battles and perhaps it was my lack of familiarity with this style of gameplay, but it did detract from my experience and as such warrants a mention.
With regards to camera focus and framerate issues – I did not experience any big framerate issues, stuttering or long loading times. When you enter a new area for the first time, sometimes the game will freeze while it loads – but this only lasts a few seconds and then it’s back to killing everything in your path. On some occasions I tussled with the camera – it decided at times to focus on odd places during a fight, or clip into the enemies I was fighting to show me the pixellated insides of my attackers which wasn’t particularly helpful. This issue was very rare, however, and in my 20+ hours of playing I only experienced it three times. It never impacted on my enjoyment of the game and the rareness with which it occured means it’s a tiny niggle rather than a cause for concern or criticism.
Those detail savvy readers amongst you will notice that I have not compared Darksiders II to other games of similar genres. The first Darksiders game was often compared to games such as God of War or Prince of Persia, but I believe doing so lessens the achievements of the Darksiders series, and the impact of the games. Darksiders II certainly employs elements of the abovementioned games, but it combines and includes them in such a way that it offers a unique experience. Darksiders II has its own style, its own attitude, its own gameplay features that allow it to stand on its own two feet. It is not a clone of a previous game, or a repackaging of known features – it adds something new and offers an engaging and enjoyable experience that shouldn’t be compared to other games in similar genres.
To summarise my experience with Darksiders II in a single statement – the game is sublime and you should buy it. This is a game that should be part of every action-rpg-platform-puzzler fan’s collection. The loot system, the levelling system and skill trees, the incredibly realised environments, haunting musical score and amazing voice acting all combine to ensure Darksiders II will never be far from your platform of choice’s disc tray no matter how many other games you may own. Darksiders II is a shining example of what happens when expertly implemented gameplay elements, sublime dialogue and voice-over work and stunning environments and cutscene direction come together to create an experience so compelling it will stay in your memory long after the credits roll.
Darksiders II is a must play and must own title, and scores a 9/10.