Darksiders II (PC/PlayStation 3/Xbox 360)
Aug 22, 2012 Web Exclusive
"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the Earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." ~ Revelation 6:8
A ghoulish Nephilim named Death rides across the plains on his skeletal steed, Despair. An intense green fire emanates from within the equid's body. Its rotting skin flaps in the wind. Translucent bones poke through the blazing animal as it hurtles across the lush landscape. In the distance, The Tree of Life is a floral behemoth reaching into the grayish blue ether.
Finally, the leader of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse enters a volcanic foundry filled with skeleton warriors and various undead creatures. A tempest of scythe blades, hammers, mauls, maces, and axes fly across the dungeon, splitting asunder anything that crosses their master's path. A cascade of ribald hit points rain down as our God-like protagonist swipes, slashes, evades, defends, and unlocks special necromancy and skills to rid the realms he travels of corruption in order to prove his brother War's innocence and restore humanity to a barren Earth.
This is the stark and violently beautiful tone struck time and again during Vigil Games and THQ's Darksiders II. The fall's first major sequel finally ends the gaming drought that gamers experience every summer. The original Darksiders was a successful cult hit and the development time put into its sequel is apparent from the outset. Care is put into the major elements that delineate tentpole series from one-off curios.
The masterful score (courtesy of Assassin's Creed composer Jesper Kyd) and fetching art direction are as far-reaching and bold as the worlds Death rides across in his lengthy action-adventure. The narrative coincides with the events of the first Horseman story. And like War did in Darksiders, Death completes his hero's journey by conquering Diablo-aping dungeons, traversing walls à la Prince of Persia, slaying massive bosses like Kratos from God of War, and solving Zelda-esque puzzles. One major hitch in the gameplay department is the insistence on the developers to throw fetch quests at your feet in groups of three instead of compelling through-lines.
At a solid 20-to-40 hours, Darksiders II easily leapfrogs the game time of its successor, but there are nagging technical problems. During the Gnashor boss fight in a gladiatorial arena, I experienced some frame rate issues and at a few points the beautiful character models and architecture flash away to reveal the boring inner skeleton of this fully realized world. It's a shame that this happens, but thankfully these game-breaking issues are rare.
The combat in Darksiders II is fast and furious. Death can unleash a wild and varying set of combos, juggles, and evading moves. In addition, he can augment this traditional violence with a formal leveling system, which offers two upgrade paths. One increases his prowess as a swiftly moving melee fighter, while the other focuses on arcane abilities, enabling him to summon upgradeable helper ghouls and murderous crows. Even if you lean on one path more than the other, the real heavy hitter magic attacks become available as you gain experience.
The tiny-yet-cumulative headaches of olden RPGs are largely removed here. Players can fast travel to any key locations you've already visited over the course of your adventure, ducking out of a dungeon to stock up on health potions, for example, before returning to the exact spot you teleported from a few minutes later. Sidequests are logged and color-coded in the menu. The menu can be sluggish when switching between categories, but the ability to quickly see the strengths and/or weaknesses of any weapon or piece of armor as you pluck them off the battlefield is a godsend.
Darksiders II is a tad sophomoric at times, but THQ and Vigil punctuate each narrative twist with riveting action that harkens to classics of varying genres. It also helps that Michael Wincott's gravelly vocal turn as Death can be as comically dry as Ezekiel's Valley of Bones. The character designs are also inventive and vary across the three major worlds: The Tree of Life, The Tree of Death, and Earth. The supporting vocal cast are delightful as well. Hulking trolls toss Death like a wee lass and merchants make jokes from time to time. Ghostly voices in the City of Dead will unnerve many players and the combat sound effects all portray a sense of heft and force.
Despite some technical faults, Darksiders II is an awe-inspiring second entry in a potential four-part series. (Next up would be the whip-wielding horsewoman Fury or the Rider of the White Horse, Strife.) Vigil unfurls a conversant world that champions the prototypical games of the past and sometimes rivals them. (www.darksiders.com / www.thq.com)
Author rating: 8/10
Average reader rating: 7/10