Review: Death has kicked War out of the saddle in DARKSIDERS II, but can he build upon the solid foundations laid by his brother in this huge sequel or will he be left to rot for all eternity?
Darksiders II, this much-hyped sequel from THQ and Vigil Games, was promised to be so vastly improved that it would be “more like Darksiders 2.5″. But here is a game that emerges so plain it’s hard to get enthused. Bigger and more complex it may be, but all you can really say about Darksiders II is that it’s okay. It’s perfectly fine.
You play as Death, a semi-decomposed, gravel-throated Horseman of the Apocalypse out to clear his brother’s name after he inadvertently triggers Armageddon down on Earth (see: the original Darksiders). Death finds himself stuck in a mystical world between Heaven and Hell, and must scour several semi-sandbox environments looking for trinkets that’ll sort everything out.
It’s a predictable, watered-down mix of spells and MacGuffins: People X are in danger from Evil Wizard Y and it’s up to you to stop it because Z. The dialogue is functional, the voice acting is adequate and the whole thing feels like a WH Smith airport paperback: no real complaints, but nothing worth remembering.
It’s the perfect blanduscript to accompany Darksiders II’s cut-and-paste action-adventure gameplay with a smattering of light RPG elements. You can pick between two skill trees – warrior or mage – and pour XP into improving either your melee attacks or your spells. Armour and weapons can be customised and upgraded too, giving you the room to pimp your Death to your heart’s content. But it’s all moot: Super Bastard Sword or not, the combat in Darksiders II inevitably devolves into button-bash, hack-’n'-slash nonsense, as you occasionally tap dodge while spamming your strongest attack.
It’d help if the enemies were more interesting to look at. For all the good work gone into making the environments shine, Darksiders II’s bad guys are mostly indistinct blobs of armour and spikes that are unsatisfying to hit. Combat is more of a chore than a thrill, as you laboriously grind away hit points by repeatedly stabbing the attack button. It’s not a fresh evil – this kind of graceless button mashing rears its head in many other games – but Darksiders II is guilty as sin nonetheless.
Death in paradise
Back to those shiny environments: Darksiders’ trademark art style is on more beautiful display than ever here, with indoors and outdoors lovingly rendered in crisp hues. And navigating around the world is genuinely a lot of fun: you can summon your horse with a tap of L2 and charge from objective to objective, lopping off heads as you go.
Or you can go on foot. Darksiders II’s platforming has all the nippiness and fluidity that the combat so sorely misses. Death hops and jumps like Altair on Red Bull, effortlessly leaping from a surface to surface with just a single button. Shimmying up pipes, running across walls – Death has all the moves, and it ensures that traversing through Vigil’s gorgeous locales is easily the best part of Darksiders II.
But the world feels uninhabited and airless. NPCs are dotted very sporadically, and exist only to assign mundane fetch quests and repeat generic animations. It’s not a small game, either: Darksiders II links its main objectives with sprawling meadows and endless ice fields, completely unpopulated by anything except listless enemies. It’s an entire game full of World of Warcraft starting areas – grinding combat on barren fields.
Wood you kindly…
Dozens of sidequests go some way to livening things up, though. There’s still your standard fetch quest (bring me 15 animal pelts, find the secret trinket) but these are thankfully broken up with lengthy assassination missions.
Take one of the early sidequests, which sees you taking on a monstrous tree creature-thing called Gorewood. After picking up the quest from the central town hub, the job itself is twofold. First, you need to get to Gorewood, who is kept under lock and key at the bottom of a labyrinthine cave. Cue Darksiders II’s seamless platforming, as you leap across waterfalls and scramble up outcrops in search of a way in.
Once you find Gorewood, or any of the sidequest bosses for that matter, the ensuing combat is far more alive than during the game proper. Learning Gorewood’s attacks and timing your dodges and counterblows accordingly is as much a puzzle as finding him in the first place, and it makes for some deep breaths of satisfaction when the wooden sod finally goes down. These sections don’t have the variety or scope of Bethesda or Blizzard’s sidequests, but as self-contained offshoots they’re plenty enjoyable.
However, for every positive, there’s a negative: the beautiful environments are totally dead; the great platforming leads to one-button combat; the half-decent voice acting serves a half-baked story. At times the game pushes towards being properly good, but all too often it finds itself languishing in that most damned of places: mediocrity.
Darksiders II, from THQ and Vigil Games, is available now in the US and from August 21st in Europe for PS3 (reviewed) Xbox 360, and PC.