Review: Darksiders II

Review: Darksiders II

It’s interesting how the overall strength of a title can completely transform its description. If a game turns out to be strong as a whole product, the early feeling of familiarity can quickly turn into an outstanding game by its own merit. If it weren’t for the number in the title, you’d hardly notice that Darksiders II is a sequel – and, chronologically speaking, it isn’t.

The game starts off with a quick backstory, which begins before that of the first game. It details the origin of the Nephilim race, an otherworldly amalgamation of angels and demons. That’s right, folks, the apocalypse that occurred in the first game was basically just a huge race war. The Nephilim are the unfortunate mulattos in this scenario, a race of unearthly stepchildren with no place to call their own.

Feeling slighted by the status quo set by the creation of man, the Nephilim attacked Eden. The Nephilm’s aggression was borne of a sense of existential seniority over the human race, and their resulting belief that humans were not worthy of Earth. Unfortunately, their arms proved too short to literally box with God; the Nephilim were slain by the armies of Heaven with the help of four Nephilim defectors who also believed that Earth was not theirs to take.

In exchange for their vow to help maintain “the balance”, the defectors were granted unimaginable power. They became the legendary Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: tasked by the Charred Council to keep Earth, Heaven, and Hell in check. If the armies of Heaven and Hell are the Avon Barksdale and Marlo Stanfield of the divine struggle, then consider War, Death, Fury and Strife to collectively fulfill the role of Omar Little.

Restore the balance, a horseman’s gotta have a code.
 

Darksiders II begins some time between the prologue and the main storyline of its predecessor. Our previous protagonist, the Horseman of War, has already arrived on Earth as an unwitting participant in the celestial conflict that results in mankind’s destruction. Believing that War was framed for the actions of others, the Horseman of Death undertakes an uncharacteristic quest to restore life to humanity. To do this, the Reaper must set out for the tree of life.

Death’s combat mechanics are decidedly much more dynamic than the limited abilities and movement options War was afforded. Unlike his brother, the Reaper has no stationary block command. Pressing the right bumper will cause him to do an evasive flip. This dodge acts in three parts, giving him the option to cancel the first two into any attack. Despite not having a stationary block, Death does have a last second evade counter that operates similarly to War’s properly timed block counter.

Fans of the Prince of Persia series will recognize some of Death’s movement options – he can wall jump, wall run, climb short distances, and push off of whatever surface he is currently attached to (with the use of the left trigger). These abilities make his vertical movement quite easy to control in most situations, though Darksiders II does not have the hurried traversal command that existed in the first game.

The enhanced mobility and vertical viability is not just for show; the game’s far-reaching, intricate world ensures that you use all of it. Covering multiple realms (some of which feel about as large as the original game), the main sections of Darksiders II’s are absolutely massive. Dungeons are as vertically daunting as they are expansive, with multi-layered puzzles that require you to explore multiple floors or dungeon areas in search of one solution.

The unfortunate exchange for the greater amount of content is that the game will occasionally pause to load the next section of the area you’re currently exploring. Pauses can be miniscule or last upward of 7-8 seconds. Installing the game to the Xbox did not reduce the frequency or the duration of these pauses. The timing of these loading pauses appeared arbitrary; sometimes I could explore an entire dungeon and encounter only one, whereas in the next dungeon it might happen at three consecutive doors. All in all, a minor gripe, and well worth it in exchange for the amount of open-world content received.

To compliment his quicker style of gameplay, Death is given an array of options that are new to the series. While the original Darksiders could be best equated to the Legend of Zelda franchise with respect to its attitude toward equipment, Darksiders II makes upgrading your gear a perpetual concern. Death’s main weapon is a set of detaching dual scythes, but it doesn’t end there. Death can equip 6 types of secondary weapons, that are split into two larger categories of “Heavy” and “Fast”. Each weapon or piece of armor has four tiers of rarity: normal, common, rare and epic. Bonuses and elemental damage variations (such as strength, arcane power, wrath regeneration, and execution bonuses) occur at every level except normal.

There are also two transcendent categories of equipment: “Legendary” and “Possessed”. Legendary equipment items provide potent boosts such as +150% critical damage and increasing death’s gold amount on hit. These items have their own names and backstories, found in their descriptions. Possessed weapons can be upgraded by sacrificing other equipment in order to increase the power of your possessed weapon. Any stats on the equipment you sacrifice are granted as optional additional stats that can be strengthened as the possessed weapon levels up. Upon full upgrade, possessed weapons can remain viable for a quarter of the game, easily.

Long gone are the days when an instant-kill is an automatic opportunity. The Reaper’s execution opportunity only has a percentage-based chance to pop up when you attack an enemy. Luckily, the probability of execution can be bolstered through equipment bonuses. Death is given the opportunity to obtain wrath, health, or chaos transformation energy in exchange for the less-than-guaranteed invincible slaughter of his enemy. Execution chance may be the best statistic in the game; if your armor has execution chance on it, it can process on any type of attack and make quick work of otherwise difficult fights.

Enough about what you can’t do, let’s talk about what you can do. Darksiders II has two skill paths that the player can explore, Harbinger and Necromancer. Each path is comprised of abilities that can be upgraded up to three times each. The mainstay ability of the Harbinger skill tree, “Teleport Slash,” literally transports the Horseman through the targeted enemy (and anyone else who might happen to be in his path), dealing damage and siphoning 10 (at level 1) to 15% (at level 3) of the total damage dealt to replenish Death’s health.

Teleport Slash can be upgraded with other abilities as well. “Immolate” will grant Death a 25% chance of setting an enemy hit by Teleport Slash on fire, enabling damage to be dealt over time. Unlocking Immolate will subsequently grant a player access to the “Inescapable” ability, which has a chance to slow enemies down significantly when hit by Teleport Slash. “Unending Fury” increases wrath generation by up to 50% for 8 seconds after a successful Teleport Slash, while “Rage of the Grave” increases teleport slash’s critical chance.

Conveniently, Teleport Slash only consumes wrath if it actually connects with an enemy – you do not lose wrath simply by using it. This is helpful to know, as you may wish to utilize it defensively, as a no-cost rapid retreat. A truly powerful offensive tool, Teleport Slash can clean up a hectic battle in an expeditious fashion when properly combined with some strategic ranged attacking to build up wrath, which accumulates as Death successfully damages an enemy.

Darksiders II has an air of levity that permeates every aspect of the game, from aesthetics to game mechanics. That lightness is even represented in Death’s personality; while the embodiment of War understands how horrific and unnecessary the concept of war is, Death is inevitable and not discriminating – he comes to us all. The ubiquitous reality of death manifests itself in the Horseman not taking himself too seriously, a characteristic that is understandably absent from War’s personality.

However relaxed Death may seem at first, he is certainly not kidding around about his quest to save his brother; the chuckles and self-satisfaction are immediately cut to a halt the moment War’s predicament is mentioned. Though Death is quick to exchange a sarcastic quip or two, it is made exceedingly clear that anyone with the hubris to joke about his brother is prone to lose his or her life for the gaffe.

In fact, any mention of the Nephilim whatsoever seems to be a sensitive subject. Death feels guilty about the slaughter of his brethren, and the story deals with resolving that more than anything that actually had to do with helping War. To his credit, this isn’t really Death’s fault. Though his intent is to clear his brother’s name, it seems that every character has their own agenda that they would ensnare the Horseman’s talents to bring into fruition.

I apologize for the break in tone, but to avoid spoiling the game, I will just err on the side of brevity and say that a large number of the ancient beings that Death deals with are colossal dicks. Though the few that are straightforward with their demands are forgivable to some degree, there are at least a couple of instances in which Death finishes a large main story quest only to discover that the individual who charged him with said quest was just yanking his bones. “I didn’t really need you to do this, I just really wanted that guy dead” comes up more than once, and I found it even less amusing than Death did.

Players who choose this title as their first Darksiders experience will be satisfied with the story, fall in love with the gameplay, and appreciate the game’s presentation. Though I was ambivalent with respect to the main narrative of Darksiders II, I found that it made sense, progressed well, and lent itself to about 20-25 hours of thoroughly enjoyable gameplay (barring side quests). Darksiders II takes its time to present the greater aspects of divine creation and how the essence of existence binds all worlds; anyone who appreciates lore and backstory will find the game brimming with narrative content, provided intelligently by NPCs as conversations and side quests.

Fans captivated by the first game’s story, however, will probably find themselves at the very least annoyed at the game’s conclusion. The original Darksiders sets up a storyline with War that makes Death’s simultaneous journey in Darksiders II (which many are defining as a “parallel” sequel) feel unnecessary. THQ said that Darksiders II occurs along the same timeline as the original, and that should be taken literally; the second game ends at the exact moment the first does, and provides no insight into the upcoming conflict that the first game previously presented.

Darksiders II is, on many levels, an origin story. Do not err as I did by expecting anything more than exactly what THQ promised (because they really do deliver on what they promised). Making that mistake left me angry about the conclusion, despite the fact that the story it had presented was so deep in and of itself.

Darksiders II is the perfect example of how proper appropriation can lead to a collectively unique experience. While action-adventure fans will be able to easily see influences from Zelda, Devil May Cry, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, and Diablo, at no point does the game feel like it carelessly ripped elements from any of those series. Good mechanics are hard to argue with, and it would be hard to find better influences.

Overall, my personal gripes with Darksiders II’s adventure do not detract from the numerous enhancements made to the series. The shortcomings of the story are more a matter of the game’s timing than the content, and I don’t blame Vigil for that. The stunning landscapes, mountains of content, and incredible replay value as a result of the multitude of gameplay improvements will keep this game in my console for weeks to come. The fruit of Vigil’s ambition should be admired; Darksiders II will prove itself entertaining for anyone who chooses to accompany Death on his journey.