Darksiders II Review

Kinslayer. Executioner. Death. With a protagonist like that, you'd think Darksiders II would be a walk in the park. But no, even Death himself is but a mortal in the end, and even he will be pushed to his very limits as he attempts to reverse the apocalypse and clear the name of his brother, War. Such is the setup of Darksiders II, an action-adventure game that dips its hands liberally in many pots, but for a second time manages to create a scrumptious dish all its own. Unfortuantely, a few technical issues that seem especially prominent in the Xbox 360 version of the game drag the experience down at some of its grandest moments, leaving a sour taste in your mouth after the fact. 

Death takes the reigns from War in Darksiders II

Darksiders II is a game with a vastly enlarged scope. That's an especially impressive feat given that the original Darksiders was no breezy weekend play itself. Everything in this second release, from the environments to the enemies to the protagonist himself, is expanded in meaningful and empowering ways. Some sections of the game are almost like open worlds in their vastness, with rolling plains and vast ruins rife for the exploring. You'll have access to your horse, Despair, from the very first second of gameplay, meaning that there are no awkward moments of having to traverse large environments via the nearest fast travel portals like there were in the opening hours of the first game. Of course, you can still teleport to different areas of the world if you so desire. 

The enemies you'll find in these worlds are larger both in stature and in variety. Even the dungeon mid-bosses will provide you with action-packed, nail biting battles against skewed odds. One may often describe fighting the final dungeon bosses, as fans of the original Darksiders may remember, as epic with no sense of hyperbole. Getting to those bosses is no easy feat, either, thanks to an increased menagerie of bad guys for you to carve through with your new and improved blades.

Speaking of new gear, Death's got plenty of it on hand. You will start the game with only your scythes, but it's a matter of seconds before you'll encounter your first piece of loot. You can nab boots, gauntlets, armor, and even secondary weapons from fallen enemies, and if they're not dropping color-coded loot, they're spewing out gold. The feedback loop of combat in Darksiders II, much like that of Diablo III, is constantly resetting itself, meaning that you'll be finding new and enticing rewards around every corner. It makes combat all the more fun, and when you find a great item, it's often totally different than the last one you picked up. This is especially true of the secondary weapons, which run the gamut from heavy, lumbering axes to quick, deadly claws. 

If you want a massive sword like War's, you can equip one as your secondary weapon

This increased scale comes at a heavy technical price, though, especially on the weaker Xbox 360. Traversing the game's vast open worlds is a breathtaking experience until you run into a thirty-second loading wall and the action pauses while the next section of the world loads in. Want to turn around and head back? Maybe you saw an enticing item out of the corner of your eye, or you're embroiled in deadly combat with a group of enemies right on the edge of that invisible loading wall? Well, too bad. You're going to have to sit through the whole load again. That combat scenario is especially frustrating, as battle in Darksiders II is a very kinetic experience, and you can easily find yourself accidentally triggering several load times in a row just trying to survive in a fight. Worst of all, many of these loading walls aren't even all that far from each other, suggesting that the tech behind the game just wasn't optimized with these large worlds in mind. It's less of an issue on the PC and PS3, but it can still frustrate.

It's a shame, because the fiction of Darksiders is one so outlandish that you really have to immerse yourself in it if you intend to appreciate it properly. Nothing kills immersion like an unexpected ten to thirty-second freeze while the next area loads in. At least the areas that cause the pauses are marked on the mini-map, but it's not much solace when you have to backtrack through a large world several times.

The dungeons themselves get off relatively scott-free in this regard. You'll encounter a framerate hiccup every now and again as the game loads or auto-saves, but it's nothing in comparison to the jarring loads in the overworlds. In terms of scope and design, the dungeons themselves are relatively unchanged since last time around. If it still works, don't fix it, right? And for the most part, it does indeed work. These challenging labyrinths are amongst the most satisfying sections of the game, reminiscent as they are of Link's conquests in the Zelda games. Like many of Ninteno's classics, Darksiders II is a very mechanics-based game. You have your array of tools for each of the dungeons; solving the numerous puzzles is just a matter of figuring out new and interesting ways to use and combine those tools. 

The game is visually striking... until it stops to load

There were several occasions where the puzzles proved to be a little too obtuse, and became eventually frustrating, but those occasions were most often in the minority. In general, the game's levels are solidly designed, if not maybe a little too reminiscent of the first game's. There isn't exactly a ton in the way of new ideas when it comes to dungeon design and puzzle solving; many of the tools that you used in the first game will make a return here, and they outnumber your new toys pretty greatly. As satisfying as solving these puzzles can be, don't be surprised if you find yourself with a sense of deja vu when playing through certain sections of the game.

Combat, on the other hand, has been shaken up nicely. Death is a much speedier protagonist than War was, and this is immediately reflected in the way that he moves. His scythe attacks are quick and decisive, and his magic is much more flexible than War's, giving him the sense of mysticism that a figure so revered and so feared deserves. Having said that, combat still feels like Darksiders. Many of the same mechanics translate over to Death's new moveset, so the game won't be difficult to pick up for seasoned vets of the original. Death can also attack from horseback, something that poor War was never able to do. Killing enemies off from a mounted position is always fun, even if controlling your horse while maintaining a lock on the enemies can sometimes be cumbersome. It's pretty much always more fun to simple trample them with your horse, though, so the mounted combat may be a feature you find yourself ignoring in the long run.

It's always an option if you want it, though, and that's what doing battle in Darksiders II is really all about. A sizeable skill tree will allow you to customize Death to play just the way you'd like. Whether you'd rather focus on brutal melee kills, life-sapping scythe attacks, or even the demonic arts of necromancy, you'll find something to suit you in Death's skill tree. The latter is one of the coolest moves in the game. By purchasing and upgrading the necromancy skills early on in the game, you can find yourself with a small army backing you during the toughest battles. It really does make you feel like the badass warrior that Death should be. 

Did we mention this game's scale is HUGE? Sometimes it feels like it's about to bring the engine to its knees, though

Less badass is the fact that the dodge button feels a little, well, dodgy at times. It can be difficult to pull Death out of certain combo strings, and some of the animation priority on the attacks feels just very slightly off. The end result is a game very subtly less responsive than the God of War titles it so openly apes. Still, Death is a more agile protagonist than War ever was, and this more fluid combat system is a tangible step in the right direction for the series.

Of course, combat is merely a small cog in the machine that is Darksiders II. Perhaps even more prominent than the swordplay (scytheplay?) is the platforming. You'll use many of the same techniques that you perfected under the guidance of War when navigating the game's numerous environments, and while there's certainly more platforming to do here, none of it feels particularly different. It can still be annoyingly difficult to nail the trajectory of the wall jumps, especially when the camera frames the action at a less than ideal angle, but in the grand scheme of things it's a pretty minor issue. The checkpointing is good enough that if the finnicky jumping controls plunge you to your death (and they will, at some point or another) you'll usually be plopped down on the very same platform and encouraged to give it another shot. 

So while the platforming is certainly solid, it's disappointing that more wasn't added to this undeniably huge portion of the game. All of Death's platforming tricks are the same as War's. None of the new protagonist's speed and cunning come through in his platforming techniques, and even at the start of the game it's easy to see where things are going from a running and jumping perspective. Not to sound cliche or anything, but it's just more of the same. 

Jumping, jousting, and fighting don't begin to cover the game's numerous extraneous mechanics, many of which are introduced in the form of new items you'll find in the dungeons. Expect similar things to the portal weapon in the first Darksiders in terms of secondary items. In fact, many of the items you get in this game will be, if not exactly the same as, at least rough equivalents to the items in the first game. Darksiders II covers a very broad array of gaming mechanics, and while it doesn't quite nail all of them, it at least executes them with respectable compitency.

A secondary weapon in action

Visually, Darksiders II is more a sideways step than a disctinctive step up or down. In terms of visual fidelity, the aliasing can occasionally trip up a bit when rendering some of the larger environments, and the environments and characters certainly aren't the sharpest on the block. The real saving grace in terms of the presentation is the unique style of the artwork. While not cel-shaded by any means, the graphics do in their own way look ripped straight from the pages of a comic book. Accentuated and exaggerated artwork is again the order of the day here, and that's a-okay. It's a look that is immediately recognizable as Darksiders, and in this age of photo-realism and monotone graphics, that's most certainly a good thing. Don't be surprised if you oftentimes find yourself more engaged with the way the game looks than with the way it plays.

The soundtrack serves to back up the action with some vast, sweeping tunes appropriate for the massive fantasy worlds they accompany. It's generally a rousing listen, espeically when you're scaling a particularly lage landscape or conquering a particularly nasty boss, but it has its awkward moments too. Specifically, those moments come during the aforementioned loading walls. As the game pauses to load, the music will pause on whatever note it happened to hit as you ran into the loading wall. Again, it's really jarring.

Darksiders II is a game filled with new ideas that change surprisingly little about the core gameplay. Yes, it's fun to watch loot and gold spill out of deceased enemies, and yes, the speedier combat is nice. But in the end, it feels like there's so much room left to grow and improve upon the imperfect mechanics at the heart of the experience. Combat and platforming can be finnicky, many of the dungeon items feel too similar to those in the first game, and, most damning of all, the tech behind the game just doesn't seem to be capable of keeping up with the demands of its massive worlds. If you enjoyed Darksiders, you will most certainly have a good time with its sequel. Just don't be surprised if you find yourself experiencing some deja vu and wishing for a better tech backbone as you work your way through this massive quest.

Score: 8/10

This game was reviewed for the Xbox 360.

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