What is Darksiders? Think God of War meets The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and you'll have a pretty good idea of what it's like. Though it's not as good as either of those games, when you're taking elements from some of the best around, you're doing something right, and Vigil Games built in plenty of gameplay systems that fans of those titles, particularly the Legend of Zelda, should find familiar and enjoyable.
Darksiders plays smoothly, looks sharp, sounds great, and provides about 15 hours of single-player content. There's lots of gear to collect, weapons to upgrade, combos to learn, and special items to find. There's a range of enemy-rich environments, puzzle dungeons and reasons to backtrack. All seems to be in order for a standout gaming experience, but I felt a few elements of the game limit the range of its entertainment value.
You play as War, one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. His power is known and he's treated with a certain sliver of respect by even the most powerful of dungeon bosses. Sure people want to kill you because they falsely think you screwed up the balance between Heaven and Hell and blew up all of humanity in the process, but they're still a little apprehensive when confronting you. It's empowering to have supreme beings spout their standard death threats without forgetting to properly address you as a Horseman. They're angry and they're arrogant enough to fight you, but that doesn't mean they won't recognize your status.
War's actual personality, unfortunately, doesn't manage to match up with his reputation. He may not be a traditional heroic figure, but there's never a doubt that "hero" is the role he's meant to play here. Since he's the framed victim in a corrupt scandal, it's easy to identify with his desire for revenge and you don't exactly pity the throngs of demons he slices through.
As a result, he isn't particularly interesting to listen to, as he's portrayed as the stereotypical good guy -- a flat role for such a figure. You'll chuckle from time to time as his bluntness in conversation blasts aside any mists of uncertainty surrounding his intentions, but mostly you're going to want to get back to battle. In combat he will rip enemies apart, tear off their heads, impale them on his sword, slice them in half, smash them senseless and pull out their hearts. Blood spills all over, and thanks to some slick animations, every slice, thud and smack feels like it has an impact.
Like in God of War, when you do enough damage to a foe a button prompt will pop up over their head. You hit the button and it kills the enemy. The difference in Darksiders is that there aren't any quick-time event (QTE) sequences following the input of the kill command, something I think anyone else who thinks QTEs are overused will appreciate. If it's a common foe it'll be an animation specific to the enemy type, and if it's a boss of the mini or final variety, it'll be something more elaborate and brutal. In this way, you get a nice reward for successfully utilizing the combat system, which, as it turns out, isn't very difficult to do.
Veteran gamers will want to crank the difficulty on this game. The fighting here is far from Devil May Cry complex and encounters don't feel as challenging as God of War. The command input system doesn't require any kind of supercharged reflexes. It's slow, methodical and forgiving, so chaining attacks can be done by pretty much anyone who picks up the controller, even if they've never played an action game before. You move through the game and will eventually unlock two weapons to complement your sword, a massive scythe and a hulking gauntlet that can be easily mixed in with your standard combos with the press of a button. There are slight differences in feel between the weapon styles, so it's a nice change if you're tired of your sword combos and the same easy combat is in place across all three weapon types. Though it's not built for the hardcore action gamer and its limited nature will become apparent well before the end of the game, it's still entirely functional, entertaining and a joy to watch because the animations are so smooth.
The gear you pick up in various dungeons can also contribute to battle behavior, juggling enemies, affecting your movement in a fight, or grabbing bits of the environment at a distance. How do you get the gear? Well, get ready for a deluge of Zelda comparisons. If you've played any 3D Legend of Zelda game, what you find here is going to be very familiar indeed.
War will come across puzzle dungeons from time to time, and within each is buried a gear or weapon item that allows more to be explored and ultimately access to a boss chamber. Throughout the course of the game, you'll find dungeon maps, treasure chest locators, keys to open specific doors and bombs to blow up red crystal walls. You'll use your Abyssal Chain (hookshot) to cross chasms, use your Crossblade (boomerang) to tag multiple targets and transfer fire onto explosives to arm them, or to activate crystals.
Throughout Darksiders you'll see influences from other titles like Halo 3 as War grabs heavy, fantastical versions of Bungie's turret guns, Portal, and, strangely enough, Panzer Dragoon. You get a horse named Ruin that War can ride around in larger spaces and swat at enemies with his sword, and the sprint mechanic is the same as Ocarina of Time, only it uses little energy pellets instead of carrots. You even get the equivalent of milk jars to store powerups for use in the field. The good news is that the recycled mechanics are still fun to toy around with, particularly when fused with the game's combat system.
Darksiders has, after all, the benefit of including elements of some of the best games ever made, and it's a new property with high production values, which is certainly something we all like to see. Its gameplay can't really be described as original, but the fact that the majority of its mechanics are already proven to work and implemented well means there's certainly entertainment to be had here. If anyone reading this has not played Ocarina of Time before (which you should), then you'll have a great time with this game. The introduction of new gear, challenges, and enemy types are set before you at a measured pace that keeps you hooked and piles more layers on the gameplay. Even so, some aspects don't hook together as snugly as I would have liked.
This is a post-apocalyptic setting, and the world feels just as dead as you might expect to be. Those that walk the surface are demons and monsters, which makes sense within the fictional confines of the game world, but overall the game fails to generate any kind of powerful feel or sense of wonder. Each of the various zones are more distinguished by their visual style (the grassy area, the spider area, the graveyard area, the cathedral area) than by any particular mood or notion of hidden, awe-inspiring, or otherwise interesting bits of civilization.
There are exceptions, notably those who keep the game's giant sand worms captive, the walking doors, and a brief trip to another dimension. While playing through Darksiders I just couldn't help but wish there was more of this type of thing. I wanted to talk to more characters and get a better sense of how this decimated world was responding to the cataclysm, how it was being shaped and rising up out of devastation. There are flashes of personality, specifically the massive, hammer-wielding Ulthane and a bizarre skeleton with a cane and an accent, but much of the rest of the game feels dry and dull, even with an art style so cohesive and such pretty visuals.
The gear you find across all these locations is worked effectively into the fabric of the gameplay and that makes up for the shortcomings of character to some degree. Some pieces are useful throughout the experience such as the Crossblade and Abyssal Chain, but other elements like the time-slowing, block pushing, and platforming are built in without any especially creative applications. While a few of the puzzles will provide a challenge to most gamers out there, there's nothing overly complicated to speak of. As long as you remain aware of your abilities, the solutions are mostly straightforward, and don't really get interesting until the final dungeon. Specifically, this means if you see a red crystal wall, you're going to need to blow it up with a bomb, which will invariably be nearby. Sometimes you need to transfer fire with your Crossblade to ignite the bomb, and sometimes the bomb is on a timer, and in pretty much all cases it's fairly clear what needs to be done.
Somebody looking for an ultimate test of logistical reasoning and spatial awareness isn't going to find it here. If, on the other hand, you're just looking for a more readily playable experience where you won't be stumped by some kind of insane, illogical mess of puzzle strings, then you're going to like this product. This slant on design meshes in the ease of combat as well, catering to those players who don't want their game to be rigidly unforgiving like Demon's Souls, but prefer ease of playability and a gentle difficulty curve.
Boss battles are more of an issue. The conventional wisdom is that the further you progress into a game, the harder these encounters become. That's not the case here, even against titanic, towering demons. The actual fights are simpler than most of the challenges you just hopped through to get there. It makes for an anticlimactic experience in every dungeon. You're expecting the ultimate test of your skills but given a challenge on par with a standard enemy group encounter. It's something I think anyone who plays this game will find to be disappointing.
While the underdeveloped world and boss fights are the low points for Vigil's game, it's still an easy one to enjoy. The souls you reap from fallen enemies can be turned in at vendors for a range of weapon and ability upgrades, and if you're obsessive about finding treasure chests you'll find reasons to traipse back across old ground to boost your various meters, find new weapon attachments, and try to cobble together an ultimate armor set. All the action is well-presented, with a familiar lock-on targeting system that keeps enemies in view to prevent combat from stumbling into the realm of the incomprehensible, though it would have been nice to see more variety amongst the grunt enemy population, or at least enemies that required more significant variation of fighting styles to take down.
More of Darksiders' appeal can be attributed to the coherent and colorful art style. The bosses and stages are impressively built, and you're treated to some flashy effects like the inky sweep of War's glider wings, the lines of energy that follow his weapon movements, and the mesmerizing flow of the animations. For all there is to appreciate, there's also unfortunately a noticeable degree of screen tearing and the occasional framerate drop, which hopefully doesn't spoil your experience. The voice acting is forgettable, with most characters speaking with the types of roars and gruffness you'd expect from towering demonic beings. The real standout is Mark Hamill's raspy Watcher, who also happens to have by far the most interesting role in the game... except for that skeleton guy with the cane, of course.
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