If 2010’s Darksiders was successful by borrowing ideas from gaming’s greatest franchises, then the sequel is an even greater success if only because it perfects some of those tried and trusted ideas. It’s a hodgepodge of exhilarating third-person combat set in an enormous world where giant “Makers” call the shots, new weapons and armor almost always boost your character’s stats, and every dungeon requires some careful platforming and puzzle solving. Yes, it’s easy to say Darksiders has an awful lot in common with familiar franchises, but its older brother—Darksiders II—turns the volume on those ideas up to 11 and smacks you in the face with the sheer definition of the word “epic.” And all of that takes place within the first eight hours, or in other words, just a quarter of the way through the campaign. If you were hoping Vigil could deliver a giant action-RPG adventure, rest assured, this is the biggest, most surprising experiences so far in 2012. It only took two years for the Darksiders franchise to develop into something worthy of standing alongside, if not above, the greatest action-RPGs in recent history.
That may sound like an awful lot of praise, and while every game has its annoying moments, bugs, and odd development choices, Darksiders II gets so much right that it’s easy to overlook those pesky visual glitches and grumpy camera issues. One moment you’ll find yourself riding Despair, your trusty steed, in a vast gray field. You’ll swing a scythe at skeletons, and force Despair to track down more baddies. The next moment you’ll face a hulking colossus stone giant, somehow chopping away bit by bit until the brute is just broken enough to defeat. And another moment you’ll find yourself deep in a dungeon, looting new weapons and armor to upgrade your stats, while searching for that skeleton key to unlock the door you saw 30 minutes ago.
Darksiders II puts you in the role of Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It takes place during the events of the original Darksiders. But instead of fighting that balance between heaven and hell as you did as War in the original, the sequel has you play as War’s older brother. Death’s mission is originally one of redemption for his brother, but you quickly learn that this Horseman has a bit of a heart as he tries to help those in the world between heaven and hell. There is plenty here for a full narrative, but the story is definitely not Darksiders II’s strongest point. It becomes a bit convoluted and disjointed and at times it feels Vigil was simply looking for ways to craft a story that allowed for a longer game.
Chances are you aren’t here just for a story, though. Luckily, the combat is exciting enough to push through the otherwise lackluster narrative campaign. Death is unlike his brother War simply because he’s agile, and makes better use of his environment to navigate and solve puzzles. His primary weapons are a pair of scythes, used to quickly slash through hordes of baddies. But his secondary weapons—tied to the triangle button—are often slow-moving, heavy hitters.
Death strings together combos like a familiar Spartan warrior. When you add in a gear like Death Grip to the mix, the possibilities for stringing together lengthy brutal combos are nearly endless. There’s even an ability that allows you to create portals, serving up some healthy environmental damage to unsuspecting opponents. He’s a graceful killer and can quickly dodge enemies’ attacks, with Death’s magic/abilities rounding out his arsenal. He’ll quickly twirl in place, creating something of a blade tornado. Or he’ll erect a gravestone to temporarily unleash his minions. Transforming into a Reaper makes you practically indestructible and anything standing in your path will turn to dust.
Combat is a joy and flexible to the player. You can choose the button masher approach and you’ll do just fine. It is easy, after all, to perform massive combos out of dumb luck. But if you put some attention into training your moves and combos, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to eliminate an entire room of baddies through a single combo.
This is all held together in a fairly extensive upgrading system. Through the course of the lengthy adventure, you’ll learn new abilities, new combos, and new special attacks. This largely comes through a simplistic leveling system, which is based on experience points earned by completing quests and killing baddies. In no time you’ll earn skill points to invest in two trees—one unlocks and boosts melee abilities while the other focuses on magic. New abilities are locked to levels, and you’ll rarely feel levels lack progression.
Loot fans are going to love Darksiders II. Like any good RPG, your stats are largely based on your gear. Vigil showed a fine appreciation for its loot system by giving hardcore fans a chance to delve deep into the numbers, and less-serious players a simplistic color system—green numbers boost stats, red numbers decrease stats. Every dungeon is peppered with chests containing armor, weapons and potions. Enemies frequently drop loot and you can even purchase items from vendors. You’ll rarely go 10 minutes without coming across something shiny and new. The loot system rivals any other RPG on consoles. In addition to random drops, you’ll find complete sets of gear. Legendary armor is awarded for getting through sections of The Crucible, an arena system that rewards you for eliminating waves of baddies. There’s even an online mail system that allows you to send items to friends—a treat that is sure to make many salivate. None of this even touches on the ability to upgrade certain gear—you’ll just have to experience that for yourself.
When you aren’t traversing the giant world on your horse, you’re probably spending hours upon hours deep in a dungeon. Vigil held nothing back when it comes to exploration. Dungeons aren’t only varied and vast, they include tricky puzzles, mini bosses and regular bosses, hordes of enemies, and plenty of secrets. Many levels allow you to control a robotic vehicle, which smashes through crystal barriers and allows you to open locked gates. The stone robot also serves as a functional giant weapon.
Throughout the world Death will have to navigate puzzles and environments. He’ll do this by wall jumping, running up wooden planks, using Death Grip, pulling levers, and pushing magical giant balls. This all works fine, but it’s all too easy to just barely press the wrong directional button and have Death run across a wall instead of up it. In addition, he has a tendency to miss his mark. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s fair to say wall navigation is not perfect. Using walls to navigate and gain access to hidden areas is a great idea and executed well enough. Puzzles are rarely difficult, but they are interesting enough breaks from the vast amount of combat you’ll do elsewhere.
What dungeon wouldn’t be complete without a fierce boss battle? Fortunately, Darksiders II nails its boss battles. While most revolve around mastering attack patterns and learning the proper counter, others require your attention to the environment. You’ll frequently make use of bombs (also used in solving puzzles) to exploit weaknesses on your big bad enemies. Other bosses call for you to ride Despair.
For all the praise, it’s fair to point out that, in addition to some minor wall navigation issues, there are some graphical and texture-related glitches. It’s to be expected for such a large game, or so it seems, but it’s unfortunately common enough for textures to pop in and out of focus. But the bigger issue has to do with the pesky camera. While camera control is tied to the right analog stick, sometimes during combat the camera won’t catch up with you, leaving you guessing which direction you are moving. It’s even worse when in a narrow passage. Sometimes the camera just doesn’t know what to do, so it does the absolute worst thing and zooms into your head. These are not game breakers, but they are annoying enough to detract from an otherwise superb game.
What makes Darksiders II likely to stay in your PlayStation 3 longer than a week or two—outside the fact the campaign is at least 20+ hours long—are the numerous side missions and quests, leaderboards, and The Crucible arena. The latter allows you to collect special loot every time you get through five waves of enemies. You can keep going and hope to make it through the next five for stronger loot, but if you die, you lose it all. There are 100 waves, so this mode offers an enormous challenge even for the most advanced players.
The presentation is fairly good, but not the best we’ve seen in an action-RPG. It still has that cartoony look with random bright colors that ultimately pull players away from the immersive dark themes. The audio is also fairly strong but the voice acting is, well, pretty lame. Death is pretty unlikeable to begin with, and his dialogue and voice acting do little to improve his nature. Still, it’s not bad enough to really worth complaining about, just don’t expect the graphics, audio, or voice acting to blow you away.
Darksiders II blows its predecessor out of the water and offers an enormous world to explore and devastate. If you can get past some minor technical glitches and camera issues, you’ll find there’s quite a bit to enjoy here. The combat system is smooth, elegant and brutal, while the loot system is deep and addicting. There are plenty of reasons to return once you beat the main campaign, and thanks to the entertaining gameplay and interesting level designs, you’ll easily spend full days sinking deep into the world.