Darksiders II review
Three worlds of mediocrity
Developer: Vigil Games
Assured that this, alongside Sleeping Dogs, is a candidate for the game of the year, I decided to plop down $80 and rushed home to play through it. One would advise me to take my time, but *bleep* that shit, I was too excited to do that, especially when it happens to be the sequel to one of my favorite games of 2010 (though not THE favorite - that honor goes to Red Dead Redemption). However, it feels like a lot has changed between the development of the first and second games. Instead of a bloodier, more apocalyptic take on the Legend Of Zelda series, it feels more like playing an open world dungeon crawler with bits and pieces taken from other games. Understandably, not every game aims to be the one who reinvents the wheel, but a game should at least aim to be an enjoyable experience, and while first impressions would say otherwise, Darksiders 2 is a very mediocre game. It has its flashes of brilliance, but unlike the first game, this has a limited scope and relies on repeating itself more than one would want it to while feeling empty.
Taking place during War's 100 years of imprisonment for prematurely starting the apocalypse, Death sets out to clear his brother's name by travelling through the realm of Veil - which is a dimension situated between the kingdoms of Heaven, Hell and Man - and finding the Tree Of Life. A lot of the story revolves around doing tasks for some characters here and there before they'll let you reach your goal. Stuff like finding stones to awaken the guardian in order to destroy a blockade will, for the most part, be the full extent of that part of the story, and while there is some character interaction between Death and whoever may be giving him the task or assisting him, I honestly couldn't give a *bleep* either way. The reason being is that the story is a mess. A lot of what happens goes in one ear and out the other as bland characters that last maybe an hour at the most on screen talk about Veil, the creators of the world and all of this other stuff that's fine if you get a throbbing *bleep* for lore. However, having little to no progression put within the cutscenes in tandem with boring characters talking about the world around you gives a good reason as to why lore is typically found in in-game books or the main menu.
The sad part is that the first act is actually the most interesting. The second act consists of fetching items while being given minimal dialogue worth a damn in an effort to justify said fetch quests. The third act is one that could've been so damn good, but instead, it rushes through, giving minimal story and not really having a satisfying climax. Like premature ejaculation, Vigil Games were fine with it ending there and then... but I wasn't and I doubt a lot of people were too. Not quite Mass Effect 3 bad, but the sheer disappointment in tandem with how rushed the rest of the third act felt helped put it close to that level of sheer *bleep*uptitude. It's not like it had to suck because it did present some great ideas, like Death having some personal demons (he keeps the souls of the Nephilim - his race - inside an amulet that he wears and is thus referred to as the kinslayer) and the end of the third act having quite the ultimatum - the problem is that it was executed sloppily and didn't really follow through with its ideas all too well, if at all. I wouldn't call them plotholes, per se, but more just things that could've been expanded on.
Speaking of things that needed more, the open world is a mostly barren affair. If you find Hyrule Field in the Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time too empty, then the worlds within Veil will be even worse as they are a LOT bigger - one world is twice the size of the one you explored in the first game, but besides the occasional group of enemies and the dungeons that you'll be required to go through, there isn't a lot on offer. To make things a touch worse, there aren't that many sidequests to do in order to at least make travelling through it more bearable. While more are being made as DLC, it doesn't really help matters that much when the reality of the matter is that going through the big world just feels like a waste of time. The sidequests themselves are what you'd expect - finding items (individually or in a set) and killing optional bosses. I suppose I'd just been spoiled by the likes of the Elder Scrolls franchise, Kingdoms Of Amalur, Dragon's Dogma and Diablo that I'd expect a similar game to have me invested into its world through sidequests and other such optional content... and yes, I am aware that you can fast travel in this game, but in order to do so, you must have gotten to that area already, which requires the use of either your feet or your horse's feet. What hurts harder is the amount of effort put into each of the worlds that you'll travel through - the first world's dungeons are at least designed well enough, while the second's are mediocre and get rather boring after a while, and the third is tantamount to throwing together a half assed assignment because you put it off until the last minute. The third world is thankfully smaller than the other two, which rectifies my chief complaint somewhat, but everything in it is just soo boring and could've been so much more - it's like Vigil Games rushed the game out to meet a deadline.
The dungeons are both better and worse than those found in the first game. The first game had six, but they were big and had plenty to do in them. This game has so many that I lost count, but they're smaller and tend to contain roughly the same sort of things. This is because of how both games are structured - as I've said, Darksiders 1 was more like the Legend Of Zelda series with more visceral combat, while Darksiders 2 plays more like an RPG. In RPGs, dungeons merely serve as a holding place for a few basic puzzles (if any, though some games can actually be rather devious with their puzzles but not this one, I'm afraid) and a bunch of enemies, including a boss under most circumstances. In the case of Darksiders 2, most puzzles revolve around placing bombs onto switches or destructible surfaces, rolling big balls into a hole (and sometimes combining the two together) and a bunch of pressure switches. Despite me sounding like I'm putting down the puzzles, I actually think that the puzzles are reasonably well executed. Well, not entirely. Early on, the puzzles are a tad too simple and feel like they just get repeated again and again. But later on, they're set up so that you'll need to use your noodle a bit, paying attention to your surroundings to figure out what to do next. They're not hard or anything (well, some are a bit), but the way that they're integrated into the dungeons works out quite well, plus there are a fair few genuinely creative situations. Adding onto all of this are the platforming segments, which are heavily inspired by Prince Of Persia 08 in that Death can run across walls, jump from wall to wall and maneuver across indents in the wall, but there isn't a whole lot of creativity put into these and feel like a bit of an afterthought - doubly so as the controls are less deliberate and more free forming, which can and will result in some wrong jumps. They don't necessarily kill you, although they do take a bit of health and... actually, if you *bleep* up enough, they'll kill you. But above all else, it can get a bit annoying. Ah well, can't win them all in the design game...
But if the puzzles are an indicator, it's not as if Darksiders 2 made careless mistakes throughout it all - the combat feels so much better. While Darksiders 1 felt more polished overall, the combat was a bit stiff and a tad limiting, even after completely upgrading War. Darksiders 2 gives you more combos to play with, more sub weapons to utilize (like bracers, axes and lances) and more enemies to show off your combos to, plus it feels faster and smoother. Putting its better feel in combination with more things to play with makes combat feel more satisfying, and fights against bosses and groups of enemies can get a bit hectic as they can be quite the hard hitters if you aren't paying attention and dodging or using special attacks whenever it's necessary. The only issue I have is that there just isn't enough. People took issue with the first game having too much because the combat was, as I said, a little stiff and limiting, so on top of expanding on combat... they also made combat less frequent. Oh, you'll run into a few situations where you'll fight waves of enemies, but they're far and few between, and once you beat the dungeon... it'll be a long while before you'll run into the next situation where the combat can actually be utilized properly.
Speaking of special attacks, Death can level up whenever he gets enough experience points either through killing enemies or completing quests (story or side). Through that, he'll have his HP and Wrath (needed for special attacks) restored, get a little more powerful and gain a skill point, which can be used to either learn a new attack or power up an attack already learned. He can either learn physical or spectral attacks, although you'll only learn a few attacks on each side and the rest of the skill trees consist of add-ons to those attacks, like the souls you summon to fight for you can give you more Wrath as they attack, or you can absorb HP after using a certain attack. While it's a nice addition... it just serves to drive the point of there simply not being enough further home. For the record, you can learn combos if you talk to the trainers in each of the three worlds as long as you have enough gold... and thus we enter the loot system, which revolves around finding chests full of weapons, armor and the like. The thing is that you'll find so much stuff that you may find yourself either not bothering to experiment, or sifting through many, many pieces of equipment to find what seems like the strongest, even if you wind up sacrificing another property like an elemental or HP absorption (or whatever) just for an extra strength point from within your scythe and secondary weapon combination, and don't get me started on armor - good *bleep*ing god, don't get me started...
The graphics are a mixed bag. On one hand, it's a nightmare. It has a tendency to lag during the heat of battle, which can undermine the increase in speed and fluidity. I'm not sure if it's just my copy, but I've noticed a fair amount of screen tearing, which just drops me out of the experience and I'm sure it'll happen to people who'll experience it often too. Not only that, but be prepared for it to freeze on you. Oh yes, games late in the seventh generation that still freeze. Despite all of that, load times are pretty meaty. I mean yeah, it's because of the huge worlds, but still, to say that this game lacks polish is a huge understatement - god, at least Splatterhouse had an excuse in amongst its troubled development. On the other hand, it does actually look rather nice. It can seem rather jarring that it's gone from a somewhat realistic style to a more cel shaded one, but the colors are neatly used in tandem with some creative designs to at least give it a more fantastical and yet still somewhat gridmark look (for the record, Darksiders 1 was very gridmark in appearance, which went with the whole "post-apocalyptic Earth" setting). Each of the worlds and dungeons look their part, with the first seeming like a more earthy environment (forests and volcanoes) whilst the second is more desolate due to it essentially being the realm of the dead. So in other words, Darksiders 2 definitely has style, but it's about one slightly moved PS3 away from exploding (that's how badly unpolished it is).
The sound design is probably the only consistently good portion of the product. The soundtrack compliments the supposed scale of the worlds, in that it is epic. There are thunderous tracks to make make each boss feel bigger and more downplayed music during the dungeons to keep you focused on the task at hand while having some noise in the background. It's certainly more of an ambient soundtrack as it tries its best to suck you in, and during fights and cutscenes, it surely does. During any other moment? Eh, to varying degrees, I suppose, but it is a beautiful soundtrack. Then there's the voice acting, which is excellent. They further help try to get you into the game as they are fairly believable... given that this is more of a fantasy setting than a realistic one but nevertheless, it's never over the top or underplayed; it sounds almost pitch perfect for what should be expected.
Despite my overly negative attitude, Darksiders 2 is simply mediocre. What must be understood is that Darksiders 1 was a great game that did exactly what it had set out to do really well, while Darksiders 2 simply meandered about and got worse. It's almost as if Darksiders 2 needed another 6-9 months in development due to the unrealized potential of the additions and some real technical problems. The only real improvement is the combat, which feels significantly faster, more fluid and more satisfying. Unfortunately, it just bit off a lot more than it could chew, throwing you into a big world with little to nothing to do in it and squandering the potential of an epic story by presenting it as if it was a sidestory... a lot like a direct to video sequel, as a matter of fact. While DLC can attempt to make the open world a little more bearable to go through and patches can hopefully fix the graphical issues, it's ultimately a disappointment and even on its own terms, it's just so damn mediocre that I can't really recommend it. Instead, go play the first game, it's so much better. If there is a Darksiders 3 on the way, I hope that Vigil Games are given a bit more time to figure out how to make either Strife or Fury kick ass and what kind of story they should be involved in that doesn't sound like something to be expected from a direct to video sequel.
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