Those who follow the entertainment industry will be accustomed to hearing the term sleeper hit, which refers to a well-made title that was released under the radar. It’s an unfortunate result of how things work, as big releases tend to receive high advertising budgets that occasionally dwarf their competitors. It’s that lack of advertising, coupled with low consumer awareness and the fact that many gamers tend to only play triple-A releases, which occasionally sees quality games fall into the aforementioned category, but there are other factors that can contribute to the status. Though, in the end, it all relates to sales, and sleeper hits tend not to excel in that category, even though fans and media members try to recommend them as much as possible.
Two years ago, the video game community received an action-packed telling of the apocalypse, starring War, one of the Four Biblical Horsemen. Entitled Darksiders, the game offered an exciting and well-crafted mixture of action-adventure elements and role-playing designs, earning favourable comparisons to games like God of War and The Legend of Zelda. However, even though it played like those games in many ways, Vigil Games’ gloomy quest was its own beast, and a good one at that. In fact, it was one of the best games of 2010, but unfortunately didn’t set the world on fire with its sales numbers. As such, the game became a sleeper hit and a critical darling, which thankfully sold well enough to earn a sequel.
In the original game, War was incorrectly summoned to our realm by a devilish set of sequences that mimicked the destruction of several all-important seals during a truce-based stoppage in the war between Heaven and Hell. Previous to that, it was deemed that humanity deserved its own kingdom, which would be overseen by great forces who would see that the weak race remained safe. That led to the creation of the seven seals, which were to be broken in time of war, calling the protective Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse down to the blue and green planet. It was that set’s final piece that called to War, who ended up being the only one of his kind to respond to the signal and seemingly aided the destruction of mankind.
After the events detailed above occurred, and both sides resumed their battle, the mediating Charred Council deemed that our hero was guilty despite his pleas of innocence. However, the group decided to give War a chance to prove himself, which kicked off a lengthy and immersive quest line. Forcing players to battle throughout fantastical locations with epic flair, it quickly became a personal favourite, thanks to well-designed dungeons and an overall abundance of quality. Thankfully, others felt the same way, leading to the present day where an anticipated sequel has hit store shelves.
Known as Darksiders II, the aforementioned sequel pits players into the role of Death. Having come to the realm in order to prove his brother’s innocence during events chronicled within the original title, the scythe-wielding reaper finds that there’s much to do before he can hope to clear the air. The all-important location that he must get to is locked, a required key is hidden, and the realm’s corruption must be dealt with first. It’s that interesting plot line and its well-written dialogue that acts as the basis for what ends up being a twenty to twenty-five hour-long campaign filled with visceral melee combat, expansive Zelda-style dungeons and exploratory wall running mechanics that the Prince of Persia would be proud of. Generally speaking, it takes the best parts of different genres and melds them together into one epic quest.
Over the course of the experience, players must take up their scythes against thousands of foes, while exploring a plethora of different dungeons. The combat is fast, fluid and thoroughly entertaining because it’s chock full of variety. Those who prefer to take advantage of the powerful damage that heavy weapons can dish out will want to employ a hammer, axe or mace as their secondary damage-dealer. However, you’re not forced to go that route, and plenty of speedy secondary options are made available. By giving each player a chance to pick weapons that will suit his or her unique play style, the game’s development team expanded upon a combat system that was good from the get-go, and their improvements are noteworthy. That is, even though the necessary scythes took precedence over anything else during my play through, especially after I discovered an upgradable (possessed) version.
Instead of providing Death with a regulatory set of discoverable items like what you’d find in a Zelda title, Vigil Games decided to offer him a plethora of different loot. Now, chests, pots, boxes and slain enemies drop different gear, allowing for even more customization to ensue. In true RPG fashion, the list of available items is expansive, letting fans equip their avatar with an ideal assortment of armour, weaponry and elemental bonuses. It’s a lot like dress-up, because you can pick everything from the boots on his feet to the cape that hangs off of his shoulders and each offering has its own list of stats. As such, one person’s version of the main character will differ from another’s, especially if one goes for strength while the other picks speed or magic. Yes, Death has some spell-casting abilities.
Complementing the sequel’s evade-filled brute force combat system are two separate skill trees. The first happens to offer strength-based perks to those who wish to become a combat master, while its peer provides an opportunity to get familiar with the arcane elements. I chose the latter option, which meant that spells were my best friend, especially on apocalyptic difficulty. By using hot key commands combining the left shoulder button with a face button, I was able to occupy foes with zombies, and could also suck the life out of them using crows. Further levelling added bonuses to those abilities, giving explosive abilities to the undead and elemental casting abilities to the black birds.
Delving deeper into the engaging combat system that Vigil so lovingly crafted means that we must discuss Reaper form. Unlike the combos that folks can purchase using their gill, the energy-based ability can only be used at certain times. That’s because, in order to earn access to it, one must deal a heavy amount of scythe-based damage. For that reason, it’s best to store it until the odds are heavily against you, because taking on a gigantic version of Death’s regularly depicted cloak stance provides a great boost to his damage output.
All of the detailed combat elements must be mastered if you wish to survive the challenge that is presented on higher difficulties. The core combat can be challenging, and even mid-range foes can team up to cause quite a bit of damage, depleting your health pack supply. Most of the time, those hordes were more trouble than the game’s visceral bosses and their familiar yet occasionally creative mechanics. The challenge was welcomed and never became too much, but there were times where I needed to call upon Reaper form in order to have a chance of survival. That, as well as a trusty pair of pistols that became available early on, as they helped to hurt challenging enemies from a distance. On top of that, they also allowed Death to earn extra wrath (magic).
On top of his damage-dealing birds, Death can call upon the help of a pet raven whenever he’s lost. Highlighted in green, it shows the way to the next objective, whether it’s a key or a boss. However, that hint system isn’t without issue. At times, the bird will seem to lead you around in circles, but it’s usually pretty helpful during dungeon exploration attempts. Plus, fast travel is also available at all times, though it won’t help you get from one part of a crypt to another.
Although the dungeons featured within Darksiders II are intelligently crafted and feature memorable puzzles, they can become a bit repetitive. It’s a shame because that downside tends to overshadow the environmental quality that the game boasts, but the simple fact is that there isn’t enough variety offered, especially during the early part of the campaign. A large portion of the main quest tasks Death with completing one labyrinthine location after another, and it’s not until later in the game that it opens up more. On top of that, a lot of the available side quests also feature dungeon exploration. For those reasons, gamers who don’t appreciate questing through meticulously crafted tombs with a map in hand won’t fully appreciate this game and all that it offers. Granted, even fans of that type of gameplay will notice the mentioned repetition, meaning that shorter play sessions are recommended over marathons.
Despite the repetition found within the game’s campaign, certain facets kept the majority of its dungeon delving fresh, with the first being its thoroughly enjoyable combat system, which never got dull. It’s followed by the high quality puzzles referenced above, as well as the new gadgets that the Horseman receives over the course of his journey. First up are the pistols, which can be used to detonate thrown bombs. Next, there’s an elemental grappling arm that lets Death pick things up from a distance, and also allows him to swing on highlighted rings. Those tools are followed by the ability to split into two, which helps solve some of the game’s most intelligent puzzles, as well as a portal gun that ends up receiving a time-based tweak later on. Each one alters the game in a positive way, helping to keep the onslaught of dungeons from becoming overly repetitive.
Once it opened up more, Darksiders II started to hit its stride, although the drive to explore wasn’t there like it was in the first game. Sure, you can get on horseback and look for hidden pages from the Book of the Dead, collectible relics and hundreds of edible rocks that a construct wishes to eat, but Darksiders‘ open-world segments were more prominent and more exciting. If Vigil does get the opportunity to craft Darksiders III, and I hope that they will, it’d be nice if the team could find a common medium between the two designs. It’s surely possible because they’ve proven their skills with regards to both styles.
Despite the noted downside, the apocalyptic series’ latest offering is a very good one. There are always things that can be improved upon, and that can be said about the best games on the market. This one just happens to lack a bit of optional balance, plus a reason for most users to explore its several exotic worlds inch by inch. That is, apart from collectible-hunting.
On top of its lengthy campaign, which provides a New Game+ option after its credits roll, Darksiders II offers a challenging arena mode. Known as the Crucible, it tasks those controlling Death with dispatching one hundred unique waves of increasingly difficult baddies of all shapes and sizes. It’s tough, and only the fiercest warriors will complete the trial, but that’s where the fun lies. Of course, it’s also where a lot of replay value lies, although the core experience provides its own reasons for returning, including the aforementioned New Game+ mode that is almost a necessity for those who wish to make it to level 30.
All of the above-mentioned elements looked quite good and happened to work like they were supposed to. Like its predecessor, this apocalyptic outing won’t blow anyone away through the use of shiny visuals, but its art design can rival the industry’s best. Great-looking vistas, creative environments and noteworthy creature designs all factor in to make that a fact. However, there were a couple of technological negatives that affected my overall experience. First off, there’s a hint of lag hidden underneath some of Death’s movements, but it doesn’t affect the combat or mar the game itself. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with the second problem, which is what seems to be a lock-up glitch. During my twenty-five hours spent playing through this quest, I encountered five random instances where the game completely locked up. Now, I can’t say it’s the game for sure, because it could’ve been a smudge or a console issue, but it’s definitely worth noting. Though, if it is a glitch, hopefully it’ll be addressed sooner rather than later.
When it comes to audio, Darksiders II doesn’t lack oomph or quality. Its voice acting is strong and its sound effects pack an audible punch, but Jesper Kyd’s soundtrack stands out the most. His orchestral offerings fit the quest incredibly well, and are also very memorable. In fact, his soundtrack happens to be one of the best I’ve heard in a long time.
Two years ago, Vigil Games helped to prove that games with immense advertising budgets are not the only ones worth playing. Now, with Darksiders II, they’ve decided to up that particular ante, while delivering a sequel that fine tunes and polishes almost every aspect that its predecessor featured. Yes, there could have been more variety, but that’s the only noteworthy complaint that I can muster regarding what is a very good sequel that fans of the genre should not miss out on. Granted, newcomers should start with the series’ debut, so that they’ll understand what’s going on in this successor.
This review is based on a copy of the game that was provided to us.