In the Book of Revelations, when the end of days is upon us it will begin by opening the first four of the Seven Seals. From those seals rides War, Conquest, Famine, and Death – the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In January of 2010, Vigil and THQ kicked off the first Darksiders game with the supposition that the Seventh Seal (the Wrath of God) had been broken, unleashing Hell on Earth. War brings vengeance and fury to our world as the final battle between Heaven and Hell begins. After a brief encounter with agents of both factions, War finds that he has indeed been duped. He had single handedly brought about the Apocalypse before its appointed time. The Charred Council (the entities charged with unleashing the Four Horsemen when the seals are broken) gave War one chance to restore balance to the world by uncovering the plot to frame him, or his death will be swift. In the first title we see that plot unfold with War finally retrieving the Seventh Seal and striking down The Destroyer, freeing himself from the control of The Council that had conspired against him. His purpose clear, we see the game close with War looking into the distance as Strife, Fury, and Death descend from the heavens. After much anticipation I get to take Vigils sequel for a spin – today I am become Death.
The game opens with Death riding through the icy fields of The Veil. Unwilling to believe that War has betrayed the Horsemen, he seeks to clear his brother’s name. Joined by his black crow (and path-hint system), Dust, Death races to a man named the Crowfather who might know how to reverse the destruction of mankind to help free War.
The first thing I noticed about this game is that despite the subject matter revolving around Death, the game is beautiful and colorful. Using rich purples and blues, the game retains its signature art style while bringing a very different feel. Nowhere is that more apparent than the shift in combat animation and engagement style. War is a lumbering ox, wielding a massive blade against his foes. He blocks, he rolls (but it isn’t far), and he is otherwise somewhat unwieldy by comparison to his brother. Death is more hunched over and moves with his smaller frame in mind. He dodges, rolls, climbs, and swings lighter weapons very quickly as his combat style. Additionally, he does not block. Using a more active and acrobatic dodge, Death escapes his foes using speed to his advantage. Certainly, Death can wield much larger weapons (more on that in a moment) but his approach as a more agile combatant stays true.
The second major shift is one we’ve talked about in my preview as well in a few videos we’ve run recently – the RPG-style loot. Killing enemies or spending your hard earned Gilt (money) allows you to purchase weapons, gloves, boots, shoulder pieces, body armor, talismans, potions, and more. Similar to what you might see in a title like Diablo III, each item is named, split into grey, green, blue, purple, or unique, and feature stat bumps in execution chance, health, wrath, strength, defense, arcane, resistance, weapon damage, critical chance, critical damage, arcane damage, arcane critical chance, and more. The drops are completely random, so you can see how this will easily satisfy your inner loot whore. Since your inventory is split out between primary and secondary weapons, as well as all of the various armor pieces, you will do a bit of management in that area, but that brings me to the next big item – fast travel.
Darksiders was pretty huge, but Darksiders II trumps it in a big way. The first game took me 17 hours to beat, and the second one clipped right past that at 24 hours. Since the scale of this game is easily 4x that of the previous title, you’ll get your horse from the word go, and you’ll also be able to fast travel throughout any map. Additionally, you can warp out of dungeons at almost any time, leaving a waypoint near where you left off. This allows you to pop to town, buy a few potions, check the vendor for cool equipment, and bounce back almost immediately.
Beyond the random loot, there are a few items of interest. You’ll obviously earn new powers and get new gear, just as in the previous title, but you’ll also see unique item drops. Often these come from bosses (occasionally literally – using their fangs or bones as a weapon!) and carry with them unique powers such as draining health, building wrath faster, freezing an opponent, and much more. Throughout the worlds you’ll visit (yes, that’s plural) you’ll also find an old “friend” – Vulgrim. Vulgrim wants you to collect Boatman Coins and pages from the Book of the Dead. Boatman Coins can be traded with Vulgrim for unique items (including the Respec skill which costs cash, but not coins), but the items you get are 100% gambling – he sells Gilded (green), Jeweled (blue), or Ornate (purple) boxes with unspecified items inside. The pages of the Book of the Dead can be assembled into chapters (10 pages each) with Tomb Keys as your reward for their collection. These tombs often contained special or rare items, so they are worth the effort and extend the experience, obviously.
Getting good voice actors for your game is almost a given in this generation of gaming, but getting the perfect voice actor isn’t always possible. When I think of what Death should sound like, I can’t think of anyone better than Michael Wincott. Best known for his standout performances in The Crow and Alien: Resurrection, Wincott’s voice is unique enough to be the harbinger of doom. Wincott leads an all-star cast with James Cosmo, Phil Lamarr, Keith Szarabajka, Robin Atkin Downes, and Fred Tatasciore handing in solid performances in their roles. Beyond the awesome voice work, we need to talk about Jesper Kyd.
Right off the bat I’ll say that if Darksiders II doesn’t win a truckload of awards for the soundtrack, I’ll eat my hat. Kyd strings together one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in recent memory. It isn’t a surprise from the guy who made the soundtracks for the Assassin’s Creed series, the Hitman series, Forza 4, and the Borderlands series. It isn’t often that the soundtrack perfectly fits the mood, and it is even more rare that it does so for more than 24 hours of gameplay.
Life isn’t complete without friends, and sharing your hard-earned gear with them is another new aspect of Darksiders II! You’ll occasionally receive gifts by completing major quests, and you can also send and receive items over Xbox Live. This means you can shoot your friends over an awesome weapon that you’ve just outgrown rather than selling it. Later in the game you’ll also get “possessed weapons” that can be upgraded by feeding them other powerful items. These eventually become the most powerful weapons in your arsenal, but upgrading them with only purple items is easy – by this point in the game I had over 780,000 Gilt just sitting around.
In addition to the loot mechanic there is also an RPG-style system for upgrading your skills. Each level earns you an additional skill point (though there are other ways to earn them later in the game) that can be used on the 33 total skills. The skills are split between a Harbinger and Necromancer path, but you’ll have to choose as you will not level up enough to pick them all. Harbinger focuses on enhancements, movement mechanics, and combat prowess, whereas the Necromancer tree focuses on summoning and making those summons stronger as well as shielding. Each skill can be upgraded up to three times for additional damage, elemental attack, health stealing, or casting Wrath reduction, so it’s easy to see how replay value is quickly amplified. In addition to the skills you can earn leveling up, various characters in the game will offer you the chance to spend your hard-earned coin on additional attacks. These amount to combinations like you’d see in a hack-and-slash title (e.g. X, X, Y for this attack, X, Y, X, Y for that attack, etc.) but certainly extend your ability to deliver consistent and punishing amounts of damage. I played with both sides of the skill tree (thank you, Respec!) so let’s take a moment to talk about summons.
Early on you’ll get the ability to summon a ghoul to attack your enemies. They don’t have a lot of health so they fade out pretty quick and don’t do a ton of damage, but as their powers grow you’ll eventually be unleashing three of them that are on fire and explode when they die. When you add three flocks of birds that can steal health and cause ice damage it makes for colorful chaos on the screen. There were bosses that I didn’t even bother to engage, just pumping through wrath potions and unleashing my minions to do the heavy lifting. It was at this point (and only at this point) that I saw the occasional framerate hitch. It doesn’t impact gameplay and resolves itself very quickly, but when it does happen it is noticeable. It’s also hard to keep track of what is going on in the fray as Death can be lost in the middle of a sea of colors and explosions. The managed chaos is fun, but it can make critical dodges harder to spot before it’s too late.
Speaking of dodging, one of the issues levied against the first title was the overuse of Quicktime events. These have been done away with for the most part, appearing infrequently and often with a good amount of warning. Replacing it is the vastly superior platforming game.
With Death being as agile as he is, it is no surprise that he is able to leap, scramble, and otherwise traverse the landscape in ways that War never could. This amounts to some fantastic puzzles and platforming sequences that hold up extremely well throughout the entire experience, save a few minor items. There is one room in the a middle section of the game that has you climbing a series of wall-run / climbs while being pursued by a platform that is on fire. I’m going to venture that 95% of my total deaths came courtesy of this section – the timing required is rather tight, and the controls occasionally just don’t support that fidelity. This rears its head in a frustrating fight with a boss named Bhethir. As you fight this boss you’ll have to dodge an attack by dropping to a nearby ledge, but all too often Death just leaps off the edge of the platform. Since there is no penalty to dying other than a ‘reset’ to your last save spot, this pops you up on top of the platform (that is now on fire) causing you to lose more than ½ of your health. The boss doesn’t reset when you fling yourself to your ‘death’, thankfully, but this battle is much more frustrating than it needed to be.
Beyond these two minor moments, the controls in Darksiders II are stellar. Gone is the “I meant to jump THAT way” experience when on a pillar – you use the left trigger to look at and lock onto the item you want to jump to. Wall running is easy, as is scrambling up obstacles. When you eventually get an item that can pull you towards other objects, the puzzle aspects ramp up and they don’t stop from there. Later in the game had me fully stumped for a while – an achievement since the puzzles are so far beyond the usual block-pushing nonsense.
With a game over 24 hours on your first run, you might question pacing. Darksiders II paces the items and powers out so you aren’t getting inundated with new gadgets and powers all the time, instead scratching that itch with the loot system. The dungeons are heavily varied, and the puzzles don’t repeat in other dungeons. Fresh approaches to puzzle solving should push this title away from the Zelda comparisons levied against the first title – Darksiders II stands on its own.
Darksiders II gets nearly everything right. Little pieces like a sprawling sidequest system, additional RPG-lite conversation trees, getting a “This is the story so far…” recap any time you click ‘continue’ from the main screen, the beautiful and incredibly-scaled heavily-varied environments, and the depth of the nuanced and familiar loot system all come together to support a fantastic storyline. Toss in the challenge of The Crucible arena system, the ability to customize Death’s skills, and the nagging two empty skill slots when I finished the game gives me every reason to click that “New Game+” option and kick things off again. Every year I look over the list of games I’m excited to play and all too often I’m somewhat disappointed with what was almost an awesome game. Darksiders II exceeds the first title in every way – well done Vigil! See you soon (hopefully) for Darksiders III!