It’s been six years since Darksiders II, and I’m as surprised as the next person that we ever got to see this sequel. THQ folded, Vigil Games followed suit, and the rights to Darksiders were scattered to the wind like ash. Against impossible odds, the team from Vigil Games reassembled to form Gunfire games, and THQ’s assets were snapped up under THQ Nordic — a studio devoted to preserving the best parts of THQ’s portfolio. With this much time between sequels, could the team remember what made the first two games so special?
Darksiders (sorry, my review for the original was lost in a database hiccup), for those who need a refresher, told the story of War. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse serve a group called The Charred Council who served to maintain the balance between heaven and hell, preventing the war from descending to Earth. War finds himself summoned to Earth to begin the endwar that will end the eternal conflict between angels and demons. He finds Abaddon (a general of Heaven’s army) and Straga (a demon Commander) battling in open view of humanity, and believes that the Seventh Seal has been broken. The Council descends upon the Earth, believing that War has unleashed the end of days ahead of schedule and binds the Horseman. War sets off to prove his innocence.
Darksiders II (My original review, and my take on the PS4 version) takes place simultaneously and in an intersecting fashion with Darksiders, with its central protagonist being the Horseman Death. Death, in an effort to prove his brother War’s innocence, sets out to restore Earth and reverse the opening of the Seventh Seal. By freeing the Forge Lands and the Land of the Dead from corruption, he also prepares for war with the seemingly-corrupt Charred Council.
Darksiders III also takes place parallel with the events of the first game, only this time the protagonist is Fury. Fury’s motivations are less pure than Death, looking to take her place as leader of the Four Horseman. Ultimately, she will also begrudgingly take on proving her brother’s innocence as long as she gets what she wants. Her path is certainly more of a direct one — she intends to destroy the physical embodiments of the Seven Deadly Sins, once again under the direction of the Charred Council.
Fury isn’t alone in her fight to destroy the Sins. Eventually she runs into a powerful creature named the Lord of Hollows. This monstrous creature appears to hold the Ark of the Covenant chained to his back, and seemingly has more power than Fury, even at her strongest. His motivations are as unclear as those of the Charred Council, but he is willing to provide Fury with the powers needed to slay the Seven, thus restoring order and balance to the Earth.
As this is the third game in the franchise, you’d expect it to be iterative. The first game was an action title with a Zelda-like progression system where you’d use objects and powers to unlock new areas and paths. The second game added to this formula with a loot system whereby Death could earn new scythes, armor, talismans, gloves, axes, and more. Reviews, including mine, praised this new system. For reasons I cannot explain, the team at Gunfire Games discarded this entirely. Going back to a pure action model, the powers and gear you obtain are often a result of boss battle. You’ll unlock various “forms” for Fury that enable her to leap high into the air, traverse lava unharmed, float via lightning, smash and traverse crystalline structures, and even suspend objects in space. The Hollow powers, Flame, Force, Storm, and Stasis can be switched at will, providing opportunities for some additional strategic elements when facing difficult foes, but I’ll freely admit that I preferred the more RPG-centric approach of Darksiders II over the action-heavy focus of this installment.
Alongside these forms comes new weapons to augment the Barbs of Scorn — Fury’s whips. The Chains of Scorn weapon provides a pair of flails that unleash fire-based high-speed attacks, whereas the Lance of Scorn gives Fury a lightning spear for rapid stabbing in a straight line at mid-range. The next major weapon, bound to Fury’s Force Form, is a massive sledgehammer called the Mallet of Scorn. Slow and powerful, as you might expect, it is devastating, if you can get it to connect, eradicating enemy armor on larger foes. The final weapon is the Edge of Scorn — a dual blade tied to the Stasis form. It’s able to slow foes in their tracks. To help Fury deal with the myriad of foes that have ranged attacks when she does not, she’ll eventually be granted access to the crossblade (read: chakram) called Salvation that can tag up to four targets. You can imbue them with Hallow’s power, enabling a whole new puzzle solving verticality, as well as a mid-combat interrupt that helps even the odds a bit. All of these provide different ways of engaging the enemy, which is fantastic…so why am I so aggravated by all of it? Put simply, it’s nearly 2019, and the amount of grinding is too damned high!
As the randomization element for equipment drops has been supplanted, you’ll eventually have access to these five weapons (minus a brief moment where you can wield a puzzle-element sword) as you acquire your various powers. These weapons then have to be upgraded by gathering specific shards, splinters, pieces or chunks of adamantium. You find these upgrade elements by killing innumerable foes, and by exploring, but mostly with the killing. So much killing. And you’ll need to do even more killing than that as Fury’s powers need souls to level up.
Familiar demon/vendor Vulgrim returns, happily accepting souls to upgrade your health, strength, and arcane attack powers. As he did for War in the first Darksiders (but denied Death in the second), he also allows Fury to use the Serpent Holes to teleport around Earth so she can revisit previous locations. As the random equipment is gone, so are his loot boxes — he’s back to peddling consumables and the odd artifact. And while we are talking about missing equipment, there is a tab for Fury’s armor, but having completed the game, I can assure you that this is entirely unused — a vestigial reminder of Darksider II’s RPG mechanics, abandoned.
Eventually you’ll find artifacts that provide additional upgrade options, and a binary choice between “good” and “evil”. Ultimately, this choice is more tied to whether you want to do more damage or absorb health, or if you’d like to generate more wrath with strikes, or simply generate it over time, as examples. There is no morality play here, no matter what the Angel or Demon names might suggest, but they help augment the weapons to a small degree. Admittedly, the team’s focus is far more on action than upgrades, so there is more of an emphasis on precision button presses and timing than anything else.
Action aside, there are some fairly devious puzzles at play in Darksiders III. I found myself stumped several times by some real head-scratchers. Your various powers grant you the ability to burn away cobwebs, float a short distance, or climb / destroy a specific type of purple crystal, or even freeze the water under your feet. While most puzzles do little to hinder your breakneck progress, some downright stop you in your tracks, demanding crackerjack timing, excellent jumping skills, and the odd logical leap to solve. It breaks up the chaos nicely, and I had a deep appreciation for these moments. Below is a short spoiler-free video that showcases how these tend to intersect.
I have played several thousand action games for fun or for review in my time, and I don’t typically struggle with any of them. That said, the difficulty level in Darksiders III falls a little bit on the punishing side. There are four difficulty levels, and after wanting to hang up my controller a few times in frustration, found myself at the lowest difficulty level. Most of this comes from what has to be the slowest healing animation ever put in a videogame. Shortly into your adventure, Fury will obtain an amulet called Nephilim’s Respite which allows you to heal the bulk of your health nearly instantly. Unfortunately, she activates this power by raising the amulet and depressing something on it in an animation that akin to molasses in the deepest cold of Dante’s descent into Hell. In a game where enemies can cut down half of your life in a single strike, it’s easy to find yourself aggravated when you’ve died for the fifth time by the same creature, in the same spot, in the same manner, and all because Fury can’t be bothered to heal herself with some measure of expedience.
To help with Fury’s laissez faire approach to healing, she does have an impressive dodge capability. If timed correctly, Fury can cartwheel out of the way of an incoming attack, causing time to slow a bit, granting a short window to unleash a magical counterattack. Each enemy has a different timing, so mastering this system is crucial to survival as consumables cost souls and you need those for levels.
There are six distinct areas of Earth for Fury to explore, and not all of it is accessible from the start. Because the Hallows powers has replaced the Zelda-like progress system in the previous games, much of your ability to reach a new area is bound directly to whether you have the correct power, and whether you’ve leveled up enough to survive the horrible creatures you’ll encounter. It’s more evocative of games like Dark Souls that ask you to “get good” rather than explore — I leave it to you whether that appeals to you or turns you off.
There are two problems that really rubbed me the wrong way in my 20 hours from start to finish with Darksiders III. The first, and easily the most aggravating, is that the checkpoints are often entirely too far apart. Even though you’ll see the game save your progress (that is to say, any collectables you’ve picked up), if you die, you’ll go back to the plinth where you last saw Vulgrim. This can be a good 40 minutes of progress you’ll lose, forcing you to repeat large swaths of content. There are still other times where you’ll find two checkpoints almost within throwing distance of one another — their placement makes little sense. When combined with occasionally merciless levels of difficulty, there were more than a few choice expletives uttered at sections of this game. The second issue is that Fury will sometimes decide to ignore ledge handholds or chain anchor points. She’ll rocket upwards using the Fire Hallow, her hands will pass the point where she would normally grab the edge, and she simply…won’t. Several more unsuccessful leaps and attempts makes you start to doubt that it’s a valid traversal point, and just before you give up, Fury will grab on and mantle up and on her way. Similarly, you’ll be making a leap of faith over a bottomless pit and Fury may choose to ignore the connection point entirely, falling to her death, or she could snap on but somehow fall short of the ledge on the other side, despite being a completely automatic swing, or she just might behave herself and swing according to plan. The wheel of fate is a cruel mistress.
If there is one true strength for Darksiders III, it’d have to be the storyline. Just like the previous two games, Fury’s story is a solid entry into the overarching saga of the Four Horseman. Her character is very one-note, but over the course of the game, her character arch progresses nicely. The storyline is supported by a solid lineup of voice actors, and while there is a little bit of voice repetition from vendor types, the rest of the game’s interactions are solid. There are two major decision points that seem to have far-reaching repercussions, but I’d have to beat the game twice over again or more to see where those rabbit holes go.
Darksiders III is a difficult one to classify. I have to review the game I’m playing, not the one I wish it was. Still, I can’t help but feel a twinge of longing for a more open-world RPG continuation than this more action-focused iteration. At its heart, Darksiders III is a solid entry in a franchise that, by all accounts, might have never seen the light of day. In that, I’m happy to have gotten to see where this story is leading, and I’m hopeful to see a fourth entry with Strife astride his horse to cap off what began so long ago.
With a more heavy focus on action, Darksiders III is a return to the roots of the franchise, and away from the RPG elements of its predecessor. Whether that appeals to you or not, there’s more than enough fantastic story elements to bring any fan back to see how Fury’s story ties to her Four Horseman brethren. Let’s just hope Gunfire Games can apply one last coat of polish over the controls and checkpoint system to elevate this game to where it belongs.