By Leif Johnson
YOU KNOW THINGS HAVE TAKEN A BAD TURN WHEN DEATH IS THE LIFE OF THE PARTY. He’s an odd fellow; the kind of guy who start a meaningful conversation and then top it off with some jab at your virility, but it’s hard to be too rough on him once you learn that he’s just trying to put in a few good words for his brother. Granted, his brother is War (a fellow horseman of the apocalypse and the hero of 2010’s Darksiders), who’s accused of settings off events that caused the extinction of humanity, so the situation’s a little more dire than making excuses about why War showed up late to work.
Like the first Darksiders, Darksiders II is a Frankenstein’s monster of playstyles stitched together from action-oriented titles like The Legend of Zelda, God of War, and puzzlers like Portal, and THQ continues that tradition here. The difference is that there’s a larger focus on loot, and Death finds his path strewn with hundreds of weapons and pieces of armor with stats catering to different playstyles. Not only are there plenty of outfits to choose from (as long as you share his fetish for skulls), but there’s a host of secondary weapons to complement his signature scythes, complete with possessed weapons that grow in power once you “feed” them other weapons in your inventory. That’s to say nothing of the special abilities Death picks up along his quest to redeem War, including a grapple spell and a pistol that packs a deadly punch.
Darksiders 2 Trailer
But if the first Darksiders started with a bang, Darksiders II starts with a whimper. Death scowls onto the stage amid a backdrop of icy peaks like a Frank Miller Hamlet; there’s none of the angry car flinging amid crumbling urban landscapes that we enjoyed back in 2010. It maintains this brooding pace throughout its entire 20 or so hours of gameplay, and largely for the better. As befits a man of his singular vocation, Death is in no hurry; he takes time to chat about the nature of life and balance with buxom shamans and to swap war stories with ghostly human warriors. That’s a good thing, because the puzzles here seem more numerous and much less pointlessly frustrating than they were when War was in the spotlight, and the frequent interactions with other characters add a welcome touch of meaning to the proceedings.
It’s at its best in its first few hours, when we get to see this grim, purple champion of rot galloping on his across a lush fantasy world oozing with sparkling waterfalls and ivy-draped ruins (where even the inhabitants look like giant dwarves, jarring Scottish accents and all); when Death saunters into more predictable landscapes littered with heaps of bones and grumpy skeletons, both the story and the gameplay take a mild hit. For one, the setting and circumstances may have changed, but we still find Death running about hallways and solving puzzles to find three objectives that will grant him access to the same level. It picks up again towards the end, particularly in a third-person shooter-styled romp through the ruins of Earth, but it never regains that sweet spot of purpose and entertainment that defines the first major zone.
Yet the gameplay itself goes a long way toward making up for this growing sense of tedium, centered as it is on fluid combos that require alternating between Death’s scythes and his secondary weapon, and while it’s not terribly challenging on the normal difficulty, it’s always fun. Death, fan as he is of wispy robes and leathery gear, can’t take anywhere near as many hits as his brother War, and so his key tactic is the more exciting strategy of avoidance. His best attacks revolve around well timed dodges, and some of the best abilities in the two new talent trees call forth crows or ghouls to keep a foe’s attention off Death himself. If you feel as though you’ve mastered the combat sufficiently, you can try your hand at the Crucible and fight off increasingly challenging waves of baddies for better loot and increased longevity.
Darksider’s II worst problems lie in the niceties of its execution: menus sometimes take a few seconds to pop up (which is a pain when you’re “in the zone”) and the camera often points in the most unhelpful direction when you’re trying to make a series of timed leaps across a dungeon. Dust, Death’s devoted crow, hangs around in case Death needs some advice about where to go next in the harder puzzles, but sometimes he just flies in circles. Sadly, none of these features disappoint so much as the lineup of visually striking but ultimately unfulfilling boss fights, which are often so easy that they seem like battles against regular enemies with a few more hit points than usual.
For all that, though, Darksiders II is a rare treat, and its ability to rise above such shortcomings is a testament to the effort THQ put into improving an increasingly beloved franchise. It manages to appeal to wit and brawn in equal doses with its mixture of satisfying puzzles and rewarding combat, and its almost 20 hours’ worth of playtime are well worth revisiting for a new game with all your existing abilities. It’s not a massive improvement over the first game, but there’s certainly enough here to prove John Donne wrong: Death, if Darksiders II serves as any indication, has plenty of reasons to be proud.