Welcoming Death: Darksiders 2 makes the end of the world both stylish and fun
The first Darksiders was pegged as an M-rated Legend of Zelda knock-off. Darksiders 2 shows what happens when a sequel comes into its own and grows on the tenets laid down by its predecessor; the result is a successful, satisfying hybrid of adventure, RPG, and dungeon crawler games. While many summer blockbuster films failed to deliver, Darksiders 2 is one of the first pieces of entertainment this year that made me want to spend eight bucks on a jumbo popcorn
You play as Death, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, out to redeem the honor of his brother War, who has been accused of starting the End War early. The first game took place on a ruined Earth, but Death travels many dimensions in the sequel, starting with the Forgelands, where giant Scottish dwarves called makers built the fortresses of Heaven. Enemies you fight are likewise various, and include the forces of both Heaven and Hell. There are many Judeo-Christian allusions and influence, but it’s never an explicit.
Comic industry veteran Joe Madureira and the team at Vigil Games crafted an immense story and universe with Darksiders. Whereas that game scratched the surface of the universe’s lore, Darksiders 2 soaks in it. The opening cinematic of Darksiders 2 alone answers who the Horsemen are, what their purpose is, why Death is also called Kinslayer, and introduces a new entity called the Crowfather – keeper of all secrets. It’s all very cool, but if you haven’t played the first Darksiders, you might want to brief yourself on its plot before diving into this ocean of fiction, lest you feel overwhelmed by the amount of information thrown at you. There is no gentle ramp into the game’s fiction, you’re thrown into the deep end and expected to swim.
Totally radical xtreme to the max
The first meeting Death has with an NPC is indicative of the sort of writing you can expect from Darksiders 2. “Bring mankind back from extinction? Madness!” the Crowfather tells Death as the rider approaches his throne atop a mountain of ice. “If it’s madness, then who better to show me the way?” Death asks. The Crowfather opens a swirling portal. “Should a way exist, you will find it here,” he explains. Death peers in. “The Tree of Life,” he says in awe.
In other words, if you’re looking for something with subtlety and subtext, Darksiders 2 isn’t your game. This game pushes things even further to the ‘90s “Xtreme” attitude than the first Darksiders, and in that game you fought Satan with a sword called Chaoseater. It’s cheesy and overwrought, but that’s the flavor Vigil Games has given us; you can either take the ride of stay behind.
If that sort of presentation is your thing, you’ll find yourself smiling at just how ridiculous situations can be. When I first rode onto the plains of the Forgelands, I laughed. The landscape had a familiar air about it. I felt like I should’ve been climbing a colossus so I could stab its magical weak spot. Fast forward five dungeons and something close to that situation takes place. A maker and I let loose an immense stone golem, hoping it will destroy the living corruption that blocks my path to the Tree of Life. Unfortunately, corrupted and dripping black ooze, the golem swings an axe the size of a football field, trying to crush me and my horse underneath.
I circled the monster, searching a weakness. The corruption of the Forgelands was pervasive, but also unstable: I had been shooting at spherical concentrations of it to create improvised bombs in the temples I’d uncovered, and now I saw those familiar bubbles growing out of the golem’s arm. I fired my gun and the arm fell apart, allowing me to climb on and, yes, stab the magical weak spot. The other arm, a cannon, fired an enormous version of these same bombs that chased after me. Luring it near the golem, I set the bomb off and knocked loose that arm, once again climbing up to deal damage.
It sounds derivative of Shadow of the Colossus, because it is, but this fight felt different enough to stand on its own. The copy and paste mentality of Darksiders has given way to something that’s proud of its influences but delivers enough with them to hold its head a little higher. The music of Jesper Kyd, who you’ll recognize as the man behind the Assassin’s Creed soundtracks, doesn’t hurt.
Playing dress-up with Death shouldn’t be this fun
Loot has been added to the mix, and it’s addicting to both find and equip. Every piece of equipment has a different look to it, meaning you’ll have a nice visual measure for how badass your version of Death has become as you progress through the game. Putting on real armor to replace the rags Death wears in the opening scenes goes a long way to making Death feel like an actual character, not just a cartoon.
Weapons in Darksiders 2 break down into primary and secondary types. Secondary weapons can include things like glaives, axes, maces, claws, armblades, or reverse-gripped swords. Big, heavy weapons like an axe do more damage per swing, but their long animations leave you open to counterattack. Still, there are few things more satisfying than whacking a golem with a mace the size of a Volkswagen and seeing it shatter with one mighty blow.
The Gorewood Maul is my current favorite: a knotted gnarl of wood with a hook shape and indigo-colored crystal at its end. The Gorewood Maul doubles the Strength bonus of Death and gives a knockback bonus of +50 percent. It’s even more rewarding when I think of how I had to hunt down the hidden boss Gorewood to find it. He was waiting at the bottom of a dungeon Death finds early on, but can’t explore because he lacks the abilities to overcome certain obstacles. This is a weapon as representation of progress.
Death’s primary weapon will always be a scythe, but as with secondary weapons, there are many variants you can pick up. Some weapons will do elemental damage, some will have higher chance for a critical hit, and some can level with you. These are called “possessed” weapons; sacrifice other loot and they’ll become more powerful. Possessed weapons tend to be less powerful in terms of raw damage than the loot you can find stuffed in treasure chests or dropped by bosses; it’s their options for customization that are appealing. Say that, like me, you prefer the slower secondary weapons, but you’re not that great at dodging, so you end fights with only a fraction of health left. Leveling up a possessed glaive and giving it boosts to defense and health can help you out.
Death is a far more agile fighter than War, so combat in Darksiders 2 has been changed substantially. Death moves around the battlefield with more ease than his walking tank of a sibling, and his increased speed makes combat feel more responsive. At the same time, enemies are more aggressive and deadly, meaning you have to keep a better eye on your surroundings. Combos are smooth and easy to execute, though it can be difficult to tell exactly what’s happening due to the amount of action on-screen. On normal difficulty I found myself struggling with some fights, but I never thought the odds unfair or the tactics used by monsters cheap. You have to attack deliberately, and think your way through most confrontations, which is a good thing.
Creating your own, personalized Death
You can also skip the melee combat if you’d like by utilizing Death’s magical skills. In the first Darksiders, War had four magical abilities which were unlocked at specific points and then purchased from a merchant to level up. Darksiders 2 structures itself more as an RPG, with skill trees that unlock abilities as Death gains experience and levels up. The Harbinger tree increases Death’s prowess in melee combat, while the Necromancer tree focuses on long-range magic. There are a total of eight abilities: four from the Harbinger tree, and four from the Necromancer tree. The increases in power and passive bonuses now come from Death leveling up, not from a merchant. That’s not to say merchants aren’t important, as they have an interesting way of balancing Death’s progress.
By slaying monsters and opening chests, Death can collect gilt, the game’s currency. Death meets plenty of merchants during his adventure; some train Death in combat maneuvers, some sell armor, some sell weapons, some sell potions and talismans. A lich named Vulgrim sells chests with random loot and can respec Death, in case you put too many points into the wrong skill tree. The catch is that all of these merchants use the same currency. So if you want loot, you can gamble and take Vulgrim’s cheaper chests, or get exactly the item you want from the weapon or armor merchants for significantly more gilt.
You can also sell off your old loot, but then you won’t have anything to sacrifice to your possessed weapons. It’s a micromanagement balancing act that never feels obtuse or cluttered. These systems never feel like an invisible wall, or the game admitting that it can’t let you become too strong too quickly. It feels organic and natural, and you’ll have to decide for yourself what’s the best strategy for your virtual money.
Darksiders wasn’t perfect, but it was fun for what it was: solid game play wrapped in copycat design and structure. The production values were high, but it never felt like more than a middle-of-the-shelf sort of game. That’s just what happens when your liches look like they were torn from Blizzard’s art manual and your weapons include a hookshot and portal gun.
Darksiders 2 is a whole other beast. Its lands and story are more than twice the scale of the first game, and they’re filled with interesting characters and locations. The combat system has been tweaked as well, and the game built on the foundations of an old-school adventure-RPG. It seamlessly blends all of these elements and makes them feel unified, like they belong under one dark, decadent roof.