As compelling and charismatic as videogame protagonists have been, Death carries an inescapable gravitas. In Darksiders II, players step into the shoes of a fearsome, arrogant horseman of the Apocalypse. His imposing shadow is matched by a huge world, colossal enemies, and riches fit for a king. The team at Vigil Games has done Death justice with the sequel to the 2010 release, eschewing the “darker Zelda” formula for a far more expansive journey. This is the game Death deserves.
Death may be a callous horseman, but he can’t ignore the fate of his fellow kinsmen. Taking place parallel to the events of the first game, the sequel’s protagonist is on a quest to clear War’s name and seek revenge on those who would tarnish his brother’s reputation. A slow-burning narrative unfolds throughout the course of the game, but who has time for convoluted exposition when there are battles to be had and worlds to be conquered. Death carries those razor-sharp scythes for a reason.
Far more befitting of Death is Darksider II‘s combat, full of devastating combos and eye-catching animations. The seamless flow of each encounter keeps the pace rolling, and the divide between player and protagonist gradually fades away. I’ve played with the likes of Dante and Kratos, but doling out violent punishments as Death himself brings perverse pleasure unlike most titles out there. And with each victorious encounter my ego starts to balloon just like the character I’m playing as – when Death boasts of his abilities in front of a ridiculously large creature, I’m sitting there with a smirk on my face because I know I can fell this giant if worse comes to worst.
Although Darksiders II captures the experience of picking off enemies in stylish fashion, there are problems that come with the fast-paced and frenetic battles. The most glaring issues pop up when multiple enemies appear on screen, at which point the camera decides to join in on the action. I often found myself unleashing powerful combos on enemies only to be obscured by the camera when I got them in a corner. Also troublesome is the targeting system when facing multiple foes at once. I found it nearly impossible to select the correct target when three or four enemies swarmed me.
The camera woes also carry into some platforming sections, which can be especially frustrating. In fact, the platforming in general represents Darksiders II‘s biggest weakness. I’m not a proponent for easy games, but it would be nice if the game recognized nearby ledges. Instead, I would often jump into no man’s land and have to start from the beginning of a section. Titles like Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted have figured that out, so it would have been nice to see Darksiders II follow suit. Worst of all, it breaks the immersion of playing as the game’s powerful protagonist – when I think of Death, a wonky camera and tedious platforming aren’t the first two things that come to mind.
Death’s natural prowess in battle has plenty to do with his many victories, but let’s not forget about the equipment. Vigil Games has catered to the RPG fans out there with a tiered loot system that adds extra incentive to each dungeon-crawl and makes every encounter that much more satisfying. Yes, smashing a skeleton with a gigantic hammer is fun, but smashing a skeleton with a gigantic +75 lightning damage hammer is even better. As if Death isn’t powerful enough with all those goodies, an experience and leveling system is also introduced in Darksiders II. Skill points and branching paths enhance the RPG mechanics even further, meaning Darksiders II isn’t just about laying enemies to waste as Death. It’s also about building Death into the ultimate killing machine.
With the emphasis on Death as a ruthless fighter, puzzles may seem entirely out of place. But let’s not label Darksider II‘s protagonist as completely inept when it comes to puzzle-solving – any great adventurer needs to use his head every now and then. The smooth difficulty curve helps matters immensely, transitioning from simple solutions to real head-scratchers in a reasonable time frame. It also prevents the tedium of exploring lengthy dungeons that I’ve encountered plenty of times before. It’s worth mentioning that the lack of puzzle variety is a bit disappointing, though. There are only so many large balls that I can roll across a dungeon before I start to see a pattern!
The journey Death and the player embark on together unveils fantastical realms of menacing monsters, towering structures, and detailed art design. And this is no small world we’re talking about here – comparing it to the likes of popular sandbox games would be a stretch, but Darksiders II is a surprisingly broad and deep experience. The numerous sidequests add hours to the overall play time, and simply traversing the landscape on Death’s horse is a joy. Best of all, it’s a world in which restrictions are minimal: I choose where I want to go, when I want to go, and who I want to converse with. This is Darksiders as played by Death’s rules, and it’s a liberating experience.
Having a connection to a game’s protagonist can be a transcendent experience. Sometimes it involves emotion or humor, and sometimes the character is just a complete badass. The latter is certainly true in Darksiders II – all of the mechanics in this sequel hold up quite well on their own, but adding arguably the coolest horseman of the Apocalypse to the formula only bolsters the overall experience. Sorry War, but I think you’ve just been outdone.
Review based on Xbox 360 release.