Death's a Bitch, and Then You Die
Like its predecessor, Darksiders II combines familiar game elements in ambitious new ways. While it can be a bit rough around the edges, fans of the original should be satisfied, and newcomers to the franchise should give it a look.
Darksiders II is the sequel to the 2010 post-apocalyptic adventure game Darksiders, developed by Vigil Games and published by THQ. In the first game, War (by which I mean the famed horseman of the biblical apocalypse, and not the 1970s funk band known for "Low Rider") was unjustly blamed for prematurely initiating the final conflict between Heaven and Hell, one which ultimately led to the destruction of humankind before its time. The story of Darksiders II takes place concurrently with that of its predecessor, this time following Death as he searches for a means to restore the Kingdom of Man and clear the name of his brother War. It's an ironically noble undertaking for the one they call "Kinslayer", considering that once you meet Death, you quickly realize he a ruthlessly violent and highly sarcastic dickhole.
Like the first game, the gameplay in Darksiders II is constructed with a "remix mentality", pulling mechanics from other well-known franchises like a hip-hop artist samples classic rock riffs. The original Darksiders was essentially the hack-n-slash action of God of War combined with the dungeon-delving puzzle solving of Legend of Zelda, with nods to a few other games mixed in. Its sequel includes these elements while also casting a slightly wider net, incorporating Prince-of-Persia-style acrobatics, a Diablo-esque random loot system, and even some third-person shooter mechanics. While the variety of these elements are a big part of what gives the Darksiders franchise its charm, at times the game suffers from a "jack-of-all-trades" syndrome, wherein no particular gameplay approach ends up feeling particularly polished (except for the combat system, which I thought came off fairly well). I was especially disappointed with the loot system, as I found the randomness of the equipment drops detracted from my enjoyment of exploring the game world. More than once I took a break from the main story quest to poke around the game's numerous side-dungeons, only to find chests containing loot no more interesting or special than what I could have bought from a merchant or found on any random enemy.
Some influence of the remix mentality is evident in the plot of Darksiders II, as well. The Pale Rider's journey is set against the well-worn backdrop of biblical mythology, with many a familiar angel and demon encountered (and in most cases, subsequently eviscerated) along the way. I didn't find the story itself all that engaging; like the plot of so many games, it seemed to consist mainly of a string of "broken bridges", quests whose purpose was only tangentially related to the overall story arc. However, what Darksiders II lacks by way of a compelling plot, it makes up for in terms of characterization and dialogue. Nearly every ally and enemy I encountered throughout the game turned out to be a rich and multidimensional character, beautifully realized through solid writing and excellent voice acting.
Visually speaking, the characters and worlds of Darksiders II are rendered in a slightly cartoonish style, one which I found truly refreshing given the surfeit of visual realism in big-studio games. This visual style also helps to take some of the edge off the inevitably absurd nature of some of Death's weapons and powers. A grittier, less tongue-in-cheek version of Death scrambling through the same highly contrived, Zelda-inspired dungeons would simply have looked ridiculous.
Unfortunately, on the Xbox 360, some the game's graphical chops are undercut by assorted technical issues. The in-game menu screens are sluggish and unresponsive, and during the action frame rates are erratic with screen tearing occurring fairly frequently. These issues are prevalent enough that even a non-videophile like myself found it hampering my enjoyment of the game. Moreover, the technical hiccups aren't limited to graphics alone; I had the game freeze (to the point of requiring a hard reset of my Xbox) more than once.
The game's frequent technical issues are especially disappointing when considering how carefully refined certain other elements of the Darksiders II are. There are a lot of subtle bits of mastery in the game, ultimately leading me to believe that any rough edges are a function of limited time and resources, and not for lack of thoughtful technical or game design.
In the end, perhaps the best word to describe Darksiders II is "ambitious"... perhaps even overly so. The game universe is expansive, but at times can feel unfinished and sparse. The game dynamics and systems are interesting and varied, but often come across as rough and not fully realized. The characters are well-acted and their mythology is deep and full of potential, but it is largely left unrealized by the game's weak plot. When it comes down to it though, I would much rather play a game that has tried to do great things and come up a bit short, than one that takes no risks at all.