Expands massively upon its predecessor
The video game industry today is loaded with annualized franchises and sequels being crapped out like cheap toys off of a Chinese assembly line. In this environment, sequels like Darksiders 2 are extremely rare. Darksiders 2 is not just an iteration on its predecessor. It is the most massive expansion of a series since at least Assassin’s Creed 2. Darksiders 2 is so much different from the first game that if they didn’t have the same name on the box, you might get the impression that they aren’t part of the same series. In an era where almost every single series is being dumbed down to become more “accessible”, a game like Darksiders 2 is a refreshing change, even if some of the new pieces don’t work. The radical approach to the design of this game makes it an unexpected treat, even though there were a few undesirable subtractions too.
There wasn’t a ton to complain about in Darksiders. Apparently, however, it wasn’t quite the game that Vigil wanted to make. So, they made Darksiders 2 that game. The most obvious addition is the inclusion of a basic role playing system. Darksiders 2 has almost as much in common with a typical Western RPG as it has in common with the first game. You gain experience by completing quests and killing monsters. Some NPCs will give you side quests. There are a few different merchants selling a lot more items. There is a skill tree where you assign points to gain new abilities and upgrade others. You have an inventory where you can select what weapons you want to use and what armor you want to wear. Like Diablo, there is a ton of loot in the game that adds to your skills and traits by doing ice damage, increasing your chance of a critical hit, or upgrading your defense. Enemies now have health bars above them, and damage indicators to give you feedback on how much damage your attacks are doing. These features are a shockingly ambitious addition to the game, when you consider that the lack of Diablo-style role playing statistics wasn’t a complaint on anyone’s radar with the first game.
The game doesn’t just borrow statistics and inventory from the role-playing genre. It is also, surprisingly, somewhat less linear and structured than the first game. A significant portion of the area in the world is optional to explore –more so than the first game. Darksiders 2 also has some old school, harsh penalties for sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong. Very early in the game, you can go exploring and stumble onto an enemy who squashes you in two hits, before you can do any damage. There is an optional mini-dungeon near the beginning with a pretty tough enemy who guards a bunch of treasure. Darksiders 2 has an entirely different feel from the first game. Unlike most RPGs nowadays, it gives you the feeling that you are increasing in power relative to your surroundings.
There are some improvements in the presentation as well, the most notable of which is an upgrade to the soundtrack. The first game’s soundtrack was competent, but also forgettable. This game’s soundtrack is composed by Jesper Kyd, creator of the soundtracks for the Hitman games, Freedom Fighters, and the Assassins Creed series. You will, most likely, notice the improvement immediately. Darksiders 2 isn’t his most memorable work, but it is at least on par with his Assassins Creed work, and an upgrade over the first game. It lends the game somewhat of a darker, less campy feel. Once again, it is a hugely unexpected departure from the first game. Vigil could have put another generic soundtrack in this game, and nobody would have complained.
Another nice little improvement is that the storytelling is a little better. For starters, the story is no longer told to you with ugly cut scenes that have been pre-rendered in the game’s engine. It is now told to you with cut scenes in-engine, and lots of it is in Mass Effect style dialog. The dialog trees don’t offer any choice, but they offer a little bit of interactivity in the story. The story in this game has more value than the story in the first one; the characters and the events feel more significant, and that is why it feels less like an excuse to herd you from point A to point B.
In addition to expanded RPG elements and an improved presentation, the platforming elements for the game have been significantly upgraded. The first game had jumping and a little bit of wall climbing. Darksiders 2 borrows heavily from the Prince of Persia series of the mid-oughts. You can run up walls or along them to grab something up high. You can climb pillars and jump from pillar to pillar. You eventually get a grappling hook style item that you can use to slingshot yourself up or across a wall. You can even jump back and forth between two close together walls to scale great heights.
Thankfully, the puzzle-driven dungeons are still intact. Like the previous game, Darksiders II adopts the Zelda approach of occasionally leading you to a big dungeon, each of which features a new gadget or gameplay mechanic, followed by a big boss at the very end. Some of the gadgets, like the pistol and the “portal” gun, return. There are some new mechanics too, like rolling big huge rocks around to open doors and turn on devices. The dungeons are well done and the puzzles are challenging enough without being obtuse.
In the introduction, I purposely described this game as massively “expanding” on its predecessor, but not necessarily “improving”. This is because although there are lots of genuine improvements, not everything is better. The first problem is that the game’s expanded RPG elements and freedom come with a new downside – namely, if you do enough side quests and collect hidden items, you can become overpowered pretty quickly. At the same time, Darksiders 2 is a lot more generous with items that restore your health and wrath (i.e. magic). You can generally recharge your health all the way after every fight. The final result is that most combat is a milk run. I beat the first major dungeon boss of the game in about a minute without using a single health potion. Other than the rare instance where I encountered an enemy designed for a higher level, I almost never got killed. Darksiders 2, on the default difficulty level, is way too easy. I didn’t appreciate the first game, at the time, for how well it was designed to give you a challenge. Darksiders 2 also de-emphasizes the Zelda portion of the game somewhat by making the bosses somewhat generic hack-and-slash opponents that you can wear down with a hit-and-dodge strategy. There is little to figure out that isn’t obvious.
Darksiders 2 feels bigger than its predecessor, but the size seems to come at the expense of variety. The dungeons look and feel very samey. The color gray dominates in all of them. The more open parts of the world are massive and empty. The only really interesting part of the world is the first hub where you get most of your quests and trade with merchants. Everything else looks pretty boring. The first game didn’t look great, but there was more variety to it. At the very least, I could look at a screenshot and just from that, I could probably tell you where it was taken. Not so much with Darksiders 2.
The addition of a skill tree is a nice one. The skill tree is great and it has some fun and interesting abilities. Unfortunately, the addition of loot does not work out so well. Darksiders 2 adopts the Diablo and MMO style of randomly generating lots of loot, which tends to pile up in your inventory like junk. You occasionally get a powerful, special piece from a boss. For the most part though, the loot is just boring stuff that you will eventually turn into currency. *Yawn*. But you won’t have much to buy with that currency, because all that the merchants sell is more boring loot. Vulgrim’s selection returns, but it is dull. All that he sells are mystery chests with an item inside – the more money you pay, the more powerful the item. Whatever you buy, your weapon choice will simply be a matter of statistics. *Yawn*
Darksiders 2 definitely is not a step backwards from the first game. It is a step forward, and it deserves to be commended for being made so courageously. In an age where more and more games are being turned into generic, dumbed-down crap, I’m glad that Darksiders went 100% in the opposite direction. The improved platforming elements and some of the RPG-type stuff is really good. With the RPG elements, however, come some problems that are typical of the genre. If I could have my way, I would like to see a lot less loot, but with a lot higher quality, and more challenging opponents on the default difficulty level. Make no mistake though. Darksiders 2 is a great game. It is close to being one of the best games of the past few years, but it doesn’t quite have the tight feel that the first game had. Regardless of how much you liked the first game or like this one, you can’t say that Vigil didn’t try to make this one special.