What does a developer do to follow up a hit original game? Audiences generally want larger, more refined sequels and publishers are willing to back a studio’s sophomore outing with a sizable budget. Darksiders 2 follows the same path as Batman: Arkham City, offering a larger, longer game than its predecessor. For Vigil Games bigger doesn’t mean a poor experience but nor does it mean a better game.
Taking place roughly at the same time as Darksiders 1, the sequel replaces War with his fellow horseman of the apocalypse, Death. With the end of days kicked off prematurely Death sets out to find the Well of Souls. By find the Well and reviving humanity he can clear the name of War, who has been wrongly accused of starting the final battle between Heaven and Hell.
Darksiders 1 told a simple but effective story. The world built by Vigil Games had interesting factions and a deeper mythology than what was apparent at first glance. The sequel only builds on this in minor ways and largely forgets the matters of Heaven and Hell instead focusing on the past sins of Death himself. The Nephilim, unholy children of Angel and Demon and the race the four horsemen belong to, were wiped out per Heaven’s orders. Death has kept their souls from reaching the city of the dead, thus preventing their true end. He’s constantly reminded of the genocide against his own kind but Death’s struggle with these actions isn’t particularly compelling. It’s a shame this moral conflict is the centerpoint of Darksiders 2 as it feels like a letdown after the sweeping scale of the original game.
Instead of a single hub the world of Darksiders 2 is split into four areas linked by the Tree of Life. Other than a brief side trip to Earth in the second half of the game all of the areas are new to the Darksiders universe. The first two hubs are expansive maps with several dungeons each but as the game progresses the world scales down. The final area is a long stretch of land with the Tree of Life at one end and a single dungeon at the other. It would have been nice to see all of the areas get equal attention as it lessens the impact of the game’s final hours.
Outside of the hub areas and a of a few NPC populated areas the bulk of Darksiders 2’s is made up of the type of Zelda-esq dungeons that made the original game such a nice surprise. There is no shortage of unique locations, ranging from mighty forges filled with water and fire to an Angelic stronghold. The game finds a nice balance between combat and puzzle solving in the dungeons but they don’t hit the creative level necessary to keep them interesting for the game’s 25 hour play time. Death receives new tools to better traverse the world or solve puzzles but they don’t match the ingenuity of a game like Skyward Sword. There’s a spectral hand that acts as a grappling hook and the ability to split Death into two separately controllable ‘souls’ but they are used the same way in virtually every puzzle. If there are pressure plates, split Death in two. If there is rubble blocking the path forward look for an explosive and grab it with the spectral hand. Solutions that seem clever wear thin by the end of the game and solutions rarely grow more complex as more factors are introduced.
Traversing the dungeons is quick and easy thanks to the dearth of acrobatic abilities Death has at his disposal. Darksiders 2 emulates Prince of Persia by having its hero wall run, ledge climb and slide across the world. The controls don’t quite have the precision needed to make this a seamless experience. Press the jump button before Death reaches the end of a ledge he’s hanging off of and he will jump straight up instead of continuing into a wall run. Similarly, if the analog stick isn’t pointed in the exact right direction while jumping from a wall he will do the same thing. It’s nothing but a minor annoyance most of the time but in the few sections the game forces timed platforming the wasted seconds can cause major frustration.
Combat is a slight departure from the original game. While War was all about brutal sword swinging, Death focuses on using acrobatics to out maneuver his enemies while delivery lightening-quick strikes. Vigil Games even went as far as replacing the block button with a quick evade leaving Death with no other option but to keep moving. There’s a host of moves to be purchased from various merchants but due to the ease of earning money all of them can be unlocked before the game’s mid-point. The variety of skills Death can learn makes for some very cool looking combat but at its core the game relies on a skill based leveling system.
Gaining a level or completing certain quests rewards Death with a point that can be spent in a World of Warcraft-style skill tree. One branch focuses on upgrading Death’s melee skills while the other grants supernatural abilities such as summoning flocks of vicious crows. This could have been limiting due to the low level cap but Vigil made the wise decision to give few prerequisites to any ability. More advanced abilities only require a total number of points be spent across both trees. The wide variety of upgrades allows for a lot of play style customization. Buffing up the ability to dash through an enemy and steal their health is a must for anyone focused solely on offense. More cautious players can rely on summoned ghouls to siphon off health from a distance.
Death is customized even further by a deep loot-based equipment system. Stat boosting equipment is dropped frequently by enemies and can be attached to just about every part of Death’s body. There’s a wide range of boosts and effects for both offense and defense and most players will quickly find what kind of gear best fits their playstyle. A special class of equipment called ‘Possessed’ can be leveled up independently of Death by sacrificing other pieces of armor or weapons. As possessed weapons increase in power they take on the attributes of the equipment that is sacrificed. This allows the weapons to be tweaked just how a player likes them making the combat even more specialized. Beyond the randomized loot there are special weapons and armor pieces dropped by bosses, found in hidden areas or awarded as part of a sidequest.
The sidequests vary in quality with the majority of the quests appearing early in the game. Darksiders 2 has a lengthy campaign with the side content playing a distant second fiddle. The three longest of the quests are collect-a-thons requiring significant backtracking. With no in-game way of tracking what items have been found where collecting all 150-plus collectables is taxing. One stand-out quest has Death hunting four optional bosses across multiple hub worlds. One or two more of these kinds of quests would have gone a long way versus the artificial lengthening of the game created by the collectables.
Darksiders 2 is a comfortable game. As a sequel it checks all of the right boxes but without the surprise Darksiders 1 had due to being an unknown quantity the game feels like its just going through the motions. Technical issues and the undeveloped nature of later areas make Darksiders 2 feel like a game stretched too far. It’s not an un-enjoyable experience but it’s one that would have benefited from a tighter focus.