The Horseman cometh
Darksiders is a game that has a lot to prove. Its developer, Vigil Games, has no track record to speak of and the game liberally borrows elements from several different franchises. It could easily have turned into a hodge podge of unoriginal, poorly implemented ideas, yet it feels more unique, fresh and original than most mainstream releases these days.
What instantly sets Darksiders apart from its peers is its art design. Coming from the hand of Joe Madueira, a comic
book veteran, Darksiders has a bold and vibrant esthetic that gives the game a unique voice. War, the game's protagonist, is a big, bulky dude sporting a sword almost as long as he is, yet his movement is almost elegant in its weight and impact. Its post-apocalyptic vision of earth is bursting with a vibrant and diverse color palette, a far cry from the browns and greys of other versions of our planet's post-doomsday look. It almost seems like it would be a cool place to be.
Darksiders' story involves the destruction of earth caused by a war between heaven and hell. There's only one little problem: the war was set off too early, before the kingdom of man was ready for it. Thus, all of mankind dies and the forces of the underworld, controlled by a being called the Destroyer, wage an eternal battle against the angelic denizens of heaven. War takes the blame for all this, as he was the only Horseman of the apocalypse actually present, and so he is unleashed on the planet once more to clear his name and moreover to get sweet revenge on whoever set him up. The story is kind of a slow burn that's content to simmer in the background for most of the game, but it picks up again about three quarters of the way through, wrapping up nicely with all your questions answered, yet providing a great set-up for a sequel. Without spoiling anything, there is some stuff in there that'll make Zelda fans and Legacy of Kain fans go “oh snap!”
The gameplay will also seem familiar to people who have played a few Zelda games, as Darksiders adopts largely the same structure. Exploring the overworld is broken up by dungeon crawls where you will get a new item, like a boomerang-like weapon that can transfer fire or a powerful gauntlet, that you can then use to solve more puzzles and defeat the boss in a climactic confrontation. You'll run into lots of areas in the overworld that are inaccessible until you gain a specific item, giving the game a Metroid-like feel as well. It might sound derivative and uninspired, but it's executed with so much style and a level of quality that makes it easy to forgive. More than anything, Darksiders is likely to make you smile as it recalls memories of past dungeon crawls. There have been precious few games that have rivaled the dungeon design of Nintendo's seminal series, so it's a noteworthy achievement that Darksiders can place itself on that short list.
However, that isn't the extent of Darksiders' influences. Its combat is much more involved (and frequent) than it ever was in any of Link's adventures. It brings to mind God of War and Devil May Cry more than anything, as War hits enemies up
in the air with his giant sword with ease before jumping after them to continue the combo in mid-air. There's a decent amount of depth to it, as you can combine sword attacks with big scythes, ranged weapons, your gauntlet and brutal finishing moves that you can initiate when enemies are close to death. War even gains the ability to turn into a gigantic, flaming Balrog-like creature who can kill anything with a few hits, which is extremely nice when you get frustrated with a particular enemy. Combat never gets quite so demanding or difficult that it's likely to hold you up for long, but it does manage to feel satisfying regardless. The finishing moves emphasize War's brutal nature as he cleaves his enemies in twain and blood gushes everywhere in exaggerated, comic-y fashion. It's as over-the-top as anything else in the game.
By and large the combat and puzzle-solving/exploration parts of the game are fairly well balanced, but there are some sections where the game gets mired down in either seemingly endless combat or puzzle sections without any combat at all, both of which can get a little exhausting. The game is at its best when you're in the dungeons, where puzzles and combat alternate in satisfying doses, barring one dungeon late in the game that's overlong and repetitive.
It might be one of the laziest reviewer tropes around, but allow me to indulge: If you like Zelda games, you should absolutely play Darksiders. With the next proper Zelda still being a ways off, this is the closest thing you'll have for a while, and you know what? It more than scratches that itch. It doesn't quite have the same balance or scope of its inspirations, but it comes pretty close, and it makes me very excited to see where Vigil Games is going with what will hopefully be a strong franchise.