Darksiders, the Little Game that Almost Could
What does Darksiders mean? Seriously, where did they come up with that name and how does it tie into the game? Even the name Jumper seems to fit regardless of the fact that it was the name of a crappy movie with our favorite ruined Sith Lord. I’m guessing the developers were considering a number of different titles that tied into the story and main character, including the subtitle “Wrath of War.” But we all know what that sounds like.
Upon the impending release of Darksiders I didn’t quite know what my expectations of this game were. It looked like a God of War mixed with Devil May Cry—since many of the pictures showed the main character with a big sword and a gun. Instead it was more like a Zelda. Chances are, you’ve read other reviews that have pointed this out, so rather than spend much time on the similarities between Darsiders and Zelda, I’d like to discuss the aspects of Darksiders that stood out to me in both the positive and negative way.
Perhaps the best place to start is the story. You play as one of the four horsemen—according to advertisements, the most feared. As War, you and the other horsemen are the bouncers of the universe. As Heaven and Hell wage war with one another, it’s the job of the horsemen to keep the balance and not let one side overtake the other (I think). Mankind was supposed to be the third party that would, in the end, determine the victor of this conflict. This would be all well and good, except the two forces wreak havoc on one another on earth and cause the apocalypse prematurely. With the end of days happening early, mankind was unprepared for the battle and thus, wiped out. In the middle of the apocalypse, War finds himself fighting both sides as the imperial referee, but without any signs of his horse or his horsemen brethren. After a few quick skirmishes in the apocalypse, War is brought before a council to be tried for his crimes of starting Armageddon early.
Of course, he didn’t do it, so it’s your job as War to find the guilty parties and bring them to justice. This is already a very convoluted and confusing situation (as it was difficult to describe in a paragraph) that sadly, the developers did not find a way of explaining it very well in the game. There’s a lot of information about the Darksiders world to cover and being thrust headfirst into a conspiracy without much more than a summarization of what keeps the warring sides from fighting one another, the role of the horsemen and mankind, etcetera is more than confusing.
During dialogue sequences—which is where you’re going to get the most information—the subtitles highlight terms or names of importance, but many of the definitions of those terms are neglected or just not clear enough. The first few encounters of dialogue have each character speak as though we, the player, exist in this world and know it all already. “Oh yea, the seventh seal, of course! Yea, it totally makes sense why everyone calls him a horseman when you spend so much time on foot. The Destroyer, I totally know who that is!”
It’s frustrating feeling like you want to raise your hand and ask them what the hell they’re talking about, and they just keep going on with their lecture. In fact, the storytelling aspect of Darksiders would fall completely flat if it weren’t for a few saving graces. Every character you talk to feels like what they have to say is extremely limited. They give you new terms and words to recognize without much of a definition or explanation. It’s as though the developers don’t want their characters disclosing too much information, lest the player figure it all out before hand.
But the twists aren’t all that surprising anyway. Rather than making the game cryptic, or making me mad that War can’t see the twists coming but knows enough about how the world works to never let anyone explain, how about throwing a few codexes my way? Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Bioware, but some sort of encyclopedia to give me definitions to the terms or some sort of reason behind why lava is everywhere or what a blatant puzzle element is doing floating in the sky, would make this game much more interesting and cohesive.
A fair amount of the platforming elements and different pieces of the world have no real justification for being there, except for how they pertain to your skills. For example, there is nothing to tell you that knocking over all the fire hydrants in an area will bring a hidden chest out. Nor is there any reason for big blue orbs floating in midair other than for you to use them to get across gaps. No it’s not necessarily crucial to the story, but it would make the world more interconnected; everything wouldn’t feel so out of place.
But like I said, there are the saving graces. Certain characters stand out for their style. The demon Samael throws around his personality like a cape in the wind. He can go from flapping wildly in rage, to calm and gentle, all while masking his intentions. The subtleties the developers placed in his personality make him the most memorable character. At one point he says, “We demons have learned how to use this ability, to a lesser degree.” Much of his script is written in this way, showing signs of pride and instilling a sense of wisdom to his words. Even his actions show his demonic side without compromising his character and turning him into a cliché.
The same cannot be said for The Watcher; the character voiced by Mark Hamill. It is painful to have this character follow you around and not have anything to say that is helpful to your situation. Yes, he interacts in the conversations, but when he’s out in the world with you, his role is extremely limited. Why give this character such voice talent when all he will say is, “Over here,” a dozen times. Even the ‘call’ button brings him out only to have him say one sentence throughout the entire dungeon about why you should kill this thing you were already planning on killing. At the very least he could have been integrated into the puzzles, or served as a method to tell where you were supposed to go next. Instead, we get useless commentary.
The art style also falls into the category of: Good but meh. The art style of Darksiders has areas of extreme polish where you can really see some of the developers’ efforts went. Then there are areas that feel like they were thrown together in a rush.
War, the Watcher, Samael, and many of the enemies are conceptually stunning. If you were fortunate enough to get the comic/art book with your purchase, you could see the consistency in the look of the character design as it was translated from page to game. War’s costume and how all of his items rest on his person look really good. Samael looks like the demon from the movie “Legend” with upside-down wings on his back. The enemies and bosses show some real thought in terms of design (a particular spider looked very cool). The characters themselves look like they were ripped straight out of the page. War in particular looks good in close-ups. You can see the scars on his skin and though the skin looks smooth, the texture and colors stand out with a very comic-book vibe. The world, however, is far less consistent.
Despite the effort that went into the look of the demons, angels, and pivotal story characters, the world seems very blah for a post-apocalyptic reality. Perhaps the artwork and conceptual look of the devastated city built up my expectations, but even the apocalypse felt unexciting. Buildings should have been falling, cars should have been flying and exploding through the air, and streets should have been bustling with people trying to escape. Instead I’m left with the sense that War fell into the least populated city in the world. I guess most of the people were on vacation when the end of the world was happening. But even after the end of the world, it seems empty in an uninspiring way. Fallout 3 managed to capture the post-apocalyptic feeling of barren emptiness without compromising the awe-inspiring scenery. There are some exceptions. The colorful areas where structures are sunken under water or overgrown with flora, the abandoned and broken highways, and the desert of the dead are areas that benefit from the comic-book style of the game. But they often lose their appeal after spending too much time there.
It also might help Vigil in the future to consider background music as an investment of resources. I know music exists in the game, I’ve heard it, but it remains at such a low volume (despite turning it up in the settings) that everything feels anti-climatic. The silence during the giant boss fights or epic moments of the game do nothing but hinder the experience. Get some music, and make it louder; make it loud enough that I have to turn it down in the settings.
Concerning the gameplay, it all seems to come back to my biggest issue with the game: the length. It feels like everything takes a little too long to finish. I’ve played RPGs that go on for many, many hours and felt that game was still too short. But with Darksiders, there are certain aspects that make it seem like the developers wanted the game to seem longer than it really was. From the assortment of puzzles, to the necessity to backtrack through the different areas, to having numerous treasures and collectables to seek out in the game; the game drags. Don’t get me wrong, I like open worlds to explore. And the puzzles aren’t too difficult to be really frustrating; in fact, some of them are fun to solve. But real offender of lengthening the game is the combat.
The combat is, conceptually, simple and fun. War has a massive sword and swings it like a champ. He gets several secondary and tertiary weapons that he can interchange in combat seamlessly. This leads to wild and interesting combinations that make you wish it took the stylish meter from Devil May Cry. Speaking of DMC, you can upgrade your weapons with new skills or stat bonuses through a store, and you even get some spells to help boost your battle prowess. Conceptually, this all seems brilliant. The button mapping makes it easy to use War’s weapons and switch, on the fly, among the hookshot, boomerang, and portal gun as your tertiary items. So with all this in play, why do I still hate the combat?
It is simply tedious. There are areas where you need to go through multiple gauntlets of challenges that require you to kill so many enemies before time runs out or to kill a number of enemies in a particular way. This rinse-repeat cycle wears out its welcome rather quickly. Yet it would still not be so bad if it didn’t take so long for each enemy to die. Ignoring zombies, the basic enemies eventually seem simple enough to dispatch, but as the game goes on, there are plenty of creatures that just won’t die. Even simpler adversaries just take a little too long to go away, making every fight feel like an endurance run. In God of War, the most common hostiles you fought throughout the entire game were easily ripped apart, and even the tougher foes went down within a minute or so. There was certainly strategy involved in surviving the hordes in God of War, but Kratos could not only take out his enemies quicker, he could also take many more hits than War.
I would almost suggest playing Darksiders on Easy, since on the difficulty, the most feared horsemen of the apocalypse seems like a pussy. I come out of many brawls barely by the tips of my fingers. He just takes too much damage. There are many enemies, big and small, that take down full bars of health with one hit. And after this game, I’m almost certain I hate elevators more than both Ryan Davis and 50 Cent hate helicopters. Every elevator I entered shook with my dread of the impending ambush of endless enemies designed to chip away at my health while I killed them over and over and over again. What’s more infuriating, is that at the point where you are at your strongest—the same point that you would use to hunt down all those treasures, get all the achievements, boost your stats to the max—there are hardly any enemies to fight. You may want to max out the stats of your weapons, but with nary a foe to fight, it will take a lifetime to complete. It all feels like a slap in the face.
I realize that most of this review seemed focused on the negative aspects of Darksiders, but the game isn’t bad. It’s only frustrating that something with so much potential in its premise, and with its use of elements from the greatest action/adventure games, could not rise above “mediocre.” Darksiders has some redeeming qualities that are done exceptionally well and in ways I haven’t seen in other games. It feels like the game could be stellar if all the little issues were adjusted. I like the game enough that I wouldn’t want to trade it in, but I don’t see myself struggling through a second play-through on the Apocalyptic difficulty setting. Give Darksiders a chance when you feel the price is right