Death rides high in return to Darkside

A screenshot from Darksiders 2.
A screenshot from Darksiders 2.
Another screenshot from Darksiders 2.

Another screenshot from Darksiders 2.

Another screenshot from Darksiders 2.

Another screenshot from Darksiders 2.

RRP: $88 ($78 on PC)
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Classification: MA15+
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Rating: 7/10

The first Darksiders game was repeatedly compared to the dungeon-crawling antics of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This is high praise considering the long standing love-affair gamers have with Link's first Nintendo 64 game. There are more than a few similarities, such as horse riding from one monster-filled cave to another as a glorified courier and solving a multitude of increasingly complicated puzzles along the way. This isn't a negative comment, as many games would love to be compared to such a widely beloved title, but Darksiders often finds itself falling into the traps of Link's time-travelling adventure and forgetting the charm.

In the first Darksiders, also by Vigil Games, you played as War, causing havoc on a post-apocalyptic Earth. In Darksiders 2 you're given the reins of another member of the famous horsemen quartet, Death. Death plans to resurrect humanity to redeem War's supposed transgressions and the events of this game run concurrent with the original Darksiders. Plot-wise, Death's journey is different from War's, but the beats feel eerily familiar. Instead of getting to the point, every character you meet has an errand for Death to run before they will part with any information. This can sometimes be an interesting side-mission where you have to track down and kill giant marauding monsters, but too often there are three crystals lying at the bottom of a puzzle-filled dungeon that need to be systematically uncovered. Nobody ever seems to leave their damn crystals in one place.

These dungeons, of which you will be exploring quite a few, are an integral part of Darksiders 2. Exploring them can inspire a range of emotions, from satisfaction to needless frustration. The powers you unlock as you progress through the game will be familiar to fans of the first game as many of them are uncannily similar.

Death himself is a far better protagonist than War. He's much more vocal, Michael Wincott's voice acting is spot on, and the variety of moves he has at his disposal leads itself perfectly to different player's play-styles. The biggest improvement is Death's platforming abilities. He's far more nimble than War ever was, and considering how much of the game is spent running up the walls of lost dungeons this is a godsend. As you'll be participating in so much wholesale monster slaughter, it's a good thing that's Death's moves are vastly improved from War's. Being able to summon minions to fight for you or turn into a bone-tornado makes Death feel like the powerhouse killing machine somebody with that name should be.

Irrespective of gameplay, Darksiders 2 manages to far surpass the art design of the original. The fantastic monstrosities you encounter are all a step up in scale and execution. The vistas you encounter, admittedly not too frequently considering Death's penchant for dungeons, are actually stunning. Some of the open world sections are worthy of Death stopping to smell the undead roses as they easily rival, if not surpass, the design of other games that pride themselves on their graphics. The undead king's throne room is a special delight as his floating fortress is pulled through the sky by two massive dragon/wyrms. Many games wish they could capture this sense of fantasy grandeur but Joe Madureira's art team offers a special highlight considering modern gaming's brown, muddy design sensibilities.

This goes hand-in-hand with the world Vigil gives you to explore. Considerably larger than the first game, the appeal is in the variety of environments available. Before you can get tired of the idyllic (but corrupted) Forge World, the game opens up to the land of the dead and beyond. Each world offers new enemies and a completely different feel, which is a good thing when grinding through countless incidental lower-level monsters.

Darksiders 2 isn't all new though. The problems that the first game had rear their flesh-eaten heads after a few hours of play. Once you've mastered the combat, killing the basic enemies becomes a lesson in patience while you wait for the next unique boss character. It's not that they're badly designed, they just lose their impact once you've killed several hundred in a row.

The dungeon crawling, too, has the same impact after the first hours of play. Finding the solution to a puzzle room is, more often than not, just locating the elements that solve the puzzle and applying them in a different order than before. This isn't a new problem and one that hindered many players' efforts to complete the original.

Darksiders 2 is a solid improvement on the previous game. Players who loved the original will find all their favourite aspects back and improved. The platforming and combat have both been upgraded to give a greater experience and more challenges but many of the first game's issues return. Repetition can become tedious but this depends more on the player's preferences as many will stick it out if invested in the storyline. Darksiders 2 is unapologetically made for fans of the series and gamers looking for a new experience might want to explore other options but Death's journey is still a solid effort. The apocalypse is in good hands.

This story Death rides high in return to Darkside first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.