Yes, enough people must’ve played and finished the game by now – and quite a few have even “New Game+”-ed it as well, but Darksiders 2 remains an interesting case nonetheless. Here’s a game chockfull with content, a gorgeous art style, and top notch gameplay from no less than three premier franchises (The Legend of Zelda, Prince of Persia and God of War). And yet, its financial success was left wanting. But why? How is a game like this, which received such good critical reception – it currently averages 80+ on Metacritic across all three platforms – somehow lag behind? There are a hundred factors behind this – marketing, PR, lack of familiarity with the IP, etc. – but something feels off about the game itself. It’s hard to describe unless you actually play it, and isn’t one of those things that’s easily identifiable from just watching the footage available.
The first thing is perhaps the setting. If you’ve seen any of the commercials for Darksiders 2, you might get the impression that this bad-ass, skull-toting beast of a being is coming to save humanity from angels and devils alike. The truth is far less enticing. Death must rescue his brother his war, but as far as the game is concerned, mankind’s dead and gone already. So toss that metropolitan romp out the window. Making the game a prequel to the original Darksiders isn’t a bad thing at all. It shows us Death’s inner struggle, displaying a character behind what should been just a characteristic.
He’s flippant and extremely snobbish to people, but loyal to his brethren. This includes the Nephilim, whom he purposely vanquished to save the world. Needless to say, Death has his own ghosts he needs to lay to rest when it’s all said and done. But whatever fans the franchise had were expecting a knockdown brawl featuring all four Horsemen, if the ending to the first game was anything to go by. It’s not a bad trade-off, but still a trade-off all the same. And whoever decided that the best way to drive the story is to simply tell the player, “Oh no, that’s NOT the last area after all. Go here. No, you need keys for that, located in two separate areas. Better go to both of them:, filling the gaps with long-winding quests that just derail the main quest rather than propelling it forward, needs a reality check.
This identity of Death, which extends beyond his profile as the most powerful and feared amongst the Horsemen, can be seen in the way he controls and the situations he faces. Just why is Death platforming so much? Why is solving these menial puzzles? Why must he slog and become more powerful, hoarding stronger and stronger equipment? Because he’s out of his element. He’s in a world that’s beyond his own. Go beyond the first area, which seemed more of an environment and less like a “level”, where the situations just seem “videogamey”. Many gamers will feel that uncomfortableness more often than not – the feeling that Death is stronger and more capable than this. That he should be doing more than compensating with his speed and viciousness. But compensate he does, to great success.
This “lack” of power can be seen in battles. Most enemies can take the hits – which fits into the context of Death not being as strong as he should be, though his attacks are still effective enough. They also require more than just bashing and mashing to get by. You need to rely on a steady mix of spells, anticipating attacks – and yes, that means several foes at once, rather than focusing on one at a time – and unleashing the right combo at the right opportunity. However, at times, when you’ve the pattern worked out, you’ll find yourself simply hitting enemies again and again until they fall.
There’s still no real feeling of dominance. Just the thought of passing time until the big guy eventually falls. The loot could have really helped lend a lot more context to Death’s increasing strength, but there aren’t any severely differing abilities from one weapon to the next. Elemental damage, maybe some health regeneration, a criticial boost here and there – but no single weapon at any time feels like it’s “the weapon”. They all feel like placeholders for the next placeholder, on and on till you eventually get the most powerful of the bunch (which you know won’t fully satisfy you).
Nonetheless, the puzzles will confound. I get Vigil Games and their implementation of the Zelda style of dungeons. But context is extremely important – if you can’t justify why some one would especially create a puzzle that required the specific use of my Soul Splitter or Demon Glove, then it becomes that much harder to involve myself. Zelda plunks you in area with your existing tools, and though the dungeon’s key item is required to progress and end the final boss, it’s implemented reasonably. Take Link to the Past.
Would I be able to comprehend a failed adventurer leaving a Hookshot in the Water Temple in order to assist the next able bodied adventurer through the remaining 50% of the dungeon, which includes the end boss? Sure. Darksiders 2 just doesn’t have that. It just feels like one tribute after another at times, rather than a seamless meld of different experiences. Highly uneven at times, and quite annoying at others.
Another interesting thing about Darksiders 2 is the severe lack of moments. The opening is incredibly thunderous, but very few levels after that will leave you gaping in awe. The water-cooler moments become fewer. I detest QTEs (though I’ll defend them when they’re used correctly), and a game should never be built on set-pieces alone. But man alive, God of War and Devil May Cry, people. They’re perfect examples of balancing fun combat with awesome moments and situations, no matter how simple the build up to the same may be. Kratos accomplishes this within the context of one-upping his own brutality; Dante within the context of out-doing his own stylishness.
And Death? Everything is just a finality, much like death itself we suppose. Seeing Death tear apart his victims in the executions gets that across just fine, and admittedly, it’s hard not to feel like a bad-ass when you reassert the very lack of escape from that finality on most enemies.
Darksiders 2 obviously wants to be hardcore. There are hidden areas and bosses, weapon you won’t be able to use till much later, optional side-quests, the “New Game+” mode that adds even more quests and bosses, hidden goodies, and even falls into the “Collect 10 sets of instructions for a latter maze section”. Toss in the Crucible, an arena for gaining goods and weapons, and you’ve got an incredibly meaty game. But one wonders how much is padding, when a lot of the main story quests are simple detours on the way to the main task at hand.
This doesn’t include the practice of traversing great lands on horseback and, well, feeling like there’s not much to see. Hey Vigil, you know how Zelda and even Borderlands 2 got over this? By introducing characters, and making the quests about more than just to-and-fro, besides featuring impeccable pacing. No place is ever so far that you absolutely must travel on horseback or vehicle. They’re a plus, and allow you to just whiz on through to where you wanna go. Fast Travel in Darksiders 2, on the other hand, feels like it blossomed from the realisation that the maps are just too large to traverse, without a whole lot going on in them. Thankfully, it gets way more mileage than that.
Don’t let these opinions make you think that Darksiders 2 is a bad game. Far from it – it’s one of the better experiences of the year. But it’s also highly uneven, and feels like it could have done with some trimming in the name of pacing. Context is hit-or-miss most of the time, but that doesn’t mar one’s involvement in the universe too much. It’s hard to say whether it could have been more, or done better. The art style, soundtrack, protagonist and controls are all very well done. Aside from cleaning up the mild graphical issues, don’t change anything else.
But it still feels like it’s missing that spark, that one notable killer feature that makes a must-buy. Maybe that’s what put several people off. Maybe that’s what makes me wonder whether I should keep returning to the game. The world of Darksiders 2 just doesn’t feel like the player’s world – and while that may fit into the context of the story, a certain belonging, like we’re living in the world rather than just dropping by to cause havoc, could’ve gone a long way.
Such is the curse of Death, we suppose.