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It’s hard being a sequel. There’s a lot of expectation resting on you; will you meet the standard set by the previous game? Will you have a story that closely follows the conventions of the original? Will the gameplay be an improvement on the original? There’s a lot to prove, and it can be an all-but-unforgiving arena to enter into when you’re trying to build a franchise.
And some sequels do a great job of this; they build on the original story, adding in interesting content and new ideas that weren’t in the original game, all while improving gameplay and making the series more accessible to both old and new fans. And then, there are some absolute bombs that fans and developers alike would rather forget about.
Darksiders II falls somewhere in the uncomfortable middle.
Picking up directly after the events of the original Darksiders, Darksiders II follows the story of Death, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, as he tries to prove his brother War innocent of the accusation that he brought about the early apocalypse of humanity.
Darksiders has never been a game known for groundbreaking storytelling, and it shows painfully here. While Death is a midly amusing character with a sarcastic, devil-may-care attitude, the story itself is vastly generic and uninteresting. The overall pacing is poor, and I found that I forgot who certain characters were and why they even mattered to the story. It takes so long to even get to where Death wanted to go originally that you pretty much lose sight of the whole point in the convoluted narrative, completely abandoning any sense of urgency to find Death’s brother and stop the madness.
But what it lacks in story, it more than makes up for in gameplay. As in the original, combat is key in Darksiders II. It’s fluid, smooth, and super fun, with a God of War-like feel to it and a certain amount of tactics and strategy that must be used in order to defeat foes.
It should be noted that Death is an entirely different character than War, and as such, requires a different play style than the original. Where War was more of a heavy damage/tank-like character, Death is much more agile, requiring one to use timing and dodging rather than blocking and countering in order to engage enemies. It’ll severely punish anyone who simply runs in and expects to completely dominate without factoring strategy into the equation.
Combat is customizable through two different skill trees; one for melee attacks and one for those with a taste for Necromancy. Among others, you’ll be able to level up attacks, run up your chances for scoring critical hits and executions, teleport around the battlefield, and summon ghouls to fight alongside you in battle. Experience points are gained from combat encounters, and level ups are fairly generous, adding a nice RPG side to the gameplay.
Different powers and abilities are unlocked throughout the game as well, including a pistol borrowed from Death’s brother Strife and Deathgrip, a spiritual power-up much like a hookshot that allows Death to scale more areas and travel longer distances during platforming sequences. Power ups help Death solve puzzles contained within dungeons and are called upon in combat to help dispose of bosses and clear out rooms of enemies.
The original Darksiders had such varied gameplay and borrowed so heavily from other titles that it felt more like a patchwork quilt of other game types than its own idea. But strangely, it worked well, making it an interesting and unique title in and of itself.
Where Darksiders II struggles is its painful repetition. It doesn’t have quite the range of gameplay that the original did, instead relying on a somewhat tedious wash, rinse, repeat formula that eventually became predictable and uninteresting. Go see this guy, clear out a dungeon, face a boss, return to said guy, then go see another guy, visit dungeon, fight boss, return, etc. Over and over and over again. There was even a moment when I had to visit three separate dungeons within a dungeon to go on a fetch quest for a Lord I was looking for for a dead King. If that’s not some Inception-style plot twisting, then I don’t know what is.
Platforming in Darksiders II is smooth and satisfying, also serving as part of the puzzle solving in dungeons. There are only certain types of ledges that Death can latch on to, meaning you’ll have to be on the lookout for pathways to traverse while making your way through the area. He’s also able to run up and across walls, jump across long distances, climb on vines and posts, and perch on small ledges, all while moving around with the fluid grace of a ninja.
Most dungeons have a certain identity to them; some of them feature Mech-like constructs used to open doors and break through areas blocked by Corruption, one featured the use of a hulking NPC to help you get through doors and carry objects, and one even used Death’s ability to summon dead Lords to help with activating switches and fighting enemies.
The different features were inventive and made each dungeon feel different enough from the others, but puzzle solving was a hit or miss endeavor. Some were super easy while others were fairly challenging, but they lacked the sort of sweet intuitive quality that makes games like Portal so rewarding. You’ll find many forehead-slapping “I’m an idiot!” moments after slaving over the solution to a puzzle for a long time, only to find the answer was right in front of you.
The uses of items and rules for puzzle solving are laid out pretty early, but there’s not much by the way of clues or hints to help you figure out what needs to be done in order to solve an area and move on through the next door. Dungeon traversal will require a solid memory, a good eye for exploration, and some patience for trial and error in order to successfully solve whatever gets laid out in front of you.
Boss fights will force you to pay attention to timing and learning their attacks, but also follow in the path of repetition. They’re mostly behemoth-sized creatures who use charge and melee attacks to take you out, often summoning the annoying minions to distract you and challenge your mettle. The odd boss will have an interesting set of attacks and pose new challenges to the player, such as a Shadow of the Colossus-type boss fight with a Guardian, but a majority of them can be conquered using a standard dodge-and-attack style of combat.
New to Darksiders II is its comprehensive loot system. Enemies frequently drop it, and you’ll find multiple chests around dungeons containing weapons, armor, and money throughout the game’s campain. Weapons and armor have different advantages, be it higher damage resistance, chance of scoring critical damage on enemies, and even using elemental weapons to introduce fire, ice, and even shock into combat. Secondary weapons can be equipped, and range from slow and heavy weapons such as hammers or halberds to quick, small weapons like arm blades. Death traditionally uses his classic scythes as a primary weapon, and multiple types of scythes are available to be picked up, equipped, and even upgraded throughout the game. While the loot system is not quite as rewarding as those of Borderlands or even Diablo, it was still interesting and kept the game somewhat fresh as I changed Death’s look and abilities using all the items I’d picked up.
Darksiders II still uses the same gothic art style that the original Darksiders did. However, it takes on a much more fantasy-like feel, whereas the first game was based more in reality. The result is an interesting mix of breathtaking set pieces and imaginative worlds Death must travel through as he works through dungeons and visits the strongholds of Lords and Makers in the realm.
Some occasional frame rate hiccups bothered my game here and there on the PC, and it’s been said that frame rate takes a hit on consoles as well. But outside of that, the game runs smoothly and without any glaring issues.
Probably the most amazing part of Darksiders II’s presentation, however, is its soundtrack. Headed by Assassin’s Creed composer Jesper Kyd, the soundtrack captures the incredibly epic feel of the world, adding a whole new level of cinematic polish to the game that makes it stand out and feel every bit as powerful as Death himself.
Darksiders II is a good, but repetitive game. While the story and dungeons aren’t necessarily the most memorable parts of it, it more than makes up for its shortcomings with its supremely satisfying and fluid combat and platforming. The loot is interesting, the enemies are the right kind of challenging, and the presentation is strikingly impressive. In terms of gameplay, it doesn’t necessarily rise to the same level as its predecessor, but regardless, Darksiders II still finds a place for itself as a fun and satisfying action game.