Everything about Darksiders II is big. It’s got big maps, big bosses, and a lot of big ideas. The game is, in fact, so big that it couldn’t stick to a single genre, instead working to figure out a system that could accommodate everything from third-person action brawling to exploration-based puzzle solving. And while the common ground that connects the dots never really delivers a flawless experience, the resulting game is more than enough fun to overlook those annoyances for the many, many hours you may find yourself spending with Death.
Picking up somewhere around the middle of its predecessor, humans are toast, demons and angels are throwing down, and War, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the first game’s protagonist, is being blamed for all sorts of crimes that he didn’t commit. This time around, you play as Death, War’s brother, a skull-faced, scythe-wielding warrior on a quest to prove his sibling’s innocence.
Doing so will mean travelling through a giant assortment of dungeons for various, very-important-sounding reasons, each accessible via the game’s large open-world framework. The non-linear play does wonders for the experience, helping to balance out all of the gameplay components by offering you the chance to just focus on what you feel like doing. Sometimes, that’s going to be simple exploration; many of the game’s environments are hugely diverse, asking you to ride horseback through a blizzard one moment, and dive beneath a forest lake to an underground cave the next. Just gallivanting about, looking for the odd treasure chest or two often feels just as entertaining as wailing on a boss.
Whether outside adventuring, or tackling one of the game’s many dungeons, for Death, mobility is key. The majority of puzzles involve at least some form of intense platforming You’ll know it’s coming when you see the same wooden pegs or beams in every room, or that familar dark yellow ledge stretched across any surface you can climb. For the most part, dashing across a wallside or shimmying up a pole won’t change much from place to place, but is usually challenging enough to keep you from caring. Falling off won’t give you any damage, and on the off chance you’d been tightroping over a vat of lava, the game sets you right back onto the floor where you started instead of resetting to an aging save. The final effect are welcome sections that seek to test, not frustrate.
With generally as much vertical space as horizontal, rooms can get substantially complicated, and fast. And as dungeons are usually just a series of these rooms joined by doors, things can get downright confusing in a hurry. To the rescue (usually) is Dust, a spectral crow companion that can point you in the right direction when you’re lost or simply bewildered about what to do next. Adding in the bird was a great idea – and much more clever than a glowing golden path – but sadly doesn’t always work, sometimes choosing to just fly about randomly, lead you in circles, or simply ignore your button-pressing all together. Still, even in his half-functioning form, Dust is generally more handy than harmful, and since he only (usually) comes when called, you can feel free to ignore him for a while if his malfunctioning antics start to drive you mad.
Between the puzzles, and filling up the dungeons are an army of enemies that somehow have the notion that trying to kill Death is a good idea. Tearing these baddies limb-from-limb with your Reaper’s blade is fun work, and a fine combination of gleeful button mashing and strategy. Many of the combos are performed through easy single-button sequences, while more advanced maneuvers often add delays instead of extra buttons, making bungled timing simply drop you into a different combo rather than leave you vulnerable for the mistake. This really helps you hone in on the level of complexity you’re most comfortable with without making you feel like you aren’t doing enough to use Death at his best.
You’ve got a few other tricks up your sleeve as well, including a few selectable spells, a gun for long range shooting, and a customizable secondary weapon – usually a choice between something strong, large, and slow or something weak, short, and fast. The unlockable abilities do less for the game than they probably should, but a satisfying loot system helps keep things fresh with each encounter. New weapons, as well as upgraded versions of your scythes and sections of armor, can all be found as drops from common enemies, bosses, and treasure chests, adding a smart layer of customization and strategy to mere move-mashing on the battlefield. There’s even a small bit of crafting involved; certain weapons you find are possessed (read: upgradable) and will level as you “feed” them with other items you can’t use, absorbing their traits and gaining as much power as you’re willing to give them from your valuable stash. It feels pretty rewarding to know that every time you find an amulet, pair of boots, or axe you don’t need that it can still be put to good use strengthening something that you do. The system adds import and chance to each common encounter, helping to keep enemies more exciting than mere unwelcome delays to your travels across the map.
Still, while there’s a lot on offer, there’s also a certain amount of final polish lacking from many of the game’s elements that can hinder what’s otherwise a fantastic experience. Aside from Dust’s consistent rebellion, certain surfaces and ledges aren’t as well-defined as others, often causing Death to perform awkwardly when against them, usually by means of an animation glitch or quick, accidental tumble down a lava pit. The robust menu, while thorough, is also somewhat of a chore to access between small loading-delays and a layout that fails to prioritize the three things you likely use it for most: the map, your loot, and active quests.
Then, there’s Death himself – a pointlessly acerbic, unlikable protagonist who seems rewritten for nearly every situation he faces. Sometimes he’s just being senselessly rude to those trying to help him, such as calling his savior by an unwelcome nickname, while later arbitrarily defending the actions of that same person when he did nothing to deserve it. Death, in the case of Darksiders II, is not supposed to be evil, but instead a force of balance on a quest of justice; it just feels lazy when he’s overly grim, egotistical, or obnoxious at random times.
Fortunately, Death is a Horseman of few words, and the story often takes a backseat to the wealth of gameplay and expansive environments. Despite its quirks, Darksiders II really delivers on the breadth of its content, making for a sweeping experience that fans of multiple genres should be happy to explore if willing to look past a couple of hiccups along the way.
Bottom Line: Darksiders II is a great game with a wealth of content, combing elements of numerous other games (and well) from within an interesting world ready to explore.
Recommendation: Fans of loot hunting, third-person brawlers, and puzzle-solving should all find something extremely worthwhile in Darksiders II.[rating=4]
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.