Some games use the apocalypse as the Big Evil That Must Be Averted. Some games use the apocalypse as backstory to help establish a setting. Darksiders uses the apocalypse as its tutorial level.
Of course, seeing as how you’re War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse whose job it is to preserve the balance between Heaven, Hell, and Man before finally ushering in the End of Days, it does make sense that you’d feel right at home in the Final Days. Unfortunately for War, it turns out that he wasn’t supposed to be ringing in the Endwar after all, and so he gets chained as a prisoner to face the wrath of his masters in the Council, and unleashed on the human-less Earth 100 years after the demons took over in order to right the Balance and get his revenge.
Unfortunately for the player, the opening tutorial does a very poor job at convincing people to play Darksiders. It’s empty, it’s shallow, it consists mainly of “go to this area, kill these guys, etc,” and it makes the game seem like a rote, run-of-the-mill hack-and-slash like God of War, only without the super-awesome combat. It isn’t until an hour or so in, when you reach the game’s first true dungeon, when you realize that Darksiders isn’t God of War or Dante’s Inferno or Bayonetta after all: It’s The Legend of Zelda.
On some level, action games have always had an element of exploration and puzzle-solving to them, but while God of War et al lean very heavily towards the “combat” end of the “combat-and-puzzles” spectrum, Darksiders gleefully jumps into the “puzzles” part. War’s massive sword and thick armor might suit him well in combat, but he’ll be running, climbing, pulling levers and pushing blocks as he explores the demon-infested ruins to defeat the lair’s Chosen.
Some puzzles are tougher than others – some had me scratching my head for a while, others I figured out in a few minutes at most – but if you’re going in expecting to beat the game just by rushing through guns blazing, you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise. It’s telling that while there is a time-slow mechanic in the game, it isn’t reduced to the tired old “bullet time” combat feature as in most games it appears in; you use your time-shifting to solve puzzles.
Of course, while the “go to place, get item (or power), use item (or power) to go places you couldn’t go before, explore to find hidden goodies” formula works well, this isn’t to say that you’ll never be fighting. Darksiders‘ combat works very well, with War possessing a nice variety of primary weapons and little gadgets, from his gun to a throwable shuriken to a grappling hook (and even a Portal Gun, surprisingly). You can purchase new abilities and new ranks thereof from the main merchant, the combos flow together easily and intuitive, and fights are cool-looking, exciting, and brutal – particularly when you execute the simple-to-pull-off finishers.
Unfortunately, the finishers are kind of emblematic of one of Darksiders‘ weak points: It’s sort of repetitious. There are only so many finishing moves, and they get very old very quickly, particularly when you see them multiple times in one fight (and you will). Compared with the fact that you’ll be fighting multiple waves of many of the same types of creatures, the combat – though never getting quite dull – begins to lose its luster by the end of the game. This applies to the puzzles, too: By the time you reach the end of every dungeon you’ll be feeling like you’ve done similar puzzles one too many times.
Darksiders‘ platforming isn’t perfect, and some of the controls seem a bit finicky. You’ll get used to them in combat after an hour or two, but there’s at least one miniboss very early on that almost everybody has trouble with, and it’s a frustrating experience. On the bright side, while the game is narrowly on the verge of wearing out its welcome by the time the credits roll, it never quite actually happens, leaving you feel that it may have gone on just a bit too long (clocking in at ~15 hours to beat it the first time around) but not long enough to be a mark against it.
Aesthetically, the game is great. The sight of the ruined Earth a century after all the humans were wiped out in the End of Days is haunting and it makes for some very interesting vistas. Unlike Link, you won’t be going to mystical temples, you’ll be fighting in long-abandoned subway stations and eerie cathedrals. The character designs courtesy of Joe Madureira echo the early 90s Antiheroes, with a not-quite-realistic, over-the-top touch that many modern gamers may find familiar to World of Warcraft (it’s the bulging shoulderpads, honestly), and they’re great, cheesy fun. The voice acting is more than competent, though some of the demons and supernatural spirits make War sound downright boring, and the story is passable with enough twists and turns in a relatively standard Judeo-Christian myth to make you want to play to the end.
It’s derivative, but what isn’t? It takes some awesome parts from awesome games, and while the ending result isn’t perfect or even excellent, it’s very, very good.
I guess Edwin Starr was wrong: It turns out War is good for something, after all.
Bottom Line: Darksiders is the dark, gory, blood-filled action-puzzler that some older Nintendo fans want Zelda to be. The puzzles are clever, the combat is solid and satisfying, the aesthetic is great and wonderfully over-the-top, and the story keeps you interested despite occasional technical issues like framerate drops and screen tearing. Not stellar, but an extremely good first run from developer Vigil.
Recommendation: If you like your action-adventure games to have a good dose of puzzles and exploration, and you think playing as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is totally awesome, pick up Darksiders. Otherwise, rent it to see – but make sure you give it an hour or two to grab you, first.
(Darksiders is out on Xbox 360 and PS3)