[21 September 2012]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Critics have suggested that the roots of the first Darksiders game can be located in The Legend of Zelda, which is not wrong, of course. The series, which Vigil Games ambitiously intended as an epic exploration of the mythology of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, began as a dungeon delving action-adventure game featuring the horseman War that very much plays like a mature vision of Nintendo’s more family friendly, classic series.
That being said, Darksiders II continues to ape that successful model of game design. However, this time out they pull from a few other series’ design elements to build on what has gone before.
Most obvious is the addition of a kind of parkour-style of locomotion that is especially reminiscent of the core gameplay of the reboot of the Prince of Persia. Here, our second horsemen, Death, runs across walls and grapples vertically through minimal button presses that are made obvious by clear visual cues in the environment. As far as it goes, this is a fine enough usage of a simple mechanic. However, I wouldn’t say that this added element enhances the product in any especially noteworthy way. It works just fine. Nothing more.
The element that is more noticeable to me is the addition of a more comprehensive loot system to the series, a system that reminds more of Diablo than of Zelda. Death now loots his fallen foes very regularly, picking up scads of weapons and armor that feature various bonuses and modifications to play. Like the addictive loot systems that have made Diablo into compulsive consumers of the products generated by the hordes of foes that they wade through during a play session, a similar compulsion to constantly check into what pieces of loot might help improve your character and to arrange and to rearrange equipped items drives a great deal of playtime.
For me, the best thing about this system is the way that many weapons can be “fed” with useless weapon and armor pick ups. In other words, while Diablo-style games often find one looting, looting, looting with constant return trips to sell off the more commonly underpowered loot that makes up the bulk of loot collection, here one can quickly take loot that clearly isn’t better than what one already has and sacrifice it to empower these cursed weapons. This loot sink cuts down on trips back to vendors, but also makes the whole process of loot collection feel more useful than it might otherwise be.
I guess in some sense Darksiders makes recycling an obviously useful and pleasurable activity while cleaning up its countless battlefields.
In addition, this system supports the best parts of Darksiders II, which is character progression, because while the game features all of the gory spectacle of God of War-style action and melee combat, Death really doesn’t become fun to play until you have powered him up by advancing his skills and weapons. And he steadily grows more and more fun to play, the more grossly powerful he becomes, making a character who is godlike from the very start into a being who seems a killer of more than divine proportions with each increasing level and each staggeringly more powerful weapon acquired. This is all of the power fantasy offered in gaming turned up well past even 11.
Now, all of that being said and because I cannot deny the pure pleasure of playing an increasingly powerful Horsemen of the Apocalypse, this game, which is quite good on a purely visceral level, never really stretches itself beyond creating some very well crafted game mechanics.
The context that surrounds the dynamism and excitement of the combat is extremely… well… blah. The first game introduced us to a mythology that hasn’t been especially well explored in video games, the nature of those Horsemen tied to the apocalyptic vision of a world at its end. Here, with Death’s quest to aid War, who has been framed as humanity’s destroyer by seeking the Tree of Life to possibly resurrect the victims of apocalyptic calamity, we are offered a weird and somewhat generic fantasy setting, full of characters of epic proportion who speak in abstract and grandiose terms about not much of anything.
As compulsive as the systems that underlie the gameplay are, I found it hard to return to the game after I had turned it off at any given time because quite honestly I just didn’t care that much about Death and what he was doing. His quest is big and loud and bloody, but remains more spectacle than substance.
Darksiders II is a good action-adventure game that plays well enough. But it is also all sticky sweet, sugary spectacle that lacks enough of the substance of some other similar titles to make it feel like more than an experience that will provide anymore than the brief pleasures of a sugar rush. This is a game in which consumption of loot is its most central allure, but it begs the question of what value consuming for the sake of consuming really is.