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Bill Murphy: Darksiders II - Zelda Meets Death

Column By William Murphy on August 14, 2012

We like to occasionally jaunt off the beaten path to talk about games we think MMORPG fans might find some value in, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past few days drowning myself in a sea of THQ and Vigil Games’ Darksiders II, an action-adventure-platforming-RPG that mixes Zelda with God of War and Prince of Persia. For those who are uninitiated, DS2 is the sequel to the phenomenal and often overlooked first game of the series: Darksiders.  In the original, players took on the role of War, one of the Four Horsemen as he sought to prove his innocence in the bringing about of the end of the world. In the sequel, you’ll take on the helm of his brother Death. In a pretty nifty little twist, when the game begins War has not yet been freed from the shackles of Hell, and Death’s on a quest to resurrect Humanity on Earth (it’s done been wiped out, hence why War is imprisoned as he’s blamed for it) which will free War. Following me? I know, it’s a little convoluted, but in a good way. I don’t want to spoil anymore of it than that for you right now.

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The story of Darksiders as a series is cheesy, pulp-fantasy goodness that blends ancient mythology with religion and the imagination of Vigil’s writing staff. You can see hints of their time spent with the Warhammer 40K license everywhere in the artwork and the tone of the world.  The creative director is Joe Madureira for crying out loud (Uncanny X-Men).  One only hopes that the studio, recently hit by layoffs due to the poor performance of other THQ games, can sell enough copies of DS2 to complete the proposed 4-part series (one for each of the horsemen).  I’ve not yet finished it, but in the hours I have spent inside of Darksiders 2, I can tell you that it’s head and shoulders above the previous game… and that’s nothing to scoff at considering its forebear. 

ZELDA GROWS UP, GETS SCYTHES

If you’ve not played Darksiders, the basic gist of the series is that in the gameplay format, it’s an homage to the 3D Legend of Zelda series from Nintendo. Few games can compare to the house of Mario’s flagship adventure series, but Darksiders and its sequel are coming pretty damned close.  Imagine if you will, a game that combines the dungeon-crawling and puzzle solving of the Zelda series, the RPG and loot aspects of something like Diablo, and the combat of God of War. Doesn’t that sound like a dream come true? I will say this: the PC port is pretty much better off with a gamepad plugged into your tower. Yes, this is another case of a console game ported to the PC, but it’s so good no matter how you slice it that it just doesn’t matter to me. I’m okay with plugging in my 360 controller to the USB port because the game plays so beautifully with it.

Now the puzzles so far haven’t been anything that will have you banging your head on your desk for weeks, but in typical Zelda-like fashion they involve any manner of switches, locked doors, and timed trials of your platforming grace.  Hell folks, you’ll even find a map of each dungeon hidden inside of said dungeon. You’ll find new items and weapons that will make previously inaccessibly locales easy to navigate, and you’ll fight bit, bad, incredibly difficult bosses (so long as you don’t play on Easy).  Let’s call a spade a spade here: Darksiders II is the mature-themed version of Zelda. It would be laughable if the game wasn’t so damned fun.

WHAT MAKES IT FUN?

The combat is simple, and yet deep. You have a move/combo repository to refer to, but less-skilled players should have no issues mashing their way to success.  Still, the best and most artful forms of killing the corrupted creatures will be achieved by paying attention to what moves you’re using and when to use them. It’s a poetic balance of death and destruction, and using the L-Trigger to lock onto enemies only makes it more satisfying when you dodge out of harm’s way and then unleash a reckoning upon their backside. 

On top of the sheer brilliant combat design, DS2 brings with it something that DS1 didn’t have: the good ol’ skill tree and loot system that we’ve become fond of as RPG gamers over the years. Just like any good RPG, you’ll gain experience as you complete quests and defeat enemies, and as you level up you can invest skill points in one of two skill trees for Death: The Harbinger and The Necromancer.  Going deep into either tree effectively changes the way Death is played completely at later levels. The Harbinger focuses more on direct combat abilities, while the Necromancer focuses more on the dark magic and summoning capabilities of the Reaper. 

And then there’s the loot!  While not as crazy piñata-popping fun as Torchlight or Diablo, there’s still a lot of gear to be found and earned in Darksiders II.  Some will drop off mobs randomly, others will be found in chests, and others still will be earned from the game’s many missions.  What’s more is that you can find ‘possessed’ items, which can in turn be leveled to even greater power if you ‘feed’ them the other items from your inventory.  There are merchants throughout the game to buy more items from as well, and of course there are more combat moves you can buy off of trainers too. When it comes to Character Progression, Darksiders II really goes above and beyond its predecessor.

Add to this the epic soundtrack composed by Jesper Kyd (Assassin’s Creed, Borderlands), plus a wide open world to explore and you have the makings of a grand action-RPG. It’s not quite open on the scale of Skyrim and follows a more scripted approach to story-telling, but the story is compelling enough and the gameplay so razor-sharp that chances are you’ll just enjoy the ride.  The only real downsides I’ve experienced so far are a wonky auto-camera that can get stuck behind geometry in combat (though not often) and repetitive puzzles. Everything else, from voice-acting to art direction and cinematic appeal, to the pure unadulterated fun of combat and exploration (let’s not forget how awesome riding your horse is!)… it’s just butter. Do yourself a favor and pick this game up. Vigil Games deserves the recognition and Darksiders deserves to see its story told.

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Bill Murphy
Bill Murphy came on as a full time writer with MMORPG.com in 2010, his extensive knowledge of the genre and ability to turn a phrase have been a welcome addition to the MMORPG.com team.
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