The difference between clever and cunning.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Darksiders Review

Darksiders is an epic single player action/adventure that draws heavily, very heavily, from the God of War and Legend of Zelda games. We’ll go over this in more detail later, but it’s worth mentioning right from the start, because I can’t think of a better way to describe Darksiders in one sentence. 

I know I spend an inordinate amount of space in my reviews talking about what other games a particular game is like. Every piece of media draws on those that came before it. Tracking a game’s “lineage” is one of the best ways to describe and understand it. Understanding what games inspired the creators lets us better understand the game itself.

War atop Ruin, the Red Horse.
Darksiders is not a difficult game to understand, and most of its gameplay elements are rock solid. The slightly overwrought intro casts you as War, one of the Four Horsemen and enforcer to a group of lava breathing Tiki heads called the Charred Council. Darksiders pulls, loosely, from Apocalyptic Judeo/Christian themes, and the Charred Council serve as mediators and judges that enforce the truce between Heaven and Hell until the appointed time for the Apocalypse.

As Darksiders opens meteorites rain down on a large metropolitan city. Angels and demons erupt from the craters to battle in the streets. War, understandably, thinks the Apocalypse is underway and enthusiastically throws himself into the fight.
The game has a very bold presentation. The art team has created a cast that would be at home in Azeroth or the Warhammer 40k universe, with a dash of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. Characters have overbuilt, visually complex bodies fit for a comic book cover, full of details and props. Demons trail colorful fire behind them, and angels flit through the air on glowing clockwork wings.

Beginning at the End

Fighting your way through the End-of-Days serves as a tutorial, although the extremely heavy emphasis on combat is misleading for the later parts of the game. War is the incarnation of focused aggression, and the first twenty minutes has you hacking your way through Angels, Demons, and tiny fleeing humans. Demonic growths erupt from the ground and the city burns around you. Darksiders makes it clear that War isn’t here to save anyone, much less the day. He’s here to kill anything and everything that moves.

The city won't be this intact for long
After a bit of plot and a fight with a building sized demon War finds himself stripped of his powers and called to account by the Charred Council. Apparently that was some other world-shattering confrontation he busted in on, and not the real Apocalypse. He’s blamed for kicking off the end of the world early, and, for reasons that honestly didn’t make a lot of sense to me, sent back to Earth a century later.
The world is now a charred, demon infested wreck, but on the plus side you now have Mark Hamill tagging along as the voice of the Watcher. Hamill’s character is a snarling sadistic shade that offers occasional gameplay hints and reminds you of your objectives between heckling you. He appears to be enjoying the chance to chew the scenery.

The game’s voice acting is bombastic and entertaining. It’s always a relief when the developers make the effort to hire professionals. For bonus points, see if you can tell which characters also did the voices of Illidan Stormrage and Samurai Jack.

A dish best served with a side of delicious ham.
War’s emotional range goes from murderous rage towards everything he can kill, to defiant surliness towards anyone he can’t, with flashes of mild confusion every time someone feeds him a plot point. That’s fine. War is the avatar of violent slaughter, not given to introspection. Other characters point him one way or another and he happily murders everything in his path to get there. He’s here to bludgeon, maim, and dismember, not talk. And to be fair, Link doesn’t really have much of a personality either.

Beg, Borrow, or Steal

One of the common criticisms leveled at Darksiders is that it’s not an original game. This is true, but it’s also missing the point. Darksiders draws iconic elements from a lot of other games. The combat, finishing moves, and chests full of souls would be at home in God of War. The exploration, dungeons, and puzzles follow the pattern established by the Legend of Zelda series. The bold art style and character design could be mistaken for Blizzard’s, with War himself a dead ringer for Warcraft’s Arthas. There’s even a portal gun, ripped from the research logs of Aperture Science.

Did you know you can hijack Griffins?
There’s nothing wrong with using elements from other games, so long as you do it well. Heck, Blizzard hasn’t had an original bone in their body for decades, but that hasn’t hurt them. Where Darksiders succeeds, for the most part, is in recapturing what made the elements it uses fun in the first place.

If you enjoyed God of War you’ll like Darksiders combat. If you’re a Zelda fan the dungeons and puzzles will satisfy you. If you couldn’t stand Portal then the corresponding game segment will probably annoy you. Darksiders doesn’t parody or mindlessly copy the elements it borrows. It feels more like homage to what are clearly some of the developer’s favorite games.

Blood-dimmed Tide

The combat system is fast and furious. It’s not the deepest, especially before you get the chance to buy a few additional moves, but it is intuitive, responsive, and tremendous fun. All the elements you would expect are here, such as blocks, aerial moves, charge attacks, and so on.  War, unsurprisingly, is really good at hurting things.

Some lesser enemies can be grabbed and instantly killed in satisfying fashion, but most foes need to be worn down before they become vulnerable to a God of War style finishing move. This doesn’t require any sort of mini-game or combo; you just tap the appropriate button and War takes care of the rest. These kills are entertainingly brutal, but a few more of them wouldn’t have gone amiss. You’ll see the same “chop the legs off the demon soldier” animation a lot before the end of the game. 

War knows his business.
Mowing through grunts is a blast, and many of War’s stronger attacks send them flying or smash them to the ground. Bigger mini-boss caliber enemies, (of which the game has quite a few) feel a little off though. Larger foes come with huge health pools and very strong attacks. There’s nothing wrong with big tough enemies, but most don’t offer a lot of feedback as to how close to death they are and you don’t gain attacks strong enough to stun or interrupt them for some time. I found myself spamming the ridiculously useful dash-attack to dart in and land a hit. Enemy health bars would have helped pace these fights.

Darksiders can be unforgiving when it comes to health resources, although you’re never punished too hard for dying. Outside of non-respawning health chests and extremely expensive consumables there aren’t a lot of ready sources of healing, and I found the dash-attack such a reliable way to fight while avoiding damage that it almost breaks combat. To spice things up there’s also a “wrath” bar that powers a few special abilities, and War eventually gains the power to turn into an invincible burning demon for a few seconds, for those times when you don’t feel like messing around.

The first hour or two of gameplay is extremely combat heavy, which is actually a bit misleading. The game’s other major element is Zelda style exploration and puzzle solving, which becomes apparent as soon as you reach the first dungeon.

Dungeon Crawling

The maguffins you’re after this time are Demon Hearts, held by a collection of massive, bestial bosses. To reach each of them you’ll need to venture inside their lairs, and complete an assortment of environmental puzzles. You flip switches, rotate platforms, flood and drain areas, and so on. Some of these puzzles can be quite challenging, at least until you’re able to understand the mechanics and what you’re trying to accomplish in an area. It’s surprisingly cerebral, and makes for a nice change of pace between hewing down demons.
This place looks safe enough.
Each dungeon just happens to hold a new inventory item which is critical for solving the dungeon’s puzzles, as well as ultimately defeating the boss at the end. Some items, such as the boomerang-like “Crossblade” can be used in general combat, but others, like the aforementioned portal gun, are restricted to specific puzzles and areas. These items are also used for opening new routes and recovering hidden powerups in the overworld. Expect a fair amount of backtracking if you want to find all the goodies.

The boss-kill cinematics are suitably epic.
The boss battles are one of the game’s highlights. Each pits you against an impressive and intimidating creature. In true Zelda style you’re never just hacking away at a pile of hit points. You inevitably need to observe and understand their attack patterns, and then use whatever item you gained in that dungeon to make them vulnerable. Once you finally bring them down the kill cinematic are spectacular.

Darksiders environments are another stand out element. This is no generic fantasy world, but the wreckage of modern day Earth. The game takes place in the ruins of a massive city, and War swims through flooded subway tunnels and swings between the heights of skeletal skyscrapers. Despite the demonic invasion some places are surprisingly lush and verdant. The combination of ruined human structures, demonic corruption, and nature slowly reclaiming parts of the earth makes for some striking and lovely vistas.

Some locations are surprisingly attractive.
Rough Beast

While combat, exploration, and puzzle solving are all solidly implemented, Darksiders does suffer from a certain amount of blatant filler. Some sections make you slog through a series of identical mini-arenas with conditions like “defeat five enemies while in the air”. These would have made perfect bonus objectives or side-quests, but feel like a grind when they slow your progress.

There’s also a mandatory late game scavenger hunt that has you revisiting a bunch of old areas that I thought killed the building momentum. Darksiders is already a meaty piece of work, clocking in at about 8-10 hours if you just push through and don’t explore. I’m not convinced it needed these contrivances to bulk up its playing time.

Darksiders didn't need padding.
The way-point system that lets you warp from place to place is handy, but having to manually run through the paths of the travel dimension every single time quickly becomes tiresome. I realize it’s probably giving the game time to load the next area; and I suppose it’s still more interesting than staring at a loading screen. While I’m listing complaints I also encountered an odd bug where the sound became muffled, with some effects and tracks obviously missing. It took a restart to fix, but only occurred in one particular area. Aside from that there were no obvious tech problems and performance was smooth.

Combat and environmental puzzles make up the bulk of gameplay, but there are a few sections that introduce something new. There’s a rail shooter early on, and you eventually recover War’s fiery steed, Ruin, allowing you to gallop across open stretches of terrain and hack down enemies from horseback. The animation of Ruin erupting out of the ground when War mounts up is exceptionally cool.

The best alternate gameplay sections have you looting a heavy weapon from your enemies and using it to mow them down by the dozens. These guns are so heavy that they slow even War down, but give him massive ranged firepower. Riddling demons with exploding javelins takes a long time to get old.

Reasons to play: A polished action/adventure. Fun combat and satisfying puzzles. Cool environments and bold visual style. Makes good use of the elements it borrows.

Reasons to pass: A few repetitive elements. While it doesn’t detract from gameplay, story does a weak job of explaining itself.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.