It’s not that playing as a horseman of the apocalypse (the sword-wielding War) is an empowering experience (he gnashes his teeth, communicates almost solely through threats, yet ends up being a transparent “who needs backstory?” guide through the end of days). Darksiders’ allure comes from the homage it pays to Zelda and God of War. Upstart developer Vigil Games does nothing to disguise the fact that both aforementioned games are channeled to the fullest extent.
Though it doesn’t go so far as to place War in tight green spandex, Darksiders might as well be set in Hyrule. A subtle nod occurs when War’s health is nearly depleted, and players are alerted of impending doom by a faint-yet annoying-repeated beep. More obvious homage is paid through dungeon exploration. Vigil follows Shigeru Miyamoto’s blueprint down to the last detail, including maps that reveal all chest locations and the boss room signified with a large red skull. The Zelda observations dip into the realm of “can they really get away with this?” through many of War’s gadgets and weapons. A hookshot-like device grants War passage across large expanses, and a boomerang-like object can chain multiple targets together with a single throw. If you’re not sold on the similarities yet, War navigates the overworld via horseback, obtains additional health containers at the conclusion of each dungeon, and is on a quest to reassemble a rare artifact that will bring peace to the world. Need I go on?
Miyamoto isn’t the only one who may demand a cut of the take. If Vigil decides to release a Darksiders prequel, most of the game would likely show War palling around with God of War’s protagonist Kratos. The horseman’s attacks channel the same fiery orange trails and an elegant, yet violent beauty. Defeated foes don’t simply fall to the ground. They stand dazed with a flashing icon over their head, alerting War that he can finish them off with a brutal (and visually satisfying) strike. When the body explodes into blood, War is rewarded with colored souls that regenerate his health and mana, and are also used as currency at stores to purchase new attacks, weapons, and upgrades. As Kratos’ understudy, War is also overly abusive towards doors and chests.
For one level, Darksiders doesn’t hump God of War or Zelda’s leg. It instead shifts its admiration of great games to the most unlikely of candidates: Portal. Yes, War wields the portal gun. And yes, if you fire it once, it makes a blue doorway. Fire it again to create an orange exit. As strange of a fit as it may be, Vigil makes it work well with the context of the game. Some of the game’s greatest moments are tied to this device.
All of the familiar mechanics and designs are handled with care, almost making me think that the Zelda, Portal, and God of War teams were involved with Darksiders’ creation. From the complexity of the dungeon designs to the finesse of combat, Vigil shows us that it is capable of much more than imitation – it can twist decade-old ideas into new experiences, and make every battle a sweat-inducing affair.
These elements come together to create an engaging adventure that kept me in a state of wonder most of the way. Exploring the dungeons and solving their many riddles was the highlight. The combat system, although periodically bothered by camera tracking issues, controls admirably, and offers depth in combos, weapon choice, and tactics.
While succeeding in design, Darksiders doesn’t keep gamers engaged with the narrative. War isn’t the only character that delivers a transparent performance. Almost every character feels like he or she was assigned a cameo role, as you never can quite grasp their importance to the tale at hand. The plot bounces around recklessly and doesn’t open itself up enough to make you believe the apocalypse is a worldwide event. From what I could tell, it happened in a city the size of Baltimore, and affected the lives of 200 people and/or demons. The “big” players in the story – if you can call them that – also go down like chumps through boss fights consisting of repetitious tactics that are intended to require experimentation to solve, but are telegraphed far too clearly.
Even without a clear narrative purpose, Darksiders never wavers from being an enjoyable adventure. I had a blast playing it, and strangely enough, the obvious nods to other games added to the fun. Despite a lame last boss fight, the setup planted for the sequel has me counting the days until it arrives.