Darksiders concludes with a hell of a tease. War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, stands ready for action. “You will be hunted,” angel Uriel warns. “The White City for certain…The Council…and there will be others! You would wage this war alone?!” The rider calmly turns to her, raises a fist, and says, “No. Not alone.” The camera pans up and centers on three flaming objects rocketing toward Earth. War’s fellow horsemen are coming to fight at his side. The screen fades to black, and the wait for the sequel begins.
Bury your excitement for War uniting with his fellow Apocalyptans. Developer Vigil Games instead takes us back in time to the beginning of Darksiders, when War is accused of inciting a conflict between Heaven and Hell. Rather than revisiting this scenario from his perspective again, we see how these events affect his brother Death, the most feared Horsemen of them all.
Death’s story runs in parallel with War’s arc, set in the 100-year span when War is imprisoned in the Charred Council. He is questing to free his brother and save mankind from the apocalypse. His goal is clearly defined, but Death’s journey quickly devolves into multi-part fetch quests with little in terms of gripping narrative progression. Because of the throwaway fiction, Death is a faceless lead who spends most of his time excavating rare artifacts from dungeons. His only significant story contribution comes when the final boss is defeated after 20-plus hours of play.
That doesn’t make him a bad character. He may come across as an antique collector that specializes in rare, oversized, magical keys in the story, but when he enters a dungeon, his wide set of skills turn him into one of gaming’s most extraordinary protagonists.
Outfitted with a move set geared for speed, necromancy, and raw power, Death is an efficient killing machine that lets players select their means of evisceration. I gravitated toward his necromancy skill tree, allowing him to summon ghouls to distract and attack enemies. As they tear away flesh, Death can retreat to the battle’s perimeter to call forth a murder of crows that further confound the enemy. Powers like these are fun to use, and get even more potent as players improve them through the skill tree.
Death’s close quarters approach is equally as exhilarating. His speed – and the fact he carries two scythes – make him a more acrobatic combatant than his brother. He darts between enemies with ease to unleash combos that are so violent and lightning quick that the action is often obscured by vast amounts of blood, magical effects, and blurred movement. In some combat scenarios, this becomes so severe (and awesome) that I lost track of Death completely. It’s a good problem to run into.
Switching between weapons mid-combo is seamless, and the art of chaining together lengthy attacks relies on careful timing for both weapon strikes and evasive rolls. Finishing moves are still a part of the fray, but appear less frequently, and are now nice surprises opposed to being the easiest way to drop a foe.
Standard enemy encounters are balanced well, putting players’ skills to the test in most instances. Since Death is geared to handling multiple threats at once, fights consisting of a singular boss are usually cakewalks. Towering, Shadow of the Colossus-like titans fall after a few undemanding scripted attacks. Even the last boss, who is hardly mentioned in the story, falls like a mid-dungeon chump.
The addition of loot – a dizzying array of weapons and armor with different damage, arcane, elemental, and bonus attributes – adds even more variety to an already deep and satisfying combat system. The loot system is beautifully implemented into both combat and questing. I explored every nook and cranny in dungeons, and downed every foe I saw just to make sure I wasn’t missing out on the chance of a rare possessed weapon dropping. These weapons get stronger when you sacrifice other weapons to power them up. Feeding weapons to weapons – how cool is that? All possessed weapons have level caps. I wanted to use my possessed scythes for the entirety of the game, but as I leveled, they no longer packed the needed punch. Thankfully, I found another possessed weapon later on that sliced and diced efficiently through the end game.
Having an expanding arsenal at your fingertips makes New Game Plus, the Apocalyptic and Nightmare difficulty settings, and Crucible’s arena challenges more appealing and approachable.
Although the dungeons are built on the familiar framework of water, fire, time, and the series’ portal themes, most are architectural wonders filled with inventive puzzles, and sights so beautiful it's worth taking a second to stop to admire them. Vigil does a tremendous job of using Death’s move set for dungeon navigation and puzzle solving. Toward the end of the game, some of the dungeons feature elaborate puzzle machinations that call upon the use of multiple abilities. Out-of-the-box thinking is required for a few solutions.
Some of these dungeons are overly long, but with so many different elements tied to the gameplay, they rarely feel like they are repeating the same steps just to lengthen the overall game time. The three-dungeon “Court of Bones” quest is particularly impressive in its array of puzzles and combat scenarios. The only dungeon that I didn’t enjoy revolves around a firearm called Salvation. This dungeon plays out like a shooter level, and a bad one at that. Death unloads magical angel bullets at waves of enemies for far too long. This experience doesn’t fit with the rest of the game, and almost comes across as a comical interlude between acts.
One of the most polished aspects of the game is environment traversal. Death can run along walls and leap between pillars much like the Prince of Persia. These platforming-like sequences add an element of verticality to exploration, and are used extensively to unearth hidden areas. The overworld is filled with them (including numerous bonus areas and bosses). A handy fast travel ability makes backtracking painless affair.
After finishing Darksiders, I hoped the sequel would continue with the Four Horsemen riding together in aid of War. That thought faded once Death let his scythes do the talking. Like Kratos and Dante, playing as this reaper gives you that amazing feeling of being an all-powerful ass-kicker.