Darksiders II

Darksiders II Preview: A Rendezvous With Death
by Phil Kollar on Mar 05, 2012 at 01:15 PM
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Vigil Games
Rating: Mature
Platform: Wii U, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC

As the sequel to THQ’s surprisingly awesome 2010 action game, Darksiders II has a lot in common with the original. You’ll still be slicing up demonic enemies, solving Zelda-style puzzles in post-apocalyptic dungeons, and piecing together a conspiracy of biblical proportions. One area in which the sequel is decidedly different is the main character. In my most recent lengthy look at Darksiders II, it became abundantly clear that Death is much more than a palette swap for his big brother.

This feature originally appeared in issue 227 of Game Informer.

On Borrowed Time

In the first area of the new demo, Death enters a cave full of freely flowing lava. As he walks in, a stone golem named Ghorn threatens him and smashes the ground, destroying the bridge Death is standing on and sending the hero plummeting below.

On this lower level, I’m quickly introduced to one of Death’s significant improvements over War: his ability to quickly and gracefully navigate the environment. In the first game War could climb across ledges, but his bulky frame made him slow, so these sections were generally straightforward and didn’t require much timing. In this dungeon of Darksiders II, Ghorn's ground-smashing causes lava to rise, forcing Death to be swift as he clamors up a vertical passage.

The first Darksiders was often referred to as a blend of God of War and Zelda, but this traversal challenge reminds me of another popular franchise: Prince of Persia. Death employs a wall run to begin his trek upward, then runs along the wall’s limited handholds, inching higher up where possible. At key points he can launch himself using the ghost hand, a hookshot-like tool that pulls Death up to attachments sticking out of the wall and – with a well-placed button press – sends him sailing even higher.

"In the first game, all of the traversal was non-committal traversal, just point-to-point," says lead designer Haydn Dalton. "Now at some point you’re going to fail while doing a wall run or using your ghost hand. That adds an element of tension. It adds a lot of commitment and engagement for the player to getting around the environment."

Another early navigational puzzle sees Death standing on platforms that slowly sink into the lava like something out of a Mario game. He quickly scans his environment to get a bearing on each platform and then must jump to the next before he’s fried.

Once back on solid ground, Death whips the ghost hand at an enemy across the room. It grabs the demonic creature and sends it flying toward Death's waiting flurry of scythe slashes. At one point in the brutal combo, Death's two scythes are combined into a single large blade for a downward smash.

Death switches over to some of the secondary weapons, which can be accessed on the fly. As might be expected, the hammer is slow and bulky but powerful, producing attacks that damage the enemies for over 1,000 hit points. I couldn't tell what percentage of the enemy's life bar that represents, but it seems impressive compared to the 300 or 400 points the scythes dole out. As a sucker for instant feedback, I'm also happy to see the addition of damage-indicating numbers floating above enemies as Death attacks.

After fighting through a few waves of relatively easy opponents, Death encounters his first simple puzzle in the form of a lava river with no apparent way across. Nearby sits a giant, unmoving golem that appears to be made of stone and metal. This is a rideable construct, a key puzzle-solving element for several of the dungeons in Darksiders II.

Death can hop onto the golem's shoulders and move through the lava with ease. In the next area, I witness its basic attacks – large ground pounds that deal area damage but are very slow in comparison to Death’s regular barrage of abilities. After cleaning another room of demonic scum, Death parks the construct in a groove in the ground that opens a nearby door.

At the end of this area, Death faces off against Ghorn, the troublesome rock creature (pictured above) that sent him on a detour at the beginning. This opponent is much larger than Death and has a huge drill in one hand and a giant stoney sword in the other. Despite his imposing size, Ghorn is only a miniboss; Dalton promises that actual bosses in Darksiders II are much bigger.

The encounter with Ghorn has a rhythm that feels familiar. After an initial round of hacking and slashing, the boss begins shaking and glowing red. This is Death's cue that he’s about to perform an explosion, giving the agile hero time to run out of the area of effect. Later in the battle, Ghorn pounds the ground, causing bursts of lava to shoot up in tiny, narrow streams that Death must dodge. Around the midway point of the fight, the boss summons smaller rock-based minions to pester Death. I've seen these boss fight elements in plenty of action and RPG titles, but Darksiders II presents them elegantly, and the fight looks like a blast.

Ghorn is defeated with a brutal finishing move where a large, spectral version of Death – his Reaper form – hacks at the creature with a giant scythe. Dalton casually notes that this whole lengthy dungeon – one that easily lasted as long as the shortest dungeon in the first Darksiders – is an optional side area.

"The publisher will ask, 'How many players are actually going to see this stuff?'" Dalton admits with a laugh. "Well, a lot, we hope. There’s always going to be a certain number of bonus things for the player to do instead of focusing on the main quest. It’s a risk, but we think it makes for a better game."

Power Over Death: A Look At Darksiders ll’s Skill Trees 

Though War gained new powers throughout the original Darksiders, Death's progress feels much more like a traditional RPG. Each time he levels up he gains an ability point. Players can apply these to two main skill trees: the the melee-focused Harbinger tree and the Necromancer tree, which grants Death new spells and greater proficiency with using them.

I wasn't able to explore the full list of potential options in Death’s skill trees, but here’s an early look at some of the abilities:

Harvest: This ability increases Death's range by sending his Reaper form leaping forward with scythes firing out from it. Each additional skill point devoted to Harvest will cause more scythes to be unleashed.

Death Grip: This crowd control ability summons a giant skeletal hand from the ground to hold an enemy in place while simultaneously providing a small amount of damage.

Exhume: Coffins rise from the ground and burst open, producing small zombie minions who will fight for Death. Additional skill points allow more minions to be summoned at one time.

Murder: Death sends a large group of crows at an enemy. Like Death Grip, this causes some damage but is primarily a form of crowd control, keeping bigger groups of enemies distracted so Death can focus elsewhere.

Unending Hunger: This passive improvement to Murder allows each bit of damage done by crows a small chance of producing another Murder.

Weapon Master: This Harbinger skill causes Death's melee attacks to be critical strikes much more frequently and also makes critical strikes refill some of his Wrath bar, allowing for more abilities to be used.

Dressed To Kill

The next phase of the demo jumps ahead to a different point in the game – one of the main quest dungeons in the area known as the Maker’s Realm. The huge difference in the locales is impressive. This dungeon looks like an ancient ruin, overrun with vegetation and crumbling to pieces. Patches of the roof have broken away, and I can see areas off in the distance that Death will visit at other points in the game.

Before venturing inside, Dalton opens the menu to show off another of Darksider II’s new features: the loot system. New armor pieces and weapons drop from enemies like candy from an exploding piñata. Though there's a huge variety of visual and statistical differences between the armor sets, Vigil has split the armor into three basic groups to help players easily identify which items they want. Necromancer pieces enhance spellcasting, Slayer armor is more focused on allowing a player to take damage, and Wanderer armor plays up Death's speed and rogue abilities.

With a cloth-heavy Necromancer set, Death is ready to show off his abilities. In the next room, he encounters a shielded, floating robot known as the sentinel construct. This enemy raises tinier constructs to life and is invulnerable until it drops its shield to do so. As the sentinel creates the first batch of smaller bad guys, Death uses the exhume ability to summon a few undead minions of his own. The next time the shield drops, he attacks the sentinel with a group of crows using the Murder ability.

After this combat scenario, Death moves on to a puzzle-heavy portion of the dungeon once again involving the rideable construct. He arrives in an area with a locked gate and no immediately obvious way to open it. In one corner of the room, shadowy black crystals protrude from the wall. These crystals are a concentrated form of corruption that Death will discover and work to destroy throughout the game. His regular weapons are useless against the corruption, but the rideable construct has the power to clear it.

Upon smashing this corruption with the construct, Death discovers a lever that opens the nearby gate. The next area contains a physics-based puzzle. Two gates stand between Death and the other side of the room. In front of the gates lies a circular groove in the floor. The two gates open and close depending on whether the groove is filled.

To progress through this tricky room, Death rolls a stone ball into the groove, opening the first gate but sending the second back up. He runs into the narrow space between the two and tosses a bomb onto the ball. Blowing up the bomb with a shot from his pistol causes the ball to roll back just enough that the gates switch off once more, allowing Death to keep moving through the dungeon.

Progressing through the dungeon, the puzzle challenge ramps up in a smooth manner. Dalton says the team is working hard to make sure that the game's difficulty – both in puzzles and combat – rises at a steadier pace this time around, rather than the peaks and valleys of the first game. In the case of this dungeon, that means slowly mixing the previous elements. One room makes Death deal with a rideable construct and a stone ball at the same time. Another brings a second rideable construct into the mix. Death jumps back and forth between the two, opening up gates that allow each one to pass until he gets to a room where both must be placed in waiting slots to unlock the next door.

Finally Death reaches a huge set of double doors that open into a stunning outdoor area. Waterfalls and forests spot the background, and a stairway leads up to a circular arena. It looks like the ideal setting for a boss battle.

Death enters the arena and watches the gigantic construct hulk smash down near him. This enemy looks similar to the rideable constructs Death has been using except with more robot-like gears as part of his body. The middle portion of the hulk is a pulsating web of oozing black corruption. Despite the hulk's increased size compared to Ghorn, this is merely another miniboss.

Death's regular attacks are largely useless against the construct hulk. Instead, he waits for its various heavy smashes to knock loose bombs that are helpfully hanging above the arena. Once those are free, Death can grab one, throw it at the hulk, and blow it up to knock the behemoth down. When he falls to the ground, the hulk's corruption spills all over, becoming temporarily weak to Death's onslaught. After repeating this pattern a few times, Death once again summons his Reaper form for a final attack where he slices the construct into neat pieces.

As the demo ends, I mention how surprised I am by just how many new elements are at play in Darksiders II compared to the average sequel. "It's a fine line between giving players more of what they want and adding so much stuff that it isn’t really the game it used to be," Dalton says.

He believes Vigil is on the right side of that line. If what I’ve seen is any indication, Darksiders II builds on the foundation of the original without emulating it outright, taking more steps toward originality than many sequels in this industry. Referencing our Darksiders II cover story, Dalton puts it simply: "I think we’re delivering on what we promised."

Want more Darksiders II info? Check out our full month of cover story coverage and look for an exclusive first hands-on preview in the April issue of Game Informer.