According to biblical end-times prophecies – or at least, to Darksiders’ stylized version of them – there’s an uneasy truce that exists between Heaven and Hell, and all that’s keeping it in place are the legendary Seven Seals. When those are broken – something that’s only supposed to happen once mankind has advanced far enough to survive a war between the two sides – all of creation will erupt in the Endwar, an apocalyptic battle between angels and demons to decide the fate of the cosmos. As Darksiders opens, that battle has already begun… far, far earlier than it was supposed to.
Fast-forward to a hundred years later, and it’s pretty clear something went wrong. Hell won, humanity is extinct and all that’s left of Earth is a blasted cinder populated by zombies, demons and a few handfuls of surviving angels. With the balance of power disrupted, blame for the catastrophe falls on the impossibly burly shoulders of War, the only one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to ride during the chaos. To clear his name, he volunteers to trudge out into the ruins of New York, find those responsible and slaughter them all.
To say that Darksiders isn’t the most original game is a gross understatement. While its ruined world and masterful art direction (by comic artist Joe Madureira) feel fresh, Darksiders is, by and large, an amalgamation of cool elements swiped from other games. But that’s not a bad thing; from the beginning, its developers have proudly pointed out that Darksiders cherry-picks some of the best things from some of the best games around.
Above: Like this horse, for example
Most notably, it borrows a lot from the Zelda games, using the series’ rich history of more-or-less open-world exploration, gadget-assisted puzzles and themed dungeons as a template for its own beautifully devastated world. Meanwhile, its fast, combo-heavy, somewhat gruesome combat – along with a few other choice elements – comes straight out of God of War and Devil May Cry.
It doesn’t end there, so rather than simply bore you with a long description of the things Darksiders lifts from other games, we’ll simply show you some of them:
Above: Don’t get too excited – you get the “Voidwalker” item very late in the game, and it only works on special surfaces. But it does enable you to create high-speed exit portals, which is kind of awesome
So yes, if originality is of paramount importance to you, this probably isn’t your game. But more important than where those diverse elements came from is how well they mesh together, and in Darksiders, they mesh together pretty well… most of the time.
Also, it’s not as if Darksiders doesn’t sport a few gameplay innovations of its own. Probably its most notable one is its approach to the secondary weapons War finds over the course of the game: a giant purple scythe and a big, enemy-smashing gauntlet. In a God of War or Devil May Cry, you’d generally use these to replace the hero’s default weapon, at which point you’d realize that they’re simply not as much fun to wield. In Darksiders, meanwhile, they actually supplement War’s hulking sword, meaning that you can switch instantly between them to chain together lengthy, multi-weapon combos.
That’s not even counting the random environmental objects you can grab and use as clubs, the wrecked cars you can pick up and throw, or the bulky angelic/demonic heavy firearms that can temporarily make you damn-near invincible.Add in War’s tertiary weapons – which eventually include a pistol, a shuriken-like boomerang and a horn that can stun enemies – and the combat can get pretty ridiculous.
Of course, that’s only if you actually remember to use all that stuff in the heat of combat, along with all the combos and special moves you can unlock. If you’re more the type to mash buttons randomly and hope for the best, you’re likely to find the action pretty damn repetitive.
Actually, you might find it repetitive even if you can remember the slew of attacks at your disposal, thanks to the tiny number of fatalities you can perform on the demons you’ll meet. See, really there are only a handful of basic enemy types in the game, with different creature skins used to denote levels of toughness and to create the illusion of variety. No matter what skin they’re wearing, however, each enemy type only has one or two finishing animations you can perform once you’ve beaten them down enough. Hours into the game’s 15-to-20-hour runtime, this gets awfully tedious; the fatalities are useful for ending fights quickly, but once you’ve chopped the legs off a hundred identical demon grunts and then dramatically slow-motion-sliced them in half in midair, the thrill is gone.
That’s also to say nothing of the irksome fetch-quests and schlep-quests the game occasionally puts you through; these don’t happen often, but when they do, get ready for a lot of tedious backtracking across the map. The worst ones happen near the beginning; you’ll meet a couple of sentient gates who simply can’t move until you remove the curse than binds them. To do that, you’ll need to find your way to several hidden portals scattered around nearby, enter each one separately, and then fight waves of enemies in tedious arena fights with very specific victory conditions. It feels like an enormous waste of time, but thankfully you’ll only need to remove two of these curses.
At this point, you may be wondering how much appeal there really is in wandering around a dead world, hacking whatever you meet to death in grisly ways. The answer is quite a lot, really; far from being a bleak reminder of a dead civilization, the world War inhabits is a twisted fantasy version of New York, reshaped by a century of demonic occupation into a visually arresting, platform-and-puzzle-filled world that’s a blast to explore (and not just because it’s filled with cool secrets and hidden junk to collect).
Unsurprisingly for a game that takes so many cues from Zelda, the best parts of the game are its dungeons – vast, puzzle-filled complexes that include a decaying cathedral and a flooded subway station, among other fascinating ruins. The most important puzzles in each (as well as the dungeon-ending boss fights) are based around a single tool or weapon that lies hidden somewhere inside, and once you’ve found it, it’s like the whole place (as well as previously inaccessible areas elsewhere on the map) suddenly opens up to you. Again, if you’ve ever played through a recent Zelda (or even Metroid) game, you already know the feeling.
Darksiders isn’t without standout characters, either; in addition to severe, humorless War and his intentionally loathsome, hint-providing sidekick, the Watcher (voiced by Mark Hamill in full Joker mode), there’s the creepy (but oddly charming) demon merchant Vulgrim and the misguided Uriel, leader of the remaining angels on Earth (who all blame you for the apocalypse, by the way, and will try to kill you on sight).
There’s also the demon Samael, a monstrous rival to the Destroyer (Darksiders’ central villain) who sends you on the game’s central quest: track the Destroyer’s lieutenants to their lairs, kill them and return their hearts to Samael so that he can regain his formidable powers (and then probably be a threat to you in the future).
And then, in the midst of all this deadly seriousness, there’s Ulthane, a gorilla-looking blacksmith who speaks with a thick Scottish accent and fits in with the cast of angels and demons about as well as a Muppet would with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He’s the most obvious Madureira creation in the game, and as a result he kind of sticks out like a massively stocky sore thumb.
Above: Yes, really
But at least he meshes with the world a little more smoothly than the top-hat-wearing, posh-accented zombie who occasionally pops up in secret caves to beat you with his cane before vanishing mysteriously.
Even at its most bizarre, and even at its most tedious, Darksiders is a lot of fun to plow through. And if the ending is to be believed, we can expect at least a couple of sequels out of Darksiders’ post-apocalyptic setting. We’re already looking forward to finding out what happens next.
Bayonetta? Depends. Are you in the mood for a Zelda-inspired, exploration-centric adventure with a bunch of cool gadgets, collectibles and slightly gimmicky puzzles to back up its stylish combat? Then Darksiders is the better choice. However, Bayonetta’s a lot cooler to look at, and its combat is faster, more over-the-top and a lot more entertaining, so it wins out as a pure action experience.
Okami? No. Darksiders’ ruined world is a compelling place to explore, but its pretty ruins don’t hold a candle to Okami’s lively, colorful environments (and you also won’t get the satisfaction of bringing the devastated Earth back to normal, which you will in Okami). Darksider’s combat relies a little too heavily on repetitive finishers, while Okami’s is endlessly inventive. In summation: yes, we know we nag you about it a lot, but you should really play Okami if you haven’t already.
Brutal Legend? Depends. While they’re both Zelda-inspired games set in post-apocalyptic worlds, Darksiders doesn’t have Brutal Legend’s awesome soundtrack, charming characters or heavy-metal aesthetic. But it also doesn’t have Brutal Legend’s clunky RTS sequences, and that’s a huge mark in its favor. Brutal Legend wins from a storytelling and aesthetic standpoint, but if we’re talking pure gameplay, Darksiders has this one sewn up.
In spite of lifting nearly every gameplay element from other, often better games, Darksiders still succeeds at bringing these disparate threads together into a brutally satisfying whole. It’s also a blast to explore even at its low points, and if the idea of a Zelda with a more “mature” bent and better combat catches your interest, you’ll want to check this out.
Jan 5, 2010
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