Not many game franchises begin with the end of the world, but Darksiders managed to turn the extinction of mankind into a surprisingly lively backdrop for its hack-and-slash adventure, becoming a surprise hit in the process. For those who dont remember (or didnt play), the game opened with Armageddon unfolding early, and War one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse taking the blame. While War was trying to clear his name, Darksiders II reveals, his pal Death was doing the same, slashing his way through other, bigger dimensions to try and learn who was really to blame.
We recently had a chance to try out some of Deaths upcoming adventure firsthand, by exploring a dungeon set about one fourth of the way through the game. And while the experience left us with a lot to talk about, weve winnowed the list down to a few key points, which well discuss over the following pages.
The game is going to be huge
As we mentioned on the first page, our hands-on with Darksiders II took place entirely in a single dungeon, which took about three hours to get through. That dungeon, we were told, is set at the end of the first of the games four zones, and that first zone will be about the size of the first games entire map. We're not about to assume that that means the overall game will be four times the size of the first one (back in January, THQ told us it would be "at least twice the size"), but if what we played is any indication, then Darksiders II is going to be a seriously lengthy game.
It wasn't sparse, either. The dungeon sent us on what amounted to a series of fetch quests, as Death traversed long passageways, caverns and underwater lakes in an effort to find three Heartstones (which were needed to reactivate the dungeons Guardian, a gigantic creature made of stone), but there was always plenty of stuff to do. For starters, the whole place had been overtaken by Corruption, which caused seemingly unbreakable yellow crystals to grow everywhere, and had infected the dungeons resident constructs (stone robots of varying size), making them violent, and making combat pretty frequent.
Climbing, jumping, switch and hidden-item puzzles cropped up constantly, too, most of which were easy enough to figure out if we were paying attention to our surroundings. The dungeon was vast enough that we still managed to get lost and confused a couple of times, but even then, we could rely on Deaths crow which glowed purple and perched on things that were in the direction we were supposed to go to be an unobtrusive stand-in for an onscreen waypoint. (The pause-screen map helped too, but less subtly.)
Getting around can be a challenge
In our last preview, we discovered that Death is considerably more agile than Darksiders last protagonist, War. Where War lumbered, Death sprints. And where War mostly kept to the ground, running up walls and swinging from high places are par for Deaths course.
While getting around like that isnt exactly difficult, the timing of it takes some getting used to. A lot of the walls Death runs up or across offer handholds that extend his run, and while Death can cling to some of these indefinitely, others are small enough that he can only hang on for a second. During that second, youll need to hit the jump button at just the right moment, and Death will continue running. Fail, and youll take a plunge, which for us usually meant a fall into lava and a quick respawn at whatever patch of ground we were standing on last.
Later in the dungeon, we found the Death Grip, a spectral hand-shaped zipline/grapping hook that let us yank Death over to handholds or up to rings in the ceiling. Once again, though, we needed to jump at just the right moment to swing across; otherwise, wed drop straight back down after reaching the handhold in question.
As you might expect, Death Grip has other uses; in combat, it can yank enemies closer to Death (or yank him over to them, if theyre bigger than he is). It can also be used to grab certain objects, like bombs, and hurl them at distant targets, which is always fun.
Combat is fast and versatile
With Death so much nimbler than War ever was, its a no-brainer that hed have a different approach to fighting monsters. Deaths main weapon is his scythe, which actually spends most of its time split into two smaller scythes (but reunites during finishing moves). Wielding them, Death is capable of fast, button-mashy combos, and hes capable of bringing a secondary weapon into those combos as well. These along with armor, health potions and even new scythes are scattered throughout the game as random loot, and (during our play-through, at least) took the form of claws and tonfas, which allowed for rapid, weak strikes; and giant hammers, axes, polearms and maces, which allowed for slow, powerful ones.
After the first hour, Death had accumulated quite a few weapons, and each one carried different stats and abilities. Should we switch over to a faster weapon that made enemies drop more gold, or stick with the heavy, slow one that dealt out 26 additional points of ice damage with every hit? It could get confusing, but there was plenty of time to experiment.
Combat could also get pretty confusing, as it mostly involved Death being surrounded by crowds of smallish monsters. Luckily, Death can lock on to a single enemy, which also makes the creatures name and health bar float over its head, MMO-style. This was also essential for targeting enemies with the Death Grip or with Deaths pistol, which didnt deal out huge amounts of damage but was nonetheless useful, especially against flying enemies. Also useful? Finishing moves, which we were able to bust out whenever enemies health had dropped low enough to put a button prompt over their heads, at which point Death would sometimes turn into his huge reaper form and ram his single, giant scythe into their heads.
Its an action-RPG
As we mentioned on the last page, loot is a key part of Darksiders II, and it isnt limited to just weaponry and potions. It drops from defeated monsters and sundered treasure chests on a routine basis, and includes armor that changes Deaths appearance and abilities. Most of it seems to be tailored to a certain play style; Slayer armor, for example, boosts combat abilities, while Necromancer armor provides better defense. As with the weapons, having a high level of variety injected into a relatively short demo got a little confusing, so we ended up just going for the highest defense ratings and/or whatever made Death look cooler.
In addition to loot, Death gains experience from kills, meaning players will also be able to level him up, pick new abilities from his skill tree (which, like his gear, seem tailored to different play styles), and keep an eye on his stats. Its something we didnt see at all in the first game (which held to a more linear, Zelda-style progression), so itll be interesting to see how it shakes out over the long term.
Death doesnt always ride alone
In the first Darksiders, War was a solitary creature; sure, he was pestered at various points by the annoying Watcher, and he (kind of) made a couple of friends, but for the most part he faced the post-apocalyptic world alone. Death is less antisocial, and for the majority of the dungeon, we were followed around by Karn (pictured above), a hulking Maker who shared a similar build and Scottish accent with Ulthane, the giant blacksmith from the first game.
Karn proved invaluable throughout the dungeon, keeping pressure-plate-activated doors open for us, lifting heavy objects, and tossing Death up to otherwise unreachable places. He also helped out in combat, dealing considerably more damage than Death and making us wonder why he didnt just go in and clear the place out himself. About the only time we felt superior to him was when we were riding the things that were about to detail on the next page.
Rideable constructs play a big role
Remember those seemingly unbreakable yellow crystals we mentioned earlier? Turns out there are two ways to smash them: either chuck a bomb at them, or find a rideable construct to break through them for you. Essentially giant robots, constructs will be different from zone to zone; the ones we rode around on here were called Custodians, and they rolled slowly around on huge orbs, could easily bash through hordes of enemies while protecting Death from damage, and could shoot out a chain that smashed enemies from a distance and latched on to distant handholds.
That chain, incidentally, was crucial to reaching certain areas; once it had been fired and attached, Death was free to dismount, run across it and use it as a platform to reach distant platforms or climbable vines.
As helpful as they were, though, we couldnt get too attached to the Constructs, as one puzzle called for us to activate a huge rock crusher and use it to pulverize one of them. Why? Because all it left intact was his orb-foot-thing, which we then had to roll around to solve a puzzle. He wouldve wanted it that way.
The bosses are enormous
Boss fights or at least fights against creatures several times Deaths size were scattered liberally throughout the dungeon. For example, when Death and Karn finally found the third Heartstone, it had been tainted by the Corruption so violently that it infected one of the constructs wed been riding around in, prompting an extremely difficult boss fight against a ridiculously tough enemy. As big as that boss was, however, it was nothing compared to what lay in wait for us at the end of the demo.
Using the tainted Heartstone it to activate the Guardian which, as youll remember, is the dungeons main objective caused it to go berserk, drawing us into a multi-stage boss fight that seemed to have been yanked directly out of Shadow of the Colossus. The battle even began with Death riding around on his summonable horse, Despair (which, unlike Deaths horse Ruin, will be available from the beginning of the game), and plinking away at the Guardian ineffectually with his pistol. At first, the battle seemed impossible, mainly because Death automatically targeted the giants invulnerable feet for some reason.
As we soon learned, however, the only way to even start defeating the creature was to ride around in front of it until it swung its massive hammer into the ground, at which point its right arm which was covered with Corruption, and more importantly with Corruption-grown bombs became vulnerable. Shooting the arm stunned the giant, giving us a chance to latch on to one of its Heartstones and smash it until it was destroyed (this took a couple of tries even when we were successful; Heartstones are tough).
After that, the one-armed monster started throwing giant spiked orbs our way, which actively chased Death until hed shot them enough, at which point theyd rise into the air and blast toward him, dealing huge chunks of damage. The secret here was to ride between the Guardians legs when the orb was about to launch, causing it to strike the Guardian instead. Cue the destruction of another Heartstone (which, again, took a couple of tries), and we were treated to the Guardians dramatic death cutscene, which despite looking awesome was disappointingly non-interactive. But at least it looks like therell be plenty more to see (and murder) when the game launches this June.