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Darksiders – hands-on

There’s a hell of a lot of meat to Darksiders. In a literal sense, having played a huge chunk of it we’ve chopped off thousands of limbs, dissected hordes of gigantic spiders, and torn countless flying insects in half – but it’s meaty in other ways, too. Taking a large amount of ‘inspiration’ from Zelda and God of War, it offers an unusual blend of exploration, puzzle-solving and frequent gory combat. There’s a lot to see and do and hack up during the course of the game.

It’s yet another post-apocalyptic yarn, with a setting that manages to be both interesting and uninspired at the same time. The Charred Council that oversees Heaven and Hell has blamed Apocalypse-Horseman War for the premature destruction of humanity, and he has to traverse the ruined wreckage of Earth to discover what went wrong. To keep you in check they saddle you with The Watcher, a nasty floating creature voiced by The Joker himself, Mark Hamill.

It doesn’t take long for the game to settle into a familiar structure. You have four demon hearts to collect for the powerful, and untrustworthy, monster Samael; you head to four vast areas to find demons, then rip their still-beating hearts from their chests. Along the way you’ll gut zombies, skewer angels and befriend a Scottish giant called Smith.

Comic artist Joe Madureira’s character designs are memorable, but the world they inhabit isn’t all that interesting or artfully constructed. The opening areas are apocalypse-by-numbers: a ruined grey city, followed by a ruined grey cathedral containing that hoary old platformer staple, lava pits. Later environments are more appealing, but it’s not a world we were in a desperate hurry to explore. Aside from a few Zelda-style heart pieces (they’re obviously called something different) or chests squirreled away, there isn’t that much scope for exploration, anyway.

However, combat presents many more options. There are a few different melee weapons, and each can be levelled through use, or enhanced with purchased moves or artifacts. Later on you get a gun, and you learn how to transform into a big fiery dragon thing that can kill most enemies in a couple of hits. But while there may be a lot of choice, fighting always seems to boil down to the same thing: smacking enemies until they’re weak enough, and then killing them with a gory finishing move. We fought so many monsters, and saw the same finishing moves over and over again, and combat very quickly turned into a chore.

It’s a shame, because Darksiders does ‘big’ very well. Bosses are enormous, inventive and hugely satisfying to beat, even if they do rely on the slightly cliched Zelda method of working out and following a pattern. There’s a pleasing sense of scale to the cathedral rooftop battle with Tiamat – a hideous bat-woman whose heart you must rip out – while the other boss encounters proved equally grandiose, or indeed bigger.

In every ‘dungeon’ there are a couple of puzzles, and they’re actually pretty smart – a grade above the typical ‘drag box onto pressure pad’ variety. However, the game doesn’t do a great job of helping or directing you – you can make The Watcher appear, but he’ll only remind you who you’re supposed to kill next, rather than offer any useful advice. Although it’s nice to have the chance to work things out on your own, we spent far too much of our time in the game lost, confused and inevitably frustrated.

After playing a significant amount of the game, we’ve come away impressed at its ambition and scale, but less than blown away by the combat. It’s clear that Darksiders is substantial -it’s just not currently proving to be quite as much fun to play.

Dec 3, 2009

When he's not dying repeatedly in roguelikes, Tom spends most of his working days writing freelance articles, watching ITV game shows, or acting as a butler for his cat. He's been writing about games since 2008, and he's still waiting on that Vagrant Story 2 reveal.