First comes War; then comes Death. Appropriately enough, Darksiders II turns its eyes from its predecessor’s protagonist to a new one: Death himself, War’s brother and one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. His story plays out over the same time period as War’s, but Darksiders II’s narrative isn’t so much about plot as it is about place and tone.
Darksiders II fleshes out the story of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse introduced in the first game. Death believes that War has been wrongfully convicted of destroying mankind, and seeks to restore humanity to clear his brother’s name. The narrative is pretty entertaining. Though it should please anyone solely in the market for ‘epic,’ it lacks any trace of subtlety. Given that the end result of any plot advancement is inevitably that Death needs to gather three of something and thrash some skeletons, hearing the characters go on about the old ways and soul judgement just feels a bit silly. However, if a healthy dose of ridiculous doesn’t faze you, the contrived reasons for Death’s various escapades through heaven, hell and everywhere in between do provide an amusing backdrop for his quest.
You are drawn in not by narrative, in spite of its characters’ frequent and raspy soliloquising. Rather, it uses sights and sounds to impress upon you the importance of your deeds. While one level harks back to the angels-versus-demons, Christian apocalypse themes of the original game, Darksiders II springs forth from a more inventive vision. The dusky dungeons and desert expanses are more diverse than before, and the character designs are more imaginative, as if they’ve wandered in from biblical legends you’ve never heard. The characters you meet, undead rulers and impossibly proportioned behemoths among them, speak with humourless gravity, and Death often responds with a sneer and a verbal challenge.
An icy opening introduces you to the basics of combat and movement. In traditional action game style, you slash away at clawed creatures with primary and secondary weapons. You run along walls and jump across beams like a death-bringing Prince of Persia. But most importantly – your enemies drop coins, armour, and weapons. You can don equipment, sell it to a merchant, or sacrifice it to level up rare possessed weapons, which you can customize at certain thresholds.
In Darksiders II, a funny thing happens on the way to the apocalypse: it establishes an identity of its own, rather than one defined through the games that inspired its existence. The game’s expanded scope (about twice as big as the first game) and thoughtful pace (about twice as long as the first game) are most responsible for this. You now have a chance to breathe between battles, and each new mechanic has time to settle in before a new one is introduced. The more leisurely sense of pace is obvious from the very beginning. There are moments to take in the frozen chasms beneath you, and to enjoy the slick new motion mechanics that have you defying gravity in heady flights of fancy.
Darksiders II is more about adventure than constant onslaught, though there are still battles aplenty. As you ride your steed, Despair, to the first main dungeon, you can relish the green fields of this first major region (first of many), and simply enjoy the act of being. If you want, you can explore some of the surrounding ruins, where treasure chests protect valuable loot to be had. Or you can put your scythe to the throats of the nearest baddies, even from atop your horse. But once you get into the dungeons, Darksiders II becomes special. More cerebral. More energetic.
When you enter a dungeon you will have to use all the skills at Death’s disposal to emerge on the other side. This involves scaling walls, throwing the naturally occurring bombs you stumble upon, and pulling a few levers. Then, you get a phantom grapple hook that allows you to swing from glowing hooks and extend your wall runs. Later, you split yourself in three, petrifying your main form and using two doppelgangers to stand on switches and move platforms. Ultimately, you fire portals to travel across great ravines and even through time itself; this is but a few of the tools you can use. The game’s dungeons get it just right, giving you enough hints through camera angles and other subtle cues, and then trusting you to work out the solution. The only cue you can’t rely on too heavily is your crow, Dust, who is supposed to point out your final destination should you get stuck, but might lead you astray, or flutter high above you and then teleport back.
Combat skills are divided into two trees and allow for powerful offensive moves (a vicious spin attack, for instance) or for summoning creatures to assist in battle (a murder of crows, perhaps). The action is largely satisfying: it’s smooth and responsive under the fingers and is colourful and bloody onscreen. Death’s primary scythes make for fluid combat, while his secondary weapon provides rhythmic diversity. That weapon might be a huge axe that sets wraiths on fire, or superfast gauntlets with an electric charge. Your grapple and your gun can also be valuable assets when certain foes join the fray, and battles are at their best when you confront multiple creatures with diverse attack patterns.
Darksiders II is a true sequel. It continues the story of the original, refines many of its gameplay elements, adds new ones, and offers a significantly different experience to clearly distinguish itself. It’s another excellent game by Vigil that shouldn’t be missed.