The basic design of Darksiders II was pretty well established in the first game. Some hearty God of War combat, some grimly McFarlanesque exaggerated World of Warcraft graphic novel graphics, and gameplay progression in the vein of classic Zeldas and Metroids. Darksiders II is more and slightly better of this, but that’s not all you get! A new “just add Diablo” approach lends it that sheen of sequel newness.

After the jump, can I interest you in a cheap pair of Bitter Punishing Scythes of the Whirlwind?

The joy of playing Darksiders II is apparent early on and consistent throughout. There’s a certain clarity to the game, an assured sense of knowing what to do and doing it, a canny balance between hand-holding and freedom, between backtracking and rails, between showing you the solution and letting you figure it out on your own. The developers at Vigil games rival Portal for their ability to show me puzzles that make me think I’m smart. I never once felt the need to look up some solution online. Every single puzzle, without exception, revealed exactly the right amount of information to let me figure out what to do. If only adventure games had this sort of clarity and focus, they might still be alive today.

Furthermore, the dungeon layouts are clever and compact, built to be solved without tedium. You might think you’re lost, but you aren’t. Through that door is exactly where you need to be. And if you actually are lost, the distinct purple glow of your crow familiar always shows you where to go. Furthermore, the world is built in such a way that It’s always obvious where you can go, what you can grab, how far you can jump. This isn’t a guessing game.

Neither is it a game about dexterity or timing. The traversal stuff is almost always simple, clear, and reluctant to punish you for failing. It’s as if the developers know enough to get issues of timing and interface out of your way. If you know you want to go somewhere, why make it difficult? Additionally, why not make it interesting? Your character has a variety of nimble bug-like moves or supernatural gadgets to get where he wants to go. Contrast this with the traversal in an Uncharted game, where it’s always Nathan Drake doing the same grunting and clutching all over again. A game like Darksiders knows how to mix it up and the fantasy setting lets it get a little crazy. In the thirty hours it took to finish Darksiders, I never once minded having to get over there. Which is a good thing, because getting over there is at least half of the playing time.

The story is folded a bit too much into the first game to make sense. It’s a shame the writers didn’t opt for simplicity over fan service, because the basic narrative and visual progression are solid. Go here, do this, go there, do that. But the particulars of the here, the this, the there, and the that will be inscrutable to anyone who can’t recite the particulars of Darksiders I. Each of the worlds has a distinct look — one world completely changes the gameplay — and several of the characters are memorable, even if you have no idea what they want or who they are. Actor Michael Wincott gives the main character a gravelly world-weary John Hurt rasp. The Scottish brogue of the giant dwarfs in the first world is a real delight. And it’s always nice to see Vulgrim, the merchant from the first game. But this time he’s upstaged by a merchant named Ostegoth (if ever a game earned its M-rating for smoking, it’s Darksiders II for Ostegoth, the coolest pipe smoker this side of Gandalf the Grey). The characters come fast and mostly forgettable as the game winds down, but they certainly look cool. And I was pretty sure the final boss was just a precursor to the final boss, but, oops, nope. That was the final boss. The end.

For the most part, Darksiders II guides you up to this final point with a firm hand, but it’s willing to let you stray and play. The world is peppered with thoughtfully designed side quests, challenges, and collectibles. These collectibles are a best-case example of how to do collectibles. Each is gathered differently, and almost all of them gradually give you rewards as you find them. As you gather enough relics for another skill point, or when you collect the pages for a new Book of the Dead chapter, or when you get directions for the next level in the Soul Arbiter’s Maze, you can immediately cash in. Fast travel lets you get wherever you want to go if you’re willing to endure a few loading screens (which are otherwise absent). What’s more, you can also freely fast travel to sell extra loot or buy healing potions, even if you’re deep in a dungeon and want to come straight back. If there’s one thing worth copying from Diablo, it’s an infinite town portal.

But for all the comfort food effectiveness, design smarts, and self-assurance Vigil brings to Darksiders II, it’s got a couple of major failings. All the gameplay clarity of the puzzles, traversal, and world progression goes completely out the window when it comes to combat. Fights are a mess of splashy colors, flashing polygons, damage numbers, and special effects, all put in a blender. One of the advantages of God of War’s fixed camera is that it’s easier to track who’s doing what to whose orifice when you’re watching a fight from the same distance and direction. No such thing happens with Darksiders II. Given all the dodging and the manual camera control, there’s no consistent perspective, even with the helpful targeting lock. And because of the exaggerated character design, which often consists of colossal hands wrapped around colossaller weapons, it’s hard to get any sense for what the hell is happening. The artwork in a game like Bayonetta or God of War emphasizes movement and form. The artwork in Darksiders II emphasizes bulk and detail, which is not a winning combination when it comes to choreography. It’s even hard to tell what’s going on during the canned fatalities, which is where the artists should be showing off movement and form. Instead, you might as well see the tornado from an old-timey cartoon that represents characters fighting. A scythe flashes out of the tornado. Fatality!

This doesn’t just compromise the visuals. It compromises combat. It makes battles a matter of just spazzing out without really being able to see what’s going on. Not that it’s difficult. On the contrary, it’s fairly easy to rely on a few moves, dodge frequently, hammer the B button when you see the fatality icon, and use better gear to brute force your way up the power curve. Maybe it’s realistic that supernatural creatures in battle are just a kaleidoscope of splashy effects beyond human ken. I’m just not sure it’s the best way to make a game.

Also, I’m not convinced the Diablo stuff works. I like the variety in the skill tree, which lets you pick from among about a half dozen spells that gradually improve over time. You spend your hard won skill points to fold in an improvement or a new effect. You can freely respec your spells by visiting Vulgrim, which makes these spells nearly as flexible as gear. Once you’ve finished Darksiders II, a new game plus option lets you bring your abilities into a new game, where you’ll have more flexibility to play with spells because you’ve got that many more skill points. This part of the “just add Diablo” mandate is pretty effective.

But the other part of the “just add Diablo” mandate is the constant torrent of new gear, which floods in without an effective interface to manage it. There are a few options for character builds here, most notably in terms of your secondary weapon, which lets you choose fast attacks, slow powerful attacks, or even blocking. You can furthermore emphasize healing, thorn damage to melee attackers, mana regen, critical hits, executions, and so forth. But the gear shuffles in so rapidly, the spazzing out quality of the combat doesn’t lend itself to finessing builds, and the economy falls apart so quickly that you’re mostly just hoovering up loot until you feel like sitting down to sort through it all. At which point you might as well pick out whatever does the most damage. The gear in Darksiders II is only as important as the combat, and the combat simply isn’t that important. If there’s one place the mostly satisfying and smartly designed Darksiders II needed more streamlining, it was the monty haul and the corresponding hack-and-slash.

3 stars
Xbox 360