When THQ and Vigil Games summon you to a Gothic mansion in order to play through one of the levels of Darksiders II, your first instinct is to say, “I’d like to live out my days without endless nightmares and trauma, thanks,” but such is life (or in this case, Death).
As I sat down to play the game (in a chair made of such fine leather that I could hardly twitch without ridiculous amounts of squeaking) two things became immediately apparent to me: anyone who’d played the original Darksiders would feel right at home in the sequel, but the game also felt much more fluid and organic in its delivery of the dungeon-running content.
Unlike the hulking tank that was War, the protagonist of the original game, Death is a much more agile character. From the off, I was vaulting over objects, wall-running, and just generally moving through the dungeon’s environment in a way that was far more engaging than simply running from point A to point B. Yes, there was still a dungeon map that generally involved platforming corridors and combat arenas, but the it was the variation and dynamism of traversal that really kept things fresh.
The second thing that immediately stood out was that Death was not alone. He and the hulking Karn, who is one of the Makers (picture giant, Scottish blacksmiths and you pretty much get what they look like), were travelling together in order to reach a gargantuan tree. Why they were doing so was kept a mystery, but the catch was that to get there they had to collect three heartstones and reactivate a massive Guardian golem. The idea of your character even working with someone is completely novel, as War spent most of the first game impaling anyone he met with the pointy end of his sword. Death, on the other hand, is a character far more willing to barter, negotiate, and work with others. Perhaps he had a better Kindergarten teacher.
Regardless, you and Karn buddy up to retrieve the heartstones, and in the process he’ll help you murder some corrupted Guardians and hurl you across chasms you would otherwise be unable to cross. So yes, much like Darksiders, Darksiders II takes a lot of cues from the design of The Legend of Zelda: collect a number of items within a dungeon, grab new gadgets to help in combat or platforming, get a story point, then rise and repeat. Where this formula can often get tedious in the first game (or even in Zelda for that matter), the level I played bucked that trend thanks again to the dynamic way in which dungeon traversal takes place. You never quite know what challenges lie around the corner, and the game makes sure to keep you on your toes by requiring you properly time button presses while jumping about. There’s no auto-parkour button here.
The combat is as fluid as it was in the original game and slashing at enemies with Death’s trademark scythe feels as satisfying as it should. On top of that, Vigil has implemented new RPG systems into the sequel. Death can pick up loot in the form of new armour and weapons and he can also level up (which comes with all the associated bells and whistles: new abilities, skill trees, etc). This means that if you have a certain play style, you can cater Death’s items and abilities to your liking. I generally prefer all-out offence in these types of games so I chose weapons that gave me life back every time I hit opponents and upgraded abilities that did damage over large areas. But if you prefer dodging and quick counters, there’s a skill set for you, too. It’s not overly complex, but it’s deep enough to give anyone playing the freedom to tailor their experience how they see fit.
Of course, after all the heartstones are returned, something goes wrong and Death ends up having to fight a gargantuan Defender. It wouldn’t be Darksiders if there wasn’t a huge boss involved.
The fight itself really took advantage of every ability and gadget available to Death at the time, but it never felt overly punishing when I made a mistake. There are enough health potions lying around to keep you going, and even if you do get hit by the boss, the game still gives you the opportunity to pull of whatever trick is necessary to bring him down. Does that make it too easy? No. Rather, I think it allows the gamer to really explore and think about the strategy involved in taking out the boss. When you’re not being forced to constantly reload a checkpoint, you’re far less likely to turn to the internet for answers.
All in all, Darksiders II looked the part of a successful sequel: everything that I liked about the first game was still there, but the experience was so much richer and more fleshed out. Here’s hoping that level of quality remains consistent throughout the game.
Death rides into stores on June 26th.