Monday, January 14, 2013

Darksiders II (Vigil/THQ, 2012)

After finishing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time I was looking for another game to play through. I was still in a crazy platforming mood, so I settled on Tomb Raider: Anniversary, since it would run great on the windows tablet I was using. The first day I only had about an hour free to play it. The next day, Darksiders II went on sale for 60% off on both Steam and OnLive. I was a huge fan of the first Darksiders, so Tomb Raider would just have to wait a bit.

I'm going to digress into a bit of personal history. I got the first Darksiders game for free with my OnLive Microconsole, which I also got for free because, well, when OnLive was still new, they gave their early adopters a lot of free stuff. I'd been looking forward to Darksiders II since finishing the first one years ago, so I decided to jump on the chance. I just needed to decide on a platform. Even though I've purchased several games on the service in the past, I was hesitant to get the game on OnLive as they've been pretty shaky as a company lately. It wasn't clear if the service would be around long enough to complete the game. But, since I still hadn't gotten my new computer yet, and I was impatient to play the game, I decided to take the chance and get the game on OnLive instead of Steam.

As it turns out, OnLive is still around (although at this point it's still unclear for how long), and I was able to play through the whole game without trouble. I mostly played it in my living room on the Microconsole, but I also played it a bit on my Acer tablet, my Xperia Play phone, and even on my new computer which I finally got in November. I have to admit, being able to level grind and explore from my phone on my lunch break is a cool feature. Overall, the graphics weren't quite as sharp as they would have been running natively on a fast system, but at the time I didn't have a fast system, so that didn't really matter. So now, on with the review...

The first Darksiders played like a combination of Legend of Zelda and God of War (with some Portal thrown in later in the game). In fact, some people criticized it as being a blatant rip off of those games. However, the game was so good that most critics quickly forgave this, as the combination of these elements worked in a way nobody could have imagined. It was such a winning formula, it's surprising how much they changed it in the sequel.

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way. In the first Darksiders you play as War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Christian mythology. The game starts with the apocalypse accidentally starting, and then skips to about a hundred years later as War tries to prove that it wasn't his fault. In this game you play as Death, another of the horseman. This game takes place somewhere within those hundred years, as Death tries to clear his brother's name.

Darksiders II feels different from its predecessor. Rather than Legend of Zelda meets God of War, it plays more like a combination of Prince of Persia and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The first game had some platforming elements in it as you would climb along walls and leap between ledges, but it was taken a lot further this time. Playing this right after Sands of Time made it feel familiar for me as I hopped from hanging poles, and swung from thin bars, and ran up walls in flowing combos that had me bouncing all around the room. You can definitely feel the influence because not only did they copy the style, they copied the feel. I did miss the gliding elements the first game had, alluding back to classic games such as MDK, and more recent games such as the Batman: Arkham series. I can see why they took it out though, as the new platforming engine would have been a lot less successful had this ability been kept.

The other big change this time around is that it plays much more like an RPG than the original. You will spend a lot of time saving up your gold to upgrade your weapons and armor, and sometimes grinding to level up. This can be a big turn off to some people who prefer the more straight ahead action adventure style of the original, but others like me eat this stuff up. Each piece of equipment has its own specs, and you can really customize your character to match your play style.

The quest system also has a nice RPG feel to it. It allows the story to flow more organically than in the original, and lets the game throw some surprises at you every now and then since it's not tied to such a rigid formula this time. Disappointingly, the side quests played more like your typical action game. Where the side quest chains of some RPGs could be released as full games on their own, Darksiders II only offers the typical collect all the hidden items style side quests, and the occasional optional dungeon. Luckily, the main quest is long enough that you won't really feel like you're missing anything.

As I mentioned earlier, the first game closely followed the classic Legend of Zelda formula. But where Zelda games typically have 8 dungeons before the final one, Darksiders only offered four. As a way to make up for this, Darksiders II gives you a dozen main quest dungeons, each with a unique look and feel, and then several more smaller optional dungeons. There is a lot of content to play through, and the level design still lives up to the same high standards set by the original. Each room is a clever new puzzle and a new challenge, rather than your typical action RPG dungeon crawl.

Each dungeon also features a memorable boss battle. These guys are huge and full of character and fighting them is a puzzle of its own. One of them in particular is as tall as a skyscraper and at times during the battle you find yourself climbing up its limbs using all of your platforming tricks as you continue to attack each other.

Combat in Darksiders II is brutal and satisfying. A huge variety of attacks can be learned at a price from trainers you'll encounter throughout the game's world, and a large variety of weapons and special items can be used against the game's many enemies. That's good, because there's also a huge variety of enemies who will attack you in a number of imaginative ways. One of my favorite combos was to grab an unsuspecting enemy from a distance, pulling it closer and slashing it a couple times, then tossing it up into the air before it can recover and smashing it with a giant hammer as it comes tumbling back down to the ground.

While the graphics don't break any new ground from a technical perspective, they more than make up for it artistically. The game looks beautiful with visuals stylized just enough to look unique without looking cartoony. The otherworldly settings really come to life as the angels, demons, and everything in between are all presented as if they were jumping out of a fantasy painting.

The sounds and music on the other hand do the job, but don't really stand out. In ways, I think I like the audio of the first game better. As an example, you know that moment in Zelda games where you solve a puzzle and it plays that memorable chime? In the first Darksiders, there was a similar yet less memorable musical phrase, mostly with low strings. As expected, Darksiders II also has such a phrase, but this time even less memorable, just a little musical blat of a chord. With so much creativity in this game, you would think they could have done more with the audio.

Remember at the beginning of the review when I compared Darksiders II to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning? Some of you may be wondering why I chose that game and not a more popular RPG. Some of you may be thinking it's because of the visual styles. Both games have similar looks based on the works of comic book artists. Some of you may be thinking it's because of the combat as both games have a similar feel to the fighting. The biggest reason however is in the story. While the Darksiders universe is all based on a single source, Amalur pulls from the combined folklore of multiple cultures, and where the two worlds overlap is with the Well of Souls. Reckoning starts with the player emerging from the well and the story deals with all of the ways in which this will effect the world. Darksiders II on the other hand is the exact opposite. The game is all about trying to get to the well and how this could effect the world. It's an interesting parallel, and one that I'm surprised hasn't been mentioned in any of the other reviews I've read.

Familiarity aside, Darksiders II has a good story with larger than life characters. One of the interesting balancing acts they pulled off was making Death feel huge, and then making so many of the other characters you encounter feel even larger. A few characters from the first game return for cameos, and overall the lore ties together nicely. The voice acting is also well performed and the animated cut scenes are fun to watch.

If I had to find something to gripe about, it would have to be the health potions. Since the genre first emerged in the 80's, RPG video games have almost always relied on the player carrying a large supply of health potions, sometimes hundreds. Darksiders II only lets you carry up to five at once. Because it's such a small number, these potions actually start to feel like an extension of your health meter. You find more potions throughout the world and dungeons hidden in crates or randomly dropped by slain foes, but they don't drop all that often. The few merchants in the game only carry a small number of these potions, and once you purchase them, they never restock. The big problem with this is that sometimes the dungeons will lock you in a room with several waves of enemies to battle through (which is actually fun in this game, unlike Sands of Time) and then throw you into a boss battle in the next room after you've used up a few of your potions. This sometimes leads to having to fast travel out of dungeons before a boss battle to either find a merchant who still has some in stock, or grind through enemies until enough potions drop. This is a glaring flaw in an otherwise solid and well balanced game.

My other complaint is not with the game itself, but the fact that the DLC was not released on OnLive. I knew I was taking a chance when I went with the OnLive version, but it is what it is.

So there you have it, that's my take on the game. As you can tell, I'm a fan of the series, and I'm looking forward to where they take the series in the next installment.

Stay tuned for the next review!

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