Darksiders II Review

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Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn.

—TS Eliot

The original Darksiders (DS) may have been an unabashed pastiche of many gaming classics, but it was nonetheless loved by both critics and gamers alike. It wouldn't be wrong to consider the hack and slash Action RPG a good game then. However, TS Eliot would disagree. In fact, as per his interpretation of intellectual theft, he would have a valid point to boot. I say that because DS was notorious for invoking a sense of deja vu every time you encountered a Zelda-esque puzzle and dungeon routine, or the frenetic combat mechanics lifted straight off the God of War games. Although it combined these elements in a biblically inspired saga, it was neither much different, nor any better than the sum of its influences.


To put it in an analogy from music: while DS wasn't as bad as, say, the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Pritam in the name of music, it was sort of like the stuff put out by Creed — not atrociously bad, but not too good either. See what I mean? All arguments regarding originality aside, the Action RPG was nevertheless widely considered as a fun hack and slash experience. If you loved the original, read on because you just might enjoy Darksiders II (DS2) as well. It's bigger, longer, and borrows gameplay and design elements from an even larger list of successful gaming franchises.



Why is it so dark in the kitchen?


A shambling Prince of Persia
Developed by Vigil Games, the second instalment picks up where the original had left off. War, the first horseman of the apocalypse, has been imprisoned (wrongly, of course) for jumping the gun on Judgment Day and annihilating mankind in the bargain. The sequel puts you in the shoes of Death, the second horseman. His plan is simple: resurrect humans and wipe the slate clean for his fellow horseman using the Tree of Life located in the Nether Realms. The only problem is that the aforementioned tree and realm are in the grip of Corruption. Sounds familiar? Well, that's borrowed straight from Prince of Persia (2008) reboot.  Like PoP, DS2 uses the same hub world design, with the Tree of Life and Corruption aspects photocopied for good measure.

Death can jump, wall run, swing onto beams, and extend gravity-defying runs with strategically-placed pegs (as opposed to PoP's rings), just like the Prince. While a concept can be imitated easily, polish and sophistication isn't merely a copy-paste job. It's no surprise then that while Death can do all that the Prince can, he goes about it in a sluggish and undignified manner. This game involves plenty of platforming, which quickly becomes a major cause of butthurt due to its inherent awkwardness and a terribly narrow Field of View (FOV). The latter not only affects your situational awareness while platforming, but also during combat. I really don't get why modern Third-Person games can't offer a user-adjustable FOV like Alan Wake did. Like triple buffering, it's a simple inclusion that offers game-changing benefits.


The skill tree is rudimentary and covers offensive and summoning spells


A poor man's RPG
DS2 takes minimum of 20 hours to complete, and another 5-7 hours for completionists hell-bent on taking up every side quest. This is mainly because the world is considerably larger this time around, with different realms replete with hubs and the ability to instantly teleport to important areas of interest. Each one will have plenty of optional side quests, in addition to main quests that must be completed to advance the story. Covering larger distances is easier thanks to Death's noble steed Despair, which can be summoned and dismissed from right under the horseman's feet. He's also accompanied by an undead crow that serves as a handy guide pointing you towards the next objective, which is a godsend for those in the habit of referring the map constantly.

The main addition to the sequel is the inclusion of RPG mechanics. You have Diablo-esque dungeon crawls filled with enemies that drop loot and chests full of randomised weapons and items. The game also includes the customary health and mana (dubbed as Wrath) bars, along with experience points that can be accumulated by killing enemies and completing quests. Like any self-respecting RPG, DS2 provides different levels of armour and weapons of varying attack and defence ratings, which also come in plain vanilla and magically imbued flavours. You can even upgrade your basic combat moves into elaborate flourishes of speed and might for a few coins from the hubs.


The horse animation is rather spectacular!


The Wrath-driven magic abilities are subdivided in a skill tree bifurcated into offensive and summoning spells that can be unlocked with skill points accumulated as you level up your character. Each of the two spells can be buffed up with the standard RPG fare of frost, fire, lightning, and critical chance, while also incorporating health and mana leech capabilities. Unfortunately, the mana (Wrath) bar takes its own sweet time to fill up, and gets depleted disappointingly quicker. At any rate, spending points in the arcane skill tree, or even the choice of spells don't really have the depth of what can be found in, say, a Neverwinter Nights game.


Fight like a Spartan
Death looks terribly scrawny, especially when juxtaposed with the hulking form of War. This is ironic, because this particular horseman is supposed to look the most menacing of the lot. The weakness isn't just visual because Death takes damage quite easily, much unlike his heftier colleague. However, the idea is to dodge out of harm's way and use his extraordinary speed to deal damage quickly. Does that mean DS2 eschews God of War's button mashing to embrace Dark Souls' and Devil May Cry 3's nuanced, surgical combat mechanics? Not even close. One look at the moves list will tell you that it's developed from the outset to favour a simple combination of light and heavy strikes. Worse yet, neither the dodging nor attack moves penalise badly timed inputs. Although this makes combat rather easy and frustration free, it isn't exactly fun for someone who enjoys a challenge. You get this feeling that you're on training wheels throughout the game.

While primary weapons are a pair of scythes dealing fast damage, the player is given a choice between choosing secondary weapons that are either slower axes and hammers, or faster claws and armoured gloves to accommodate different play styles. Thankfully, this liberty of choice gives a bit of strategic respite from the button-mashing monotony of the uninspired combat system. If you get bored swinging your scythe, DS2 also offers Devil May Cry's (DMC) brand of gunplay. This can be tied together with certain attacks that launch enemies in the air, which can then be juggled with hot lead, the way you did in DMC. For anything else, the guns offer nothing more than mere nuisance value. Your scythes, hammers, and axes also feature standard RPG damage and arcane attributes that can even be levelled up in the case of certain special weapons. Thankfully, in this respect, DS2 is generous enough to reward fastidious RPG strategists, without penalising casual hack and slash gamers who can't be bothered with fiddling around in the inventory screen.


Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fhtagn!


Enemies range from boring XP fodder to mid-level monsters that can prove annoying to those who are loath to press the dodge button. However, the real fun comes from Vigil's shameless photocopy of gargantuan monsters from the Shadow of the Colossus. When I say a carbon copy, I really mean it. Those who have played Fumito Ueda's masterpiece will instantly recognise not only the physical similarities with the colossi, but also the gameplay mechanics required to kill them. Thankfully, what DS2 lacks in originality, it sure as hell makes it up with the sheer number of boss fights, most of which are genuinely fun to play.

Eye candy or the lack of it
How good does the game look, you ask? To put it simply, a colleague happened to ask me if I was playing Legacy of Kain. He didn't say that only because our protagonist shared the same scrawny, blue-skinned look of Raziel, but also because DS2, in his words, has the graphical appeal of a 5-year old game. Just as I was about to blame it on over half-a-decade-old PS3 hardware, I realised that God of War 3 sure looked much better than this. The level and character design themselves are uninspired and lack the kind of texture and 3D model details that you've come to expect from an AAA title. Unfortunately, the game suffers from choppy framerates despite the low-key graphics.


Wait, did I just fire up Warhammer 40K by mistake?


The 10-foot tall NPCs wear a brand of oversized armour reminiscent of the Space Marines from the Warhammer franchise, but that's about as interesting as it gets. The levels have a blend of open plains optimised for riding around on a horse, whereas the dungeons have the same linear platforming elements across varied terrain. There isn't any remarkable effort evident towards adding verticality or spicing up the dungeons with truly interesting puzzles. It's all a perfunctory mish-mash of the stuff that you've seen in similar titles.

Sound design is, however, up to the mark with satisfying Foley effects for weapons, monsters, and magic. Jesper Kyd's soundtrack ramps up during boss battles; however, it doesn't have the same impact as Koh Ohtani's epic score in Shadow of the Colossus. The voice acting is mediocre at best, whereas DS2's biggest transgression is resorting to perfunctory cinematics that seem to have been shoved in as an afterthought. I mean, they endow game's narrative with just the same enthusiasm and finesse found in the plot of a pornographic film.


You're one ugly mother...


A Hyundai of the video game world
By this point, you will most certainly wonder how does a game that borrows choicest elements from the best gaming franchises known to mankind end up sounding so mediocre. Some may even argue that should, in fact, make it a darn good game. However, if that were the case, Hyundai would have been the best car maker in the whole wide world. Think about it: just like Vigil Games' Darksider II, popular Hyundai cars such as the Sonata blatantly "borrow" from the best cars of the time. The first-gen Sonata, for example, was what you'd have gotten if a Mercedes-Benz S-Class rolled in the hay with the Jaguar S-Type. The second-gen Sonata happened to be a BMW from the front and an accord from the back, whereas the upcoming one is a photocopy of the new Ford Mondeo.

My point is that while the Sonata may successfully imitate the design of these cars, it cannot have the same communicative finesse of the BMW's hydraulic steering. Or, say, the transmission of the Jaguar needed to efficiently put all the horses down on the road. Neither will it be able to replicate the magic carpet ride of the Merc. Much in the same way, DS2 may resemble its sources of inspiration, but it fails to replicate the finer gameplay aspects that make the originals what they are. In the simplest terms, clones lack the soul of the originals.

Hyundai's truly

Hyundai's "inspired" designs


Drawing inspiration isn't a bad thing; all forms of entertainment after all are derivative by nature. DS2's fault lies in its inability to take these elements and use them to shape a new identity for itself. The game simply fails to rise above the sum of its borrowed parts. Having said that, most of you are likely to thoroughly enjoy this game for just the same reason why Hyundai cars sell like hot cakes in India. The Korean car maker churns out uninspired yet feature-packed facsimiles of expensive cars. DS2, similarly, is a mediocre game corralling all the fun elements found in popular franchises. Unless you happen to be a discerning gamer who's tried out the best, you probably will be oblivious to DS2's mediocrity. Therefore, just like Hyundai's automotive offerings, Darksiders II will prove to be a mediocre game pushing impressive sales figures.