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Darksiders II in Review (Finally!)

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Darksiders II, so even though this is my final review, I’m going to keep it fairly brief. Well, brief for me, which sometimes can be one sentence and a puppy picture. Sometimes it’s three thousand words of poorly developed “humor”.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I absolutely loved this game. I found it to be better than its predecessor in every way, save the ending, by blending multiple game styles into a satisfying whole that provided ample challenge for those interested in seeking it out but never so steep a learning curve that progression is impossible.

One of my favorite episodes of Friends is “The One Where Ross Got High”. Without getting too far into it, Rachel and Monica make Thanksgiving dinner and Rachel’s attempt to make a trifle gets spoiled when two different recipe pages get stuck together during the cooking process. The result is a mash-up of a trifle and a Shepard’s Pie. Everyone hates it but Joey, because, in his words, “What’s not to like? Custard, good. Jam, good. Meat, Goooooooood.” That sentiment sums up my feelings on Darksiders II, and the original Darksiders for that matter.

Does this franchise borrow liberally from other games? Sure it does, but it blends these borrowed parts so deftly and with such care and obvious love for the source material that it doesn’t matter. Besides, what’s not to like? Zelda dungeons and exploration, good. Diablo style loot and skill progression, good. Craftable weapons that allow you to cater your weapon to your build’s strengths? Goooooood. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I love the Zelda games and there’s nothing wrong about a Zelda game with teeth that comes out more frequently than the ponderously slow Nintendo machine chooses to spit them out.

I mentioned that the ending wasn’t as good as the rest of the game, but these days, I think it’s to be expected so I wasn’t surprised. Plus, this game is a prequel so I already knew that Death’s plan to restore humanity didn’t exactly go as planned as War’s return to Earth a good hundred years later was completely humanity-free. Plus, we know that at the end of War’s journey, his fellow horsemen come to his aid, so in a way, I already knew the ending of this story. The ending of this game was just another step towards that ending of that game.

One thing I will say is that the ending of this game, particularly the last two boss battles, features some absolutely stellar voice work. Michael Wincott, of “The Crow” fame provided Death’s voice, and over the course of the game, his delivery goes from the cocky words of a man (nephilim) that doesn’t realize the enormity of the task ahead of him, to the tired, resigned speech of someone who just wants to be done with it all. By the time he fights Samael, you can tell that he’s tired of fighting, tired of killing and that he just wants Samael to hand over the key rather than make them both fight to the death over it.

At the time that I finished the game, I felt that the last two boss battles were underwhelming, but the more I thought about it, the less I felt that way. The reason that these bosses were underwhelming is because I put in the time, doing side quests, finding artifacts, building my skills and weapons so that they complimented each other. These bosses were a push over, in part of because how they were designed, but in large part due to the fact that I put in the goddamn work. The notion that every boss battle has to be the peak of an uphill climb certainly has its place in some games, but at the same time, there’s something to be said about rewarding a player for putting in the time by allowing them to be an unstoppable engine of chaos. After all, Death is the destroyer of worlds. Oppenheimer said so.

When I was on the Quarter to Three games podcast, Tom asked me if I felt that was the game was too long. I didn’t at the time and I still don’t now that my 35 hour long journey has ended. There was only one point in the game, midway through the Soul Arbiter’s maze, where I felt that things were starting to grind. Luckily, I could sidestep most of it and get right to the end, hour long boss battle and all. I can certainly see why 35 hours may seem like a long time for someone, but for me, I was happy to keep on keeping on, slaying monsters, building up Death and spending more time in all of the well designed dungeons. Hell, as soon as I was finished I started the game right back up so that I can get to level 30 and then take on all 100 levels of the crucible.

I know that I’ve talked a lot about Darksiders II, and with this post, I think we can call it a day. I don’t regret spending so much ink on this game though, as I think that those of us with an audience have a responsibility to champion the games that we love and let those responsible for making them know that we want more of them. I loved Darksiders, I loved Darksiders II and I very much want more Darksiders games in the future. If the cost of that is multiple posts and possibly wearing out my welcome, then I’m happy to pay it.

Jumping the Shark Podcast #139

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This week the gag is finally off Brandon and he’s free to regale us with stories from Darksiders II. He might just like it. It’s hard to tell. The gang also talks the Summer of Slow Gaming and how much the status quo will change as a spate of late summer/early fall releases finally make their way to the gaming public. Not to get all spoilery, but there’s a distinct possibility Dark Souls makes a return appearance to the show when it comes out for the PC. Finally, Bill and Brandon have a rap about Breaking Bad during which I entertained myself by slowly banging my head against the desk until it suddenly got dark.

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Death and the High Cost of Hammers

My reason for wanting to get in to the THQ booth so badly could be summed up with one word: Darksiders. I loved the original Darksiders, even if it borrowed so heavily from other games that Vigil should have paid licensing fees to Sony, Nintendo and Valve. Between THQ’s financial problems and the game’s recent two month delay from June to August, I needed to get my hands on the game and make sure it was still going to happen.

The Darksiders 2 showing was exactly what I wanted. There was no theater, no developer driven session, no “we’re not talking about that now” set of statements. They brought Bill and I into a room with the game, gave us some headphones and let us play, only popping over to offer help when we got stuck. It’s easy to find a number of reasons as to why publishers would show their game this way, but I can’t help but look at it as a sign of confidence in the property. That’s not to say that the confidence can’t be misplaced but with so many hands-off showings at E3, being able to play a game in peace and come to your own conclusions about it is a welcome change.

In Darksiders 2 you play as Death, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and brother to War, the protagonist of the original game. Where War was a sturdy fighter, built for blocking and crushing melee strikes, Death is sleeker and more agile, dodging away from strikes and using his twin scythes to deliver multiple quick blows. The ability to switch between primary and secondary weapons and chain them together into combos is still present, however this time around, secondary weapons can range from light weapons like tonfas and claws to heavy weapons like war hammers and battle axes.

Having a dash move instead of a way to weather blows makes for a far different combat experience than in Darksiders. Despite being the Grim Reaper, Death can still die, a metaphysical conundrum if ever there was one, and wading into a swarm of enemies, scythes swinging, is the surest way to make that happen. Death is all about hitting, dashing away and then unleashing a combo on your now exposed opponent. Similarly, knowing what the individual combos are is invaluable as certain combos end in ranged attacks or strikes that hit multiple opponents, giving Death a bit of breathing room.

This lighter and more agile Death also comes across in how Death gets from fight to fight. Death is more adept at traversing the environment than War, using wall running, hurtling and mantling to get around. The expanded move set allowed the level designers to throw in more verticality to levels and break up the combat instances with platforming and good old beam to beam jumping.

Unfortunately, Death’s abilities weren’t unlocked in the demo we played as it was early on in the game and at that poing, skill points were not available to allocate towards abilities. There are a good number of abilities in the game, split between combat enhancements and necromancer type spells. According to Vigil, players won’t be able to max out all of the Death’s skills in a single playthrough. I neglected to ask if that extends to all of the abilities in a single tree, however given the utility of having skills that allow both health gains and frozen enemies from teleportation slashes as well as the ability to call forth exploding ghouls, I’m not sure you would want to do that any way.

Whereas the original game was a fairly linear jaunt through various worlds in a quest to discover who was responsible for unleashing the Apocalypse, this time Death is looking to undo the fall of humanity in an attempt to clear War’s name. Rather than have a direct path to the end game, with backtracking possible but only necessary to find collectibles, Death’s journey will take him to hub worlds where the player can either choose to tackle the main story or take on subquests.

The hub worlds also give Death the opportunity to unload all of the loot he collects as he gives skeletons and demons his signature Horseman style beat downs. Over the course of the demo I picked up various pairs of greaves, wraps and gauntlets as well as a series of ever-improving battle axes. At one point, I looked over at Bill’s screen and he was standing on an icy plain, knee deep in war hammers, lost in thought as he tried to decide which hammer best complimented his shoes. Changing Death’s accoutrements not only gives statistical boosts, but also changes Death’s appearance. Granted, Death looks pretty badass as he is, but a nice pair of gauntlets always helps finish the look.

I spoke to Vigil after the demo to ask if the studio planned on keeping the difficulty levels about the same as the original game. One of the best parts of about Darksiders was that the Apocalyptic difficulty level was not only available from the start, but it provided a healthy challenge without being overly punishing. Vigil isn’t sure how they’re going to handle things at the moment, stating that the response to the first game’s difficulty levels was split pretty evenly between folks who though it was just right and those that thought it was too easy. From an achievement and player choice perspective, I lean towards making the higher difficulty levels available from the outset, a sentiment I shared with Vigil. Their response was that sometimes players bite off more than they can chew when it comes to difficulty and then never return to playing the game, so it was important to balance out the ability to provide a challenge to those that want one, but not end up with a game that less experienced players never finish. They’re also toying with the idea of a new game plus mode that would allow you to take a beefed up Death across a higher difficulty level.

When I was done with the demo, I was more than happy with how the game looked and played. There were still some framerate issues to be dealt with in the next couple of months, but the important things: the combat, the animations and the general tone were spot on with what I was expecting. THQ needs something with which to start building their way back. Death still rides a pale horse, but hopefully, in this case, it’s success that follows with him.