Darksiders II (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)Once every so often an absolute gem of a title appears from nowhere; that title was the original Darksiders, heralded for its first class combat and pulling elements from a plethora of games (such as the likes of Portal, The Legend of Zelda and Devil May Cry) into something that somehow worked as one and doing it spectacularly to boot. As such, the anticipation for Darksiders II was unprecedented and promised to expand on its predecessor and offer a definitive adventure experience. Therefore, brace yourselves for another bout of Beyond the Cube as Alternative Content Editor Calum Peak returns, this time setting out as Death, one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, to do a little reaping and put the worlds back on course.
The End of the World?Death's quest is to seek out the 'Tree of Life' in the hope of setting his brother War's accidental wrongdoing straight; after all, he may have accidentally started the apocalypse early and wiped out the entirety of humanity. However, Death gets sidetracked into the Forge Lands, a colourful and mystical land that has its own host of problems. Corruption. If you ever wondered what Ghibli gloop would look like in a video game, then this is it, and it covers everything, destroying and twisting the world against its inhabitants -- and if wanting to reach the Tree of Life then it simply needs to be set right.
Here questing commences in a big way, and it is truly glorious. Venture through several different lands -- Forge, Kingdom of the Dead, Lostlight -- each of which has a sprawling overworld hub and many dungeons to test anyone's mettle. The Legend of Zelda, heck even Portal fans will feel right at home here with ability-based puzzles. Flip switches, pressure plates and phase-walking (also known as Portal Gun); there is so much to get to grips with in order to progress. Unfortunately, however, the puzzles aren't complex (especially compared to its predecessor) and often players will find themselves repeating the same motions to get through a dungeon. For instance, the first several hours involve rolling balls around in order to open gates with little else in-between -- it takes a little while to get going.
'Til Death do us PartThankfully Death himself is an interesting character. Gruffly voiced by Michael Wincott (no, it's not Nolan North) and boiling with a just balance of rage, vengeance and regret, his interactions with other NPCs are always interesting, even just to find out more of the back-story. He is also a complete box of tricks; if Dante, Bayonetta and the Prince of Persia were blended into one character, Death would be the end result with his insane mix of abilities. He's quick and agile around the maps, with grappling, climbing, and wall-running all in his repertoire.
Combat is where things get really interesting, throwing a large variety of enemies and large bosses at the player to slice and dice through. Death's go-to weapons are his scythes, which are near enough always wielded individually or as one for power attacks, but they can also be combo'd with hammers (slow) and claws (fast) to eviscerate corrupted foes. AI is fairly satisfying here with enemies attacking in the masses forcing players to stay on their toes; then it is a case of dodge, counter and unleash some supernatural moves courtesy of the wrath meter. Wrath is charged via fighting and potions and follows two skill trees to spec into, whether it be summoning undead hordes or increasing damage output, it's a rewarding system that has a fair amount of depth. Whilst fighting, Death's Reaper Gauge slowly (painfully so) fills up allowing for the unleashing of his Reaper form to deal further pain, although it does feel a little slow and lacklustre compared to War's form in the original.
Wading through the corrupted grants rewards of loot, not too dissimilar to what might be found in Diablo. Enemies drop new weapons and armour and then it is a case of comparing their stats against what Death currently has equipped -- rinse and repeat until finding something that is actually worth using. It works well and it can be done on the fly without too much thought. Whatever is equipped will look awesome, however, especially when starting to find possessed (upgrade them by consuming loot found) and legendary items.
Speaking of looking awesome, Darksiders II's art direction is impressive to say the least. Set somewhere between gritty and broad stroke painterly, the worlds feel whole. Each area has its own unique characteristics that fly by whilst lopping off heads on horseback and running at a smooth frame-rate. Entering an area and just drinking in the scenery as black holes envelop ghastly castles and areas crumble around is simply stunning.
The Dark Side of DarksidersUnfortunately, Darksiders II has a few unforgivable design choices that tarnish an otherwise great game. For one, the difficulty curve is wildly sporadic, often due to the types of enemies that appear in the different locales. There are several tight locations where enemies can spawn lesser minions as well as becoming invulnerable (whilst also flying!) and firing what can only be described as small meteorites. Therefore, more time can be spent dodging than actually dealing damage. No bueno, and merely one example of many. By comparison, the end-of-level bosses are laughably easy, and although they are often the size of small buildings, they lack challenge. Controls aren't quite as tight as they could be either, with climbing and moving being a bit of a pain under duress, especially when Death fails (again) to cling to a ledge or just bumps harmlessly against a wall instead of running along it and plummeting to his doom.
A word for PC players: Darksiders II is near enough a port of its console brethren, which means use of a controller to get through the campaign is preferable since the keyboard and mouse support is shaky at best and doesn't really work in a 'hack n' slash' environment. On top of this, Darksiders has very few graphical options and doesn't like being thrown in crossfire or SLI systems, so it is better to run it off one GPU.