The original Darksiders was frequently criticised for piecing together its core gameplay from the best bits of other games and I was certain Darksiders II would strive to define its own unique identity. Contrary to my expectations, Vigil Games took the approach of “bigger is better”. They expanded the scope of the narrative, the size of the world you explore, the number of unique dungeons to tackle, added plenty of optional content, and then crammed in even more mechanics from other genres. As someone who never played any Zelda games, I loved how the original Darksiders turned out, but then Darksiders II came along to surpass it.
Released in August 2012, developed by Vigil Games, and Published by THQ, Darksiders II is - even in my biased opinion - a hot mess. THQ was four months away from filing for bankruptcy, budget cuts affected the development of the game, and these are clearly visible in its structure. The opening two acts are sprawling, balanced, and packed full of activities; whereas the final two acts are considerably shorter, easier, and rush you into an anticlimactic boss battle. That said, Darksiders II still does more right than it does wrong, demonstrating lofty ambitions, even if they would never be fully realised.
Darksiders II is not a direct sequel, rather running parallel to the events of the first game, with the conclusion tying into the final moments of the first game. Set some time after the prologue sequence in Darksiders - with War imprisoned by the Charred Council for triggering the apocalypse prematurely and humanity all but extinct - we take control of the eldest horseman, Death. He’s certain of his brother’s innocence and sets out on a quest to absolve his supposed crimes by finding a way to resurrect humanity.
You wouldn’t think it from the name, but Death is by far the most interesting and likeable of the four horsemen; dedicated to his siblings and untrusting of the Charred Council they’re meant to serve. He sets out, unsanctioned, to find the Keeper of Secrets, the Crowfather, to seek a way to restore humanity. Naturally, things are never that simple and Darksiders II uses its substantial play time to delve into the origins of the Horsemen, the Nephilim race (the offspring of angels and demons), their first violent act for the Charred Council, and the consequences of that event on the universe.
Exposition-heavy cutscenes are narrated by the Crowfather and the multitude of NPCs you meet on your journey give plenty insight into the workings of the Darksiders universe. Aside from a brief foray to Earth in the third act, you’ll steer clear of the "end war" conflict, instead travelling through The Forge Lands, home of the Makers and full of ancient temples dedicated to constructing the hulking Wardens you encounter in the first game; The Kingdom of Dead, in which the crypt-like City of the Dead and the Well of Souls is overwhelmed by the sudden influx of six billion human souls; the angelic outpost of Lost Light, fallen to corruption; and Shadow’s Edge, a demon realm slowly tearing apart as it drifts on the edge of the abyss.
Although Darksiders was clearly designed to be a standalone game in the event it failed to sell, Darksiders II does an great job of taking key conversations from the first game – specifically Azrael's comment to War, “The Universe... is sick, Horseman. The Charred Council refuses to admit it, but those of us who look... we see... we had to do something” – and works it into the plot for the the sequel. Several concepts that are only briefly discussed in the first game are expanded upon, something that should thrill fans of the lore.
On the gameplay front, returning to the series was like riding a bicycle (which from my own experience is a rubbish analogy). It was easy to get back into the groove after the intro left me in control of Death, riding across the Icy Veil, atop of his trusty steed Despair. Death moves much quicker and is far more acrobatic than War. He's still able to block but better suited to dodging between foes and counter-attacking. After shredding a trio of skeletons, I noticed a shower of gold (rather than souls) and, much to my surprise, a pair of boots.
The first “new” mechanic I encountered in Darksiders II was a loot system, which takes more than a little inspiration from Diablo, allowing you to acquire new gear from enemies or chests, and min-max attribute boosts and weapon status effects to suit your play style. You can even acquire “possessed” weapons, which consume other weapons to level up, with chance of retaining their attributes. It allowed committed players to mould their own killing tools, allowing for some ridiculously OP builds. Unexpected, but not unenjoyable.
Traversing the Crowfather’s Dark Fortress, the next “new” mechanic delighted me even more - platforming mechanics straight out of the 3D Prince of Persia games. Suddenly I was scrambling up ledges, wall-running over massive gaps, and leaping from wall to wall as I ascended collapsed structures. This new-found mobility is integrated into every traversal challenge or puzzle and controlling Death remains immensely satisfying.
One short prologue later, I discovered the final mechanic - a simple levelling system that is tied to the gear system and offers up two skills trees to invest in. One branch focuses on high damage attacks and crowd-control, the other on summoning ghouls to fight for you or swarms of crows that inflict damage while restoring your own health or wrath pool. As with Darksiders before it, no element is too simple and no element too complicated; it strikes a balance that makes every minute spent enjoyable.
From that point onwards, everything falls into a comfortable rhythm. I rode out across the realms, entering dungeons and tombs to defeat bosses, unlocking new gear, and eventually acquiring abilities that allowed me to progress the main story. Secret items and optional bosses – sometimes associated with sidequests – are littered throughout the world, encouraging you to backtrack once you’ve acquired new skills. Vulgrim returns but is joined by several other shopkeepers and trainers, giving you a chance to spend your gold on new gear, trinkets, potions, and combos. That said, random drops tend to be far more impressive and I would just buy gear to feed to my possessed weapons! Everything I loved about the original Darksiders was back, just bigger and better.
With Joe Madureira returning as Creative Director, the sequel retained the chunky, stylised visuals and excellent character designs; something frequently highlighted given the number of conversations Death will have over the course of the game. The overworld areas can look barren - even in the reamsters - but many dungeons are often intricately detailed and beautiful, sometimes shifting in appearance as you solve their many puzzles. Combat is faster, fluidly animated, and the one-button executions return; the animations even more diverse and forever entertaining (protip - some weapons even possess the “execution chance” attribute, giving the chance you to insta-kill basic foes after just a few strikes).
The dialogue system cribs a bit from Mass Effect, but this ultimately offers an illusion of choice. You inevitably pick one option to drive the main quest forward, another for a bit of added exposition, and sometimes you can trigger a sidequest. As with the first game, the writing is excellent, if overwrought; befitting the nature of the many characters that Death will bring low. It also gives Death’s voice actor, Michael Wincott, time to shine. Unlike his siblings, Death displays empathy, compassion, and plenty of sardonic humour when conversing with allies and foes alike. With Michael Wincott’s raspy voice, I can’t think of the single line of dialogue I don’t enjoy, and the other voice actors are equally impressive. Jesper Kyd produced the soundtrack for Darksiders II and, even if you hate every other aspect of the game, you’d be hard-pressed to dismiss the soundtrack. It’s outstanding throughout, enhances the atmosphere or intensity of every encounter, and has remained on my playlist for years.
I still remember how thrilled I was picking up Darksiders II, torn as to whether I should get the collector’s edition for the tacky mask (sense eventually prevailed), and I proceeded to sink 30 hours into the game, attempting to see and do everything on offer. Sure, the second half the game and rushed final encounter were a let-down, but everything else up to that point was immensely satisfying. It was a time when games felt like they were getting shorter and shorter - the fixation on open worlds was growing but not yet entrenched - and I honestly thought the game was about to end when I got the the Tree of Life; only to discover I had completed only one of four realms. It was magical.
Darksiders II may lack the tight focus of the original but it makes up for it with diversity; you’re never doing one thing for too long before you’re off to tackle another dungeon, encounter another mysterious character, or discover an incredible pair of scythes with life-steal. It remains my favourite of the three games released so far.
As with the first game, the best way to play Darksiders II is not clear-cut. Gunfire Games, made up primarily of former Vigil Games employees, worked directly on 2015’s awfully-named Deathinitive Edition remaster, which includes three mini-campaigns (which are a fun diversion), reworks pre-order gear into the game as secrets, patched out some lingering bugs, and radically overhauled the visuals by adding higher resolution assets and upgraded lighting. It looks great and, outside of a few areas in the first act, runs well on consoles. However, it introduced a few bugs of its own and, much like the Darksiders Warmastered Edition, the audio is prone to going out of sync or dropping completely. Both the original PC version and backwards-compatible Xbox 360 version on the Xbox One are solid choices but it’s tough to go back once you’ve experienced the visual improvements.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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