The original Darksiders - and, indeed, its sequels - are frequently criticised as too derivative of other games. This has always struck me as unfair, it’s rare to find any form of entertainment that isn’t derivative of earlier work. The most critically-acclaimed games are often those that tell a narrative we’ve all seen or heard before but offer up a unique or distinctive take on events that make it memorable. The Darksiders’ games simply don’t bother to pretend otherwise, and their inspiration is clear for all to see.
Developed by Vigil Games, published by the now defunct THQ, and released in January 2010, Darksiders sticks close to the classic Zelda template: explore an overworld map; tackle a dungeon full of combat, platforming, and puzzles; defeat a boss; unlock a new ability (be that gadget or power). You then use those new abilities to explore new areas of the map, tackle more bosses, and earn more abilities. Rinse and repeat for a dozen or so hours. The third-person combat is fluid, combo-based, and pleasantly gory - though it failed to stand out from many other hack-and-slash titles of the era, most notably God of War. There’s plenty of platforming - primarily of the double-jump and glide variety - with the odd QTE button-mashing sequence to keep you on your toes. However, unlike God of War, puzzling is far more prominent and mentally taxing. Almost every zone has one or more environmental puzzles to solves, sometimes blocking progress but sometimes just leading to hidden upgrades for War and his equipment.
For long-running Zelda fans, I can imagine a lot of this sounds like old news. However, for those of us experiencing this Zelda-like design for the first time, it was captivating. It offered a bit of everything – exploration, platforming, puzzling, combat, and a compelling narrative. Without doubt, the first Darksiders game has the tightest focus and best balance of all these elements (and many still argue it's the best game in the series).
When it comes to style, Darksiders has it in spades. The action is framed by a narrative that uses a literal take on the Christian apocalypse, with plenty of poetic license. The basic framework is still there - when seven seals are broken, the horsemen come forth, bringing with them the apocalypse and demise of the Kingdom of Man. However, the writers crafted a universe in which mankind is one of three major forces - the other being the demons of hell and the angels of heaven - destined to battle in the “end war”. The “seals” – physical artefacts in the Darksiders lore – were forged after a truce was declared between angels and demons, intended to avoid open combat until mankind grew into a competitive power. Lording over all, the ancient and mysterious “Charred Council” attempts to preserve “The Balance”, and their horsemen enforcers punish those who step out of line. When empowered by the magic of the seals, the horsemen are nigh-unstoppable, and no force is willing to cross them.
With that exposition dump out of the way, Darksiders kicks off with a stylish CG cutscene that sees the horseman War – voiced by gruff Liam O'Brien – crashing down to earth, emerging into the midst of a battle between demons and angels; a battle that has clearly started long before his arrival. Humanity is faring badly, and War’s powers are fading, hinting that something has gone horribly wrong. He watches the leader of heaven’s Hellguard fall, before he himself is crushed by the massive demon Straga, only to rematerialise in the presence of the Charred Council who accuse him of defying their will; triggering the apocalypse by riding before the seventh seal was broken, dooming mankind to extinction in the process. The Destroyer, new leader of the hellspawn on Earth, has carved up the land into distinct territories (dungeons) controlled by several of his "chosen" (bosses). Bound to a malicious and menacing “Watcher” (voiced by Mark Hamill doing a very Joker-like impression), War is sent back to the ruined Earth to restore the balance (by killing everything) or die trying. Needless to say, all is not as it seems, and we soon learn that no faction or individual can be trusted.
This setup is a perfect excuse to force War - now in a drastically weakened state - to seek help from angels and demons alike (both of which demonstrating petty and dubious morality), acquiring new powers to traverse the shattered environs, and violently laying waste to everything and everyone he perceives as part of the plot. You encounter brilliantly-realised characters, like the sinister demon-merchant Vulgrim, willing to trade souls for goods; Samuel, once a favourite of the Destroyer and now seething with rage and looking for revenge; the duty-bound Uriel, leading the remnants of the angel Hellguard; and the ancient “maker”, Ulthane, complete with Scottish brogue and a predisposition towards violence when irritated. The characters, and indeed many of your foes, are all the more memorable thanks to the designs of comic book artist Joe Madura (of Uncanny X-Men, and Battle Chasers fame).
The writing, though sharp and witty at times, often devolves into a determined-looking War showing no fear and outright belligerence towards forces that proclaim to be more powerful than he is. At times, it feels like juvenile masculine fantasy (and it probably is) and it doesn’t help that War starts out infuriatingly stubborn, intent only on serving the council and restoring the balance, seemingly oblivious to any insight gained from friend and foe. However, as more and more events come to light, War begins to show more depth and even a little empathy, setting in motion a plan to defeat the Destroyer and unmask the conspirators, leading up to one to the best cliffhanger endings in a video game; an ending that teases an even bigger battle to come but is satisfying in its own right. As the sequels have all taken the approach of telling stories that run parallel to events of the first game, it’s essential to play Darksiders first.
Returning to gameplay, Darksiders’ otherwise familiar combat, traversal, and puzzling mechanics are all enhanced by simple flourishes that add a unique flair to proceedings. Combo-driven combat may be nothing new, but a simple execution prompt made everything more stylish than its peers. Once a foe was suitably weakened, tapping a button would trigger a gloriously violent execution (requiring no annoying additional button presses as in God of War), accompanied by a shower of gore and souls. On the odd occasion, you can pick up demonic or angelic projectile weapon, letting you go to town on their respective owners in clunky but enjoyable third-person shooter sequences. Wielding the demon weapon - which allows you to tag enemies with explosive projectiles and manually trigger the detonation - is particularly satisfying.
Darksiders is not a big game in terms of surface area but traversal remains engaging as every zone feels more complex than it first appears; stuffed full of routes you can’t access until you unlock the right skills, with paths that run above and below the central area, and dozens of secrets hidden out of sight or on distant ledges. The puzzles are diverse and integrated into the traversal, with the camera pulling away as you enter new areas, highlighting objects of interest as a small jingle plays, letting you know it was time to engage your brain. There are keys to collect, blocks to push, and switches to be pulled; the game even goes so far as to introduce a portal gun near the end, bringing with it the most challenging puzzles that require decent spatial awareness to solve. Solving a puzzle results in yet another satisfying jingle and those two short snippets of music are forever embedded in my brain. I only wish completing day-to-day tasks in life would reward me with such satisfying auditory feedback.
Fighting through mobs on foot or horseback may be satisfying, however, battles against the Chosen are the highlight, incorporating elements of combat, platforming, and puzzling, and all taking place in distinctive dungeons. You hunt down the demon-bat Tiamat within a ruined gothic cathedral; the insect-like Reaver in infested and flooded subway tunnels; the massive Ashworm roams a desert created from the ashes of the dead; spider-demon Silitha lurks in her densely-webbed canopy, nestled amongst the tops of tall buildings; and you take revenge on Straga in the Destroyers’ massive tower – the Black Throne - visible from every point in the over-world. Very few encounters are resolved by simply hitting something with your sword – even if the cutscenes sometimes make it feel this way. Observation and timing are key in these battles and conquering these massive foes is made all the more satisfying when a final prompt triggers a spectacularly gory execution.
I feel Darksiders is a series that never got as much love as it deserved. Maybe the January launch date was bad idea? Maybe too many gamers simply dismissed it as a clone? Several gameplay elements may be derivative of other games (that had done these individual elements better) but Darksiders blends them together, ensures each element is enjoyable in its own right, and gets the balance near-perfect; nothing was too simple to the point of boredom and nothing was to complex so as to slow down the pace. On top of that, the epic narrative, unique setting, and diverse character design is paired with stylised visuals and a great soundtrack.
If the revival of the Darksiders IP by THQ Nordic has caught your attention, I'd strongly suggest you give the original a go. Unfortunately, the best way to play it is not as clear cut as I'd have liked. The original game has very few issues, is easy to run on PC, and performance is fairly stable on the last-gen consoles. If you've got an Xbox One, the backwards compatible version is a great choice as it removes the performance niggles. The awfully named Warmastered Edition for the current-gen consoles is a solid enough choice, with great visual enhancements and 60fps gameplay, but it was plagued with some annoying bugs and audio drops, even after several patches.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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