Death takes many forms. He turned Olympus to dust as the God of War. He defied gravity and time to overthrow a vizier as the Prince of Persia. He wrote The Legend of Zelda with sword and shield.
In video games, Death is always there, waiting to claim the souls of the enemies the player has vanquished. He’s the Pale Rider, the hooded reaper, and always at hand to perform his dark duties.
In a way, we’ve always been playing as Death. Enemies flood the screen and we happily pull the trigger or swing the ax. We do so with little thought and, sometimes, with just the slightest sense of glee. For our foes, Death is absolute. We kill them and they disappear forever. For ourselves it is only a minor hindrance. We fall off of a cliff or take one too many bullets to the torso and wait for the respawn. Only Death himself possesses such power, and so I say he has always resided in our favorite heroes.
In Darksiders II, we finally take on the persona of the most dangerous Horseman of the Apocalypse in earnest. His brother, War, stands falsely accused of bringing about Armageddon. Death will stop at nothing to redeem his sibling, more than willing to introduce demon and angel alike to his dark embrace if they prove so foolish as to stand in his way. He’s already claimed an untold number of souls across a limitless number of worlds. A few thousand more won’t weigh heavy on his mind.
Death’s world is vast and varied. Whereas War only got to visit the twisted, crumbling landscapes of Earth, his scythe-wielding brother must travel to lands both ancient and unimaginable, all in the name of redemption. From lush forests overflowing with color and light to the bowels of hell, sick with darkness and fire, Darksiders II offers a wide variety of killing fields wrapped in an adventure that is equal parts massive and wonderful.
I was on my way to the Tomb of the Deposed King, riding Despair through a bone-dry desert while nearby undead creatures bellowed with anger. Passing a small structure, crumbling and forgotten, I decided to see what secrets it might hold. I dismounted Despair and dispatched the yowling skeletons that made the mistake of attacking me.
On the far side of the building I find a patch of stone with scratches etched deep into its surface, leading up. I leap up the wall and, sure enough, my hands grasp an exposed beam that’s perfect for supporting my weight. Another series of gouges in the stone lead my eyes to yet another beam and, with the push of a button, I’m running across the ancient structure, nimbly clearing the gap. This new beam ends where a section of the building has fallen away, giving me access to its interior. Inside, I see a treasure chest tucked into a corner, the hidden loot and myself divided by a gap even Death can’t leap across. I look up to find a brass ring hanging from the ceiling, glowing purple to assure me that my Death Grip, a ghostly tether perfect for swinging across open chasms, can cling to it. I press another button and I’m airborne, launched across the room and landing with ease directly next to the chest.
I know the chest will likely hold a collection of coins, perhaps one of the hundreds of armor and weapon items I can mix and match, or maybe a much-needed health potion or two. But it was at that point, following a very specific set of maneuvers to reach yet another hidden treasure chest, that I realized that this world truly gave me a sense of belonging. Nothing in Darksiders II is placed there without reason. Every hallway, puzzle and boss battle has been constructed with my specific abilities in mind.
I know it’s a preposterous concept that will absolutely ruin the illusion if I give it too much thought, but this world was quite literally built for me. More than that, this world has been destroyed and even decayed for me. No matter what state the structures are in, they have been put together or fallen apart in a way meant for Death to explore.
Does it make sense that a crumbling wall would give me the perfect vantage point to fire a Voidwalker portal to progress further into a labyrinthine building? Who, in their right mind, builds a door that can only be opened by fitting a massive stone ball into a hole in the floor? And further more, who puts that stone ball in a place where only Death, with his current set of abilities, could actually get to it?
In Darksiders II, these are concerns the player simply cannot be bothered with, especially considering all of the leaping, climbing, swinging and swimming (and, of course, fighting) that must be done in order to delve deeper and deeper into the game’s multiple dungeons. Every step of this path has been carefully plotted out to provide mind-bending puzzles that, sooner or later, must be cracked. Some may take a preposterous series of events to untangle, but dammit if it isn’t a blast to make all of those tumblers fall neatly into place. I can’t help but feel like the smartest man alive when the final piece of the puzzle slides home, giving me access to a section of the dungeon I could not reach before. Darksiders II is ripe with these moments, providing a constant stream of reward following a never-ending series of challenges.
Darksiders II is also a world of familiarity. The first in the series was frequently knocked for how much it borrowed from other games. That’s a trait I actually welcomed, and do so again in this follow-up. I’ve held these weapons before. I know how these tools work. Now I get to use them in a massive new adventure so full of character and energy that it has no trouble standing alongside the greatest titles in the genre, including those it cribs so heavily from.
The games I mentioned in my opening were chosen because they provided the most influence for Darksiders II; a game that wears those influences quite proudly on its blood-splattered shoulder. But the team at Vigil has injected those familiar bits and pieces into an epic experience that positively soars. Death may be grim, but his quest is grand. Every turn provided me with something new to enjoy, a surprise to relish, or a mountain of enemies to tear asunder. I got lost in its world, frequently finding myself in that wonderful head space where the television screen filled my vision and the presence of a controller in my hand was all but forgotten.
Death takes many forms. In Darksiders II, it’s a form we all know, but one so full of life our hero’s name almost feels out of place.
Darksiders II is a headline title in its genre
This review is based on a PS3 copy of the game provided by the publisher
About the Author:
Ryan Winslett is an Arizona-based journalist and freelance writer. He is a contributing writer for Gaming Blend and his work has also appeared on Joystiq, Gamasutra and Joystick Division. His only crime is loving too much.
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