Darksiders // PS3
February 2, 2010
Darksiders’ wide-eyed adoration of God Of War and the Zelda franchise has been well-documented (both on this blog and elsewhere) but its gamut of influences doesn’t stop there. It even finds time to channel the 3rd-person shooter mechanics of Gears Of War and the mind-bending puzzles of Portal over its fifteen hours or so of gameplay. It’s clear that the debut release from Texas-based Vigil Games is an open love letter to its more well-known contemporaries, but does it stand alone as its own game, or fall flat as an act of plagiarism?
War. Huh! What is he good for? Quite a bit, actually…
Darksiders shows off its combat chops right off the bat, depositing the player into the massive metal boots of War, Horseman of the Apocalypse, and sliding the impressive Chaoseater, a massive sword, into his pointy gauntlet. This blade is War’s bread-and-butter weapon, the implement with which he’ll dispatch a legion of demons after his resurrection from his death at the hands of Straga, a fire-breathing behemoth and the greatest of The Destroyer’s Chosen. Keeping up? The game’s plot is a silly, nonsensical beast; a construction designed purely to deliver the plethora of toys and ideas the developer has for the player. Ostensibly, the story is a bit of fluff, but that’s fine – its grandiose absurdity gives Darksiders an over-arching sense of adolescent fun, eliciting a sense of guilty, boys-own conspiracy in the player instead of a jaded sigh at yet another tale of demons and the end of the world as we know it. Even War’s voice actor is in on the act; his over-dramatic gravitas is a constant source of indulgent amusement.
Throughout War’s journey, he gets his hands on more weaponry with which to face his foes, including a scythe and a crystal-smashing gauntlet – items that not only improve your chances in combat but are also often essential in solving the game’s extended, regular puzzles. Although the transition between combat and puzzle sections can sometimes feel crude, their inclusion adds the meat to the bones of the hack ‘n’ slash gameplay. I confess to using an online guide for help for one or two of the more fiendish problems, but by and large the puzzles are taxing without being frustrating, and progress is well-oiled and satisfying. Darksiders excels at pacing, despite not quite blending these two genres as seemlessly as it might have hoped. Regardless, dungeon puzzles haven’t been executed this ably since… well, the ‘Z’ word.
War & Piece
As seems to be oligatory with any substantial singleplayer adventure these days, Darksiders is riddled with collectibles. In this case, these items are not only a stab at extended longevity for the title, but are also useful to War in-game. Soldier and Champion Artifacts, identifiable by an eerie green flame, can be traded for Souls (the game’s currency) and spent on weapon upgrades, new moves and consumables from Vulgrim, a mysterious demon merchant that War meets early on in his quest. Wrath Shards extend your Wrath meter (obviously), a reservoir of energy used to power Wrath attacks – magical spells designed to augment War’s physical weapons or increase his defensive prowess. Collect four Lifestone Shards and you’ll increase War’s health, another less-than-subtle nod to Zelda’s game mechanics. Perhaps the best incentive to explore every nook and cranny of the extensive overworld and cavernous dungeons, however, is the chance to obtain one of the ten fragments of the Abyssal Armour set, a full suit of ornate platemail that greatly reduces the amount of damage War takes, made even more valuable by the ability to keep the armour for second playthroughs on a harder difficulty setting.
Whilst combat doesn’t quite emulate the more intricate systems of a God Of War or a Bayonetta, the inclusion of Enhancements and weapon experience encourages more varied play. Each weapon has four levels of experience, unlocked just by using it on your foes, with Enhancements often conferring extra power to the item it has been slotted into, such as generating Wrath or leeching health from every demon you slay. Perhaps the most useful of these is Fury’s Embrace, a Legendary Enhancement that, once slotted, reveals every single chest and artifact on the map. Trophy/Achievements seekers will definitely want to pick this one up!
The only downside to such a smorgasbord of weaponry and other items is a lack of buttons to successfully implement them all. Darksiders plays a bit of a bum note here, with too many functions being mapped to L2 and R2 making extended boss battles an uncomfortable experience. Factor in extra menus for Wrath powers and consumables, and a separate weapon-swapping wheel, and those careful attempts at encouraging casual players to experiment with different combinations could be thwarted by complex controls. The fact that Darksiders has two menu screens (accessed via Select and Start) and even those are multi-tabbed, tells its own story. Perhaps with some careful editing, Darksiders wouldn’t feel as crammed as it does. I expect the UI designer never had a moment’s rest throughout the entire development cycle.
(Insert witty War-related pun here)
Despite Darksiders lacking originality, there is one aspect which is truly unique and leaves the longest impression. With comic book artist Joe Madureira as creative director on the title, Darksiders borrows a lot from this medium. Where other games based on the apocalypse can fall into the trap of depicting this scenario in slate greys and other heavy, brooding colours (I’m looking at you, Fallout 3) Darksiders revels in a palette of vivid hues and environments awash with light. It’s a refreshing change, one that also extends to character design. Despite my initial amusement at how short and stocky War is in the opening scene, his design is deliciously over-the-top; with enormous, ornate armour off-set by a bright red and gold hood. The Angels are even more larger than life, blending traditional white wings with mech-style armour and more futuristic ornamentation. It’s the kind of ‘bigger = better’ mentality that you would associate with comic books, and is by no means out of place here. In fact, the game would lose a lot of its lustre without such bright, crisp aesthetics and overblown characters.
Darksiders then, can only be reviewed in light of whether originality is important to you or not. Although it takes some skill to knit all the pieces together and make it your own franchise, it is impossible to ignore the fact that it does feel like a mash-up of several other games. It is clear that the employees of Vigil Games are just as passionate about videogames as the fans they created Darksiders for; like a kid in a candy shop they went for a bit of everything. Your enjoyment of the title will be based on whether you can overlook the obvious influences and enjoy the title based on how well it marries those elements together. A distinct, gorgeous art style and grandiose story provide the glue that knits these pieces together, and polished combat and well-thought puzzles complete the mix, proving that the old adage of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ really works. And you might even come within a hair’s breadth of beating them, after all.