I don’t think I ever died during my complete play through Vigil Games’ Darksiders, but consider this: when you’re War—one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse—it takes a lot to bring you down. In fact, I think the only time I watched my character languish in defeat was the opening cutscene when I found out that heaven tricked me into attempting to bring about the apocalypse just a little bit too early.Turns out some angels hatched a slightly convoluted plan to break six of the seven seals that would eventually bring war (not your character, but actual fighting—notice the lowercase w) to the realm of man.
Why? I can’t remember, but where there’s war, there’s War, and that’s where you come in.
Once the hyper-realistic opening cutscene ends and you’re finally granted control of the celestial avatar, War is already equipped with some of his most powerful abilities so you can get a taste of what you have to look forward to as you progress through the game. However, once he realizes he’s been summoned to begin the apocalypse without the aid of his three fellow equestrian enthusiasts, he ends up losing a battle with an epic demon appropriately known as the Destroyer.
Upon suffering defeat, War ends up teleporting before the Charred Counsel, a bunch of talking mountains who like to chastise gods and demons alike with their gravelly voices. There, War discovers that he’s been victimized in an act of heinous treachery and vows to enact revenge on those who set him up. The Counsel grants him passage back to a now ravaged Earth so that he may begin his antiheroic quest to find out who broke the seals and called him early.
Confused yet? Don’t be. It’s all fairly easy to understand when you’re playing along because the characters in Darksiders all look and sound so astoundingly awesome that you won’t ever want to look away or stop listening to their monologues and stichomythia. The game’s default settings display subtitles that were a little too prominent on the screen for me, so I turned them off because I didn’t want any distractions from all the mythic commotion.
Darksiders’ unique portrayal of a tale as old as civilized life itself was initially captivating, but it was the smooth, visceral combat that had me completely enthralled. As I was romping around Earth slicing my foes in twain with the Chaoseater (that’s your sword—so badass), I felt an uncanny sense of nostalgia as if I had played Darksiders before; it wasn’t until I made it to the first “dungeon” and opened a trio of chests to reveal the map, the hordeseeker, and the beholder’s key that I made the connection: Darksiders feels like a mature Zelda. Not mature in the senses of gore, nudity, and violence, but mature as in grown up, flourished, and the product of a more technologically advanced age. That’s not to say that it’s better than Zelda, however.
Controlling War took a little bit of getting used to; some of the button mapping felt a little awkward (press left bumper and right trigger to activate an ability?), but it wasn’t anything gamebreaking. Once I developed a feel for my godlike strength, I started smiting my enemies with relative ease. The combat system feels similar to Ninja Gaiden or God of War, but with several conveniences afforded that make it less punishing and more enjoyable. For example, you can immediately interrupt any combo you mash out with a simple push of the B button to execute any enemy in your vicinity who may be unfortunate enough to be low on health. While War is ripping dudes in half, or eviscerating them with the Chaoseater, or impaling them with their own weaponized body parts, the surrounding foes are powerless and can do nothing but watch in anxious horror as their allies are mutilated.
You can use this to your advantage whenever you’re outnumbered—which is all the time—or low on rage and/or wrath. War utilizes a lot of hateful adjectives as fuel for his special abilities, which are few in number and must be purchased from the store using hard-earned human souls; thankfully, you can harvest them in copious bounties extracted from evironmental tchotchkes like light posts, burned out cars, and sofas—there are an inexplicable amount of sofas in the Darksiders universe.
Anyway, each ability is pretty cool and fairly useful in its own regard. There’s a stoneform which increases War’s damage dealt and reduces damage taken, a fire attack that seemed so initially useless that I never upgraded it, an attack that summons these killer green snakes that wither enemies to the point where all you need to do is execute them, and then the coup de grace: demon form. When War maximizes his rage meter and if you can manage to press LB and RT at the same time, he is transformed with an epic elbow drop that would make Dwayne Johnson proud. As a giant winged lava demon, War is completely impervious to damage and is capable of toppling any non-boss enemy with only a few swipes of his blazing blade.
As awesome as the special moves and upgradable combos may be, there are a few abilities granted to War by his demonic compatriots that I felt I needed much earlier in the game. Actually, I think I logged an entire hour of gameplay before a tooltip informed me that there was a block button, but if I had stopped being lazy and just looked in the instruction manual when I realized I was getting absolutely maimed, that wouldn’t have been as much of an inconvenience.
What really bothered me though was that there is no run button in Darksiders, and you don’t receive any effective method of ground travel until over halfway through the game. What’s more, once you are granted a more effective mode of transportation, it only works on about half of the terrain War covers throughout his quest. Thankfully, the developers included a fast-travel system that can be accessed through the merchant/upgrade screen. Oh, and a dodge button which makes War perform that awkward half-dash that always has you feeling like you’re travelling just a little bit quicker than normal, so you wind up spamming it wherever you go. Whether it’s a roll, a dash, or even a teleport, it’s in every game ever. And admit it: you do it every time.
Story and gameplay-wise, Darksiders is an outstanding title. I think the same can definitely be said about content, although the balance between puzzle-solving, dungeon-plundering, and combat felt just a little too skewed. From the control scheme and the amount of time Vigil spent crafting deeply upgradeable weapon and combo systems, it’s pretty clear that the focus of Darksiders is supposed to be on the fighting. As I was venturing from labyrinth to labyrinth collecting demon hearts though, I seem to recall quite a few sighs of frustration and remember thinking, “man, not another puzzle.”
And they weren’t just drag-a-block-here-to-weigh-down-that-pressure-plate-and-open-a-door simple, either. The puzzles with which War is faced are actually some of the toughest I’ve come across in recent memory. As much as I would have appreciated the occasional break from combat to let myself recharge, I never really felt like I was relaxing while I was trying to solve some of the brain-busters Darksiders throws at you. In each dungeon, War acquires a new ancient relic that interacts with the environment in some way to add a whole new dimension to the trickiness. Oftentimes, you are required to start a timed puzzle with one artifact equipped and then switch to another on the fly to complete the challenge—it’s a great idea in theory, but all too frequently I would discover in disdain which artifact I should have used once it was too late, and I would be forced to
walk dodgesprint back and try again.
As trollish as this may sound, it gets pretty old when you fail puzzle after puzzle and you wind up spending more time pushing blocks and pulling levers just to reset the room so you can attempt to use your hookshot and boomerang and straight up play through Portal just to get to the next batch of demons to eviscerate. In an effort to get off the subject of difficult puzzles, I’ll leave you with this: if you can’t find a way to progress any further in Darksiders, chances are there is a ledge that you can climb or shimmy across to a new area. I can’t tell you how many times I caught myself gawking despondently at ledges that only appeared unremarkable.
Much like World of Warcraft did, Darksiders gives new meaning to the word “epic,” but it’s in a much more modernized sense of the word. As overplayed as the archetypal heaven versus hell story is, getting to play as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse allows for all kinds of drastically overpowered feats of strength and prowess, and War definitely feels like a god. It’s a shame the perfectly-paced narrative and gameplay are constantly brought to a grinding halt by puzzles of supernatural difficulty—I guess it’s only fair though.
Either way, Darksiders is a wonderful game that’s definitely worth its $20 price tag. What’s better is that you can find it at that price pretty much anywhere you like to buy games, so do please keep Vigil’s latest effort in mind when you’re looking for something new to play. Also, be on the lookout for Darksiders 2, due out sometime in 2012—the ending sets it up perfectly.