Imitation, or flattery? Homage, or Derivative? Huge ass sword, or Huge ass Scythe? It’s hard to pinpoint precisely where Darksiders falls on the spectrum of gaming criticism, but if I had to wager I would definitely put it somewhere between “it’s like an R-rated Zelda” and “Since when did I start playing Portal?!”.
Unlike most games, Darksiders seemed to play a major role in the gaming spotlight over the development years (most likely due to the intoxicating fervor one feels when thinking of playing the fucking icon that represents millions of lost lives). Multiple trailers, preview builds, and story drops filled the air where God of War 3 and Dante’s Inferno left absent. But as time went on, one could make out a gradual shift in the previews and videos they released: The spectacle was starting to fade. Whether by exhausting press time or unrealistic expectation, what once captivated my desire for knowledge now seemed a bit underwhelming, and I hadn’t even played it yet. My experience with Vigil Games‘ title (serving as the first of the incoming trilogy of mythology-and-people-who-like-to-cut-it-in-half) was, if nothing else, surprisingly familiar. Somewhere along the way of paying respect to the games they draw from, I felt that Vigil lost sight of what Darksiders‘ identity really was, and it shows in some of the later segments. Having said that, in the areas showcased most fondly, they did not disappoint.
The story unfolds as linearly as the game does, which is to say your fed little tid bits after every boss fight until everything is rushed together in the last few hours of gameplay. War crashes into the surface of the Earth to find the Apocalypse just starting, and everyone seems to think it’s his fault. His keepers, the Charred Council, give him one chance to prove his innocence by returning to Earth and figuring out who jumped the gun a little early. Accompanying him is an agent of the Council dubbed the Watcher. While he is superbly voiced by Mark Hamil, the character’s involvement in the rest of the story is both forced and awkward, serving only as the symbol reminding the player that War serves a higher authority and he is not, in fact, as badass as we hoped.
This leads me to the game’s biggest letdown—War himself. While I enjoy the tattered, runic appearance paired with the bowel movement-inducing size of his trusty Chaoseater, I inqure: Who is War trying to be? Throughout the game, our Biblical protagonist has moments of thoughtful restraint and, dare I say, care. Interspersed are other moments in which War enacts his namesake in the most literal sense possible. This occurs so often I felt as though I was witnessing War’s own midlife crisis. Don’t let me lead you astray, War is nothing short of pure carnage and badassery; but when you try to mix in elements of a heart, conscious, or anything that is supposed to make the player feel something for him, it leaves him or her a bit confused as to whether or not we should be confessing to a preacher every time we slaughter an angel (to be fair, it was self defense).
The combat mechanics, like other things I’ll discuss soon, are not unlike the Zelda franchise. As you encounter enemies, you can lock on a single one and pummel them to near death, in which the combat switches to God of War style and you can either dispatch them with more sword play, or press a single button and end them in a way more suitable for a Horseman of the Apocalypse (read: cut in half, tear off head, etc.) For variety, you eventually gain access to a crossblade that can target multiple units (cough), a hookshot which hauls enemies toward you (coughcough), or a gauntlet which acts as a giant hammer (if you’re not making the connections by now you need to stop reading and find something to hit yourself with for a while). All of them serve to be nice gestures of changing up the gameplay, but it’s obvious that the people at Vigil wanted you to stick with the sword and nothing else, as it has the deepest set of combos and combat animations.
The most interesting point of palaver, I believe, is the exploration and puzzle mechanics built to prolong the dungeon crawls and the scouring for optional health and rage powerups (oh yea, did I mention you need to collect 4 pieces before your health or rage meter goes up by one? Just throwin that out there…). Darksiders proves to be another game that mistakes the idea of open-world exploration with “go to dungeon A to get the item to explore area B where Dungeon 2 is, and so on”. As if the imitation isn’t bad enough, those at Vigil couldn’t execute the cleverness that Zelda dungeons are most known for. Instead, each experience doesn’t really amount to anything more than destroying a legion of bad guys before you get the next weapon in your inventory, which is the keystone for beating the boss at the end. At one point, the mechanics switch gears entirely and start mimicking Valve’s superb Portal game, but rather than being simple and ingenious, the dungeon built to flatter them turns out the be the most-drawn out and frustrating portion of the entire game. I’m all for having the Portal gun in other games, but Darksiders just isn’t one of them.
Ultimately, the game ends on a cliffhanger to a more epic battle brewing on the horizon, something I felt to be a fitting final disappointment on top of other disappointments. The final boss fight is both plain and boring, and the final sequence led me to conclude that Vigil designed this game with a sequel in mind, which always makes me feel a bit cheated in some unsavory way. Though I don’t know where this story intends to go—or more importantly end—I think this IP was something better left to one game. With more time and dedication to a fuller story and more commitment to making War an unstoppable menace instead of a confused and angsty deity, I think this game could have been the home-run hit needed to put Vigil on the map for bigger projects. But I suppose in a land of sequels and trilogies, the one-time wonders just get cast to the wind.
See you in the next level,