Paint by Numbers
HIGH Nailing the perfect sequence of scythe combos and dodges during a fight.
LOW Having my reaper form cancelled out by a boss cut-scene.
WTF This game literally put me to sleep in the early hours.
The word "derivative" isn't especially useful when talking about video games. While everyone working in an artistic field draws something from those who came before, video games can seem especially unoriginal, owing to their habit of drawing from a common pool of gameplay mechanics, design concepts, and settings. As such, I think it's important to reserve the term "derivative" to games that are notable only for their complete unwillingness to do anything but follow a well-trodden path. In the case of Darksiders II, the player can see where each individual element has been "inspired" by another, superior title. Darksiders II isn't its own game so much as it is a pastiche, the developers slapping together pieces that worked in other titles, hoping that it would all make sense in the end.
It's never more than the sum of those parts. Occasionally, it's less.
Continuing the story of what happens after the apocalypse, Darksiders II casts the player as lead horseman Death (voiced by Michael Wincott) as he quests through a variety of fantasy lands, desperate to free his unfairly-condemned brother War. Despite the ambitious subject matter, the story in the first game was generally flat and uninvolving, and that particular malaise has infected this sequel as well. Death isn't a very strong character, and the supporting cast is so bland that their interactions with him are more likely to bore than entertain. The story is something of a slog—with no emotional connection to the plot, the player is left with nothing to do but spend far too long riding from dungeon to dungeon, looking forward the time when the various checkpoints can be fast-travelled between.
While Darksiders offered an interesting take on post-apocalypse Earth, Darksiders II sets its gameplay in four different ethereal planes. It's interesting in concept to get a look at the worlds of angels, demons, spirits and makers (the immortals who build worlds), but in practice the levels seem no different than anything one might see in a typical The Lord of the Rings clone. Worse, the overworld is less interesting than before, and I'm hard-pressed to remember anything noteworthy about the dungeons beyond the occasional clever puzzle. Even the recent The Legend of Zelda games which suffer from a well-documented creative funk manage to at least bring a few memorable levels to the party, but Darksiders II feels like a constant stream of "meh."
Speaking of Zelda, Darksiders II starts off with its third-person adventure framework, asking players to travel from dungeon to dungeon and unlock new abilities. From there it adds a wide variety of gameplay elements plucked from the last ten years of gaming, but never manages to make any of them feel like a solid or natural part of the whole.
The biggest offender is the new "loot and leveling" system which makes the common mistake of increasing player damage and enemy health at the same rate, robbing the player of ever feeling like they're growing more powerful. Even worse, the loot system ensures that players will have to constantly replace their armor and weapons over the course of the game—so even if the player finds a giant hammer with great abilities that they're fond of, just a few levels later it won't make a dent in the weakest foes. This is an especially bizarre choice considering the fact that THQ wants to sell DLC weapons to players—the problem is that the DLC is locked to a certain level. The pre-order version of the game came with a hammer that couldn't be used until I reached level five, and by the time I was level nine a couple of hours later, every random enemy was dropping more impressive weapons. All the polish in the world can't cover for the fact that Darksiders II offers nothing that makes it special in its own right, which is a pity since this is a polished game.
Like its predecessor, Darksiders II controls as slick as a freshly-cleaned scythe. Death handles like a dream, transitioning between Prince of Persia-style acrobatics and God of War-style combat with ease. At no time did I ever feel cheated or failed by the game itself, with the sole exception of a reaper form glitch. Darksiders II has the feel of something that has been playtested to perfection, with every minor flaw ironed to oblivion. It's too bad that such peerless quality control couldn't be brought to bear in aid of a more ambitious and creative title.
While trying to revitalize the Zelda formula with modern developments is an admirable goal, Darksiders II's developers just can't seem to get a handle on how to make such a thing work. For two games now they've tried adding hi-octane combat, a Western-style story, and ability trees, but it's never managed to gel. The things that made games like Zelda, God of War, Prince of Persia, and even Shadow of the Colossus great are all on display here, but the Darksiders series still hasn't figured out how to use them effectively enough to stand on its own.
—By Richard Naik
Darksiders II: Argul's Tomb
For my part, I enjoyed Darksiders II far more than Richard did. While the flaws he points out are accurate—the game is mostly a hodgepodge of elements from other, more innovative titles—I weigh the game's stunning gameplay success as far more important than its middling story and worldbuilding. The game featured impressive combat, well-designed bosses, and other than a slog of a trip back to the post-apocalyptic Earth, dungeons that were filled with cleverly-designed puzzles. Keeping that in mind, here are my thoughts on the game's first DLC—Argul's Tomb.
When players last got a look at Argul, he was dying on the frozen floor of a dungeon far beneath the dead wastes, leaving behind possibly the best secondary weapon in the entire game. With him out of the way, there's every reason to explore his hidden fortress, which involves returning to the frozen mountain setting that opened Darksiders II. While the trip isn't a very long one, it's best characterized by a few decent portal-based puzzles, and ample opportunities to gather some loot.
Argul's Tomb's greatest asset is its setting—the frozen crag was only briefly touched on in Darksiders II's tutorial, so it was an interesting development to see that location explored further. It was also nice to see all of the ice-themed versions of the game's monsters placed in their proper context— since players who've fully explored the Crucible (Darksiders II's challenge dungeon) will have already faced all of them, they don't have the cachet of being fresh or exclusive to this DLC. Only the boss qualifies as new content, and while he's well designed and extremely suited to his location, he won't prove much of a challenge to players who've already completed the main quest.
The DLC's two new dungeons aren't especially large—each roughly the size of Darksiders II's final dungeon, the Black Stone—but they both provide a couple of clever puzzles and at least one large-scale fight where weapons and armour can be harvested from a group of fallen ice skeletons. In addition to the dungeons is a ten-minute side quest that asks players to explore a narrow tunnel, then hands them a grenade launcher to help smooth out the trip. This quickly turns into another third-person shooter sequence, just like Darksiders II's Earth interlude. If the shooting gameplay here isn't any better than it was there, at least it has the virtue of being considerably shorter.
So, is Darksiders II: Argul's Tomb worth playing? It's only about an hour long, and the exclusive weapon contained within is a set of armblades that drain Wrath with each hit. While they're pretty effective when partnered with the scythes that drain life from opponents, running out of Wrath was a problem that never really came up in the course of the game, so—perhaps ironically—nothing in the Argul's Tomb proved more valuable than the club I acquired by dealing with Argul himself. For players who can't get enough of Death beheading monsters, Argul's Tomb will be a welcome addition, but anyone who completed the main game and set it aside without further thought won't find anything worth slotting the disk back in.
—By Daniel Weissenberger
Disclosures: The main game game and DLC were obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the main game and approximately one hour was devoted to the DLC. Both were was completed. There are no multiplayer modes in either.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, suggestive themes, violence. You should keep your younger teens away from this game - it offers nothing but constant violence. And while that violence is largely directed against skeletons and zombie lizards, it's still fairly brutal. Not to mention that the overall tone of death incarnate striding through the ruins of a post-apocalyptic world might be too dark for many.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You will be mostly fine with the game—dialogue is subtitled, and there aren't too many important audio cues in the gameplay. The biggest issue is the fact that monsters tend to make a lot of noise before lunging at the player from off-camera, allowing ample time for dodging. Without that warning you'll be at a definite disadvantage, but luckily most of the foes aren't so formidable that you won't be able to play the game.