Darksiders Review

By Abbie Heppe - Posted Jan 14, 2010

The new year is being welcomed by a deluge of games portraying the epic struggles between ecumenical forces—Heaven and Hell, gods and man, angels and demons. One of the first "holy war" releases of the year, Darksiders, is, like the archetype it's based on, nothing new.

The Pros
  • Gameplay is tried and true, familiar fare
  • Sets up a great concept for a sequel
The Cons
  • Apocalyptic world looks and feels uninspired
  • Inspiration from other games deprives it of uniqueness
  • Combat is technically sound, but ultimately shallow

The new year is being welcomed by a deluge of games portraying the epic struggles between ecumenical forces—Heaven and Hell, gods and man, angels and demons. One of the first “holy war” releases of the year, Darksiders, is, like the archetype it's based on, nothing new.

Despite the harsh criticism about to be levied in this review, it should be noted that Darksiders is by no means a bad game; it simply isn't an original one. The development team behind it clearly has talent and potential, but everyone would be better served by having them create something that offers up a unique point of view or builds on -- not around -- the games it draws inspiration from. The end of the game clearly sets the stage for a sequel that, with an ounce of soul or more originality, could be a very good game.

Wrongly accused of kicking off the Apocalypse early, War (one the four horsemen of the Apocalypse) goes on a series of quests for the Charred Council to find the one truly responsible and clear his (good?) name. War may not be the most compelling horseman, but you can probably see why playing as Death , one of the other horsemen, might be a problem. From its inception, Darksiders is such a mash-up of religious lore that, if kids turned to the game for their Bible studies, theology would be a lot more interesting.  


Darksiders

Imitation is the Dullest Form of Flattery
 
Darksiders keeps a fair balance between pedestrian puzzle solving and mediocre combat. Clearly inspired by Zelda, God of War and, surprisingly in spots, Portal, the game falls short of surpassing any of the source material it draws from.

Players will quickly solve puzzles when supplied with the standard tools of the Zelda franchise: a hookshot, bombs, a large shuriken that approximates the boomerang, etc. While the introduction of a Portal-like device (down to the orange and blue coloring) makes puzzles a bit more interesting, the solutions are rendered tedious, because the solution quickly becomes apparent. Like Zelda and God of War, your exploration of the world includes finding hidden chests and items. Luckily, your gauntlet will glow blue when you're near one. And when I say near, I mean really near one...like, so near you're standing right on top if it. Thanks, gauntlet!

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But Combat Should Be More Up War’s Alley, Right?    
 
Similarly, the weapons you acquire are all familiar items, a sword, a scythe and a super-powered fist attack. However, nothing seems to provide a better method of attack than the sword, so it doesn't become particularly necessary to vary your approach. Knocking enemies back with an area attack doesn't help you that often and combos are only slightly intuitive. Between slashing and dodging, there isn't much else you need to do.

Unfortunately, Darksiders also adopts the “z-targeting” of Zelda; however, rather than letting you dodge to side to side, the mechanic usually forces you to dodge into the enemy you're trying to get away from. Factor in the pause that occurs once the move is up and it's often more frustrating then helpful. It’s a feature that has been better executed elsewhere.

Darksiders
 
The most satisfying weapon in the game is probably the Angel gun you eventually pick up (It’s not part of your initial inventory to maintain balance) that blasts fiery rounds into your opponents that you can then detonate with your trigger. It’s the same reason why it's fun to be the Demoman in Team Fortress 2, but in Darksiders, it functions as a shortcut past fairly rote combat. There's a reason that the games that inspired this type of combat provided enemies that you can kill in a reasonable time frame; not every skirmish needs to be epic.

Darksiders borrows the combo-driven battle system from God of War, but can’t quite match God of War’s nasty thrills. Like God of War, once you've lowered most of an enemy’s life, you'll be prompted to perform a brutal finishing move.  In the case of Darksiders, the mundane execution makes you wonder if these elements weren’t thrown in to make the game seem edgier. Without them, I’d have a hard time believing this is a “Mature” game. Functionally, the finishing moves also negate your powerful "rage" mode, discounting the value of using either. Even the boss battles, which strictly adhere to the Nintendo “three phase” format, are noticeably lackluster. Again, none of these problems are technically inept, they are just generic and uninteresting compared to the source material that drives Darksiders.
 
Games Are Not Comic Books
 
Another big issue is Darksiders’s presentation, which feels particularly uninspired. Whether it’s that Joe Madureira's art style just doesn't translate to the 3D realm, which is possible given that the box art and title screen have the best art in the game, or that Vigil's excessive use of source material stifled the artistic process, the enemies are conceptually boring and the Apocalypse comes off a little too pastel. It’s also unfortunate that the Darksiders world seems unworthy of such a cataclysmic event as the Apocalypse. There are flashes of interesting concepts, like the spiders that track you below a glassine floor in the Iron Canopy level, but in general, the world is quite bland (and includes your standard ice, water, forest and desert levels). It also feels small. You are provided with a mechanism for moving quickly around the world, however, but because it also functions as a store, the actual stores and travel points are few and between.

The issues don’t lie only in the presentation and art style. The dialogue could have used a bit more spice as well. Let’s take, for example, Ulthane, the depressingly cliché warhammer-wielding Scottish blacksmith who spouts off repetitive dialogue ad nauseum, which, unfortunately, is not that different from most characters you’ll encounter. However, Ulthane’s hardly the worst offender among NPCs. Throughout the game, you’re overseen by The Watcher, a demonic nanny entrusted with keeping War on task. He’s an infrequent and unhelpful plot device disguised as a character who wastes the voice talents of Mark Hamill. Here’s a tip: Don't ask the Watcher about anything…he has no idea what you're doing.

Technically, the game is rather sound. Despite some nasty screen-tearing present in the 360 version, which THQ is addressing it in an announced update, and the occasional slow-down, none of the technical problems really affect the gameplay. Darksiders’s core problems stem from questionable choices in gameplay design and a shallow grasp on the proven formulas that drive the great titles that inspired Darksiders.

Darksiders
 
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
 
In short, Darksiders contains all the ingredients that people like about action/adventure games, without putting them together in any sort of meaningful way. It’s as if robots culled our collective gaming preferences and amassed the results into one hulking amalgamation of a game while overlooking the spirit and understanding of what makes each particular element great.

After playing a game that apes its influences without the polish or panache of the originals, you begin to appreciate why steadfast franchises take so long between releases in the first place. But, as Cervantes, said "There's no sauce in the world like hunger," and Darksiders, at the very least, fills a void in the current release cycle. As a new take on old ideas, it stumbles, but the final reveal promises a far more engaging sequel than what Darksiders has to offer. In the end, Darksiders is a highly competent game, but not a particularly creative one.