They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s true then the developers of God of War and Legend of Zelda must be blushing from all the compliments they’ve gotten from Darksiders. Combining the combat system, gore, and dark atmosphere of God of War with the dungeon design from Legend of Zelda seems strange until you are in the thick of it. These two combine surprisingly well, but does Darksiders deserve to be in the company of the games that inspired it?
In the beginning Heaven and Hell were in an eternal struggle for dominance. Neither side relenting or gaining the upper hand. A mediating force known as the Charred Council stops the fighting by enforcing a truce with their four horsemen. A millennia or two later and humanity, the third kingdom, is born. You play as War, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and you have been sent to Earth to start the Endwar. Unfortunately it seems that someone has screwed the pooch and the Endwar between Heaven and Hell occurred before the humans were ready. The bad news is that all the humans die off and after 100 years of being knocked around by some demon during the Endwar you are brought before your bosses in the Charred Council and they are all blaming you for starting the Endwar too soon. Apparently you were the only one of the four horsemen to come down to Earth, so it is presumed that you began the whole mess. The good news is that you talk your way out of an execution and are instead assigned with going back to Earth, proving your innocence, and killing everyone responsible.
The story works well to set up action set pieces and gameplay, and there is even some intrigue and deceit going around. Working through the shattered remains of human civilization as you try to piece together who caused all of this devastation makes for an interesting backdrop to an action game. My problem with the story is that the characterization seemed largely one dimensional. Yes, I realize that War is a badass, but that seemed to be the only meaningful thing that defined his character. This would probably work better if the characters around War made up for his own lack of depth as a character, but most of the side characters are underutilized, which leaves some sections of the story being less meaningful than they probably should be. Mark Hamill’s character, the Watcher, is a poster child for this problem and later sections of the story had no impact because I hadn’t formed any kind of emotional attachment to the Watcher (either negative or positive). Also, the ending is a complete sequel set-up, which left me feeling unfulfilled, as the game hints at a sequel containing what I had wanted to see in this game. All in all, the story does its job as a means of getting you into the gameplay, but not much beyond that.
Combat in Darksiders is heavily influenced by God of War, as I mentioned before. Usually you will be faced with multiple combatants that you try and keep busy using large sweeping strokes of your massive sword. Do enough damage to an enemy and you can walk up and press a single button to do a devastating finishing move that will more often than not leave your adversary in several pieces. All of these finishing moves are performed by pressing only one button and then watching the fireworks, since there are no Quick Time Events (QTEs) to be found. For most this will be seen as an improvement from the source material. Sadly, sometimes boss fights still use QTEs for a few sections of the combat, and they are always completed simply by spamming a button until you win. So while the game doesn’t use many QTEs, the occasions when it does are pretty terrible.
Over the course of the game you gain new weapons and new abilities, either by finding them in chests or purchasing them with the souls you collect from fallen enemies. Unfortunately before too long you won’t have new abilities to purchase and instead you will just be upgrading the moves you already have. I felt like there wasn't a lot of depth to the combat, and that is probably because each weapon only has one face button to work with. The sword is one button, while your secondary weapon, which can either be a scythe or an electric gauntlet, is another button. This means there are very few combos possible using a single weapon and unfortunately the primary and secondary weapons aren't designed to form combinations.
The other half of Darksiders’ gameplay is the Zelda-like dungeon crawling. Soon after being sent to Earth you are sent on what basically amounts to a huge fetch quest by a demon in order to gain access to the Tower of the Destroyer. He sends you to the lairs of four demons to take out their hearts. These lairs are set up like your classic temples in Legend of Zelda. You come in and at first you see areas you can’t get to because you lack the proper equipment. After working through half the dungeon you receive the tool necessary to complete the last half and fight the final boss.
Puzzles abound in these dungeons and some of them are very intriguing and fun to work your way through. Sadly the other half of these dungeons consist of the overly used strategy of locking you in a room until you kill everything. I started to feel like I could tell exactly when these were going to come up and would cringe whenever I was coming upon an open-looking room. These dungeons were a good attempt at capturing what makes Zelda such a loved franchise, but they are too linear and rely too heavily on forcing combat on you within locked rooms. The boss fights that cap off each dungeon help alleviate the combat issue by forcing you to use your new tool in order to solve a puzzle while you fight the monster. I just wish that more of the combat in dungeons took this approach of combining combat and puzzle elements instead of keeping the two so stringently separate.
One way that Darksiders improves upon the Zelda formula is that almost all of the equipment you gain from dungeons is usable and useful outside of those dungeons. Most of them are useful and do a decent amount of damage as weapons for combat, which gives you reason to pull out the old pointy boomerang beyond solving a puzzle or using it on a specific type of enemy that requires it. The only tools this isn’t true for are a teleportation device you get in the last dungeon that is only usable on certain surfaces, and a mask which lets you see and interact with objects in the ill-explained Shadow World.
The presentation of Darksiders is nothing particularly impressive from a technical standpoint, but it does well to give itself a unique look. The inky black of War’s wings as he glides from platform to platform, and the general character design, makes it feel a lot like playing in a dark comic book series, which makes sense since the creative director, Joe Madureira, is a comic book artist. Technically I noticed a few framerate issues at certain points and a bug here or there. The voice acting was largely good with a few lines that seemed like they should have had more emotion behind them (mostly from War, which could easily have been designed that way). Finally, the music was quiet and subdued, but if you put your ear to the TV speakers and listen intently it fits the rest of the game very well.
My playthrough took me 14 hours from the first few minutes of the ill-timed Endwar to taking my sweet revenge. There was some filler in there, with a mandatory scavenger hunt that I needed to complete in order to face the final boss, but it felt like a pretty good length for this type of game overall. There is some replay value with multiple difficulty levels and you can explore the world to find all of the secrets and buy all of the items/upgrades you may have missed, but I was disappointed to see that there was no “new game +” feature, so you will have to start from scratch if you want to play on a harder difficulty.
Darksiders is a really cool idea for a game that just didn’t quite make it up to the lofty heights of its would-be mentors. The story was a bit too simplistic, there was a disappointing disconnect between combat and puzzles for most of the dungeons, and the combat is missing some depth. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of two fantastic types of gameplay, as well as the unique visual style. If you are looking for a game that can tide you over while you wait for either of the two games I have mentioned again and again in this review, then I suggest you give Darksiders a look.