Darksiders Review: Change of Template

Vigil Games is probably a little ashamed at how blatantly similar most of Darksiders’s design is to The Legend of Zelda and God of War. And you know what? They should be. That isn’t to say the studio’s debut title is bad, because instead of adhering too closely to the formulas of its benefactors, they avoid problems that have been in Nintendo’s series for too long. Darksiders proves that it is worth your time by polishing and tweaking key components that it borrows from other games and then adding enough new content to make them its own.

Darksiders must be commended for not wasting any time with tedious tutorials, something that Link’s adventures seem to get worse at with time. The story kicks off with a bang, introducing players to the basics quickly. From there, a dozen hours of story are stuffed with a fast travel system, five dungeons, and few chances—or reasons really—to explore. There are some collectibles and hidden items for the obsessive, but you’ll mostly follow a fairly straight hub and spoke path from each story beat to the next, with some interesting on rails sections breaking up combat and dungeon busting. This is a trim game in both design and narrative, with only one late-game item hunt that clearly exists just to fatten what could’ve been almost entirely lean.

The specifics of the story get a little more detailed, but boiled down to its core, Darksiders is an apocalyptic tale in which humanity is all but eradicated. A war between Hell, Heaven, and humanity was foretold to begin when humans were strong enough to defend themselves, but something went wrong and the war started early, killing all life on Earth. Normally, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would come down from the ether to mediate, but only War is called and quickly blamed for instigating the bloodbath. Players control War as he sets out to kill every angel, demon, and creature in between that had a hand in framing him, accompanied by a minion of The Council, the bosses of the Horsemen.

War himself is a thick, brutal figure, decked out in more spikes and skulls than a Rammstein concert. All the demons, weapons, and dungeon designs follow the same aesthetic, which definitely makes Darksiders instantly recognizable, if a little too Todd McFarlane’s Spawn at times. Still, there are tons of little details and great animations for everything. Dusty remains wisp across cracked city streets where the last zombified humans lurk, heat rises in an arid desert, and War’s attire shows a great amount of fidelity.

The bulky art style translates nicely into motion. War has a zippy dodge move and every swing of the Chaoseater, your thick-as-a-tree trunk sword, feels like it is really messing enemies up. Rigid responsiveness is the key difference here from say, God of War, which is a little more sinuous and loose. War packs plenty of combat moves and melee weapons to use, and what is available can be used on the fly. This leads to some natural variety where you might start a combo with a thrust of the Chaoseater, switch to a wide scythe swing, and end with a quick-time-event finisher.

War also wields plenty of special items ala Zelda’s hookshot, boomerang, and bow (in this case, a gun). Several need to be used in tandem to solve puzzles, and combat gains some more depth when these items are thrown into the fray. There is even a horse—War is a horseman after all—that can be summoned in wide-open spaces, making regular foot travel seem slow and plodding, and adding new combat options as well.

Dungeons don’t always shine quite like the combat does, with some easy environmental puzzles that get a tad stale by the end. This is where Darksiders should have distanced itself from Nintendo’s bag of tricks. A few too many puzzles just don’t give a sense of accomplishment because they don’t take much thought or skill to solve. Sometimes, solutions are too quickly telegraphed: see that red rock over there? You better blow it up with a bomb plant. See that crystal block in front of that door? Hit it with your tremor gauntlets. Rinse, and repeat.

Even worse are when any gear switches are involved, which should have been a simple affair but instead grows tiresome as you watch War do the same overly long animation to turn them time and time again. Let me make it clear that not all the puzzles are like this, but enough stick out to make it an issue.

When the dungeons do work, they really satisfy that same adventure itch that some of the best 3D Zelda titles did in the past. You’ll do the typical block moving, boomerang throwing, and hookshot swinging that you’d expect from this type of game, as well as some unexpected elements such as using portals to get from one place to another, and changing the flow of time to maneuver past dangers and timed doors. Darksiders feels really fresh and fun when these newer concepts take over and stray from the same old staples.

The voice acting in Darksiders augments these moments, and really sells the story. Mark Hamill does a fantastic job as the Council’s henchman, with biting remarks and a clear disdain for War. The Horseman himself isn’t particularly personable and spits out more than a few groaners, but what do you expect from a guy who looks like he just rolled around in iron shards and human skeletons? It still sounds appropriate considering his position.

Darksiders does end up feeling thin towards its final act, and I sometimes found myself enjoying the narrative and combat more than the dungeons. Still, I’m glad Vigil took chances by changing the combat, introducing new item functionality, and telling a dark, modern story, even if sticking so close to the Zelda formula often drags those changes down from potential greatness.

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