The Top 10 Games of 2012

A few months late, but I couldn’t resist posting the list of games that I loved the most this past year. Cheers!

2012’s 2011 Game of the Year:
Dark Souls: Beating this game filled me with triumph like few other things have, but that feeling wasn’t lasting. Upon being thrust into the New Game + mode directly after beating the final boss in Dark Souls, I promptly put down the controller and mourned the fleeting closure that had been given to me just moments before. I love this game, but fuck this game. One of 2011’s best for sure.

Honorable Mention:
FTL: I can’t really put FTL on my list because I simply haven’t played enough. It seems like a superb rouge-like space simulator, but I haven’t even come close to even getting halfway to the end yet. Perhaps this will be a contender for 2013’s 2012 Game of the Year if I get around to playing more of it.

And now, the list:

  1. XCOM: What a game. What a game-ass game. Managing an alien-war task force from top to bottom is appropriately difficult in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. But it can also be incredibly rewarding when your squad of elite soldiers (named after your friends and family in real life of course) take down half a dozen arachnoid Chrysalids due to your tactical decision making. I never thought this style of strategy gaming would work on consoles; surely the now defunct XCOM shooter would’ve been a much easier sell in the shooter rich environment that is AAA game development. But no, Firaxis made a hell of a game that totally eclipses that other project. Play this is if you haven’t already.

 

  1. Spelunky: Almost 500 deaths in, and I still haven’t seen every secret in Spelunky. From icy caverns to alien motherships, this seemingly cutesy platformer has some true replay value and extras that will keep me coming back well into 2013.

 

  1. Trials Evolution: What can I say? It’s Trials HD with user created levels that often surpass the developer created ones in quality. I couldn’t ask for anything more from a Trials game.

  1. Fez: I eagerly waited nearly five years to play this game, and I think it surpassed my wildest expectations. I thought I was getting a pretty, retro styled platformer and nothing more. But so many enigmatic systems lie beneath, and decoding them all was a real joy. Not to mention it was just a pleasant virtual world to exist in, with beautiful ambient/chiptune songs often playing in concert with a sunset that I just sat and watched.

 

  1. Mark of the Ninja: This is a gamer’s game in almost every sense. The visual cues that display sound waves and vision cones are in complete service of the great stealth gameplay. I liked this game better than I liked Dishonored, and I never expected that to happen.

  1. Thirty Flights of Loving: This game may only be 15 minutes long, but it is an intense and oddly experimental 15 minutes. I’ve never played a game that was confident enough to use jump cuts to expedite action and use montage to create such strong characters. Seriously, it’s only $5.00, and goes on sale for $2.49 fairly often. And it comes with Brenden Chung’s 2008 mod Gravity Bone too!

  1. Mass Effect 3: I wanted to like Commander Shepard’s final chapter much more than I ended up actually liking it. Many of the dialog options that were so fun to choose amongst in Mass Effect 2 are streamlined for a more developer directed character arc, but there is still enough there that made me feel like I was still controlling large portions of the story. And it was good to see all those characters that I spent two games getting to know again.

  1. Need for Speed: Most Wanted: Multiplayer is the only reason that Criterion’s latest racing game made it on this list at all. The fiercely competitive mix of skill challenges, group goals, and straight up races hasn’t ever been done this well since Burnout Paradise.

  1. Walking Dead: While I don’t think The Walking Dead is a revolution for games, I do think that it told an emotionally complex and mature story. That’s more than most games can even hope to achieve.

  1. Far Cry 3: While I can’t say that Far Cry 3’s story succeeds in being satire, I still think the game has some of the best open world design this generation. Attacking pirate camps only with a silenced rifle and machete takedowns is serious fun. Don’t worry about the nonsensical story that only occasionally manages to parody FPS tropes and you’ll likely have a good time with it too.

2012 was a weird year for video games. I played more downloadable titles than I did boxed releases, which has never happened with me before. At the same time as new console rumors start to rev up, the new methods of digital distribution are making me question whether I’ll even purchase a console from Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft in the next few years. Building a PC seems to have a higher initial cost, but Steam sales cut game prices down by 50 or even 75%. But I’m getting ahead of myself here; for the next year I’ll continue to enjoy my Xbox 360 and hope to see exciting titles come out not just in stores, but on the Live Arcade as well. It’s going to be interesting to see where all this stuff goes in the next generation for sure.

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Dishonored Review: Curing Regicide with Tyrannicide

It seems only fitting that the latter years of this console generation would foster a resurgence of the stealth genre. Bellyaching about the Call of Duty and Battlefield style of extremely strict gunplay has only increased in recent times, giving titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mark of the Ninja, and Hitman: Absolution the chance to show that there is still plenty of interest in more open game design.

Dishonored is one of the more anticipated titles to ride this new wave of RPG, stealth hybrids, and it is by far one of the most ambitious. Arkane Studios has succeeded in crafting a great bunch of meticulously designed missions set in an intriguing setting that is equal parts steampunk and Victorian-era England.

They wisely focus on giving players incentive to fully explore the wildly original city of Dunwall using a trim selection of weapons, powers, and collectables. It is sad that some of the surrounding systems and the storyline aren’t nearly as supportive to this end, instead creating dissonance and dragging down what could have easily been a classic of this generation.

In Dishonored, players inhabit the silent royal protector Corvo Attano just after he returns from an important mission to find a cure to a rat plague that has nearly crippled Dunwall. Just as Corvo reports to the Empress, a group of mysterious assassins kill her and take her daughter Emily hostage. Corvo is conveniently blamed for the murder and sent to jail to await execution.

Corvo gets sprung out of the big house by a group of Loyalists soon after, and a plot of betrayal and the thirst for power becomes clear. The Loyalists enlist Corvo to become an assassin himself and eliminate the new government leaders that seized the empire in the absence of the rightful heir to the throne.

After setting up this initial conflict, the writers are in the perfect place to spin a great narrative as they play with themes involving the relationship between corruption and power, spirituality and superstition, and mercy and cruelty. Plenty of books and other readable texts expand on the culture of Dunwall, delving most often into whale oil harvesting, bourgeois extravagance, and religious superstition.

This builds Dunwall as a simultaneously artistic, yet scientifically crude place; its inhabitants well cultured, yet credulous people. The city itself is beautifully rendered, with bold, geometric architecture that shows it was built by a strong people. The sense of setting is amazing and sometimes a little overwhelming. The dozens and dozens of books are interesting, but delve into almost too much minutia.

Dishonored gets much more mileage out of its art style–full of exaggerated features, almost visible oil-paint brush marks, and a wide color palette–than any technical proficiency. In fact, much of the texture work on buildings and landscapes is flat and bland. At least on the Xbox 360 everything is kept at 30 fps even when a dozen guards, a pack of plague rats, and a few explosions are on screen at one time.

The focus on setting seems to have taken time away from the actual story and main characters of Dishonored. Small little tidbits of character work are sprinkled amidst a sparse, poorly acted script. This is particularly surprising considering how star studded this cast is: Brad Dourif, Susan Sarandon, Chloë Grace Moritz, and Lena Headey all lend their voices to the game. Perhaps it’s just that these actors didn’t have enough to work with, or perhaps they just didn’t fully invest in their characters; either way, most of the dialogue is delivered in a stiff, “I’m just reading a script here, guys,” sort of way.

This is further compounded by a lack of characterization in general. Exploring the Loyalists’ rooms gives plenty of insight to their quirks and some underlying vulnerabilities and vices, but its never connected into the main story. The Loyalists simply exist to dole out assassination targets to the player and move the story along. They don’t make themselves out as very likeable people, and ultimately their motivations aren’t known either. Why are they loyal to the dead Empress? What were her political ideals? What do they plan to do after reinstating Emily on the throne? Most of these questions are never answered, or kept vague for a late game twist that isn’t telegraphed in a reasonable way.

The developers also made a grave mistake when they decided to make Corvo a silent protagonist. Without any sort of personality, it is hard to connect to Emily or any of the other characters. The game tries to make you feel compassion and companionship for these people, but you have literally no reason to feel these things without a voice in the narrative. If you need reason to put the mute-hero trope out to pasture, look no further than Dishonored.

Even without a great cast or storyline, Dishonored manages to be one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences this year. As Corvo, I felt powerful even without using lethal means–though there are plenty of those. The toolset at your disposal isn’t very large, but each and every power, trap, and weapon can be used in multiple creative ways and in tandem to create amazing chain reactions.

You could take out a hallway of guards by carefully sneaking up behind each one and either knocking them out or slitting their throats, or you could stick a razor-wire mine at the end of hallway, lure one guard through it, slow down time and teleport behind the other two and tranquilize them both. Or perhaps just circumvent the entire area by possessing a rat and running past them all. And if all else fails, just throw a grenade around the corner while using the time-stop power and watch the bodies fly.

These are just simple examples of the variety of ways encounters can be managed. The different levels that you explore in Dishonored are never very large, but they are dense with pathways and secrets. The verticality of Dunwall is impressive, and easily traversed by the teleporting ability, Blink. Mastering that ability in particular is enough to make the game almost unfair. Enemies are not the brightest bunch on Normal difficulty, and effective Blink maneuvering outsmarts them nearly every time.

Still, it’s hard to deny the tactical joy that comes with outfoxing enemies by pure stealth and clever exploitation of the level design. Arkane really stacks the deck in the player’s favor, giving plenty of options at every point of the 6-10 hour story. Going in with reckless abandon, or just incredible Blink utilization, will definitely make your experience shorter and less impressive.

No, the way to play Dishonored is much more methodical. This is a game that begs you to turn off several of the user interface elements and waypoints and play on Hard. Feeling your way through the city, watching guards complete patrol paths before acting, and really planning out traps and attacks is the way to get the most out of the gameplay systems.

Oddly enough, Arkane created a morality system for the game that appears to limit the very openness of the gameplay. Killing creates “Chaos” around Dunwall; the more guards you kill, the more plague victims and reinforcements you’ll have to deal with. Other characters will also talk to you curtly and generally act rude towards you. The problem with this system is that it limits you to an even smaller amount of weapons and powers than you already have. If you want the good ending, you can probably get away with using lethal means every once in awhile, but don’t expect to be regularly setting up razor-wire traps.

This wouldn’t be an issue if there were more non-lethal options, but there are literally only three: tranquilizers, sleeper holds, and possession. Meanwhile, there are easily over half a dozen lethal choices. I didn’t feel held back by other games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution nearly as much as I did by Dishonored.

That was my unfortunate final impression when I finished the game. I felt restricted despite a wealth of options, unconnected to all the characters, and unimpressed with the narrative as a whole. Dunwall is an amazing set dressing, but without a great story to support it, Dishonored ends up feeling half baked in many ways. If you loved the Thief, Deus Ex, or stealth heavy games in general, then you’ll find something to like here. But you’ll have to deal with a host of caveats in order to find the core embedded within.

Dust: An Elysian Tail Review: Auteur Theory

Dust: An Elysian Tail is unique even by indie game standards. Dean Dodrill, who had almost no experience in game design, computer programming, or story writing, designed it almost entirely by himself.
Knowing that fact along makes it shocking that this game’s mechanics work as well as they do. The juggle heavy combat is simplistic, but responsive, and the RPG elements are deeper than most other XBLA games.
From a narrative perspective though, Dust has some serious pacing issues, and a glut of dialogue performed by irritating characters. For every great moment of story telling comes many more moments of overacted melodrama. Because Dodrill was the sole creator, he could put whatever he wanted in the game, and however much of it that he pleased. Auteur theorists may be pleased, but all I could think was that some editing would’ve helped greatly.
In Dust, you play as, well, Dust. Joining the annals of amnesiac protagonists, Dust awakens in a Wonderlandian forest with no recollection of how he got there, why here is there, or who he even is. A magical sword named Ahrah and its winged keeper Fidget find Dust and tell him that he is the chosen one to wield one of the Blades of Elysium and bring order back to the land. A great war between two factions has raged for years, and Dust must find a way to end it and figure out his past.
Much of your time spent with Dust focuses on killing monsters and other evildoers with Ahrah. Dust only has two or three main combos and a whirlwind attack on his own. Use Fidget’s projectile attacks with the whirlwind however, and things get really interesting. The whirlwind causes the normally puny fireballs to explode across the screen, racking up the combo counter and experience bonus quickly. There is a fluidity to combat here that can’t be understated. Dust is incredibly agile, able to jump from side to side to dodge incoming attacks or high into the sky to continue slicing up enemies. To put it simply, fighting feels good in Dust.


The world of Dust is also of high quality. The soft focused style evokes a lushness and color palette not seen often in games. Teal, purple, yellow, and orange all work in ways that most other contemporaries don’t dare attempt. There is a small amount of exploration, helped along by a map system cribbed from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Sadly, the character animations also look like they were taken from the PS1, which is jarring in front of the meticulously detailed environments and abundant HD particle effects.
The story here is clearly inspired by SNES and Playstation era RPGs, and anime. The focus is on surprisingly dark themes such as death and loss. The side quests are where most of the whimsical and goofy writing comes out. As you travel the Elysian lands, the lesson that all things will eventually die is married with pretty well characterized quest givers.
One of Dust’s greatest failings is how such heavy and poignant story content is buried beneath a surplus of dialogue delivered by nearly every character. I don’t even care that all the characters are anthropomorphic animals. That’s fine. But the endless amount of talking is unforgivable. When it isn’t grating—Fidget’s unfunny attitude never hits the mark—it is just pointless. The game stops the action for literally every interaction. Hitting up the store for some health items? Well prepare to hear the shady shop-keep spout some nonsense every single time. At a certain point, I just quit listening and skipped as much talking as possible.
And then there’s the last hour of the game, which is quite simply terrible. Forget that the story takes a complete right turn and refocuses on characters that are either introduced entirely too late or not characterized well before hand. The real killer is a difficulty spike leading up to the final boss, and the final boss itself. Enemies suddenly gain the ability to block your attack chains, bringing what used to be a great sense of combat momentum and fluidity to a full stop. Oh, and good luck buying enough health items to make it past the final confrontation where one strike eliminates ¾ of your health bar.
I have a feeling that plenty of people will like Dust more than I did. There is a huge amount of content here for $15, and who knows, maybe some folks actually like Fidget’s annoying voice. Ultimately, I found the game sloppy and amateurish, which is to be expected from a first effort. Dodrill has a lot of promise, and Dust isn’t a complete waste of time at all. There are plenty of moments where the story and gameplay mesh, but there are also plenty of moments where the action gets bogged down in melodramatic, snarky, or just plain boring dialogue. Give this guy a team of 10 other developers, and there could be greatness in the future.

Dark Souls Review: Memento Mori

Talk to nearly anyone about a video game, and the ever-present question will come up: is it fun? For some, the answer may be a simple yes or no. Others may delve into details and the nerdery associated with such in-depth analysis (myself included). But how many times has someone told you that a game was painful? That for every moment of joy exists orders of magnitude more suffering?

Dark Souls is that game. Dropped into an unforgiving world with only steel and shield, the player soon realizes just how bleak a virtual world can be. Developer From Software has constructed some of the most harrowing, but austerely beautiful castles, caverns, and creatures ever to grace a video game. Conquering these obstacles results in some of the purest satisfaction that interactive entertainment offers, but doing so will take a toll on your patience.

As a chosen undead warrior, you are tasked with rekindling the flame of the Lordran realm by eliminating arch-demons and ringing the Bells of Awakening. Outside of an opening cutscene telling you all this, there is hardly any plot in Dark Souls, but there is plenty of atmosphere. Dialogue is delivered with a distinct creepiness by nearly every NPC, making the world feel unwelcoming. Music is eschewed for sounds of enemies breathing heavily around corners. You start to feel a sort of dread in every area of the game.

This mood mixes well with a running theme permeating Dark Souls: restriction. Using a precious health potion? Well don’t plan on moving out of the way of an incoming attack while you do so. Resting at one of the game’s sparse checkpoints? Have fun fighting through the enemies that just respawned. Summoning in another player online to help you through a tough boss fight? First you’ll have to deal with mercenary players known as “phantoms” who can invade your world to take your souls (experience points).

This Newtonian “equal and opposite” design can be immensely frustrating, but establishes a pace that just isn’t seen in many video games. You must slow down, observe what is around you, and take into consideration how your actions are going to both negatively and positively affect your character. It is very refreshing compared to the usual kill-everything-that-moves-right-now design that too many games follow.

The driving currency that you’ll chase is souls. Souls double as both money for buying much needed weapons, shields, and consumables and experience points to level up with. Leveling up is of paramount importance and always feels like it is pushing the scales back in your favor. After slogging through dozens of undead soldiers and massive bosses, plugging some points into your health, stamina, or any of the other stats gives a very slight advantage. Unfortunately, dying sends you back to the last bonfire checkpoint and you drop your souls where you perished. Die again without picking them up, and they’re gone forever.

Designs like this show how From Software is more than willing to slap the player around and make them uncertain. Another example: much of the game’s loot is stashed in wooden chests. Sounds simple enough, until some chests snap you into their jaws as you open them.

The developers also had a heyday with enemy and boss designs. The farther you get into this seemingly dulled world, the bigger and nastier enemies seem to get. A huge taurus monster swings a hammer with a tornado-wake of debris, smashing even the stoutest shield aside. Colossal dragons and demons are even worse, with one shot kill attacks that can only be dodged with skill and a bit of luck. This is one of Dark Souls’ greatest problems. I understand that hideous monsters are powerful, but getting killed over and over only to respawn twenty minutes back at the bonfire (read: checkpoint) is egregious.

Some of the frustration of dying is alleviated by the wonder imbued into the ruins and caverns of the land. At first, the grayish green hue of the world and simple castle walls don’t inspire much exploration, but Dark Souls really does has a surprisingly large color palette and architectural aesthetic: an otherworldly, blue crystal cave and a massive, winding library being examples of both. The sense of scale in the realm of Lordan is also amazing, with wide vistas showing the interconnected areas that lie ahead. Looking over an entire area that I’d already fought through from a high parapet was very satisfying.

Unfortunately, the journey to get to these high places is often not so satisfying. Again, death comes swiftly, and Dark Souls’ combat is going to polarize players. You’ll either get into the hard swinging, shield banging melee, or you’ll just hate having to block all the time. Me? I stand on the side that enjoys the methodical brutality of this game. Weapons swing out slower than in other action games, but they also hit harder. Get the right weapon in your hands and you’ll find that you are incredibly capable of taking out lesser and even some greater foes. An awkward looking dodge roll seems silly at first, but proves crucial in keeping your health bar intact.

All this is great until you encounter some of the more boneheaded designs that the developers came up with. Too often you’ll run into unblockable attacks, enemy grapple moves that drain far too much health, and some demons that can semi-permanently curse your health bar down to half. They all drag down Dark Souls with needless frustration, but he first two feel particularly cheap. I had several boss fights end within ten seconds because I got locked into a grapple that ripped all my health away instantly.

So can I recommend this insanity to people? I don’t know. I was hooked on the game for over 30 hours, but I often ended play sessions with cursing and yelling. Stress and satisfaction are intertwined into the very design of Dark Souls, and your triumph at conquering an area will probably be preceded and followed by plenty of cheap deaths. A rental may help you decide if you are ready for the task.

Borderlands 2 Review: World of Guncraft

The MMORPG genre has been in a slow state of decline for the past few years, but if the first Borderlands, Dead Island, and Torchlight are indicators, the designs behind it are still strong. Even though Borderlands’ blend of cel shaded graphics and slap-happy humor was odd back in 2009, the real time shooting blended well with stat heavy RPG elements. Gun lust tied it all together, even though the sheer novelty of the whole thing hid some serious pacing issues.

After three years of development, it is clear that Gearbox Softworks has addressed almost every problem fans and critics had with the first game for Borderlands 2. Sluggish first act? Gone. Static enemy routines? Axed. Without a doubt, Borderlands 2 does feel much more polished than its predecessor, but still relies on grinding and a cocksure tone far too often.

The fact that Gearbox secured the rights to the profane Duke Nukem franchise makes perfect sense after playing Borderlands 2. The wild and wooly world of Pandora is filled to the brim with some of the most idiotic and offensive characters ever created. The voice actors try their hardest, but one can only go so far with a script that slings out, “Bonerfarts”, and, “These powers are the tits!” with such reckless abandon.
Far too many quest-givers, companions, and even the main antagonist try too hard. Base humor is fine, but not when it is paraded out yelling, “CHECK OUT HOW EDGY THIS IS!” When Borderlands 2 gets out of its own way and sticks to pop culture parody and reference, the jokes play much better and the script is given some room to explore more somber storylines. I’ll be damned if I didn’t actually feel a little bit sad for some characters when the game reined in the cock jokes for rare serious moments.

At the very least, even the idiotic characters add to a sense of place in Pandora. A sort of blend of futuristic sci-fi, Old West martial law, and dude-bro humor, this world is eclectic to put it mildly. The variety of climate is really noteworthy, taking the player from glacial tundra to floating city in the sky without feeling dissonant or unbelievable. The amount of color afforded by the cel shaded graphics is also amazing considering this is an Unreal Engine 3 based game.

The story of Borderlands 2 starts with a poorly explained cutscene and a fair bit of exposition. After an alien vault was opened by four legendary Vault Hunters, Hyperion Corporation leader Handsome Jack swooped in with his legion of robots to take advantage of the new growth of Eridium, an alien mineral with mysterious powers. You play as a new Vault Hunter looking to strike it rich in the wilds of Pandora only to be nearly blown up by Jack, who harbors a deep hate for, well, pretty much everything. Jack is heinous in every sense of the word; too psychotic to be a humanized villain, and too snarky and long winded. He is bound to end up on some “Worst Character of the Year” lists.

But Borderlands isn’t trying to be some amazing piece of interactive fiction. From the first hour of the game, it is clear that your main focus will be killing all sorts of creatures, bandits, and freakshow oddities. This main goal is so well executed that I found myself tolerating the game’s most egregious personalities, particularly an explosive expert that happens to be a 12 year old who spouts a sort of gangster/instant messenger slang, because I was still having fun blasting dozens of foes. Enemies don’t just suicidally charge like in the first game. They dive out of the way, jump off platforms and railings, and seek cover when it is near.

Gearbox also succeeded in making every weapon feel punchy and unique. The assorted shotguns, pistols, rifles, and explosive ordinance all have raucous sound effects to match their lethality, yet none of the weapons are exactly the same. Modifiers like elemental effects, ricochet, and different ammunition types are just dandy for killing on their own, but become truly effective when used in concert with specific weapon makes and a blend of class based abilities.

The different weapon brands distinguish loot drops the most, as each has wildly contrasting effects. For example, a Tediore gun will act as a makeshift grenade when reloaded, whereas a Maliwan will always have an elemental effect such as fire, electricity, or corrosiveness. I found some of the brands to be less useful or too cumbersome to be bothered with, but it is conceivable that different players will find every one to his or her own liking.
The four starting character classes available are the same way. There is the stealthy Assassin, dual wielding Gunzerker, turret toting Commando, and otherworldly Siren. I picked the last, but even though her stun-lock ability seemed to be geared towards defensive play styles, the way the skill trees work allows much more flexibility. They also seem to be intended for co-op play, which works really well. The difficulty increases drastically even with just one other person playing, as more “Badass” enemy types show up.

At level 10, my Siren was a healing machine, capable of keeping co-op teammates and myself at full health relatively easily. The only caveat was range; there was no way I would last for long in any close quarters situations. Thankfully, Gearbox allows the player to reset skill trees, so at level 20 I opted for a more aggressive set of perks. It radically changed the way I approached every fight, allowing me to fight from all ranges with any weapon of my choice. I also decided to keep some healing powers that I had before as well.

Reinvention like this usually isn’t something that is facilitated in any RPG, since it can have balancing implications, but it works really well in Borderlands 2. But while Gearbox is more than happy to shun certain conventions of MMOs, the developer still clings to some of the worst. The eternal fetch-questing grows tiresome after the fourth or fifth time that you’re asked to go collect five Arachnid Spines or gather 15 Bandit Brains. The game tries to use humor to distract from the monotony, and occasionally manages to pull it off, but again, the facade is thin.

Inventory management is another problematic holdover in Borderlands 2. There is simply too much loot and too few vendors to sell it all at. At least you can mark gear as trash and sell it all with one click, but you have to be at a vendor or at your home base Sanctuary to do it. An option to sell items in the field–like in Torchlight–would’ve been much appreciated.

Borderlands 2 has a strong gameplay core, but surrounding elements that fail to fully capitalize on it. The hit or miss script alternatively exacerbates excruciating fetch-quests and manages to make the game’s sense of place and action gel. I suspect many gamers will either love that they are getting more Borderlands, or just be bored with the fact that they are getting more Borderlands. I fell somewhere in the middle, pleased with the great weapon designs and pop culture references, but scorned by some poor choices in dialogue and quest design.

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.