Darksiders II - The Horseman of Mediocrity

In my time playing Darksiders II, I had this nagging sense that I was stuck in a comic book. The art style and aesthetic borrow heavily from artists that defined the 90’s comic scene, such as Joe Madureira and Todd McFarlane. The protagonist, Death, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, felt ripped right from the pages of Spawn, both scythes and muscles appropriately and absurdly oversized. The action and sense of scale are over the top, like a hyper violent Saturday morning cartoon, and the story tries to spin a tale that is grandiose but often stumbles and comes across as disorganized. Humanity has been destroyed and Death’s brother, War, stands accused of the crime. Taking on the quest to prove his brother’s innocence, Death no longer serves “The Balance”, and thus cannot access the full extent of his powers, but must still discover a way to restore humanity. Or something.  It was all a little muddled, much like a soap opera walked-in on six seasons too late.

Darksiders II is a very typical action role-playing game, almost paint-by-numbers in its construction, which is only saved from complete mediocrity by aesthetics and setting. The art and character design is simultaneously cool, but forgettable, so it was a shame that the entire experience is tainted by frustrating gameplay. For instance, the combat system is easy to learn, but difficult to master, partly because it is bloated. There were just too many moves and combos to remember and only a choice few are really needed. As for the game’s progression, there’s equipment to find and upgrade, a skill tree to unlock, and gold and treasure to be had. But these systems and mechanics remain bland and uninteresting, adding to the pervasive sense that the game’s developer - the now defunct Vigil Games - was simply checking off boxes.

Additionally, Darksiders II borrows heavily from Nintendo classics The Legend of Zelda and Super Metroid. Imitation is not always the best form of flattery. To progress through the story, Death must make his way through a series of dungeons: Solve puzzle, find key, open door, kill boss. Repeat … Except, a lot of the puzzles aren’t fully realized. On more than one occasion I would think back and realize, “I don’t think that’s how you were supposed to solve that.” The game simply lacks the polish to clearly define to the player what can and cannot be done in each environment.

It feels as though Darksiders II tries to cram in as much as possible without anyone noticing. Multiple types of collectibles? Sure. A combat arena? Why not! A late game section that’s just a bad third-person shooter? Throw it in there! By the end, there’s just far too much excess game that weighs down the player’s experience in Darksiders II.

There are also a plethora of technical issues that a larger budget and longer development time could have cured. The biggest culprit is sloppy camera controls, which made combat a chore. It was easy to lose focus on Death and even the enemies he confronts, and I constantly felt lost amidst the action. And then there were the bugs: Often I would become hung up on geometry or stuck in between two objects, or I would encounter an enemy that could mysteriously walk on an invisible floor or get stuck in a wall. I even came across a bug that prevented me from completing a boss fight and was forced to reload to a previous save.

And, speaking of boss fights, there are plenty of them. My playthrough notes, multiple times, contains the phrase, “Fuck these boss fights,” because each fight comes with a massive difficulty spike that rudely interrupts the overall experience. This was particularly unfortunate as the bosses are the most memorable enemies in the game. Additionally, Death gratifyingly executes each boss in the most violent and diabolical way possible; again, harkening back to the exaggerated comic book influences.

As stale as Darksiders II can be at times, it is at least partially redeemed by the utterly fantastic characterization of Death. Voiced by actor Michael Wincott (The Crow, Alien: Resurrection), Death has an arrogance and a gravitas that is befitting a Horseman of the Apocalypse. Even though he has been weakened, he is still the penultimate destructive force throughout creation. Struck low, he reminds those he encounters that he will always be above them. His fate just lies entwined with their own until his quest is complete. Wincott’s gravelly portrayal of Death made me believe that this being could confront the very forces of Heaven and Hell, carve a bloody path through them, and emerge victorious on the other side.

Darksiders II is... fine. That was the thought that kept cycling through my mind every time I would sit down to play it. The gameplay is good, but not great. The story is interesting, but not enthralling. The art style is unique, but forgettable. It is the type of game that would never see the light of day in 2014. As with the film industry, middle tier developers have been squeezed out of existence as blockbuster productions have leapt forward in cost and revenue. It is no longer wise to invest in a project that won’t be bigger and better than the last one. If you’re not going to do Avengers or Call of Duty numbers, then don’t even bother. The middle may have fallen by the wayside, but this has allowed a surge of independent content - mostly quirky and packed full of creativity - to replace it. Our ability to access and consume content has changed drastically in the last decade and it seems the middle ground is less and less likely to appear again. Darksiders II is the last glimmer of an industry that will never return to its former self.  

Not great. Not terrible. Just... fine. The game doesn’t try to be a flashy big budget blockbuster, nor does it feel like an independent niche title. It just sits somewhere in the middle, with a big dumb grin on its face, content to have some fun, share its story, and ride off into the sunset. Darksiders II might not be the most memorable game, or even the most proficient in what it sets out to accomplish, it is just a product of a different time, one that I’m quite content is now behind us.

My time with Death was memorable, and somewhat fun, but Darksiders II tries to do too much; and suffers for it in the end.  I recommend leaving this game on the shelf.

Time on the Shelf - 1 Year and 10 Months.
Played on PC for approximately 23 hours.