PlayStation 3 | Xbox 360
Review By Steve Farrelly @ 05:15pm 30/12/09
Darksiders is... well, a beast. It's a rare kind of game that only comes along once in a while. A game that isn't afraid to homage the best in the business with inspired affluence, yet craft its own path to leave an unmoveable mark on the industry. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it could be said, through borrowed (and homaged) gameplay mechanics, Darksiders is flattering some of the greatest games of all time, but I disagree. What Vigil Games have done (with their first effort, mind) is create an incredibly tangible world with a marriage of gameplay concepts for the next generation. Many of the elements I'll discuss are based on old-school gaming, but this team successfully bring the old-school into the new, and do it with vigour, foresight and confidence. If this is their first effort, you can sign me up for life.
We've talked readily about this game for the better part of the last year, attempting rigorously to relay a different notion about its inner workings beyond the immediate "God of War clone" assumptions. Nothing could be further from the truth with Darksiders. I could name-drop for you: Metroid Prime (trilogy), The Legend of Zelda (3D series), Half-Life (1 and 2), Portal and, dare I say it... God of War, and I'd be right to do so. Anyone actively into games will learn very quickly that Darksiders carries some of the best elements of the aforementioned, but where other games have tried to do the same and fail, Darksiders only utilises its borrowed elements to flesh out the sort of game the creators would clearly like to see. And they've succeeded in doing that, but beyond being creators what's seemingly more important is that these guys are gamers first and foremost, and as an avid gamer, throughout the Darksiders experience I couldn't agree more with almost everything they threw at me; meaning we're finally at the design mercy of a team on the same page as the rest of the hardcore gaming community.
One of the clearest, and most important things to point out though, is putting aside all of the above, Darksiders is also incredibly influenced by its creator's comic-book background. Joe Madureira has one of the more unique and fanciful comic-book design styles in the business and that has been carried across to Darksiders with gusto. Every character you meet feels like they've just leapt from the latest page of a Madureira book and this helps in engaging the reader, err... gamer. What's more is unlike most other games referencing the heaven vs hell thing, or just going plain post-apocalyptic, Darksiders is a wonderfully colourful romp, both in character design and game-world design. It's still easy to accept that the Earth has been sacked during a 100 year war between the forces of 'good and 'evil' through the clear decay of what used to be civilisation. No more humans exist (only mindless zombies), and man-made structures have been forced to co-exist with ethereal environments, creating a design basis of some familiarity and the utterly fantastic.
But it's not grey across this wasteland of angels, demons and the ashes of humanity. There's a massive amount of colour strewn about, and like so many Legend of Zelda games, Darksiders does an amazing job of creating a different mood for each and every area. There may not be forests, snow peaks or mountainsides, but there are darkened graveyards, watery hills and valleys and wastes filled - literally - with the ashes of the fallen human race. And in keeping with the Zelda reference, the game is built around an ever-expanding overworld with dungeons and bosses to break it all up. You'll gain a horse to traverse this expanse (though not for a solid six+ hours in) ala Zelda, and even the dungeon maps are direct descendants of Nintendo's famous adventure series. But again, it's not at all a rip-off or clone.
For one, these dungeons are damn hard. Like, seriously hard. There's almost no sign of help, no clues, and they come packaged with some of the most imaginative and difficult puzzles I've experienced in my many, many years of gaming. And you really do feel alone through all of this (despite having a companion with you along the way), with an excellent sense of pacing between puzzle-solving, combat and then the unfortunate (yet awesome) marriage of both.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. In case you've missed any of our extensive coverage of the game, Darksiders takes its cues from the Big Book of life. No, not Darwin's "The Origin of Species", the other one, you know, the Bible. Like the Bible though, Vigil and Madureira have taken poetic liberties with their story; specifically, the End of Days, skipping most of it and starting the game at the actual apocalypse. It's a good way to start, and gets rid of the pesky humans right from the outset. However, it turns out this apocalyptic event was not suppose to have transpired, and as one of the four horseman of the apocalypse, War, our soon-to-be-hero, suddenly finds himself called forward for breaking the seal and starting the whole thing. He's not really sure what's going on but finds himself imprisoned as a result for 100 years.
Events transpire that see "the Council" a collection of watchers who serve to maintain "the balance" allowing War the opportunity to investigate the broken accord and find out who is really responsible, and thus he is leashed upon the desecrated Earth in search of answers, and maybe, just maybe, a little revenge.
Initially the game's story seems like a good excuse to let a bad-ass (who is now somewhat ill-powered) scrounge about the place, powering up and killing demons, but very quickly things kick into high gear with the introduction of the demon, Samael, who employs War to collect four hearts for him. There's clearly something sinister here, but War really isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, which is all the more reason to love him. Ultimately though, through incredible narrative pacing, War's journey begins proper and you find yourself tasked with regaining the horseman's powers (along with some new ones), while seeking out these hearts and taking in clues from other characters littered about the place as to what really transpired 100 years ago.
I can't spoil any more of the story than that, because what you very quickly learn is there's a deep narrative foundation here; one that comes full-circle and one you'll be chomping at the bit to unlock as you progress. And these sequences, told through in-game cut-scenes, are among the best in the biz; oozing with style and stellar direction - and again, I can't stress enough how impressive the whole package is, first development outing to boot.
Gameplay structure follows a series of missions (such as collecting the four hearts for Samael) split across the game-world, which consists of the aforementioned overworld, which then offer openings to dungeons. As you progress and traverse, you'll notice areas lit with impediments you can't broach, offering ideas of plenty of backtracking but also of plenty of goodies to consume. In fact, beyond the excellent combat and dungeon design, the next big drive for playing comes in the form of collection and power-ups. Each time War smashes the environment or kills enemies, he collects souls which can then be sold to Vulgrim, a despicable creature who you can buy various upgrades and power-ups from. He also eventually offers you warps or "serpent holes" between areas. These make backtracking much easier, and are also cool unto themselves; whisking you away to an ethereal path that creates itself as you walk along it, and awesomely, the path is actually different for each and every location you choose to travel to.
Of course, you'll also gain your horse, Ruin, a little while into the adventure (though he can't be used everywhere), and he offers himself as an equally compelling reason to keep exploring (especially because of the satisfaction of horseback combat, which is just plain awesome). War starts the game out with his trusty Chaoseater Sword, which can be powered up through the purchase of various moves and abilities, but will also gain experience of its own the more you use it. You'll also be able to buy a Scythe from Vulgrim which can be powered up in the same way. There are other weapons and abilities discovered at a wonderfully progressive pace, and the game's challenge changes based on how much equipment War has gained and what abilities he has. In fact, unlike so many other games, dungeon (and certain overworld) progression employs multiple equipment and ability uses. Simply because you gained a single new item does not mean the next dungeon will focus solely on that which not only keeps the challenge and puzzle-solving high-end, but makes you feel like each and everything you've gained or learnt has been worth it.
The deeper you get into the game, the more challenging it becomes, both in the quality of enemies you face, as well as the puzzles. But beyond these is the unbelievably incredible level-design. Not since the Metroid Prime series have I played a game that creates a network of paths and structures that so completely round out the traversal experience. You'll always wind up where you're suppose to, but not always in the way you thought you would, and it's always logical and therefore smart. Too often games create play areas with arbitrary areas or sections of exploration that employ too much equally arbitrary travel, but Darksiders keeps everything at a competent pace, allowing for a desire from the player to maintain their exploratory divulgence; after all, you'll never know what was behind that blue barricade way back at The Cross Roads without checking. Moreover, each and every chest or item you seek out is worth grabbing - nothing here is superfluous and it all serves a functional and rewarding purpose.
From a sound perspective, Darksiders is easily one of the best examples of epically moving soundtracks, great voice-acting (and voice effects - look out for Samael's awesome vocal outlay) and "Boom" sounds there is. Everything here has been run through its consistency paces with an end result that makes you want to crank the hell out of it (if you're sporting a great sound system).
Art design-wise we weren't expecting anything less than awesome from Joe Madureira, and he delivers in spades. The game's visuals carry his artistic vision very well, though it's probably the part of the game I could pick on the most, if I were so inclined. There are a few elements of lazy graphical design or execution it could have done without, but nothing in my list of 'questionable decisions' is a game-changer. It looks fantastic throughout, and you're constantly gob-smacked at character and level-design, it just would have been nice to see some elements (such as War's refection in reflective surfaces, etc) touched upon. But it's all aesthetic, and really, you'll barely notice it when you've got your pacing on.
Speaking of pacing, Darksiders is easily a 20+ hour long game for the discerning player (ie the player who wants to collect and discover everything), and its challenge is thus, it could be longer depending on your skills. Make no mistake, Darkiders is no walk in the park, but beating it is one hell of an achievement; rewarding in spades, with still more room for exploration once the final boss is done and dusted.
So there you have it. 2010 hasn't even quite begun and we're already kicking it off with an amazing bang in the videogame department. Darksiders is the perfect way to spend a solid January (and February), and all of the above just has me hoping this team continues the series, or if not, move onto something equally amazing. If you like your adventures filled with, well, adventure, Darksiders is going to keep up at night for hours and hours on-end (my longest marathon session came in at around eight or nine hours); the game's level-design is brilliant, it harbours among the best puzzles I've encountered in games, has an excellent and well-thought out learning curve, plenty of reason to explore, great art-direction, excellent sound and a compelling story with equally engaging characters. What's not to love?