Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: Darksiders (VG)

Don't you hate it when you get invited to a party, and then you show up and see that none of your friends are there, and someone tells you that you weren't actually invited? If so, you can sympathize with the protagonist of Darksiders, War. This poor Horseman of the Apocalypse comes down to Earth after the Seven Seals keeping the balance between Heaven and Hell have been broken, signaling the end of mankind. Only...what's that? The last seal wasn't broken? Oops, War is crashing the party!

So begins the story of Darksiders, an early entry for Kickass Game of the Year, developed by Vigil Games and published by THQ. As mentioned, War shows up on Earth to start the End, and starts laying waste to the Everycity in which he lands while angels and demons duke it out all over. This early part is playable, and shows War at his most awesome, powered up in a way the player won't see again unless they play through the game 100%. Eventually, he comes up against one of Hell's Chosen, Straga, and whether he wins or loses that battles (apparently either is possible), he is brought before the Charred Council, who oversee pretty much the whole Universe, and accused of starting the shindig too early. War denies it, and eventually the Council grants him the chance to go back and find out how such a trite thing as the end of the world could have happened at the wrong time - those damn typos! Except, once he returns to Earth, stripped of most of his power, it's 100 years later, and humanity is extinct. The quest continues, but there's no happy ending for us.

Often described as a mix of God of War-esque combat and platforming with the puzzle dungeons of classic Zelda games, Darksiders succeeds in carving its own niche in the action-adventure genre that is rather popular these days. Viewed in 3rd person perspective, the player guides War through the ravaged world, seeking answers for the catastrophe and collecting lots of cool stuff along the way. The vast majority of the game involves seeking out and destroying the 4 Chosen, Old Demons whose purpose is to protect the Destroyer from any would-be do gooders, like our man War. Charging you with this task is Samael, a formerly imprisoned demon who decided he didn't like the Destroyer's plans and tried to start his own firm, with unfortunate results.

The pacing of the game is its strength. Early on, War has a big sword, Chaoseater, and that's pretty much it. With each new area uncovered, more and more equipment is added to the arsenal, the end result of which is a menagerie so varied that there aren't enough mapping options for them all. As the player progresses through each area, when something new is discovered, there is a heavy and immediate focus on learning how to effectively wield it. If you've played God of War, you will have a pretty good grasp of some of the mechanics. A difference is that War only has a single attack - no light/heavy duality here to confuse things. The other primary functions are reserved for jumping, interacting with objects, and using a secondary weapon. That said, every button on the controller has a purpose, and for the most part, they all get used. The D-pad has two separate uses - one to switch the secondary weapon/equipment currently being used, and when combined with the left bumper, it unleashes various Wrath attacks upon War's enemies. These range from poison DoTs to a ring of spikes jutting out of the ground.

Much has also been made of the art design, and with good reason. The demons look outstanding, especially early meet 'n greeters such as Tiamat and Samael. Angels have a slightly Too Human mech-wing look going on, but it doesn't stand out as unnecessary. This isn't strictly a sword and sorcery game - big guns get involved too. The cities look suitably deserted other than the various enemies that will be encountered, and parts of some of the dungeons are quite inspired.

To be honest, there is a heavy use of cliche in the story, and sometimes it borders on tongue-in-cheek, but anything involving angels, demons, the end of the world, and so forth will have my attention regardless. Toward the end, a few twists and turns keep things interesting, but I had a little trouble following all of the reasoning and had to look up some more detail. Throughout, War never breaks away from the single-minded approach he has taken to uncovering just exactly how he was duped into starting the Apocalypse early; clearly he is not the sort to be teased and allow it to roll off his back.

Some issues warrant a mention. In my case, I noticed a distinct lack of control responsiveness in some cases, most notably when jumping from a ledge and trying to block. I generally try to wait until the last possible moment before making a leap, but it appears there is some pre-defined threshold in this game that prevents that. It was never really a habit I was able to learn - jump just a little bit earlier to avoid falling to an untimely end. Additionally, even though Blocking is a listed ability, I found that it was either simply difficult to execute or hard to find the right timing. In God of War, one can grow quite proficient without too much trouble in precision blocking, and that is largely absent here. There is some annoyance in traveling around the world later on, if one is trying to find everything; while it is true that the wormholes prevent mindless running, I would prefer if there were an option to turn off the actual wormhole level at some point (a little extra pathing).

The boss battles seem to actually get easier as the game goes on; while I can't fault the game for using the tried and true method of boss battles (find the pattern, rinse and repeat), Silitha in particular seemed too easily put down, and the final battle against the Destroyer lacked the epic scope I would have expected from such a confrontation. On the other hand, the Stygian boss fight was quite thrilling and reminded me quite a bit of some parts of Shadow of the Colossus - and that's good company as far as anyone is concerned.

The game is long; while I died a lot and explored somewhat, I still logged over 25 hours on my first playthrough. The section toward the end almost has Return of the King Syndrome, where the player things he is approaching the end only to find that yet another quest must be embarked on. By this time, all of the equipment has been acquired, and so during the quest a great deal of previously unreachable collectibles becomes accessible. Most of this is superfluous except for the Achievement mongers; I will renege somewhat on my earlier stance of Achievements granted for in-game progression, because without a multiplayer component, it would be rather difficult to introduce 30 accomplishments in the game. I did a little treasure hunting after completing the game, but did not bother to find everything.

I must devote a paragraph to the puzzles. There is a wide difficulty range, but all of them are quite readily solvable. In the last 30% of the game, it really ramps up the number and complexity of the puzzles required to get somewhere and access something. Here is where the similarities to God of War necessarily end, because there is real thinking involved here. I admit to looking up a few solutions, partly because there is not always an obvious "goal", but rather an involved set of steps that produced a desired result. Toward the end, the game takes a page from Portal, and introduces the Voidwalker, which produces blue and orange portals that are used heavily to get past difficult challenges. None of the elements ever feel like a rip-off, but more like an homage.

Darksiders also improves on some things that just seemed silly in God of War; for example, having to repeatedly press a button to open something, usually a door. Here, War just kicks it open with one simple press.

The game ends with a great setup for a sequel, and from the praise it has gotten fairly universally, it seems warranted. I rented this game, but I feel it's definitely worth full price, and will probably pre-order the next one. 4.5 skulls out of 5.

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