With the benefit of hindsight, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that one of 2010’s biggest sleeper hits, Vigil Games’ Darksiders, was to get a sequel. After all, the original game – which chronicled the adventures of War, one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, as he was framed for prematurely triggering the end of days – barely touched on the fact that there were three other riders we hadn’t even met yet. What’s more, the bizarre, yet enthralling blend of biblical mythology, Dante-esque underworld-crawling and post-apocalyptic savagery that Vigil created felt like it had plenty of hitherto unexplored corners that were ripe for a follow-up.
Which makes Darksiders II all the more confusing. Starring Death (perhaps the most unambiguous of all the horsemen), the game opens with an explanatory premise that, while the events of the first game play out, War’s brethren seek the means by which to rescue their wrongly accused sibling. Death, for his part, aims to resurrect humanity itself – undoing War’s supposed boo-boo – by traveling to the Tree of Life in the fabled realm of Eden. However, players instead find themselves trapped between Heaven and Hell in the Nether Realms, tasked by an ancient race of beings called Makers to evict some noisy neighbors in return for their help in clearing War’s name.
And in that one fell swoop, Darksiders II cuts virtually all ties with the game that preceded it. Death himself remains a link to the adventures of War, but players are faced with a brand new realm, and a brand new set of problems. The impetus that War’s plight should engender feels lost beneath player’s need to quickly get to grips with, quite literally, a whole new world. And, as it quickly becomes clear that this is more of a parallel sequel than a true follow-up, there’s the inescapable feeling that no matter what favors Death might be able to call in, players who saw Darksiders through to the end already know what happens to War. It creates a strange feeling of detachment from a story that should seem familiar.
Technically speaking, there are far more comforting reminders of the original Darksiders. Death fights and moves much like his brother – though the absence of a block command seems like an unnecessary tweak – and even the most casual of gamers will have no problem making the brooding harbinger a force to be reckoned with. Practically, Darksiders II is far more RPG-esque than its predecessor. There’s a complicated inventory system, with a never-ending focus on finding, equipping and discarding everything from armor to health potions. For level-up enthusiasts, it’s a hoot. For those who remember the original game’s no-nonsense stance on such things (do you want to hit the monsters with a sword or shoot them in the face?), it adds another level of anti-immersive administration which, while not exactly infuriating, is a distraction from the important duty of dismembering other living beings.
Mechanically, the game plays much like other hack-and-slash adventures. The interface is intuitive, and the combo-based combat is relatively simple to master. Graphically, the world is beautifully rendered and well-realized. A few loading glitches and mapping bugs are minor and easily forgotten, and the game itself is easy to get wrapped up in. But Darksiders II simply feels too separated from the game that came before it. I’m all for innovation – given the current high standards of big-budget titles, it’s not enough to rehash an existing success story – but franchises, or great franchises at least, need cohesion from one title to the next. The skill lies in improving upon what came before, while still honoring it. And if the Darksiders saga is to continue (which, given the mouth-watering prospect of games starring Conquest and Famine, is an appealing idea), Vigil need to find a way to create installments that truly feel like part of a larger body of work.